Painful past lives on in classrooms

2013-05-13 10:00

Deplorable conditions at schools indicate a failure of our national imagination to conceive of anything better for our children, writes Njabulo S Ndebele

About 20 minutes into our visit to Putuma Junior Secondary School, I had seen enough. I was to feel this way at other schools, to disengage from painful experiences and commune with myself. I can stay calm and seemingly disengaged, even under the most wrenching conditions, having seen many in the journey of my life.

Certainly, I was appalled and angry, but not devastated. This is not because I am not capable of being devastated, but because I have felt this way so often, my reactions have evolved into a functional acknowledgement of abnormalities considered normal by others.

So it was during apartheid, and so it is today – in a free country where corruption and dysfunctionality are escalating.

I was part of the Eastern Cape Schools Solidarity Visit led by Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, under the auspices of Equal Education, an education rights organisation established and run by young South Africans.

The intention of the visit was to intensify public awareness of the condition of schools in the Eastern Cape, and to apply pressure on the minister of basic education to promulgate binding minimum norms and standards for the entire national schooling system, particularly in respect of school infrastructure.

The schools were in the Zithulele and Dutywa districts, within reasonable driving distance of Mthatha. Putuma Junior Secondary School was the first we visited.

It remains etched in my heart. The school’s green roof and its white-and-green walls blend with the beautiful landscape of green rolling hills and multicoloured rondavels and houses of rural Eastern Cape.

After I had seen a few crowded classrooms, I walked into one with only two people: a teacher and an assistant. It was quiet, but with a different kind of noise.

It was crowded with stuff.

There were computer terminals lined along three of four walls (the fourth had the blackboard). While some terminals looked good, others were dusty and seemed disused. How inspiring this room must have been when opened to its first users!

Piles of books, some still packed in plastic packing, rose from the floor, blocking computer terminals. Big brown boxes, in two rows of three, stacked on one another, took half of one classroom wall, blocking another row of computer terminals.

I was to see such piles of books at other schools – textbooks, study guides and workbooks, some stamped with warnings that the books were for promotional purposes and not for sale.

Halfway along the windowed wall and the classroom door, a TV screen stood on a desk, blocking access to another computer terminal. The set was clearly in storage. On another, lower row of boxes was an electronic piano. Not connected to anything, it, too, was in storage. Just beyond the piano was Ms Ndzakana, who became my brief interlocutor.

She said the classroom doubled as a computer room and a staffroom. Today, said Ms Ndzakana, it was also a laundry room. I could tell from her amused face that she spoke in jest. “Here,” her friendly face said to me, “this is how we make do.”

I knew that kind of face and immediately loved it and its invitation to lightness and understanding. Puzzled, I immediately walked closer to her – where she was blocked from my sight by a huge, heavy-duty printer. Then I saw what she meant. An ironing board came into view, and I could see she was ironing a pair of grey trousers. We had a good laugh.

She told me she was ironing school uniforms so that the choir could look good at a competition. But I registered something else: electricity.

“Are these computers still in use?”

I asked. They were. I wondered how many of them still functioned, but did not ask. I was keen to avoid a tone of all-knowing interrogator, despite knowing questions would be well taken, for weren’t we there to help?

But I chose to let my face speak for me. Just as I had read her, she read me too.

Before each computer period, the teachers leave the staffroom, and the boxes and piles of books are shifted to make space. The pupils come in carrying chairs.

Noting this system, I wanted to speak to the computer teacher.

Ndzakana put down the iron safely and left to find him. I followed her outside, where she enquired about the computer teacher from two fellow teachers. He was busy somewhere and I had no wish to interrupt. I did not return to the classroom.

I had had enough. I would stay outside, saunter around the premises, and try to discern the school’s sense of place and its atmosphere.

Then I heard a sound that took me back some 50 years: the voices of children in unison responding to or repeating after a teacher.

Instantly, I headed for the sound.

I walked with a determined gait towards a book held high, just to the left of a teacher’s head. With a white pen in her right hand, she pointed at pictures in the book. Her eyes moved between the book and the children. I stood at the door, fascinated.

Ms Ntoyaphi was exploring the notions of “up” (phezulu) and “down” (phansi). She said, in isiXhosa: “There are many things this child (in the story) would love to see. When this child is at the top, she looks at villages from where she is at the top. From where?

“Phezu-u-u-lu!” came the chorus, hands raised and fingers pointing up.

“Lomtana abone abantwana apha phansi, ababone ephi yena lomtana?


I shouldn’t have done what I did next. From the door, Ms Ntoyaphi caught my submissive, hand-gestured request to come into the classroom. She nodded in the course of her storytelling. I snuck in with my camera and immediately regretted it.

I was destroying her lesson. The entire class turned their attention to me and my gadget.

Slowly, I walked out without taking pictures, giving her class back to Ms Ntoyaphi. But I did not bargain on the natural attractive power of children. They drew me back irresistibly when they made a new sound as part of the story. They parted their lips while making an “o-o-o-o-o” sound, the way women in some cultures ululate.

I had not been inside the classroom earlier to know which part of the story demanded this performance. This time I didn’t care. I took video footage shamelessly.

And here is my interpretation of this event: it took me back to my sub-B class in the 1950s, when we learnt English.

Mistress used to make us stand with our backs to the windowless side of the wall, which faced the opposite wall, with windows. If, out of curiosity, we raised our heels and stretched our necks, we could see outside and be distracted by the township scenes. This, the teachers never wanted us to do.

After mistress had demonstrated the manner of the lesson, we began.

“Where am I going?” she asked. “I am going to the window-ow-ow,” we responded, in unison, walking towards the windowed wall, finding our way past desks along the way.

“Where am I going?” Mistress asked again. “I am walking?.?.?.?going to the wa-wa-wall!”

From that moment on, I was to know forever the English words “window” and “wall”. How early it began, this journey towards being a teacher of English literature one day!

Just outside the reception class at Putuma, I spotted something. It was the outdoor kitchen.

Three huge, black, three-legged pots, a big silver pot blackened around its base, a wheelbarrow and a yellow chair from the reception class, on which the person doing the cooking sat, was similar to what I saw at two other schools. A black patch on the ground, sometimes a patch of grey ash, signalled a school kitchen.

What happened when it was raining outside? Would there be no food for the precious little ones about 6?metres away who were learning about relationships in the world?

We went on to the next school, until we had visited all seven. The conditions at each did not vary significantly from those at Putuma.

All except one had the basic classroom infrastructure. But, often, a classroom or two was being used as the office of the principal and/or a staffroom. None of the schools, with one possible exception, had a library.

None had a science laboratory. None had a decent sports field. None, except one, had a kitchen. But all had functioning school governing bodies.

All were overcrowded. All, except one, had toilets in various degrees of unacceptability: from tolerable at Putuma to the worst at Nyangilizwe Senior Secondary School.

Now for the exceptions. Samson Senior Primary School is a mud school. Rains destroyed it and it has yet to be rebuilt. Meanwhile, villagers have offered their rondavels for

some teaching to take place. So the “school” is scattered, but is still registered, though there is really no infrastructure to speak of.

The school exists in the hearts and imaginations of the villagers, who will not give up on their children.

Nomandla Senior Primary School has the most modern buildings and facilities. Construction is almost complete. Nomandla and Samson stand at opposite extremes of schooling in the region.

Just under a week after the visit, it is the things that bear on the future that I remember most. I remember the faces of the children. I still see them in class, responding instantly.

They tell me that, at that age, their entire being absorbs information, learning from the environment. They sit there, brought together to be stimulated on their life’s journey to become citizens of a modern state.

I remember the older ones too, in grades 9 to 12. Intelligent, enquiring faces wanting to understand the world and to have the means to find their places in it.

We have created schools to make it possible for them to do so.

But are the schools fit to perform this most important of social tasks?

I remember their teachers: the leadership of Ms Mtumtum of Putuma and Ms Pohlwana of Ntapane Senior Secondary School. They infect teachers and pupils in their care with the desire and love to prepare the children for the best possible future, every day.

But so many of the things I saw are fundamentally unchanged from my school days in the 1950s: the way we still build school toilets, the way we accommodate ourselves to the depredations of lack of choice, how we reproduce the past only to condemn it, the way we still build our settlements, and the way the dormitory townships are maintained.

These are all inherited from a problematic past. It is a failure of our national imagination.

We left Putuma Junior Secondary School soon after listening to a stunning musical rendition by the school choir, the 2012 national champions of the SA Schools Choral Eisteddfod. The piano I’d seen was a product of this success.

As we left, I thought: we have been digging gold, diamonds, coal, iron ore, platinum and other minerals out of the depths of the South African earth for more than a century. What of the gift of talent in the minds, hearts, spirits and imaginations of our children?

What does it take to know and appreciate that the value of these gifts in our children is far more than any ore we can wrench from the earth?

What does it take for South African citizens to elect people to government who are committed to do what it takes, in the highest public good possible, to work with communities across the land to give life to and nurture the enormous potential in our children?

Nothing can be more important than loving our young and respecting them for the future we see in and through them.

That is our solemn duty.

»?Ndebele is a fellow at the archive and public culture research initiative at the University of Cape Town, and is a fellow of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study

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