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Celebrating true grit: the inauguration of Bethal Independent Primary School

| September 13, 2018 | 0 Comments


A number of ISASA member schools have experienced immense financial, social and bureaucratic difficulties in their establishment and development, so it is a great pleasure to be able to celebrate success when those difficulties are overcome.

Earlier this year, on 27 March, the executive director of ISASA, Lebogang Montjane, and other ISASA personnel attended the inauguration of the Bethal Independent Primary School (BIPS) in rural Mpumalanga. The school has been an ISASA member for some time and provides quality, primary, English-medium education to 360 children from the adjacent informal settlement. Amongst the guests attending this celebratory event was Sabani Kunene, a former trustee, parent and member of the school’s executive steering committee between 1998 and 2003, and her daughter, Sthandwa Felicia Hlophe, who was a pupil in grades 1-3 between 1999 and 2002. The fact that Hlophe is now an admitted attorney practising in Cape Town is testament perhaps to the impact that high-quality schooling in the early years can contribute to future life opportunities.

Transformation through education a founding principle

The inauguration was a chance for BIPS principal, Louis Botes, to look back at the school’s extraordinary history. The journey began in 1992, when, he says, “My wife, Elize, and I and our three children had to relocate to Bethal, when my previous employer amalgamated with the then Oos Transvaal Kooperasie (OTK) (now known as Afgri) which dealt with agricultural services and businesses”. Botes and his wife have always embraced the ideas of transformation and inclusion in the community in which they live. “We discussed what role we could play in creating a better South Africa. We both had a background as teachers and we concluded that starting a school was the best thing we could do,” says Botes. “However,” he adds, “at the time, white people in South Africa were hugely divided between those supporting the reform envisioned by then president F.W. de Klerk, and those against it.1 Bethal’s municipal council consisted of conservative members who opposed any transformation to democracy. Many of the white people in Bethal still express those sentiments.”2 Although husband and wife were both experienced high school teachers, the latter gained even more experience by teaching at the nursery schools to which they sent their own children. Botes explains their careful reasoning further: “We came to believe that English as a medium of instruction was the way to go, as Afrikaans, like all other indigenous languages, does not travel well and cannot be used on the international stage. We agreed to start with small children at the time when they are most receptive to learning a new language”

A demand for more characteristically excellent schooling

With characteristic grit, Elize then bought a house, converted it into a nursery school, and in 1995, Pixyland Nursery School opened with one pupil. Botes recalls: “By the end of 1995, the school had 20 learners that went to Grade 1 in 1996”. The ambitions of the newly fluent Pixyland graduates to go onto a quality primary school were now frustrated. They had two choices: township schools (many of which delivered mediocre or poor schooling), or English schools in neighbouring towns if there was space. This would burden parents with an additional transport cost. Says Botes, “Pixyland had grown in reputation and it was clear that the demand for English medium classes far exceeded our available space. We discussed the idea of opening an independent, English-medium primary school.” As most new school owners know, one of the first steps one must undertake is to register with the Department of Education (DOE). Says Botes, “The municipality took the form of a ‘transitional local council’ (TLC),3 consisting of the conservative council members and the newly elected ANC majority. Our efforts to rent an empty building (known as the Fleur building) from the municipality were frustrated by the previous tenant who refused to allow us to take over the building in spite of it standing empty for a number of years. When Elize approached him, he told her, “You must close that ANC school!””

Struggle leads to solidarity

The Botes’, staff and students finally moved into the Bethal Fleur building in 2000. However, it soon transpired that their troubles were not over. “We were served with an eviction notice by the municipality after three months! One morning, when the children arrived, the building was locked with a lock and chain.” Botes made a further discovery at this point: “Rand Water had entered into an agreement with the municipality to rent the building for a period of nine months. Thanks to the influence of our then chairperson of the board of trustees, who by chance happened to be a firm ANC supporter, we were able to come to an agreement to share the building. We had to put up fences to separate the children from the grown men in the building.” As so often happens, struggle paved the way for solidarity. Botes remarks: “As we faced challenges as a group of white and black South Africans, we had to work together, and a strong relationship of trust developed between us”. Individuals like Maretha Bruwer, Marie Botha and the trustees including Jabulani Masilela, Pastor Mokoena and Mrs Mabizela formed part of that circle of trust, as did a dedicated school governing body (SGB) under the leadership of Pastor John Masango. “Finally, in 2003,” says Botes, “the school was registered with the DOE, but we did not receive any subsidy until 2006 (many independent schools are eligible for a government subsidy).4 The parents tightened their belts and paid school fees to cover all expenses while we put a large portion of the subsidy into a savings account. We have since adopted a policy that the school fees must cover the running costs while we save a large portion of our subsidy every year.”

Thwarted plans, but abundant determination

“Meanwhile our search for more suitable premises continued, but the Department of Public Works, to whom all publicly owned land had been transferred, refused to give us answers about the old H.M. Swart sport fields. There was also the prohibition on the sale of publicly owned land. Correspondence, and even contacting President Zuma’s Hot Line produced no result.”5 It was only in 2006 that Botes and the school board found a house that they thought could be changed into a school. “In consultation with the trustees, we decided to apply for a mortgage in my name, as the trust could not get such a loan. The bank agreed to this arrangement and we registered the mortgage for an amount double that of the cost price, in order to be able to use residual funds for the renovations. However, after the house was registered, the bank refused to release the funds, saying that changing a house into a school would decrease the value of the building. “I eventually took the case to the ombudsman6 who decided that the bank had acted unreasonably and had to pay us for the cost of registration and transfer. We managed to sell the house at a profit, but were still left without suitable land for development.”

Do-it-yourself school building

School premises problems resurfaced in 2009, when the then principal of the school went into retirement. Possible replacement candidates said they did not like the “dilapidated building”. “They also wanted very high salaries,” says Botes. “As I retired in 2001, I told the board that I would be willing to take over and work for a lower salary. At the time, the demand for places in the school was so high that we had to turn away almost 50% of children applying for enrolment in Grade 1. The first thing I did was to rent a building in town, and introduce a second Grade 1 class in 2010, followed with a second class for every year until we had two classes for each grade in 2016. “In 2011, I became aware of land that was for sale, and after negotiations, it was bought in the name of the trust. We did not need a loan, due to our savings over the years. It took a year to rezone the property, but in 2012 we started preparing the ground, foundations and fencing of the property. I did not have any knowledge of building anything but gained knowledge by consulting experts along the way. “I learned that the most cost-effective way of building is by erecting the roof as a steel structure and then building around it. In September 2012, we were ready to do just that. The contractor, who did the groundwork, helped us by dumping building rubble into our sport fields that needed filling and levelling. The quotation for levelling the sport field was R1 000 000, which we did not have, so we decided to buy our own tractor, and, during school holidays and weekends, I worked to level the fields. I was later joined by a friend who worked for a big tractor company. I learned to do everything, from project management, to planting trees, planning classrooms and overseeing construction to save money. We were finally able to get in a grader for the final work in 2015, and in October 2015, we could plant the grass.”

An eventual reward reaped in 2017

The Mpumalanga DOE allowed the school to operate on two sites until the end of 2016. Then, unfortunately, the department required re-registration and a new name, which turned out to be Bethal Independent Primary School. The grades 4-7 students moved to the new site whilst the foundation phase pupils stayed in the building rented from the municipality. Botes remembers the final push: “In December 2015, we used our saved subsidy to erect the roof of the administration block and foundation phase buildings, but there was still not enough money to finish the building. I approached a group of businessmen, who agreed to give the school a mortgage loan. This enabled me to finish the administration block at the end of 2016 (I had to forfeit my December holiday to do this) and the foundation phase building in March 2017. “From April 2017 we were finally settled as a school on the new site.”

Constantly looking for creative solutions

Botes and his team have found creative solutions to other challenges. Because BIPS could only offer low salaries, staff turnover was a problem. “We started a student internship programme. The school assists student teachers who undertake to work for the school for a period of time. In this way we have trained a number of teachers.” That work environment is a diverse one. “Although initially all the teachers of the school were white,” says Botes, “but they easily accepted black colleagues. The cultures in the school include English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Shona, Venda and Swazi, as well as children from Nigeria, Congo and Somalia. We also have a substantial number of Muslim children. We all want what is in the best interest of the children.” It’s a relief for Botes to be able to say that relations with the DOE are now stable. When inevitably, the odd challenge resurfaces, BIPS is used to thinking innovatively. For instance, when the school applied to take part in a local, interschool athletic event, they were turned down by the local schools. As BIPS could offer athletics, soccer, rugby, cricket, hockey and netball, it took the initiative to invite and host all independent schools from surrounding towns at their own interschool athletics meeting in February this year. This will become a regular event.

Building and conserving inside and outside

After all its struggles, everyone at BIPS is committed to conserving the school and its environment, which includes the careful husbanding of water resources. When, in 2015, more grass and trees were planted, it was decided to harvest all the rainwater from the roof to irrigate the sport fields. The school now has 25 water tanks each with a capacity of 5 000 litres and in 2017, was awarded first prize in the Mpumalanga climate change programme of the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development, Land and Environmental Affairs, as the most improved school in sustainable development. Inside the classrooms, there is a strong focus on information technology (IT) with a well-equipped IT classroom. All children from Grade 1 to Grade 7 receive tutoring in coding and are trained in using computers and the internet. The whole school has wireless capability. BIPS also recognises the social challenges faced by many of its pupils and is about to employ a full-time social worker. The school maintains strong relationships with its parents and is setting up a parental consultation group.

Facing the future

The most serious challenge now facing the Bethal community is that there is insufficient space available for BIPS learners in English-medium high school classes. As a result, children have to be bussed to neighbouring towns such as Secunda when they go to high school. Provision of an English-medium high school in Bethal is therefore an urgent necessity. There is a vacant stand adjacent to BIPS, so it remains to be seen if further expansion can be achieved. Botes will always offer help, based on the experiences he’s had, saying: “I retire this year, but if my successors decide to grow the school to a high school, I will be available to help where I can”. He has some legitimate concerns for the future of schools in South Africa: “BIPS complies with the ‘norms and standards for schools’,7 whereas many government schools are suffering from poor conditions as they were built without compliance.8 BIPS was built at the cost of R8.5 million, approximately half of what it costs the department to create such a school.9 These kinds of inequities create a boiling pot of anger among those black parents with children at sub-par schools.10 Their anger increases when it becomes evident that there are schools that use language or other excuses to remain white.”11

An empathetic awareness

In the meantime, says Lyn Nelson, the former ISASA regional director (RD) who has worked closely with BIPS, “As an RD, one learns to feel how a school is functioning on arrival at the front gate! At this school, there is a strong feeling of family and an empathetic awareness of the variety of challenges faced by the children and their families.” Says Botes, “In my younger days I listened to a pop group called Blood, Sweat and Tears. Throughout the BIPS history, we sought God’s guidance as a family, a parent body, a staff, a learner cohort and a wide circle of supporters. We had our share of “blood, sweat and tears”, but believe me, there is also plenty of laughter here!”

David Lea is the publisher of Independent Education. Lyn Nelson was formerly the ISASA regional director for Mpumalanga.

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Category: Spring 2018

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