During school hours the pupils of Claireville Primary in the port city of Durban are spared the jibes and taunts of not being South African nationals, but the welcome ends when they leave the grounds.
“Local pupils are very friendly. We talk and joke about our difference and it ends there,” said Hoosen Niyokindi, a grade seven pupil from Bujumbura, capital of Burundi.
“Once I leave school it is a different matter altogether. People call us names like amakwerekwere [people who speak gibberish], who are coming to take away opportunities and local women,” he told IRIN.
The school opened its doors to foreign students in 1997, when three pupils from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) began attending; now about one-third of the 768 pupils are from other African countries, with the South African pupils coming mainly from a nearby informal settlement.
Niyokindi’s parents sent him to Claireville and he stays with extended family members in Point Road in the city, where his uncle and aunt were victims of the xenophobic attacks that took place throughout the country in 2008, when scores of people were killed and more than 100,000 were displaced.
“We were the first school in Durban to open our doors to students from other countries – other schools around here were scared. We felt that these are children like all others and they also needed good education, and we could not deny them the right to education,” Claireville Primary principal Sam Bhairopersad told IRIN.
Many of the children are from Francophone and Lusophone countries and despite the language barriers, “Many of these learners are so dedicated and hard-working that they take away most of the year-end awards,” he said.
“Some come to the school not knowing a single word of English … We have now introduced a project where they come to school before other learners and go to English classes … and after a few months in the programme they can speak fluent English,” said Bhairopersad.
The standard of education has been maintained despite the low annual school fees of R200 (US$27). “We try our best to ensure that the standard of teaching and learning is high. Teachers and learners are in school, on time, until the last minute of school hours, and there are also extra lessons for learners with special needs,” he said.
The school’s willingness to accommodate the children of asylum seekers and refugees has gained it local as well as international accolades. During the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees visited the school.
This led to a R90,000 (about $8,200) donation to fix dilapidated classrooms, and for the past two years the school has received a certificate of appreciation from the Durban Refugees Service Providers’ Network.
Mahta Manyama, 15, came to the school from DRC in 2005. His family fled rebels in South Kivu in 2004 and arrived in South Africa after spending a few months in Mozambique. He could speak five languages but not English, although he can now, and is also learning Afrikaans.
“What I like about the school is that we get good education. It is different from what we learnt in DRC, but teachers go out of their way to accommodate us here,” he said.
An Afrikaans teacher at Claireville Primary, Casandra Francis, said although foreign learners encountered xenophobic attitudes outside the school, local and foreign learners mixed well in the school.
Mbali Thusi, a spokesperson for the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education, said they did not know exact number of foreign learners, but estimated that there could be two or three thousand in the province’s schools, mostly in urban areas like Durban.
“It is common for a school to call the department to ask if it is permitted or not to accommodate foreign children. We tell them that if the learner has all the requirements, he or she has a right to be enrolled; now many schools are doing it,” she said.