Our History

In February 1981, Joanna James – the Director of Zululand Mental Health – listened to the stories told by the social workers who were working in the local community. They told her how badly the Zulu children with intellectual disability were being treated in the community. They also reported that people were generally ignorant about children with special needs. Jo suggested starting a center where these children could be helped. She opened a small school at her home on Hillview Farm, Empangeni. At first there were 4 Zulu children with intellectual disability and one teacher. Within a couple of weeks, the space was too small for the many children who arrived daily. The distance they had to walk the Biyela Street bus rank to her home was very far for the children, many who had epilepsy or cerebral palsy.

Jo started looking for bigger premises, and rented a house from the Borough of Empangeni at 57 Tanner Road. Soon this house was overcrowded with more than 50 children coming to school every day. At this stage there were 2 teachers, a cleaner and a cook who looked after the children. Initially the school was funded by members of the community.

Enrolment continued to grow, and when there were 100 Zulu children attending school daily, the need for a bigger school ground became imperative. Jo investigated many properties at the time, but none seemed to be just right for the children.

During the same time, a school for white children with Intellectual Disability – Sonskynhoekie – was facing imminent closure by the Department Of Education due to dwindling numbers. The solution was obvious – create the first integrated school for children with intellectual disability in South Africa!

In 1990, Owen Jonson contacted Jo, and offered her 5 ha of land on Dover Farm to build a school. The Department of Education gave a R500 000 grant to start building on the land and in September 1990, building commenced! The first phase, which included 8 classrooms, a kitchen, storeroom, admin block and outbuilding was completed in October 1991. At that time enrolment was 1 Asian, 25 White and 80 Zulu children. Enrolment kept on growing, and as donations arrived, the school kept on building…. Phase 2 was for classrooms 9 to 12, Phase 3 was for the Workshop and Home Economics – completed on 3 February 1993. Since then storerooms have been converted to classrooms and the office block was converted to a house. Additional offices, a school hall, new classes and additional bathrooms were built. In 2018 3 new temporary classrooms were added to accommodate the growing number of learners. In 2019 Thuthukani Special School had 425 enrolled learners.

From starting out as a safe haven for 4 children, the school has grown phenomenally – not only in learners and facilities, but also in curriculum and knowledge base. Marthie Combrinck’s CLASSIC tool, published in 2000, was widely acclaimed as a great resource for educators to access the mainstream curriculum for children with intellectual disability. From 2013, Tanya Girvin was involved in the National Writing Team who developed a differentiated curriculum based on the National Curriculum Statement, specifically for learners with severe intellectual disability. CAPS Grade R to 5 for Learners with Severe Intellectual Disability is being implemented in all special schools nationally as from 2019. Thuthukani is a National Resource Center in the National Rollout for Inclusive Education, and our teachers and therapists are all experts in teaching children with severe to profound intellectual disability.

Thuthukani is constantly evolving and striving to ensure quality education and support to all the learners and their families. Programmes include the PID phase (for learners with profound intellectual disability), Foundation Phase (for young learners), Intermediate Phase (for young teenagers), Senior Phase (for the older learners), and Pre-Vocational Phase (or Skills Development Class). Specialist teachers offer Physical Education, Arts & Crafts and Consumer Studies – Food Production and Sewing.

The school offers a very active sport and cultural programme which provides learners with opportunities to compete up to National level – In fact two of Thuthukani’s learners have participated in the Special Olympics overseas, and one has performed in an international choir competition.

The Thuthukani Adult Workshop is on the same premises as the school. It was founded by Marie Liebenberg in 1996. Peter and Lyn Bannock of Perfecto Plastics committed themselves to providing work for adults with intellectual disability and giving these adults the perfect opportunity to make an economic difference in their own and their families’ lives. This work provided the backbone for the sheltered workshop. As a close partner to Thuthukani Special School, the Thuthukani Adult Workshop provides sheltered job opportunities for over 120 young adults with intellectual disability when they complete their schooling. In addition to making clips for Perfecto Plastics, the workers also stick labels onto bottles and boxes, and do paper and plastic recycling.

From small beginnings, Thuthukani has grown to a school with good links to the community, an established reputation, quality staff and learners who excel against all odds.

Thuthukani is indeed living up to its Zulu name….. “Progress”.

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