Durban - A long-running land dispute came to the boil on Tuesday when angry parents prevented the sheriff of the court, accompanied by heavily armed private security guards, from evicting pupils and staff from a Verulam school.
Teachers and pupils of Sacred Heart Secondary School, a girls’ boarding school in the town’s Oakford area, arrived at the school to prepare for the beginning of the first term. They locked themselves inside the dormitory blocks, resisting a court eviction order.
Sacred Heart Secondary, the adjoining Oakford Primary School and a church are on land originally owned by the Roman Catholic Church but sold in 2009 to businessman Marius Maritz’s company, Oakford Priory Investments.
Maritz bought the property to develop the school sites into a tourist area with hotel and conference facilities, according to court papers. The land borders the Hazelmere Dam.
The dispute between Oakford Priory Investments and the respondents – the schools, the MEC for education and others, including trustees of the Sacred Heart Trust – had been heard by the Durban High Court, and judgment in May last year found for Maritz.
The respondents were refused leave to appeal. Their petition to be allowed to appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeal was dismissed.
A writ of eviction was issued on Friday instructing the sheriff to evict members of the school and its trust. But the school community is refusing to budge.
The local traditional leader, Sibusiso Magwaza, who is also a member of the school governing body (SGB), said it had asked pupils to lock themselves inside after seeing the guards arriving in six vans.
He said the sheriff was also accompanied by a locksmith to change the locks.
Meanwhile, the SGB had been contacting parents, who began arriving in numbers, said Magwaza.
“We then formed a wall in front of the building entrance while negotiating with them (the sheriff and guards). Fortunately, SAPS members arrived before things went out of hand.”
During the standoff, which lasted from about 9am to about 11am, police monitored the situation. ANC supporters also joined the parents.
The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education is understood to have published a notice of intention to expropriate the school property more than 14 months ago, but this has not been concluded.
There has also been a long dispute over access, and that matter is expected to be heard in the Durban High Court.
It was not clear last night how the matter would be resolved as the school term got under way, but Magwaza said: “We will never allow (us) to be bullied in this manner. Learners have been traumatised with this whole ordeal. It was unnecessary for them to come to school carrying heavy weapons,” he said. “Would the property owner allow this to happen to his children? I guess not, he would do anything to protect their rights.”
SGB chairman Mfanje Mbango told the Daily News on Tuesday he had asked the education department to find a solution as soon as possible to avoid further uncertainty at the school.
“We do not want a repetition of last year’s events after the property owner closed the school’s main gate. We can no longer tolerate this nonsense. We need certainty about the school’s future.”
Despite the disturbances, the school achieved a 100 percent matric pass rate, “which is overwhelming”, Mbango said.
He said the government should expropriate the land to bring the matter to an end.
A Grade 12 pupil, who asked not to be named, said that if the school were to be closed, it would deprive her of a quality education, destroying her plans for the future.
She appealed to the landowner, Maritz, to reverse his decision about closing it down.
“I would like to add to the school’s legacy. I also like to follow in his footsteps and become an academic just like him (Maritz),” she said.
A school staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity as she is not allowed to speak to the press, said the dispute had affected the school over the past year.
“There has been a drop in the enrolment at the school. The carrying capacity is 520 but we have enrolled only 320 learners. It is because of the problems we endured in the past year,” she said. “Parents fear to enroll their children.”
She told the Daily News that the school was proud of its matric pass rate. About 63 pupils wrote the matric examinations last year and 50 received a Bachelor pass while the rest got Diploma passes.
KZN education department spokesman, Muzi Mahlambi, said the head of the department was aware of the situation and would be meeting its legal team for discussion.
“We can assure parents of our support. We have a court case against the owner next month. We need him to open the gates at the Oakford primary school,” he said.
Oakford Priory Investments was contacted for comment on Tuesday after which the company said in a statement that, “due to the complexity of this matter, we will not entertain a trial through the printed press”.
It pointed out that the security had been provided by the sheriff’s department, and not Oakford.