Today, as we commemorate the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, a day intended for celebration and acknowledgment of triumphs over challenges, my heart is heavy with a sense of sadness and outrage. This poignant reflection stems from a recent session with the parents of Ikhwezi Lokusa in Mthatha, an experience that has left me deeply moved.

I am a former learner of Ikhwezi Lokusa, having attended from 1989 at Grade R until 1997 on completing grade 9. Established by the Missionaries Church in 1965, this special needs boarding school was a beacon of hope for children with disabilities in the former Transkei and surrounding areas. It was a transformative institution that unearthed the potential of numerous children from underprivileged backgrounds, challenging societal norms about the capabilities of disabled children.

Originally designed to provide unparalleled accessibility, allowing independent movement for all learners with disabilities, Ikhwezi Lokusa’s infrastructure was crafted meticulously. From classrooms to hostels and playing facilities, every aspect was designed for ease of access. Beyond academic pursuits, extramural programs flourished, exploring the talents and potential of learners in various areas such as Choral Music, Art, Scouts, Marimba Music, Karate for the disabled, Field and Athletics, Table Tennis, Swimming, and Wheelchair basketball. Through these programs, Ikhwezi Lokusa learners not only participated in national tournaments but also proudly represented the country on international stages, including my own participation as a swimmer for the former Transkei Region and the Country.

The school’s success stories are countless, producing individuals who have excelled in politics, government, business, entrepreneurship, and many other disciplines and industries. Notably, the late Zanele Situ, the first black South African female athlete to win a Paralympic gold medal, is among the many distinguished alumni.

However, my heart shatters witnessing the gradual decline of this once illustrious institution since government assumed control in 2001. The school’s infrastructure has deteriorated, hostels are neglected, and there’s a lack of proper nutrition and care for children with disabilities. Shockingly, children still sleep on brick beds, and hot water for bathing is a luxury they no longer enjoy. Extracurricular programs that played a pivotal role in the holistic development of learners have vanished.

For those who may have missed it, a detailed exposé by Carte Blanche a few months ago can be found on link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-Oj_nBMrwA&t=504s

The most heart-wrenching aspect was hearing parents recount their children’s mistreatment and dehumanisation during the engagement session organized by the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD), with support from the Equal Education Law Centre (EECL) in Mthatha last week. Parents expressed concern about the safety of their children, with some opting for costly daily transportation instead of utilizing the unsafe hostel facilities. Others were left with no choice but to withdraw their children from the school, resulting in a significant number of children with disabilities being out of school, not by choice, but by force from this situation.

As we observe the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, the plight of Ikhwezi Lokusa stands as a stark reality. How did this once-prominent and unique special needs school devolve from a symbol of hope to a distressing situation compared to other special schools in the country ? The answers lie in the decision of the Department of Education to wrest control from the Missionaries Church, leading to the unraveling of a brilliantly run institution.

The intricacies and obligations of the agreement between the Department of Education and the Missionaries Church remain unresolved, and we are tirelessly engaging all parties for swift solutions to safeguard the future of these children. The matter of Ikhwezi Lokusa is not just a local concern; it is a call to action for all of us to advocate for the rights and well-being of children with disabilities. On this International Day for Persons with Disabilities, let us not only celebrate progress but also commit ourselves to rectifying the injustices that persist. The future of these children depends on it.

Please see the link to Luba’s eNCA interview

Lubabalo Mbeki

Email: mbeki@ahsworld.co.za

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