Update – March 2024: NCPDs fight for the dignity and human rights of children at Mthatha’s Ikhwezi Lokusa Special School

Mthatha’s silent, unfolding tragedy
The ‘dishcloth’ children of Ikhwezi Lokusa School denied their dignity and human right to learn

Matters have gone from very bad to absolutely horrendous for learners at Mthatha’s Ikhwezi Lokusa School.

The 200 young people, routinely and callously called fayidukhwe (dishcloths) by the very people appointed to care for them, started the 2024 academic year with heart-breaking news that any hope they had of attending school were well and truly over.

“We were afraid this would happen,” says Therina Wentzel, National Director at the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD) that’s been fighting for the rights of the children of Ikhwezi Lokusa for longer than two years now.

The school made headlines late last year for a litany of injustices and human rights violations perpetrated against learners, many of them from extremely poor families and all of them children with disabilities that range from moderate to severe.

Late last year school management and the Eastern Cape Department of Basic Education promised to invest and do the right thing for the learners. There was an undertaking, on public record, to invest R11 million in renovations to provide learners with mattresses (they slept on hard, cold brick beds); refurbish bathrooms (learners were washing each other using cold, dirty water from toilet bowls); and remodel pathways so that learners could traverse them with wheelchairs, walkers and crutches.

Now, more than three months after the promise was made, the school remains in an appalling condition. Contractors were appointed to do the renovations. However, they downed tools very shortly after appointment because they were not paid. Conditions have deteriorated to such an extent that authorities have made the decision to close the school, denying Umtata’s children with disabilities their right to an education. Parents were blindsided with this news on January 22, leaving them (and the children) shocked, confused and hurt.

The learners have been offered places at schools in East London and Bizana. However, no transport will be provided and as these schools are more than 200 km from Mthatha, the children and their families are effectively excluded from the education system.

“It’s a situation that families are simply unable to manage,” Ms Wentzel says. “The situation exposes the children to further neglect and abuse. Parents are struggling right now to cope with the pressures of poverty, unemployment, and taking care of other family members. It’s a heart-breaking situation, and one that may easily have been avoided had the provincial department simply maintained the excellent facility it took over a decade ago, and had it delivered on its promise last year to invest in refurbishment and to appoint qualified, caring staff.”

The people have been cruelly abandoned by the very authorities who are responsible for delivering their fundamental rights as citizens.

“The children of Ikhwezi Lokusa School have borne the brunt of abuse for years,” she says. “Well before matters developed into the catastrophe we face now; we were warning about maltreatment of the children of Ikhwezi Lokusa School. Persons appointed to care for them did the polar opposite of caring. The children were routinely and regularly belittled, insulted and mocked. They were commonly referred to as fayidukhwe, dishcloths worth not much more than wiping the floor with.

“The children are being denied the most basic of their human rights: the right to dignity and the right to an education. These are human rights our Constitution guarantees and that are enshrined in the Human Rights Office of the United Nations High Commissioner. What is happening at Ikhwezi Lokusa School is criminal, and we are doing all we can to make it stop.”

NCPD and its Eastern Cape affiliates are now pursuing legal channels to compel the provincial department of basic education to reopen Ikhwezi Lokusa School, get renovations back on track, appoint qualified and caring staff, and restore to the people of Mthatha their right to dignified education for all their children, including children with disabilities.

The situation at Ikhwezi Lokusa School serves as a stark reminder of the urgent need for

accountability, transparency, and, above all, compassion in our education system, Wentzel says. NCPD calls on South Africans to join it in fighting this enormous injustice, and to restore the basic human rights of dignity and access to education to the children of the Ikhwezi Lokusa School.

Listen to the SAfm interview
NCPD says that the school’s conditions have deteriorated even further since it made headlines in November last year

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