Yesterday’s hero, today’s loser

2017-06-15 06:00
ON THe CouchTarzan Mbita

ON THe CouchTarzan Mbita

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It is a fact of life that just because most of the stories in this series of On The Couch start on a good note, they may not all have a happy ending.

Florence Dlamsha’s is a case in point.

One would assume that after 32 years at the helm of the only previously independent school in the townships, she would have a good story to tell as retirement age beckons and that she would have a beautiful sunset.

Dlamsha is the founding principal of Mvula Primary School in Lusaka, Nyanga; all of its 32 years so far, until her retirement in August.

Perhaps its best to remember that Mvula was not always a public school, which status it gained only in 2012. The school is steeped in the crucible of the past that is Crossroads, which the present powers that be choose to forget and thus deny people like Dlamsha their place in our history. At least those in the department of education.

In the Crossroads of 1985, Mam’ Dlamsha sought volunteers and they toiled hard to build a school that would offer the chance of an education to children who were denied that opportunity in the grand Apartheid scheme of things.

In those days, children whose parents did not posses their birth certificates and who themselves did not posses a passbook, were not allowed to be registered at local schools, so the story goes.

Because they were persona non grata in the Cape.

Thus the children of these parents from Crossroads bore the brunt of this cruel exclusivity. To think, the history of Crossroads does not even begin there. It had its unfolding catastrophe in a place called Modderdam Road squatter camp, which was illegal.

So after a period of protracted battles that involved settled communities, the church and civic organisations then, the people from Modderdam ‘discovered’ an ityholo or bush to bend in a forested area between the airport and Landsdowne Road, which was marked by a railway crossing feeding into the Philippi industrial zone: Crossroads was born.

Also, it should be a lesson of history that the school was founded on the backdrop of the tumultuous 80s, a time when freedom was not free. It is a sickly Mam’ Dlamsha that I sit with to hold a conversation on Monday.

She is battling high fever as we talk of ‘her school’ and where it all started. At times during the interview tears well down her cheeks, but I am not sure if it is because of her emotions or the fever. Nevertheless I cannot bring myself to take pictures of a crying senior citizen in such a compromised position. She seems very troubled by the turn of events at her school on the eve of her retirement.

Her journey, though starts at her home village of Ngquthu in eGcuwa in the Transkei. After qualifying as a teacher at the Shawbury College in Ngqamakhwe in 1971, she taught for a year before she was swept off her feet by a suitor, and they were married within the year.

As fate would have it, Apartheid laws prohibited married women from pursuing their professional careers, and she was forced to abandon teaching and settle on being a housewife.

In 1982 however, she drew from past knowledge, observing that children in her village still travelled long distances to acquire an education.

“It was like a harrowing dream playing itself over and over again watching young children cross rivers to get to the other side of the villages to get an education, come winter or summer,” she tells me.

She knew the experience, having been exposed to the same conditions from her own youth. She then bounced the idea of a school in the village off an uncle, who was also a local shop owner.

“We used the big hall in the yard to start the school and the response from the parents was overwhelming.”

She says the response was so huge the hall had to be partitioned into three classrooms, and parents no longer worried about their kids travelling far to get an education.

The villagers paid their meagre salaries. Dlamsha was working, doing what she loved most. Everybody was happy until fate dealt her another blow.

In 1985 she fell very sick, and her husband, working as a migrant in Cape Town, wanted her to be by his side.

“He wrote a letter saying the City offered better health services... I obliged and took the bus to Cape Town,” she tells me. She is happy to say that her school still stands in the village.

There was a lot of factional violence in Crossroads when she arrived in the City.

Some of the leaders in Crossroads had been ‘captured’ by the Apartheid regime and thus compromised. State supported ‘Witdoeke’ were wreaking havoc and causing mayhem in the area..

As a teacher, her natural observation was that children were the most affected during these internecine battles.

“Some became lost, some were caught in the crossfires, to the most, some were even orphaned.”

During a lull in the battles, it was the women who were left to bring some sense of stability into this broken society.

“Once word got around that I was a qualified teacher, the women thronged our house and pleaded with me to start a school, as their own children were facing rejection in township schools.”

They collected corrugated iron material and wood, and a school was set up. Alfred Siphika Primary School in Crossroads was born.

“Some of the children were as old as 10 years when they were first enrolled them at the school, which also catered for kids from the foundation phase.

The mothers went as far as going house to house, collecting groceries for the school’s feeding scheme.

In 1986, just as things were picking up and a huge concert was organised to raise funds for the school. All the while, the conflict had not subsided. On the eve of the concert “Witdoeke put an end to our dreams by burning down the school.” she shared.

But the women soldiered on. She said the women regrouped and decided to look for another ‘site’ for their school. They spotted an ‘unoccupied bush’ in the Nyanga area, in present day Lusaka. In the interim, Zolani Centre in Nyanga East and Oscar Mpetha Square halls were utilised to accommodate the pupils.

“Lusaka was also a forested area, full of stream and was used as an illegal dump site by building contractors to rid of their rubble. We chopped down the tress in preparation for our new ‘school.’

Once they started felling the trees, other people also moved in with the intention to start a new place.

Black plastic bag shacks started mushrooming and the place was even called Black City at some stage.

The place also gave birth to the school now known as Mvula Primary School, previously and independent entity.

Dlamsha led a group of community members who approached private companies for aid, and these came in droves.

The Western Cape Council of Churches, Warner Lambert, the British and American Consulates, Crown Corp, a group of Jewish women, and many more contributed to these efforts to establish the school.

Dlamsha says most of her recruits did not have the necessary requirements to teach, but the enthusiasm to contribute to the future of the Black child was so overwhelming she could not turn anyone away.

“We started with those who possessed a JC certificate(equivalent of Grade 10), but later the bar was raised to recruit only people with Standard 10 or Grade 12.

That they could only draw a pittance for salaries was beside the point.

She remembers that they used the bucket system for ablutions and that the first intakes sat on coffee tins during lessons.

She is happy to report that some of the informal teachers later went on to acquire proper qualifications.

Once qualified, other were quick to jump at the first opportunity to fill posts at government schools, because she could not offer them a proper salary but a stipend.

This is at the heart of her tears.

She says the fact that the school only received official recognition in 2012, means that she cannot draw a pension in recognition of her years of service to the community and their children.

That the school recently celebrated 32 years may not mean much to those who are at the helm at the education department.

A widow since 2009, Dlamsha has the feeling that she will get a packet of sweets as a token of gratitude from the department.

There is a precedent. The late Hamilton Naki did not gain much recognition for teaching world famous heart surgeon Dr Chris Barnard how to operate on pigs and monkeys in preparation for the world’s first human heart transplant.

Instead, when he went on retirement 30 years later, they offered him a water jug as a token of appreciation for his services. Such was the tragedy of being Black in the past.

Dlamsha fears the worst. These fears were compounded in 2012 when one of her staff members died, and they struggle to bury her as she had nothing to her name and for her children.

She feels that the department sees her a s troublemaker who should be dispensed with.

“They won’t recognise past service based on the selfless provision of service to generations of children from the area,” she tells me. All the years that she knocked on the doors of donors and drawing no gain, will have been in vain, come August 2017.

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