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.
Botlhabelo is the high school serving the youth of Oukasie township. It is the school I taught at in 2003, and my first stop on my tour of South African schools. It has about 1300 students in grades 8-12, roughly the same size as Ithaca High School, although only about 30 teachers, which is about a third of the IHS faculty. Class sizes range from 40 to 50. There is a chronic shortage of text books and other materials. I will never forget my first day teaching there. All I wanted was for my students to do some problems from the text book so I could gauge their level. But none of them had books, many did not even have pencils, and when I went to write on the chalk board there was no chalk.
You might think that a school like this would be targeted for extra funding, but in fact schools in South Africa receive a flat rate from the provincial government, the rest is made up through local fees. Of course this has the effect of maintaining the economic status quo. White schools generally have access to a richer tax base. In Oukasie, where the majority of parents are unemployed, the school receives virtually no additional funding. If this seems crazy, keep in mind that it's pretty much the same system in the U.S., with much the same effect.
Not surprisingly, the drop-out rate is about 70% by grade 12. There is constant finger pointing between the district, the teachers, the community and the students, but the truth is the situation is simply unworkable. That being said, there is a surprising and inspiring degree of commitment on all sides. I visited during their week-long Easter break, and teachers were showing up on their own time, to work with students who came in for extra lessons.
In some ways Ga-Rankuwa, where I have been staying, and Oukasie, the next stop on my tour, form an interesting contrast in townships. Ga-Rankuwa was the result of forced resettlement. Oukasie was the result of a squatter camp that refused to resettle.
Oukasie originally formed in the 1960’s and was a squatter camp for servants and domestic workers who served families in the nearby Afrikaans community of Brits. During the late 60’s and early 70’s the town grew dramatically due to growing industry and both the white population of Brits and the black population of Oukasie increased. By 1980 the two communities were essentially adjacent to each other. In 1985 a meeting was called by the Brits town leaders to inform the black population of Oukasie that they would have to relocate to a new settlement in Bophuthatswana, called Lethlabile. The nearly 100,000 inhabitants of Oukasie were reluctant to move since there were few opportunities for employment in Bophuthatswana. An action committee was formed in Oukasie and essentially the population refused to relocate. The streets were barricaded and the action committee tried to attract international attention to their plight.
The community of Oukasie was cut off. Residents had no access to electricity, there was no provision for sanitation services and water had to be carried in from great distances. In addition the apartheid government began a secret campaign of terror and destabilization. Homes of activist were fire-bombed and many community leaders were arrested. Some were murdered There were frequent conflicts with police and rioting in the township.
Eventually the residents of Oukasie were able to attract international attention and to obtain legal representation to forestall forced removal. By the late 1980’s the apartheid government was on its last legs and the community was able to persevere until the apartheid regime fell.
I should mention that I taught in Oukasie in 2003 on a Fulbright teacher exchange. Of course I have many memories of the township, but two stand out in my mind. One was a conversation with one of the early activists, Anne Mogkosi. She told me about being detained by the police who threatened to take away her children if she did not abandon her activism. I asked her what she did, and I will always remember her response and the look she gave me – as though it were obvious: “I sent my children away to my sister and I continued what I was doing. I was not going to stop.”
The second memory has to do with finding a map of “Brits and Local Areas” in a Brits bookstore. I was thrilled because, like many townships, Oukasie is a maze of winding routes. When I opened the map it clearly showed the town of Brits, but where Oukasie exisited (at this point with a population of several hundred thousand) there was just blank empty space. This was 10 years after independence.
Some notes: The pictures you see here are current. Also a couple of interesting links -
Report on Oukasie and attacks on residents by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
An article on Oukasie written during the struggle.