School blossoms in a place of murder and miracles on the Cape Flats
In the same area where a young girl was bashed to death, a school has written its own story of hope
On March 10 2017, 13-year-old Rene Roman was sent to the shop to buy chips. Her life was about to end. Renee would be discovered in a wendy house with her body covered in a carpet. Not too long afterwards a 52-year-old man was arrested. He would claim that he put a plastic bag over her head, pulled down her underwear and then used an axe to bash her head three times in order to rape the young girl. Andrew Plaatjies received two life terms.
Lavender Hill is part of the Cape Flats whose appealing name belies a more dangerous reality. Lavender has a delightful scent, a stunning foliage and all kinds of helpful medicinal properties. But this was the hurtful irony of charming names as Grassy Park (there’s hardly any grass) or Pelican Park (try and find just one of these long-beaked water birds). Many of the early residents of Lavender Hill were in fact those families uprooted by the Group Areas Act and dumped in this township of cheap flats where roving gangs were quickly established and crime flourished.
I grew up across the main road to the coast separating Retreat from Lavender Hill. Everyone knew that Retreat was a relatively better option for raising children than among the flats people across the road. Over the course of my life I lost friends in Lavender Hill, to the point that one genuinely becomes emotionally immune to the almost daily stories of injury and death. Even so, there was an unusual horror revealed in the death of little Ms Roman.
Then came a story of unbelievable hope. On Tuesday this week I honoured a longstanding invitation to open a new school library. As I entered the stunning Levana Primary School it felt as if I had wandered into a little slice of heaven. The grounds were immaculate – they always are. The principal was hailed by many as a disrupter, the kind of term used in the world of technology to describe someone who shakes up things by doing the unexpected.
Entering the assembly hall I saw a shrine to reading on the stage, and the audience was soon to be treated to an exceptional dramatic performance of Arabian Nights. The well-stocked library made a lasting impression in its beauty, with colourful walls, accessible computers and an elevated stage for drama and other kinds of teaching. This was the kind of facility you only see in the schools of the elites in Newlands or Upper Claremont or Constantia. I stood in awe.
How is such beauty even possible in an oddly named place called Lavender Hill? It is all about leadership. More than anyone I know, principal Andre Lamprecht’s success comes from building partnerships with major funders such as the Albert Wessels Foundation (Albert brought Toyota to SA) and many others. An organisation called Learning in Reach was offering skills and opportunities for the principal to raise funds. This is how the money was sourced for the spanking new library. He also had advisers including the distinguished principal of one of the best girls’ schools in SA, the now retired Paul Cassar of Eunice in Bloemfontein. He establishes, through his generous presence, a climate of discipline in an area known for having gangsters in the broader pupil body.
“Ishmael, shut up!” shouted a male teacher who was trying to guide a rowdy class into the school hall. I made a point in my presentation about the need to respect young people even as I understood how difficult it is to command the attention of the children of Lavender Hill. A school cannot, however, reinforce modes of address with vulnerable children that many of them also experience in homes where the mother struggles to simply “hold head above water” and the father is absent.
Now, this miracle. The public sector working with the private sector. The school working with the community. Officials from the department working with the up-and-coming young principal. To accomplish this level of school development is exceptional and I was witness to greatness.
We moved from the hall to the library. The ribbons were cut. The media were there in their numbers. Selfies were taken left, right and centre. And then it happened: a sad-looking young woman was introduced to me. Chrissandre Jacobs was Rene’s mother and I could see more than a tear in her eye as she looked up to see the name of the new building: The Rene Roman Library.