What ails Amakholwa?

2009-04-08 00:00

The front-page picture last week of a slain pupil, Nhlanhla Buthelezi (17), in the corridor of Amakholwa High School in Sinathing, must have added to the pall of gloom that hangs over the school.

The details were sketchy: the boy had been sought by the two murderers, who had apparently needed to silence him for drug-related information; they had gained access through a hole in the fence; he had died in his sister’s arms; the blood-stained body lay covered in plastic, awaiting police investigation.

As I examined the picture, I recalled times, some two decades back, when had I walked that same corridor daily, although there were no security gates to the office doors then. I recalled the day when a group in conflict with many pupils had arrived wielding pangas, sticks and other instruments, and had chased opponents home. A young girl on crutches and I had drawn the curtains and hidden in my office, hoping that they would not find us. Joshua Radebe, the choir master, had been confronted by a panga-wielding youth until called off by those who knew of Radebe’s fame.

Other traumatic events of that period in the early eighties were the death, also by stabbing, of a very popular sports master, and the moving assembly the following day when, against the backdrop of surrounding hills, voices were raised in impassioned prayer and song.

A few years on, the death of a pupil from the school set off a train of violence that engulfed the neighbourhood, forcing us to hold matric exams at various other venues.

Amakholwa High School is situated some 15 kilometres from the city centre, in the midst of a sprawling community originally named Sinathing, apparently a corruption of “see nothing”. But there is, of course, lots to see in the many homes that line the surrounding hills, in the occasional shops and in the beauty of the natural landscape.

The school itself was once known as the undefeated winner of the Annual Schools Choir Competition, its footballers were famed and it produced top-quality pupils who have gone on to make a name for themselves: Dr Seshi Chonco, Thami Mseleku, Ray Wela, Raymond Ngcobo and others. There have also been dynamic principals who lifted the school to a level that the gold-clad wearers of the school uniform were proud to be associated with.

Now the school must be mired in a state of gloom and is identified in the public eye with drug dealing and violence.

But a remarkable feature of that period two decades back, as I recall it, was that after a disruption of order, the following day, the pupils were back at school, eager to pursue their studies, as if determined not to have that process interrupted.

When I visited Amakholwa High School on assignment for a few weeks over a year ago, I was disappointed by the general sense of dereliction, so different from the time 20 years before when I had taught there for five years. What had the so-called general upliftment in public education added to it, I wondered. What had happened to the established library to which pupils used to go at breaks and after school to read and play chess? Apparently, it had been abandoned in favour of a new classroom. Windows, ceilings and doors were broken, notice boards defaced and litter widespread. How does one operate positively in such an environment?

But there are semi-rural schools that function very well, where firm control is evident, where the community is involved and supportive, and where the pupils and teachers work with pride and achieve good results in national examinations. I recently had the opportunity to visit one way out in the Umzimkhulu area, not far from Emmaus Mission. It was exemplary in all the ways I have come to expect from a good school.

In Messages from my Father, Barack Obama describes at length his observations and musings about the conditions in the run-down black communities of Chicago in the eighties, and his assessment of the mind-sets of youth and those appointed to uplift them.

He knew there were no easy fixes, but he never gave up on the ideals required to facilitate positive development. He knew the pain and disillusionment of neglected communities, and one by one, he sought out and worked with those who might be able to make a difference.

And so it must be with Amakholwa (the name of a powerful Christian community) High School. Those who have been a part of its history, pupils, teachers, principals and friends, need to be brought together in a new vision for the school, to help heal the destructive behaviour of aimless youth, and to help restore it to its once proud place in a supportive community. It could be a wellspring of constructive activity, with benefits that would spread way beyond its immediate surroundings.

The resilience of young people determined to pursue the benefits they attach to education was highlighted by a feature in the New York Times earlier this year (January 14), when reporting on a school in Afghanistan. It followed an acid attack by the Taliban on a group of 15 girls and four teachers, and said “despite the resulting disfigurement and continuing threat, the 1 300 girls still enrolled in this school, have courageously continued to attend. Against daunting odds, their parents support the girls’ right to education.” The report noted: “In the five years since the Mirwais School for Girls was built, it appears to have set off something of a social revolution. Even as the Taliban tighten their noose around Kandahar, the girls flock to school each morning.”

I feel sure this recent incident at Amakholwa High School will not deter those eager to pursue their education, but I sense the need for support from those who have led or benefited from the school in decades past.

• Deanne Lawrance is the founder of the Brookby School, which is an alternative education centre.

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