So my last stop is Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth. I will be staying here for a while, working with members of the Education department -- one of the largest in the country. The focus of my collaboration is providing support to rural and township schools by providing computers and internet service. (I will go into more detail on that later.) It is very different living in my own apartment on a modern (and racially integrated) university campus. I get the best of both worlds, really, because I will still be working in a township school during the day, but I get to come home to my own place.Warning in English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa.
One of the first things I was told when I got to campus was to keep my windows closed so the monkeys don't come in during the day. I thought it was a joke, but apparently not. For some reason I am quite amused by the unruly monkey population that inhabits the campus. I don't know if any of them have ever graduated, but they certainly seem to be mocking us from the trees. It helps one keep a healthy perspective.
So in addition to the other aspects of my cultural adjustment there is the thrill of driving on the left-hand side (a legacy of English influence in South Africa). Sometimes I don't even think about it, and sometimes I suddenly look around and think, "Yikes, I'm on the wrong side, oh wait, no I'm not." In some sense most things are just reflected: steering wheel, shift, etc. (and once you get used to it, it is easier to steer with your right hand and shift with your left - if you are a righty). But somethings are translated, not reflected, like turn signals and the pedals. And traffic circles go clockwise instead of counterclockwise. Probably no one thinks about this but me, but for the first week every time I wanted to indicate a turn I switched on the windshield wipers instead. As a pedestrian you also have to learn to look to the right for oncoming traffic, not the left.
Other notes: traffic lights are called "robots." Someone told me to turn left at the next robot and I thought, how cool, they have robots directing traffic. Also, South Africans like to drive fast, a limit of 120 kph is common (that's about 73 mph). There are also lots of vehicles that definitely would not pass inspection, so on the highway speeds range from about 80 to 150 kph. FYI the conversion between kph and mph is the golden ratio (more or less).
So in the middle of nowhere in the Free State is the small rural school of Unicom. Of all the schools I've visited, Unicom is the especially well suited to partner with Ithaca High School. Their grounds and buildings are over a hundred years old, but because of their excellent exam results they have been given a lot of attention by the province and the University of the Free State. Consequently they have a very modern computer lab, and a very knowledgeable leader in my host and fellow math teacher, Victor Fekefeke. A lot of the students actually live on campus in dorms because they come from distant farms. The school has beautiful grounds and they raise their own cattle and chickens. It's a nice break from the townships: quiet, crime-free and peaceful.
My next stop is Tweespruit in the Free State (one of South Africa's nine provinces). I am taking a break from the urban township scene and moving on to a tiny little rural school called Unicom. More on that later.
You might guess from the name, Free State, that this province played a supporting role in the fight against apartheid, but that would be wrong. The name actually derives from the 1800's when the Boers (Afrikaners) established a haven from the English with whom they were generally at war. In 1880 almost half the population in this area was Afrikaans.
That's no coincidence, this is some of the most fertile terrain in South Africa and supplies 70% of the country's grain, as well as a lot of its beef. It's also some of the most beautiful terrain in South Africa. In Tuispreet, the plains start to run into the Drakensberg Mountains. It kind of reminds me of the American West. There is a long history of one group of people trying to take this chunk of land from another: Bushmen, Tswana, Zulu, Boers and English. Honestly, I wouldn't mind a little section for myself.
My Soweto host, Mashinini, at a buy 'n' braii.
Several people have asked how the food is. If South Africa has a weak point it might be the cuisine, at least from my perspective. There is a heavy emphasis on meat, across all cultural and geographic lines. There is lots of beef, and lamb along with the more exotic kudu, impala, etc. A popular Afrikaans contribution is boervoers, which is a type of sausage packed with fat. In fact Afrikaaners are known to "lard" their meat, which means adding fat in case the meat is not rich enough. (South Africa is also where the first heart transplant was performed in 1967.) The braii, which is basically a barbeque, is the preferred method of cooking. Since the climate is so nice, you can pretty much braii year-round. A common sight in the townships is a "Buy and Braii," where you can buy a hunk of meat and grill it, right on the premises.
Pap and boervoers
Other township staples include pap, also known as mielie-miel, made from ground maize. Picture a lump of white play-doh and you get the idea of the consistency, although the flavor is slightly better. I've grown to like it (on occaision) and it has this going for it: if you eat a lump of pap, you are set for the day in terms of satisfying your hunger -- which I guess is the point.
An absolute favorite meal, which I can barely tolerate, is pap and mogodu, which is tripe. I have tried to like it, but it just pushes my limits too far.
Vegetables tend to be squash, pumpkin or cabbage. If you want a salad (and I've been craving them) you need to find an upscale restaurant. Lettuce does not fair too well in this climate (although there are nice ripe tomatoes and avocados year-round). My hosts in Soweto disdainfully referred to eating a salad as "eating grass."
If there is a silver lining in the food scene it is the fruits. There are lots of fresh fruits like pineapple, papaya, mango, guava and bananas (which are way better than what we get in the US). Often times a meal is finished with fresh fruit.
Here are some final pictures from Soweto and Moletsane High School. I should mention that the students at Moletsane are very eager to establish contact with the students at Ithaca.
Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa. With a population of 3.8 million it is basically a cosmopolitan city. Walking through the city you would not necessarily guess that you are in South Africa. By comparison the population of Soweto is 1.3 million, but Soweto is all black and when you walk through it there is no question where you are. Apartheid had the effect of creating a satellite township for every city. Soweto is Johannesburg's satellite, although it is growing at a much faster pace and is expected to someday overtake the city, in terms of population.
My hosts in Soweto are Elliot Mashinini and Mpho Matloga. They are pictured here at the legs of a large statue of Nelson Mandela, in Mandela Square in Johannesburg.
The day after this photo Mpho and I went to the Apartheid Museum. When you enter the museum you are given a ticket which is arbitrarily stamped either "blankes" or "nie-blankes," which is Afrikaans for "white" or "non-white." As it turned out Mpho got a "nie-blankes" ticket and I got a "blankes." As you enter the museum you are immediately separated according to your status, so Mpho and I were suddenly directed to different entrance ways, which felt weird. When we were later reunited in the museum, Mpho was quite upset and said it had brought back a lot of bad memories for her. Remember, anyone over the age of 25 grew up under apartheid. Mpho pointed out that under apartheid she and I could not have walked together in public. The multi-racial scene pictured above could not have happened.
This is Nelson Mandela's old house in Soweto. He has not lived there for a long time, although supposedly about 10 years ago he suddenly showed up and sat in a chair in his old house, greeting visitors as they came through. No luck this time, though.
You might wonder what Mandela was doing during the Soweto uprisings in 1976. The answer is that he was already imprisoned on Robben Island and had served 14 years of what was to be a 27 year sentence. The struggle against apartheid was very long. When Mandela became president in 1994 he was already an old man of of 76. Still alive now at 94 years, he is more than twice as old as the average black male in South Africa. Mandela won a Nobel Peace Prize because he managed to transition South Africa to democracy while avoiding a race-based civil war that many thought was inevitable.
Some video appearances from the students at Moletsane High School in Soweto.
My next stop on this tour is Moletsane High School in Soweto. This is one of the schools that participated in the uprising about 40 years ago. Soweto stands for SOuth WEst TOwnship. It is the largest township in Africa and is adjacent to the city of Johannesburg.
The Soweto uprising on June 16, 1976 was a turning point in the anti-apartheid struggle. What has always been most inspiring to me is that the uprising was completely organized by high school and middle school students. These students planned a peaceful march through the township of Soweto to protest the requirement that all courses be taught in Afrikaans. (In a previous post I mentioned that language is the key to understanding South African politics and culture). Afrikaans was the language of the white apartheid regime. The requirement that all students be instructed in Afrikaans, rather than their mother tongue (or English), was an example of the restrictions and oppression of apartheid.
On June 15th black students met secretly, not even their parents or teachers knew, and decided to “go on strike.” The next morning thousands of students walked through the streets of Soweto carrying signs and chanting.
When the students encountered a police barricade and refused to return to school, the police responded by opening fire on the children. The number of casualties was in the hundreds. No one will ever know the exact number because many parents were afraid to even claim the bodies of their dead children. The police quickly collected and disposed of the corpses.
One of the first casualties was 13 year old Hector Pieterson. The image of his body being carried by another student was captured by a photographer and published in newspapers around the world. It was because of the Soweto uprising that world opinion finally galvanized against the apartheid government. The photo at left is from the Hector Pieterson museum in Soweto. The scattered bricks in the courtyard carry the names of some of the students who were killed that day.
Here is a link to an account of that day from one of the survivors.
Vincent, Enoch, Joseph and Ray. Can you spot me?
When I visited Oukasie I was able to reconnect with some of my former students from 10 years ago. As a teacher it is very gratifying to see that some of my students were able to use their education to “escape” a life in the township. Only about 20% of the students who enter Botlhabelo high school in 8th grade are able to complete their education and pass their exams at the end of 12th grade. Without at least a high school diploma the future is bleak. Unemployment in South Africa is officially about 30%, but this only counts people who are actively seeking jobs. Many people in the townships have simply given up, and in Oukasie the unemployment is estimated to run about 75%. So sticking out high school, getting a diploma, and getting a job is a big deal. Most of the students in these pictures have gone on to college.
Kealeboga, a truly inspiring former student and a good friend
Sadly, life in Oukasie has gotten worse, not better over the last 10 years. Crime, drug and alcohol use, HIV/AIDS, and a recent influx of refugees from Zimbabwe have all served to destabilize what was once a very focused and committed community. All the students with whom I reconnected commented on the deterioration of the township. In some ways the struggle against resettlement had been a galvanizing force. Now, in the "vacuum of freedom” many youths lack role models and motivation. It is easy to give up hope and slip into the mire of township life.
Malebye, David and Joseph making plans to motivate students at Botlhabelo.
As we toured the township, my former students, now in their late 20’s, made plans to visit the high school to try to encourage and motivate the students. “Plowing back,” is a phrase often invoked by South Africans – giving back to your community when you are lucky enough to catch a break. It is important for current students to see that education is the best way out of township life.
A few old pictures (of the same students).