By Lebogang Seale and Angelique Serrao

Fly-by-night schools continue to boom in Joburg despite the Gauteng Department of Education's promise to clamp down on them.

The problem is so rampant that the department is considering getting the police to shut down illegal schools and arrest the owners.

According to Rashid Chopdat, chairperson of the Gauteng Joint-Liaison Committee, which represents independent schools in the province, at least 50 illegal schools are operating in Joburg alone. Although it is difficult to determine the exact number, it is estimated that 20 000 children are affected.

"These schools are spreading like wildfire and the department can't keep up," Chopdat said.

He explained that there are two types of illegal schools. First, he said, were those that are "genuinely" fly-by-night. They operate out of office buildings and can disappear overnight. The other type, also not registered, operate in areas that do not have enough schools and where communities are forced to enrol their children.

Last week, a matric pupil was swindled of R3 500 in registration fees by a woman purporting to run a private school in Joburg's city centre. The KK School of Tourism's pamphlet promised a free uniform, Internet access, 3G card, and bank account with R1 000. It was enough to entice Catherine Masondo.

And with the school offering other goodies, including a driving licence, a passport and domestic and international trips, the teenager, who had quit her semi-rural school in Mpumalanga, thought her dream for a brighter future would be kick-started at the "prestigious" Grade 0-12 school.

But last Monday, when the school was to have opened, she discovered she had been tricked.

When The Star visited the school's "premises" on the third floor of Kruis Building on the corner of Kruis and Harries streets in central Joburg, more than 10 pupils arrived to register. They were, however, surprised to find there were no classrooms, tables, chairs, learning material or teachers.

Also missing was its owner, known as Amanda Portia Mamabolo.

Mamabolo also allegedly doubles as an SAA travel agent who allegedly tricks immigrant travellers from African states.

Masondo was devastated. "I feel sick about the whole thing. I thought this was a big opportunity for a good future. But now I am idle while my friends are learning."

As she spoke, more students arrived to register. Among them was Tebogo Nhlanhlana of Soweto, who had come to register for a one-year travel and tourism diploma.

"I came here with the money (to register)," said Nhlanhlana, who was lucky to have been alerted to the scam.

The school's receptionist, Lenie Joubert, was also angry. "Every time I demanded my wages, she said it's our fault that the school does not have enough students, even though we were not employed to recruit students," Joubert said.

Gauteng Department of Education spokesperson Nanagolo Leopeng said the department was vigilant about closing down illegal schools. "Their qualifications lack credibility and are illegal," said Leopeng. She advised parents to ask for registration numbers for private schools and to contact the department to verify them.