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There were tears of joy when a group of Pretoria pupils arrived back home on Thursday from a school tour, cut short after they and their teachers were robbed by a gang of armed thugs at a holiday resort in Mpumalanga.
The robbery ended when police, alerted by a boy’s call, arrived and the robbers fled.
Resort owner Christo du Plessis called neighbours who searched for the suspects.
Du Plessis, who said crime was rife in the area, believes the robbery could have been “an inside job”, carried out by security guards at the resort.
The robbers opened the fridges in some rooms, took snacks and opened fizzy drinks which they sprayed around the room while the children looked on in silence.
Police spokesman Colonel Leonard Hlathi said the robbers – who are still on the run – stormed the Aan de Vliet Resort in Hazyview soon after midnight on Thursday and said they did not want to hurt anyone.
They demanded the teachers and children hand over their belongings. They stole 14 cellphones, a laptop, an iPad, cash and jewellery from the women – including wedding rings.
Ten teachers and 108 children from Hennopspark Primary School who were on a school tour arrived at the lodge on Wednesday afternoon.
Teacher Juan Parsons was hailed a hero for protecting the pupils, aged between 10 and 13, who belong to a gospel outreach group. There were warm words of praise for Parsons – an English teacher and cricket coach in his early thirties – as the children got off their buses at Hennopspark Primary School and were welcomed into the arms of their relieved parents and teachers.
“He is an exceptional teacher, and we’re going to give him a medal for the amazing way he handled the situation,” said proud headmaster Jannie Raath as details of Parsons’s bravery emerged.
Parsons, who was sharing a room at the resort with a group of boys on the trip, was woken at about 12.30am by the three men wearing balaclavas, one carrying a rifle and two with handguns, who had broken the door.
One of the men held a gun to his head and demanded that everyone’s valuables be placed in a bag. Parsons urged the boys to stay calm and quiet as he collected their phones, but left one out and signalled to a boy to call the Vodacom emergency number when he had moved away.
The robbers ordered Parsons at gunpoint to take them to other rooms, including those the women teachers and girls were in, to collect their valuables and the group’s sound equipment.
Parsons said on Thursday that he was not a hero – it was the children who had listened and stayed calm who deserved credit… though he did say he was relieved nobody had been hurt. “The gun to my head, they instructed me to walk with them and point out other rooms. I said I would co-operate but begged them please not to hurt anyone,” he said.
He negotiated with the men so he could enter the other rooms first to explain it was a robbery, and ensure the occupants stayed calm. “After I left one of the rooms, the girls were a bit hysterical. They (the robbers) wanted to go back in… but I said I would go back to calm them down,” he said.
“I told them (the girls) that they must have faith because God is watching over them,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve had a gun pointed at me. I didn’t know what was going to happen, if I was going to die… but a lot of adrenalin was running through me. I knew I had to keep calm for the sake of the children.
“It was a big shock, I still have to process it, but I’m thankful to God nothing bad happened; He was watching over us.”
The robbery ended when police, alerted by the boy’s call, arrived and the robbers fled.
Back at the school on Thursday, the parents mobbed Parsons, thanking him for having acted so bravely and keeping their children from harm. They praised God for watching over their children during the ordeal.
Raath confirmed that there were 93 children from the Ainos singing group on the tour, accompanied by six teachers and four parents.
They left the school on Wednesday morning to go to Hazyview where they had planned several performances at old-age homes and schools for the underprivileged.
They had a rehearsal when they arrived, before having dinner and going to bed.
Raath said while some of the children had wanted to stay on, he had decided it was better to cancel the trip immediately.
After he was alerted by Parsons at 3.30am, he said the children should all contact their parents so they knew they were safe. He called a meeting at the school on Thursday to brief the parents. They had counsellors from the school, churches and Wierdabrug police station to speak to the children, teachers and parents, and would offer such services in the coming days as the children came to terms with their experience.
On Thursday, parents were calm and reluctant to speak to reporters. However, one mother, Paula Muller, whose daughter is in Grade 5, said she had been called at 5am to be told what had happened.
She said she could hear tension in her daughter’s voice, but said while the incident was unfortunate, she was pleased with the way it had been handled by Parsons, the school and police. She, like other parents, waited for her daughter, with a balloon saying: “Dankie Here” (Thank you God).
Raath said the children could stay off school on Friday, but he “urged the parents and children not to be scared, but for the children to come back to school and be with their friends”.
“I am proud of them, and have told them they must not let this fear become their reality.”
Raath said what had happened was traumatic, but it did not mean the school would not go on tours again. In fact, there was a forthcoming tour for Grade 4s and some parents had volunteered to go with the group, he said