Project’s classes end on sour note

Students practise during a lesson at the Ronnie Samaai Project. The project has been ejected from the Metro East Education Department premises where it has been teaching students for 20 years.

A non-profit project teaching music to children from some of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods is playing the blues after education officials changed their tune on an apparent gentleman’s agreement that had let the young musos use a government building in Kuils River.

The Ronnie Samaai Music Education Project operated from the Metro East Education Department (Meed) building in Kuils River for the last 20 years, but it is now homeless after the department gave it its marching orders.

The project teaches 90 children how to read and play music, every Saturday morning (“Music project uplifts community”, Northern News, October 23). It has run from the Meed building ever since music expert Ronnie Samaai launched it in 1997.

Felicia Lesch took over from Mr Samaai at the beginning of last year after he retired. The problems started later that year.

“In August, they said we can’t come next Saturday,” Mr Lesch said. “We just thought they didn’t have a room for us that week.”

The school then booked a temporary, alternative venue, but when Ms Lesch went to the Meed building to get the instruments, she found it locked.

“That’s when we realised we’d been kicked out,” she said.

“Because we couldn’t get in to get the instruments.”

Ms Lesch then met with the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) and an agreement was reached allowing the project to use the building’s rooms for free, as they had been, until the end of last year.

Ms Lesch said the project had been allowed to use the rooms for free, because the former director, Melvyn Caroline, “considered it the community service for Meed”.

“In exchange, the learners sometimes played for them at functions.”

Mr Caroline died in 2015, and the gentleman’s agreement dissolved after that.

“We are still looking for a place to start in the meantime and the parents have started a petition,” Ms Lesch said. “We are ready to start.”

The petition at www.ipetitions.com says: “We strongly urge that the Meed review and rescind its decision to no longer allocate classes on Saturdays … to our music project.”

It adds that the project was notified at the end of 2016 that it would no longer be able to use the building because it was being upgraded and would be opened up to NGOs.

The project is a registered non-profit organisation that teaches music to children not only from Kuils River, but from Khayelitsha and Nyanga.

The petition says the building is ideal for the project’s uses because it is safe, but the parents also fear that without a venue, the project will lose it long-standing partners, including Stellenbosch University.

Ten of the project’s 12 teachers are volunteers from the university.

It was also thanks to another partnership, with Norwegian-based Playing for A Future, that two to three of the project’s students were invited – with all expenses paid – to take part in the Valdres Sommersymfoni in Oslo. And the HCI Foundation sponsors the cost of a bus service from the Golden Arrow Foundation to transport the children from Khayetlitsha and Nyanga to Kuils River every Saturday.

Kuils River resident Desiree Levendal volunteers for the project. Her two children trained there. Her eldest daughter, Kaylin, 21, is now studying a Bachelor of Music at Stellenbosch University and she also teaches at the project.

“She started here when she was eight and now she is ploughing back into the project. As the pupils grow older, they return so that the younger ones can have a teacher. Most of them are doing a BMus,” said Ms Levendal.

Students pay R250 a year and this goes towards exams fees and the maintenance of the instruments, which are loaned to students.

Ms Lesch has approached other schools in the area but has not found a suitable alternative. She said the department’s reasons for not allowing the project back were contradictory.

“We still don’t know the reasons,” she said. “We asked if we could get the empty classes but we were told we can no longer use it. We just want to go back to the Meed premises. The people that they said were going to be put there last year have been put elsewhere.”

Jessica Shelver, spokeswoman for Education MEC Debbie Schafer, said: “Our Metro East District Office is growing and we have seen an considerable increase in numbers of staff – we therefore require the space at our offices to accommodate this growth. The area that has been previously allocated for the purpose of the music project will now be used as office accommodation for the new officials. The area is currently being refurbished into office space for WCED staff.”