This story is part of a year-long series, School Year: Learning, Poverty, and Success in a South African Township.
At eight o’clock on a recent Wednesday morning, a student named Lephema arrived at the Centre of Science and Technology (COSAT) in bad shape. His right eye was swollen shut.
Lephema said that, as he was walking to school, a young man approached him in a field and demanded his cell phone.
“I said I don’t have it,” Lephema explained, holding a bag of ice to his eye. “But [he] forced me.” The man sprayed Lephema in the face with pepper spray and grabbed the phone from his jacket.
After Lephema arrived at school, he was rushed to the hospital. He was physically okay – but clearly shaken up.
This kind of incident is common at COSAT. The school’s principal, Phadiela Cooper, says students face serious problems during the commute to school.
“They deal with violence, they deal with crime, almost every day,” she says.
In fact, the school recently polled students and found that nearly half have been robbed or assaulted on the way to or from school.
Part of the problem is transportation. In South Africa, there are no public school buses. Some kids can afford to take a train or a shared van, but many are left to walk, often long distances, to get to school.
I wanted to see what hazards students face – and how they negotiate them. So I asked a junior named Lukhanyo if I could accompany him on his morning walk.
Lukhanyo’s Long Walk
Lukhanyo lives in a three-room metal shack. A single light bulb illuminates the family’s small house.
Lukhanyo wakes up at six each morning, puts on his blue school sweater and tie, and polishes his black dress shoes. After brushing his teeth, he grabs his backpack and steps out the door.
His neighborhood is a vast area of shacks and dirt roads, with stray dogs wandering past. It’s the kind of place many would feel unsafe, but Lukhanyo feels the opposite.
“I feel safe, because this is where I belong,” he says. “I know everyone who stays here.”
To get to school, Lukhanyo walks two and a quarter miles, through open fields and gang territories, and past areas where petty thieves hang out. He says he’s an easy target for robbers because of what he’s wearing – a school uniform.
“They know that children sometimes carry phones to schools, and they have money for lunch,” he says.
Lukhanyo exits his neighborhood, and links up with a paved road. Cars and trucks pass by, and school kids move along the sidewalk. He walks past a barbershop and a fruit market, both of which are closed at this early hour.
Then, a few hundred yards up the road, he approaches a large, open field. It’s littered with trash. On the right is a barbed wire fence. On the left, there are brick houses. To the side of the trail lies a dead dog. Lukhanyo is noticeably worried.
“This is where I feel scared. I don't know many people [here],” he says.
In Khayelitsha, people rarely get attacked in their own neighborhoods. If they do, neighbors intervene. But in other areas, bystanders often do nothing. Lukhanyo says he doubts anyone here would help him.
“They will just remain indoors and watch by windows,” he says.
The Role of Police and Parents
Theoretically, the police should protect students as they walk to school. But in Khayelitsha, there are very few police officers – just a quarter of the national average – and many residents say the police don’t do their job.
Parents of COSAT students recently staged a protest at the local police station, demanding that something be done to protect their kids. But, so far, little has changed.
Parents have considered patrolling the streets themselves. But Nolundi Jikwana, whose daughter is a ninth-grader at COSAT, says that strategy is dangerous. She says it was tried at another school, and parents were targeted by gangs.
“They would come and attack their families,” Jikwana says.
So some parents have proposed another idea for keeping their kids safe, says Thembisa Xeketwana, who has a daughter at COSAT.
“We approached the taxi drivers,” Xeketwana says through a translator. “We said if they ever see gangs attacking students on the roads, they should give the gangsters a serious beating.”
Taxi drivers are a large and powerful group in Khayelitsha. Many come from tough backgrounds, and some carry guns. Several COSAT parents say taxi drivers are the only people that gangsters and robbers fear – and that’s why parents have asked them to act as vigilante law enforcers.
In fact, Lukhanyo – the junior at COSAT – was recently rescued by a pair of taxi drivers.
On his walk to school, Lukhanyo shows me where the incident occurred.
He stops in front of a small store. On a cement wall, there’s a gang name sprayed in graffiti. Lukhanyo says a group of boys attacked him here a few weeks ago. They came at him with knives.
“So that’s when I started running,” Lukhanyo says.
He jumped into a taxi that had slowed down to help him. The driver and his assistant chased the gangsters away.
Now, whenever Lukhanyo passes through here, he keeps an eye out for the nearest taxi. And if he sees a group of boys, he crosses the street.
A half-mile beyond where his frightening encounter occurred, Lukhanyo enters a quiet neighborhood. He walks along the edge of a sandy field and bumps into a few classmates. He says that at this point in his walk, he feels relieved.
“Because I'm just near the gate of the school, which is where I'll feel protected,” he says.
Lukhanyo could easily avoid this long and treacherous walk. He could attend a less prestigious high school much closer to his home. But he says he doesn’t feel he has a choice.
“Because I want to become something. I want something in [the] future,” Lukhanyo says.
So, every day, he weighs his hopes for the future against his safety in the present. And, every day, he chooses to walk to this school.