Lwando Mzandisi: a role model in the struggle for social justice

Education activist died far too young, but made a big impact in his short life

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Photo of Lwando Mzandisi
Lwando Mzandisi died on 1 December, a few days short of his 26th birthday. Photo: Nombuso Mathibela

Lwando Mzandisi died on 1 December, a few days short of his 26th birthday. His life was short but remarkable, and dedicated to the fight for equality and justice.

Lwando was part of a small group of Khayelitsha high school students who joined Equal Education (EE) in 2008. Over the following nine years he played a fundamental role, forging EE’s identity.

In grade 11, he mobilised students at his school, Kwamfundo Senior Secondary, for EE’s first campaign to fix over 500 broken windows at a neighbouring school in Khayelitsha, Luhlaza High School. With fellow student Pathiswa Shushwana, he wrote the first newspaper article about the broken windows campaign in October 2008. As chairperson of EE’s first student leadership committee in 2009, Lwando helped shape the movement as it grew.

He completed high school in 2009 at Kwamfundo at a time when less than half of all students passed their final exams. Lwando was also central to EE’s campaigns against learner late-coming and for school libraries.

Lwando derived great joy from training and politicising young people. He helped build EE into a movement by organising educational youth group sessions and camps, as well as small demonstrations and large marches.

One of Lwando’s closest friends, Luzuko Sidimba, who joined EE with him in 2008 shared these words: “I still can’t believe that I will never see him again. He was more than a friend to me. This is not only a loss to his family and friends but to the whole South African community, especially the black working-class. He was always willing to share his knowledge with anyone.”

Small in stature, Lwando had characteristic seriousness and a soft contagious smile. He was also a brilliant negotiator. In July 2011, Lwando, together with Equal Education leaders Mzukisi Mzendana and Doron Isaacs mediated with police as EE staged a 48-hour “sleep-in” as part of its infrastructure standards campaign outside Parliament.

Lwando was interviewed about the protest and explained the potential consequences of continuing with the protest to fellow activists in a short video. In June of that year, he also helped facilitate EE’s first youth camp in KwaZulu Natal.

He was elected to EE’s National Council from 2012-2015, while studying teaching at Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Lwando was also a trustee of The Bookery, a national school libraries project.

Lwando saw inequality in education as a fundamental injustice. For him, that injustice was also personal. In a speech written for a protest outside Parliament in February 2011 about the lack of adequate school infrastructure in the Eastern Cape, Lwando recalled his own primary school experience in the rural Eastern Cape. He remembered walking for more than an hour to reach school, where classes were taught in unsafe structures made of mud, or under trees. He wrote the following:

“I still remember that Grade 4 and Grade 5 were one class, and you would attend the class under the tree, and you would move around as the sun moves, by following the shadow. But because there were no close schools, you had no choice but to attend school there.

Attending school in those conditions is really a bad experience and you will never have any interest in education. Even if you are interested in that education, you only receive it from the mouth of the teacher, and you do not have any clue of what they are talking about because you feel like you are [an] outsider…

When it is raining, you cannot go to school because you do not have a classroom and you’re afraid the structure of the class will collapse… By attending school you only go because you want to please your parents, not because you want to. As for the results of most of the learners that I attended school with – they all had dropped out to go and find jobs, as they find that school is a waste of time.

As we are all gathered here, we all know the inequalities that we are facing in South Africa. We must understand the fact that it is up to us to change the situation that is faced by those learners in the Eastern Cape, if we can support them in this struggle that they are facing…”

EE achieved a landmark victory in 2013 with a legally binding court settlement committing the Department of Basic Education to provide all schools in the country with access to water, electricity and sanitation, and all schools made from mud, zinc, wood, or asbestos to be replaced with appropriate structures by 29 November 2016. The same agreement requires that classrooms, electronic connectivity (including telephones, fax machines and internet), fencing, as well as satisfactory water, power and sanitation requirements be provided to schools within seven years, and that libraries and laboratories be provided to schools within ten years.

Although there has been some progress, the national department, as well as all nine provincial departments of education have failed to meet their targets. Schools in South Africa’s rural provinces serve the poorest communities and face the greatest educational deficits, with students up to five years behind their peers in urban schools by the time they reach the 9th grade. Basic infrastructure in rural schools remains poorest across the country. Only 8% of Eastern Cape schools have a library and only 6% have a science laboratory. Nationally 70% of schools were without libraries and 81% without science laboratories in 2016. The number of students from the Eastern Cape achieving school-leaving results high enough to apply to university is only 17%.

Lwando qualified as a mathematics and biology teacher, and it was always Lwando’s intention to return to the rural Eastern Cape to teach. “That is where I belong,” he told me.

At the time of his death, Lwando was a fellow of the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education. This centre was set up to support organisations fighting for a just society.

In his last few years, Lwando struggled with kidney disease, a struggle he bore with dignity and patience. He was awaiting a kidney transplant at the time of his death.

The institutions of the South African state – on whom the poorest depend for their welfare and education – have been weakened in recent years. Funds collected and intended for education are increasingly diverted to serve political interests. This reality makes the fight for accountability and justice even more important. It is through movements like EE that Lwando helped build that the struggle for a just South Africa can move forward.

Hamba kahle, my friend. To so many, you were a leader. We will miss you and remember you. We will remember your smile and your fist raised for justice.

TOPICS:  Education

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