Pitch darkness clings to the corrugated iron walls of the shack in Bram Fischerville where Pride and Thembelani Khumalo shake themselves awake before dawn.
The two young brothers rub sleep from their eyes and wash themselves with soap and the water their mother has boiled in an electric kettle. They hurry to put on their starched school uniforms – with too-small pants and frayed ties. They don’t have much time to waste.
Each morning, before sunrise, the boys must trudge more than 6km to their primary school in Meadowlands on dusty red paths, where they trip over trash and scurry past men who routinely rob and beat vulnerable children.
The boys must walk their long and lonely path because they are Zimbabwean immigrants who were illegally rejected by their neighbourhood schools for not having South African papers. Their unemployed mother cannot afford to pay for transportation to the nearest school that would accept them.
“I’m trying to take care of my kids here, but I feel like I’m failing them as a mother,” says Ntokozo Moyo. “Sometimes, the only meal my sons eat is the meal they get at school, and some days they are so tired of walking they don’t want to go.”
On this morning, Moyo feeds her sons pap and peanut butter that the community has donated to her family. Once the boys finish eating at 6am, she hugs them goodbye at the door. The warmth of her slender arms will have to sustain the brothers for the next 90 minutes, as the only heat on their walk is the heat that burns from the exhaust pipes of idling taxis on the side of the road.
For Pride, a 12-year-old in Grade 5, every hoot from passing taxis rings like a taunt in his ears.
“It does not feel good to watch other learners drive to school,” says Pride, who carries his book-laden backpack over one shoulder, as one of the straps is broken. “I wish we could have transport like the other children.”
A few minutes into the walk, Pride and Thembelani reach the top of a slight hill overlooking the Soweto sprawl. Here, 9-year-old Thembelani points out their school far in the distance, just visible in the creeping sunlight peeking out from the horizon.
After about an hour of walking, the sun has risen like a weak embrace and the low-lying mists are evaporating off the road. The township around the boys has woken up, and the once-empty streets are now filled with adults in professional garb waiting for taxis to get to work, and other learners on their way to different schools.
Pride’s too-small slacks are scratching his thighs, and Thembelani says he’s starting to get hungry again.
Moyo never wanted her sons to walk the long, dangerous road to school. She says she tried to get her children into the local Bram Fischerville schools, but her sons were denied because they do not have South African documentation.
“It is clear that both international and domestic standards guarantee the right to basic education to all learners, including migrant learners,” says Tina Power, a research fellow with Section 27 who is focusing on education access for foreign national students.
Power says she has heard many reports of schools turning away foreign-born learners – even learners whose parents have valid work permits, temporary residence permits or refugee status.
Often, Power says, schools are illegally forcing immigrant parents to pay extra fees.
“We’ve heard of instances where parents had to home-school or put their students in private schools because they were denied access to public schools, but this is not an option for most families,” says Power. “This is complete discrimination and it is illegal.”
Even Gauteng’s new online enrolment system for public schools appears to exclude most migrant learners because it does not accept asylum-seeker or refugee permit numbers, Power says. But the Gauteng Education Department says that foreign learners are not being denied access to immigration. Oupa Bodibe, spokesperson for the department, says the responsibility is with the foreign learners to have documents proving they are legal immigrants.
“It must be noted that the majority of the foreign parents do not have the proper documentation to enable them to register and apply for their children,” says Bodibe.
In 2013, the North Gauteng High Court ordered that the Minister of Basic Education had six months to amend the department’s admissions policy to include child asylum-seekers and refugees, but Powers says it has not implemented this change.
Gauteng also has a policy that states all pupils who walk more than 5km to public school – if it’s not their choice – will be provided with transportation. Yet, as Power says: “If pupils are being denied admission to schools nearby based on their documentation status or their nationality (which is not acceptable), it cannot be said that it is their choice to go to a school further away.”
But long, dangerous walks to school are not unique to migrant learners.
For example, just down the road from Moyo’s home in Bram Fischerville sits Durban Deep, a township that lacks a secondary school. There, learners have to walk through a forest, home to many criminals and illegal miners, to get to the nearest secondary school.
“If you’re a girl, you’ll get raped, and if you’re a boy you’ll get killed if you’re caught on that road,” says Thozeka Khumalo, a young woman who works in Durban Deep.
Khumalo used to take that forest walk to school every morning with a group of schoolchildren that walked together for protection.
“The government should provide buses for learners,” Khumalo says, “because you have no idea what it’s like to feel such fear every morning.”
Pride and Thembelani say they do not get scared on their walk. They say they are used to walking to school after all this time, and that the real problem is how tired, cold and hungry they get.
By the time the boys arrive at their school by half past 7, the shoes that their mother polished for them two hours earlier are scuffed and coated in dirt.
They enter their school gate side-by-side, smiling and looking for their friends.
Pride lets out a sigh, knowing full well he’ll have to repeat the long walk home, this time uphill, in just a few hours.