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.
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).
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.
So what is a township? In the 1970’s the South African government began moving Blacks away from white areas and into concentrated locations called townships. The word “apartheid” literally means “apart” in Afrikaans. In other words, segregation. Many of these townships were located in a new “independent country,” called Bophuthatswana (there were others as well). Picture reservations for Native Americans in the U.S. and you get the idea and intent. Although apartheid ended, the physical relocations remained an accomplished fact. Most of the schools I will be visiting on this trip are located in townships. Part of the current struggle in South Africa is to undo the social and economical damage of apartheid while preserving and strengthening these communities.
As Malebye and I walked through the township he recounted some of the hardships he endured under apartheid, such as being forced to carry a passbook at all times. To travel to another town, even for work, you had to get permission from the authorities. They did not want people leaving the townships freely. To be caught without an authorized passbook meant a beating, or jail, or both. It is important to remember that apartheid only ended 20 years ago. Any adult you meet in South Africa grew up under apartheid. Also important to consider, most Black teachers in South Africa were themselves educated under apartheid.
Today Malebye surprises me by saying that in some ways education in Bophutatswana under apartheid was superior to what is now available in many townships. While there was a lack of resources, there was also greater educational independence and a greater sense of unity and purpose. Now the lack of resources is still an issue, but all schools must follow the same national curriculum and all students compete on the same national exams. Picture students studying science in a township, who have no textbooks and no lab equipment, taught by teachers who may have themselves received an inferior education, and yet these students must compete against schools with resources comparable to Ithaca high school.
A final note: because of the ravages of HIV/AIDS more than 70% of Black South Africans are under the age of 35. South Africa is rapidly losing the “veterans” of the fight against apartheid. Many of the youth currently growing up in townships do not feel the motivation of a unified struggle. They see poverty, crime and HIV/AIDS as simply the conditions of existence, not the consequences of injustice. For many of them there is no light at the end of the tunnel, there is just the tunnel.
Well, after 26 hours of planes and airports I am arrived. My old friend and colleague, Malebye, met me at the airport. I will be staying with him in the township of Ga-Rankuwa for the next several days.
The first day here, Malebye takes me on a tour of his township. Ga-Rankuwa was built under apartheid as a forced resettlement location (more on this later). Now it has a population of several hundred thousand. Malebye’s area is one of the nicer sections. Most families here are part of the growing black middle class. There is electricity and running water in the houses, which are built of brick. As we walk I am struck by the dry veldt in the distance, dotted with thorny acacia trees. Seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere, so it is autumn now. The exposed earth is red, and in the distance are the Magaliesberg Mountains. The sky is clear and the sun feels close (it is in fact more directly overhead, even in autumn, than it ever gets in Ithaca). With my eyes closed I could locate the sun in the sky just by the weight of the heat. Malebye reminds me to walk slowly, “not like an American”, so as not to get over-heated.
As we follow winding paths through the township we greet and are greeted by everyone we meet. It is customary to say “Dumela” (hello) to every person you pass. Everyone is friendly and curious. South Africa is 20% white, but a white person in the township is uncommon. Malebye keeps asking me, “Could you find your way back from here?” The answer is generally, no. He tells me that in the township there is always a path wherever you want to go. He does not indicate how to recognize it, however.
We return to the house at dusk, just before a brief, but violent, thunderstorm. The power goes out across the township. Afterwards the birds start chirping; they all sound different and exotic to me. Later the stars come out. They are all different as well. Orion appears in the northern sky and there is no Big Dipper. Instead I see the Southern Cross and am reminded how far I have traveled.