Once a beacon of light in Umlazi, Vukuzakhe Secondary School is now a shadow of its former self, writes Nokuthula Ntuli.
Durban - Vukuzakhe Secondary School has gone from producing some of the country’s most successful personalities to having one of its buildings turned into a drug den.
The problems at Vukuzakhe came to light three weeks ago. In their call for the principal to resign, 36 of the 42 teachers went on strike leaving parents and pupils in panic about the mid-year examinations.
“At one point we thought our children wouldn’t be able to write exams and I was especially worried about my son because he’s in matric,” said Phumzile Ndlovu.
While most senior classes wrote their exams without any glitches, Grade 8 and 9 pupils missed most of their papers. There were days when they would return home without writing exams or doing revision work with the result that some pupils decided not to attend school.
“It’s really frustrating because you rack your brains studying for the next day’s paper only to come to school and not write. So I don’t blame those who’ve been staying at home,” said a Grade 8 pupil who wished to remain anonymous.
On Thursday the school issued a revised timetable with hopes that the striking teachers would be back in school this week. While they returned on Monday, it is still unclear whether all the outstanding papers would be written before schools close on Friday.
Representative Council for Learners spokesman Qiniso Ndlovu said some of the parents took their children out of Vukuzakhe after the strike threatened to turn violent on June 10.
He doubted they would to return for the third term.
Former Vukuzakhe pupil Brian Khwela said he missed the days when pupils would come from all the parts of KwaZulu-Natal to study at Vukuzakhe.
“This school used to be the pride of the province, now it’s just a nest for hooligans and most teachers don’t even care,” said Khwela.
His daughter is a pupil at the school and the concerned father said he prayed that the recent bad attention on the school would produce good results.
He said it was a pity it took something as bad a teachers’ strike for the Department of Education to pay attention.
“Things at Vukuzakhe have been going downhill for years but the Department of Education just trusted the principal to maintain the standard of her predecessors without following up on her,” said Khwela.
After a string of allegations against principal Doris Fulela surfaced, KZN education officials led by education head Nkosinathi Sishi visited the school last Tuesday.
Sishi did a site inspection, visiting classrooms and pupil residential quarters where he found pupils roaming around.
When he asked Fulela why the pupils were not in school uniform and in class she told him that those pupils who were not writing exams were allowed to stay in their rooms (at the boarding establishment).
“The issue of pupils being allowed to stay in their quarters during school hours doesn’t sit well with me and I’m going to get to the bottom of it. If they aren’t writing then some form of monitored study session should be put together instead of having them running around with no supervision,” said Sishi.
He also expressed his concerns about the high number of uniformed pupils who were roaming the nearby streets and school grounds while others were writing exams.
Perhaps one of the most concerning issues at Vukuzakhe is the four illegal entrances into the school – two of which give the public direct access to the pupils’ living quarters.
These serve as a route for drug and alcohol smuggling as they allow dealers to come into the school undetected and for the pupils to source their desired drugs.
One of the deserted kitchens has been turned into a smokers’ den with the words “Smokers Paradise” written on a dirty wall.
The floor is littered with cigarette butts, rizlas and broken bottles, and makeshift dagga bongs form part of the decor.
The state of the room showed signs that the drug use wasn’t just a recent occurrence. One of the pupils said the room was used for smoking when he enrolled at the school last year.
KZN Education Department spokesman Muzi Mahlambi said he was not surprised there were allegations of drug use at the school but was “extremely disappointed”.
“When school officials get accused of things like buying alcohol for pupils one can’t help but wonder what other things have gone wrong in that school.
“However, just like the HOD (Sishi) said, there’ll be consequences for whoever is implicated in the investigation’s findings,” said Mahlambi.
He admitted that Vukuzakhe had been downgraded from the celebrated institution it used to be. A team of 12 investigators are going through the school’s financial books and interviewing all parties over allegations against the principal.
Mahlambi said the issue of illegal entrances worried the department because it made pupils vulnerable to criminals.
Umgeni Water chief executive Cyril Gamede is one of Vukuzakhe’s success stories. He attended the school in the 1980s when the late Mr Kubheka was principal.
“It’s quite sad that Vukuzakhe is now in the state it’s in. When I was there discipline was the order of the day. We nicknamed Kubheka Nsimbi (iron) because he ran the school with an iron fist. Both the teachers and pupils knew that there was no room to misbehave or miss a lesson,” said Gamede.
Pupils never had any time to roam around as teachers made sure they were occupied at all times. The first mathematics lesson was at 7am before the assembly, then a normal timetable would take over until 3pm.
“Straight from the last period we would go for physical sciences and from 4pm we would study and do our homework and only go home at 5pm. This helped those who didn’t get time to do it at home,” said Gamede.
He blamed a lack of disciplined leadership for Vukuzakhe’s woes. His sentiments were echoed by National Association of School Governing Bodies provincial spokesman Reginald Chiliza.
“Things are only coming out in the open now but obviously there have been problems for some time and a leader should have recognised problems within her school when they started,” said Chiliza.
Professor Labby Ramrathan from the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Education believed teachers and pupils at Vukuzakhe were accustomed to the school performing well and that led to them being “oblivious to the cracks”.
“Both the school and the Department of Education got comfortable with Vukuzakhe’s successes and that’s when a dynamic leader should have stood up and recognised the changes.
“A great leader is one that is in sync with the changes and doesn’t rely on assumptions that things will always go well. And in the case of Vukuzakhe that didn’t happen,” said Ramrathan.