2011: SOUTH AFRICAN SCHOOLS: An Education in Contrasts

It was Founder's Day at Westerford High School. My high school, which when I entered was two years old.  I sit in the auditorium that was built towards the end my stay at the school, and which easily held the school's 500 students at the time. Now 900 squeeze in, using an extension that fans out of one side through adjustable walls and into a balcony that was added after I left.

I scan the students, well more accurately I stare at them, contemplating them, from those that are 12 or 13 to those in the graduating class who are heading for young adulthood.   Like all schools, Westerford has its own specific uniform in the Westerford colours of in maroon, gold and grey.  They wear them with casualness :  shirts half out, or creeping out, maroon blazer worn by some, not others who are in their shirts, girls in dresses that are different in style and pattern to the one I wore although still checks (plaid), ties off, ties on but loose around the neck. I prefer this level of comfort which would certainly have been frowned upon in “my day” as would the joking around between students, the noisy exuberance as they enter the hall, the turning to talk to the girl or boy behind them as they file in.   We would have entered in silence, walking with backs straight, blazers and ties neatly correct.

I think back the decades to “my day”. I remember the first principal with his straight greying hair parted down the middle precisely brylcreemed to each side. He walked with purpose, seldom smiled, was serious about his religion (Baptist, preached the need to be a good Christian - no separation of church and state to be sure, apartheid got its im-moral compass from the bible), could be both kind and unkind. One did not go against his wishes and he had many directions about how to behave as a Westerfordian: The daily emphasis on being a good Christian (impossible for me - not only was I Jewish, my family was atheist), always respect the uniform which meant never ever taking your blazer or tie off outside the school grounds as you were to be an exemplary standard bearer of Westerford wherever we were – and yes, the girls as well as the boys wore blazers and ties. Obey the teachers. No pranks tolerated, although in a school of girls and boys this rule was always broken.

The Principal  was tougher on the boys than the girls. He seemed to have no sense of humor. Being sent to the Principal’s office was not a happy experience. Lectures were long and disdain was expressed very easily for all except his favorites. He had many good points including his belief in an education that emphasized independent thinking. He emphasized that Westerfordians respect everyone and to make the point he referred to appropriately as Mr. or Mrs. or Miss.

The school sign was a gift from my class at its 40th reunion. The school motto (under the badge): Nil Nisi Optimum (Nothing but the best)

I pull back to my surroundings from these ruminations.   What I am looking at is very different from what I remember.  The principal jokes with the audience when he talks.  He is relaxed and in control.  Sitting with him are teachers from all South African backgrounds. 

It is of course obvious, but sitting with the all white section from the late 1950's and 1960's what I am most aware of is the makeup of the student body. About 50 percent are black. Mostly coloureds and Indians, with a very few Africans. (It is later explained to me by a parent of recent Westerford graduates, that the catchment area for the school is confined, effectively excluding African applicants. I also learn that although it is a state school students have to pay fees of R21,165.00 ($3129.65 at today’s’ exchange rate. The website indicates that fee exemptions are available for those unable to afford the fees. Frankly, had Montclair High School fees for a public school been at this level, very few parents would have been able to manage. Without knowing how it all works, I am assuming it to be a mechanism to enable the highly privileged school to continue to provide education for the highly privileged without draining the Provincial education budget.)

I sit next to two classmates, Lois and Stan, in a rows down one side of the hall reserved for guests. The rest of the guests are from the class behind me who are having their 50th reunion. 

In contrast to the new South Africa demographic, where the students and teachers represent all of South Africa, we are a relic from the past. All white. Lois turns to me and says: “Isn’t it wonderful how mixed Westerford now is?” Her face glows. I just nod in agreement, my breathing constricted with the thought of how many things have changed, (though fully aware of how things have not.)

Photo taken on Founders Day (from WHS website)

When I later ask a teacher the racial breakdown he says “I don’t know. We don’t count”. It’s a sensitive issue. And no wonder. The apartheid government certainly counted. By the use of a very weird maths. Africans who were actually 80 percent of the South African population, were by a sleight pen, designated not.

Africans were divided up into different language groups and then assigned their “own” homeland, one of ten so-called Bantustans, according to language – Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana etc. – whose edges had long ago been fudged beyond ethnicity and language into a diverse but one African people within two language groups. Few Africans spoke only one African language. Many spoke four, or perhaps even more, as well as English and/or Afrikaans. The clincher was that in each so-called homelands the government could count a smaller number of citizens than the white citizens in South Africa. Voila! Whites were no longer a minority. Africans could vote in their own supposed country. Problem was most of the “citizens” of these homelands did not live there and many had never ever set foot in them. Problem was that these so-called homelands made up 10 percent of the country’s land mass, and that some of the homelands consisted of non-contiguous “black spots”.

Problem was Africans constituted 80 per cent of the population, whites fifteen per cent. Problem was the land was eroded and generally non-arable so the “citizens” couldn’t sustain life from it even if they wanted to. They had to continue get permission to work in the white areas of South Africa, and the requisite stamp in their dompass (stupid pass) because their land was no longer their country. The labor was exploited and those that controlled the apartheid economy – and their overseas corporate investors - were exceedingly happy. Cheap labor. Humongous profits. Don’t rock the treasure boat.

Again I pull myself back from these thoughts as the Westerford Orchestra plays the national anthem signaling an end to the Founders Day ceremony.

As I  played the violin in high school and was part of a youth orchestra, this was a welcome sight

We all stand to sing the South African anthem. The anthem is in three parts. It starts with the rousing but solemn hymn that was the anthem of the struggle, a symbol of resistance and hence banned in apartheid South Africa but now sung proudly in Zulu or Xhosa or one of the African languages. I sing along with the Xhosa: N’kosi Sikilela Africa.... (God bless Africa)

It is close to seventeen years since South Africa had its first elections for a new South Africa. And I am finding it hard to sing along. My voice is cracking because of emotion. When it segues without stop into the old, apartheid anthem in Afrikaans – Uit die blou van onse hemel (Out of the blue from our heavens), I join in more forcefully, the Afrikaans words carved into my very being from my childhood. Now I know I am being truly soppy as I think of the significance of the majority government decreeing that the new South Africa should include in its anthem the old South Africa that we want to forget.

I can't wipe away the tears that wet my cheeks because it will bring attention and make me even more embarrassed. And as the anthem then segues without barely an intake of breath into the English, it is even harder. And I find myself thinking: I have never felt the tiniest bit emotional over the American anthem although I am now a US citizen. To me it is a song. But my strong reaction to the South African anthem? Can it be that I am home? I guess this is Something for later reflection.

I leave the school impressed by its progress, delighted by its diversity. I have seen the large fields that extend from the Main Road up to De Waal Drive, the swimming pool, new astro-turf playing field with its bright new sports building where my class held its annual picnic. The mountain towers above me on this perfect late summer day. The grounds are many times the size of the Westerford I attended (where I and my fellow students painstaking planted the grass for the first playing field, seedling by seedling) and many, many times the size of the New Jersey high school my daughter attended in Montclair. The school is not only graced with sports fields. It has a fantastic library, an art room, classrooms that aim to serve under 30 students in each, newly painted walls, spic and span bathrooms. I am told by a teacher that prime real estate that was recently acquired for the expansion of its sports fields in one of the more expensive suburbs of Cape Town belonged to the Provincial government. He believes it was granted for use to the school which had to fund raise for the fields and buildings.

I leave wondering whether I should be impressed by a school with such resources that services a mixed community or troubled by the display of resources that is almost ostentations when considering the situation of the majority of students in South Africa.

School grounds that stretch up to the edge of the mountain


Forward, not too fast, to March 21, 20011.

March 21st is Human Rights Day, a public holiday commemorating the massacre at Sharpeville in 1960. This year 20,000 black youth chose the day to march to Parliament to protest the state of education in South Africa and demand better conditions. They are elementary and high school learners, in their school uniforms despite the holiday. There are teachers and parents and other supporters of the call. As I missed theannouncement of the demonstration I heard about it from press coverage. 

This call for equality education came thirty-five years after the Soweto uprisings of 1976 when school students went on strike to protest Bantu education, in particular the ruling that Afrikaans would henceforth be the language of instruction. The uprisings and continued demonstrations resulted in a brutal crackdown in which hundreds of people were killed, many of them school children.

While the black youth of South Africa were protesting Bantu education for many years to follow, the white youth continued to benefit from education that was among the best in the world. Inequalities still based on race as well as on class and privilege continue to mar progress. Today, education for the majority of South Africans is sub-standard.

Some 18 percent do not have access to electricity. Twenty percent do not have no water supply (which means they do not have flush toilets). More than 92 percent do not have stocked and functionary libraries. [Timeslive.com].

Yvonne Msebenzi, a Grade 10 pupil at Mfuleni High, quoted in The Cape Times , said “Sometimes we have to go to libraries in Delft and Khayelitsha because the library in Mfuleni does not have enough books with the information we need or there are just too many people there.”

A Grade 12 pupil at Harold Cressy High School, Qhayisani Mxhego, told the Sowetan that he marched because education was a basic right that should be fulfilled by the government. “We want all schools to have the same opportunities, and for learners to have the same access to higher education”.

Protest on Human Rights Day (Photo: Gillian Benjamin/Writing Writes blog)

Another Grade 12 pupil at Hector Pieterson (named after the first child to die in the Soweto uprisings) High School said: “We need the same quality of educators and resources.”

Protest on Human Rights Day (Photo: Gillian Benjamin/Writing Writes blog)

The key demand of the protest was for National Minimum Norms & Standards for School Infrastructure. Yoliswa Dwane, spokesperson for Equal Education that organized the march said “This is not just our bright idea. The South African Schools Act itself...gives the Minister the power to set Infrastructure Standards.” It has been in place since 2008 but no action has been taken so far. Dwane added that while some pupils are taught in “mud huts”, others are taught in “buildings that look like universities.”

Or like Westerford?

I stand on the field that possibly still had the grass my class planted

As long as Westerford remains the domain of the privileged, and schools in the townships and the rural areas remain the domain of the poor, the need to fight inequality will not diminish. While the education realities are depressing, the students are inspiring in their protests. They are once more leading the way. 

I can’t stop looking for glimmers to hitch some hope to.  And I find them all over the place.

I continually hear about community based, civil society organizations (such as Equal Education) involved in work that is making a huge difference to people’s lives. In terms of education, stories abound about the involvement of teachers and principals and parents, who are responding in innovative ways to the eagerness of children and young people wanting to learn.

One story I heard recently came from a friend who visited a small pre-school outside Hazy View in Mpumalanga province. A teacher from the area, trained in early childhood education, established a pre-school for the children of her village who were left at home during the day while their parents went to work. She started with a dozen children, holding classes under a tree. Now 150 children attend the pre-school every day.

In the decade since she began, she has developed a progressive curriculum for pre-school children, teaching them in English and their own language to read and to develop skills necessary for learning. With financial support from individuals and organizations to help her fulfill her vision, the school now has several buildings, grows its own vegetables, has a kitchen and provides two meals to the children every day. She has opened a second school in the next village. When asked what has happened to those who started their schooling with her a decade ago, she said she has followed their progress. They are all now in high school.

April 30, 2011