Here’s a quiz. Look at these five pictures. Which one was not taken at a school?


The first time we visited a school in South Africa, we couldn’t help but notice the security in place. The school was surrounded by an eight-foot fence topped by razor wire. We drove through the gate and pulled up to the school and parked. When we got out, we went thorough another gate. This one was steel bars, only about six feet high, with barbed wire at the top. That got us into the courtyard. All of the classrooms opened directly onto the courtyard. Each classroom had bars on the windows and steel gates with padlocks over each classroom door. The windows facing the outside of the school had an extra layer of wire mesh outside the bars.

dsc_0222We were going to the computer lab. At that door, we found the standard steel gate like all of the other classrooms had. Then, after opening that, there was a bank-vault-style steel door about two inches thick. Once that was opened, the regular classroom door was underneath it all. When putting in a computer lab, Khanya spends about $5,000 US on security. That’s in addition to money the school contributes (typically another few thousand dollars), and it does not include recurring costs like alarm systems and security personnel.

Why all the security? Burglary is a huge problem in Cape Town, especially in the black townships where we were working. Many schools have had break-ins. Many have lost computers or entire labs. At one school, the thieves cut a hole in a brick wall to gain access to the computer lab. In Siyazakha Primary School, they cut through the steel roof. At Phakama Secondary School, they don’t have Internet access or telephone service because someone stole the phone cables running to the building, so they could sell the copper as scrap. The phone company refuses to replace the cable, because there have been more than 100 cases of cable theft in that neighborhood. Their only option at this point is to use cellular-based Internet access, but they can’t afford that.

Muggings are also pretty common in these areas. I don’t think anyone on our team ever felt unsafe, but the teachers we were working with were very careful. Any time we ventured out of the school grounds, there were always at least a dozen teachers with us. So while we never felt threatened, they made sure we also didn’t do anything that would make us easy targets.

As tight as this security was, I was surprised at how lax it was on school days. When we visited the schools, we just walked right in. We were careful to check in at the offices when arriving — we certainly don’t blend in with the local community. But if we had wanted to, we could have just walked into any classroom with no problem at all. Despite the crime problems, children are not targets. In an area where vigilante justice is the norm, everyone knows better than to mess with the kids.

The problems of school security are not easy ones to solve. We suggested that the best way to protect the school is to make it an integral, valued part of the community. If the community takes pride in the school, and values its resources, it will protect it. In these communities, most people don’t have access to the Internet or to computers. If the schools opened up their labs, and offered evening classes for the community, and brought people in to see the wonderful things that they’re doing, they might be able to get more help protecting the school. But that takes a lot of trust, and some planning, and resources they may not have. So it’s still a long road.

Oh, right. The pictures. From left to right, top to bottom, we have Glendale High School, Liwa Primary School, Robben Island Prison, Liwa Primary School again, and Siyazakha Primary School. All are in or near Cape Town. Robben Island is where many political prisoners were held during apartheid, including Nelson Mandela and current South African President Jacob Zuma, among many others.