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Schools struggle on borrowed South African land

By Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 18, 2005


In this land of vast fields and never-ending sky, the Deo Gloria primary school is tightly enclosed by a barbed-wire fence draped in rough, green netting.

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Once, the school opened onto the surrounding farms, where many of the students' parents worked as low-paid laborers. But a few years ago, a new farmer bought the land, which includes the small school plot, and insisted on the fence. He said it was a safety measure. The school said it was a mean-spirited move to wall off its 280 pupils.

The mistrust has only deepened since then. School officials and students suspect the farmer, Johan Pienaar, was responsible for multiple acts of vandalism and a July fire that turned the 20-year-old brick schoolhouse and all of its books into a pile of charred rubble. The farmer, who denies involvement in the destruction, says he now wants the school off his land.

"We hadn't seen this type of oppression under apartheid," says the school's principal, Peter Mosito, standing next to temporary modular classrooms set up on a lawn of red dust.

Across South Africa, farmers, local education departments, and school administrators are debating the future of "farm schools," or public schools on private farmland, trying to balance the rights of landowners and the educational needs of some of the country's poorest children.

It is not just a question of education policy. Many see the issues surrounding these schools, which make up about 13 percent of the country's public schools, as crucial to the new South Africa. How the country manages farm schools, many say, reflects how it is handling the lasting legacy of apartheid.

Most farm schools were built under apartheid by white landowners for the children of their black farmworkers. Depending on who tells the history, the schools were an effort to uplift impoverished black children, or a way to keep them from getting in the way of their parents' labor.

These were - and often still are - the only schools for miles. If a laborer was fired and kicked off the farm, his children would also be forced out of school.

The quality of the school depended on the farmer. "If the farmer was generous, he'd provide all the equipment, the supplies," says Vasco Mabunda of the Nkuzi Development Association, a nonprofit that works for land reform in South Africa. "But there were very few farmers willing to invest."

When the post-apartheid government came into power in 1994, these schools were still on private land and in poor shape. Many had no electricity or running water, some even lacked toilets. But they were often the only educational choice, with no other school or public land for miles, and no public transportation.

In 1996, the government ordered farm owners and the provincial education departments to sign contracts outlining responsibility for the schools - who was to do maintenance, for instance, and how the provinces could lease school properties. These agreements would also prevent farmers from closing schools on a whim.

If farmers refused to agree to these contracts, the law said, the government could take the land by force - a potentially explosive possibility. In South Africa, many white farmers have looked with fear at the recent, violent farm seizures in neighboring Zimbabwe.