Chronicle of an era

2008-07-30 00:00

SHANTHEE Manjoo is well known in Pietermaritzburg, particularly by the many hundreds of children who first knew her as an inspirational teacher. She has lived her whole life in the city, seeing it grow and change — with the most major change coming in 1994 when she and many other South Africans — the vast majority of the country’s population — could, for the first time, vote for the government of their choice.

She has now written a memoir, Classrooms in the Shade, which will be launched at functions in the city, in Durban and in Johannesburg. These will be proud events for the author, who has worked on the book for many years, and will now see the result of her efforts — and the story of her life — in print.

The book is not a classic “start-at-the-beginning and go on to the end” autobiography; it is discursive and lively, touching on many aspects of Manjoo’s life and the society in which she has lived. It starts with her childhood memories, some funny, such as the triumphs and disasters of her early schooldays, and some touching, including the death of a sister. She also deals with the history of her family — her father took part in Gandhi’s 1913 march from Dundee to Volksrust.

Manjoo creates a picture of the society in which she grew up and later raised her own family. When she left school, her options were limited — partly by the times and partly by what her family could afford. So teaching was the only career open to her and she seized the opportunities it gave. Both in the book, and when she talks about her working life, it is obvious that the children who went through her hands were enormously important to her. Her belief that children will only respect their teachers if the teachers respect them shines through. “Teachers have a great influence on children — you have to be so careful how you speak to them,” she says.

As well as her working life, the book deals with her family and how she fought to find a balance between the two. When Manjoo, who was brought up as a Hindu, decided to marry a Muslim man, it almost caused a rupture in what was a close and loving family. But, forceful and determined, she got her way, and went on to have a happy marriage and four children of her own.

The evil and day-to-day pettiness of the apartheid regime were always a part of her life. Manjoo compares visiting her children who were studying and living abroad with life in South Africa. She is never afraid to be critical, either of people or society, and this makes her book a lively and entertaining read.

• Classrooms in the Shade by Shanthee Manjoo is published by STE Publishers and will be available at all good bookshops in a few weeks’ time.

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