Pupils caught in the middle as two villages feud over land
Nearly 1,000 schoolchildren miss weeks of learning amid a border dispute in the Eastern Cape
Pupils at a school in Lusikisiki, Eastern Cape, will have to play catch-up when they return from the March holidays after a fight between two neighbouring villages kept them out of school for three weeks.
Mkhankomo Full Service school was caught in the middle of a dispute over territory between the villages of Zitha and Sicembeni. The school has 961 pupils from Grade R to 12, and services both the villages.
The dispute left more devastation in its wake. Police confirmed six houses had been torched, causing scores of villagers to live and hide in the bushes, while some were contemplating leaving the area for good.
According to local traditional leader Chief Sonwabile Jama, it all started when one of the families from Sicembeni village built a house on a strip of municipal land close to Zitha.
The Zitha villagers were allegedly not happy with the building of the house in April 2017, and started to complain and ask the family to move the house, but they allegedly refused.
“This never officially came to the traditional council to be solved,” said Jama.
According to Jama, it is normal in rural areas for villages to be divided by a patch of land or grazing land or fields.
“So, on this piece of land, no one is allowed to build any house unless it has been agreed upon by the traditional leadership, so in this case nothing was agreed, and the fighting started.”
“This January everything became worse, and people’s houses were burnt down, and we had to call police to intervene. People who were scared fled their homes, mostly women and children,” said Jama.
“Some houses were partially destroyed, but some were completely destroyed. We are calling for peace; we can’t be fighting each other.” School principal Zuko Lurwengu said the fighting had left teachers and pupils traumatised.
“A total of 961 pupils from my school have not been attending for the past three weeks. We said they must be at home for their safety, and teachers have been at home for safety reasons,” Lurwengu said.
He said pupils had lost valuable time and could not even finish writing their first term exams.
“The plan is that we are not going to close during this first term to catch up. This has affected the pupils badly,” he said.
Lurwengu said his deputy principal was planning this initiative and was engaging other teachers to return to school immediately to assist.
He said what worried them was that some of the houses torched belonged to parents of their pupils.
“This has left them in the state of shock, and we didn’t want to see children fighting each other as well because of this. Many would tease others and provoking unnecessary fights.”
The police spokesperson for the area, Captain Nozuko Handile, said: “Police have been deployed there to keep peace. What we hear is that the villagers are fighting over a boundary between the village of Zitha and Sicembeni, but we are investigating with the hope of finding peace.” Jama said the village feud that initially began in April 2017 had finally been resolved by the community.
Mandlakazi Mjoli, based in Cape Town, said his parents stayed in one of the villages and he had to remove them immediately.
“I was scared when they told me they are hiding in the bush at night, as they didn’t know when people will come to attack them,” said Mjoli.
“I am planning to relocate my elderly parents out of this area for good. You don’t know when it is going to start afresh again; this is just not safe for the defenceless elderly people.”
She said she initially reported the matter to the police. “I am happy that the police have arrived to keep the peace. My only worry is that those who are doing matric would be affected by this.”
Eastern Cape education spokesperson Mali Mtima said they were aware of the fighting. “The department is working with other departments to make sure the school and safety of the learners is key. There will be catch-up plan for matrics as well,” he said.
At a Tuesday meeting with officials from the police, the education department and the community leadership, a solution was reached that the school must be reopened.
Jama said they were hoping for a lasting peace. “We are planning to engage with the teachers to return to school as early as Wednesday, and we are calling for peace.”