Monday, December 8, 2008

And one more thing...

The insights into my students’ lives that I am privy to through reading their written work never cease to amaze, shock, and often dishearten me.

In English, end-of-year exams are administered in 3 sections on three different days.

Paper One is based on Language. Here, spelling, grammar and reading comprehension are tested. Paper Two focuses on literature and students are asked questions about short stories and poetry that they studied over the year. Paper Three evaluates their writing skills through an essay, as well as transactional and functional writing tasks (letter-writing, dialogue, etc.). Students are provided with a range of essay topics, from which they can select one.

In Western teaching contexts, there is protocol for teachers who are confronted with personal disclosures of a serious nature made by students. If a student confides in a teacher that s/he is or has been abused, neglected, is involved in anything of an illegal nature, etc., or if the teacher has a reason to believe that any such thing may be taking place, we are legally obligated to report said information to the school social worker or the institution’s equivalent, so the matter can be handled by social or child services as need be.

At my school, and I would venture to say at the majority of other township schools, so lacking is funding that having something that even resembles a trained social worker is extremely unlikely. At our school one of our Heads of Department is responsible for addressing issues relating to students’ social welfare, bearing in mind that this is on top of her already very heavy teaching load. It is also doubtful that she is in any way technically qualified to perform such tasks, though not to undermine her ability to do so.

Of the close to 100 essays that I marked over the last month, I have read 5 essays that discuss incidences of abuse and rape by relatives, family friends (one of whom was named) and strangers, 4 about crimes being committed/witnessed, 3 about the death of a loved one, and one that described having sex with a well-known local rapper. This author of this last one is 16 years old. All are written in first person and vivid detail. It is not impossible that these may be works of fiction, although I am inclined to believe otherwise.

I discussed some of my findings with an English department colleague who empathized with the difficult situation we find ourselves in when we uncover revelations such as these. Unfortunately, unless a student actually verbally confides in a teacher that something is going on and that they want help or it is blatantly obvious that an intervention is needed, it is difficult for us as teachers and as a school to act. Most crushing is that because such occurrences and treatment are so common in students’ lives and in the experiences of those around them, many do not even think to reach out.

Friday, November 7, 2008

End of year rumination.

Friday November 7th, 2008, the last day of classes before final exams.

While the mood at the school was calmer than expected, there was an undeniable sense of anticipation in the air.

My first year Fezeka will soon come to an end. In the past 11 months I have borne witness to many new experiences and keenly observed a school culture which is in many ways foreign to those with which I am familiar.

It has been an interesting line to walk (tiptoe?), as being ‘the new [white] girl from Canada’ and in the interest of not wanting to ruffle too many feathers, more often than not I have remained silent when I see teacher practices and behaviors with which I disagree. This has not always been easy.

I have worked closely with hundreds of incredible, inspiring young people. Young people who live in environments that are often toxic, come from homes where they are paid little attention, are involved in activities or been subjected to experiences that no child (or adult for that matter), should ever be exposed to.

As mentioned in several writings over the past year, it is the strength and resilience of these adolescents and young adults that I find the most astonishing. Despite the constant hardships that are a part of many of their daily lives, I have difficulty remembering when I have ever heard any of them complain about their circumstances. Even once.

“Miss you have to be really careful when you’re in the townships. Don’t walk around by yourself. There are people that like to cut people’s eyes out to sell to other people. Miss you have beautiful eyes so you have to be really careful. They will cut your eyes out and leave you on the road.”

“My brother used to live with us but he had to go away. My sister found a big bag of Tik (crystal methamphetamine – a huge and rapidly growing problem amongst young people in the Cape Flats – see for further info) and lots of money under his bed and she threw him out. He tried to come home a bunch of times but she wouldn’t let him. I found out after that he was a really big gangster. Now he sends money to her but she won’t take it. I don’t see him very often. Sometimes he’ll come find me when I’m walking home from school. He’s always driving a fancy car and wearing designer clothes. Miss you know True Religion? And Hugo Boss? Yea. That’s what my brother wears. He’ll come find me and give me money and ask how me and my sister are doing. I don’t tell my her that I’ve seen him because then she’ll get mad and make me throw away the money that he gives me. Sometimes, when there’s fights with gangs, if they can’t find the guy they want they’ll take someone in their family. I miss him but its better that he doesn’t live with us anymore.”

“I used to live with my mom but then she sent me to live with my Stepfather’s brother. I didn’t like living with him because he wasn’t very nice. Then I went to live with my friend and her mother. Its better living with them even though her mother is sick (I later found out this friend’s mother has full blown AIDS). My mother keeps calling and saying she wants me to come back to the Eastern Cape to work in the fields with her and my younger sister. But I just want to go to school.” (15 year old student)

Laughter – not a search for sympathy or a handout – is generally what accompanies the snapshots from their lives they share with me. When they talk about how getting robbed, stabbed or even killed for as little as R2 (about $0.25CDN) is commonplace; about parents, siblings or relatives who have died – from illness or been killed in gang-related violence and car accidents; about their fathers hitting them in the face if they don’t clean the house; about friends who have dropped out of school because of drug addiction or pregnancy…they are not telling me to shock me or scare me. These are just simply part of their lives. More often than not I hold back tears and hugs for fear of overwhelming them, cognizant that the line between pity and compassion can sometimes be hard to interpret by someone who may have never felt the latter of the two.

But still they come to school. And they laugh. And [most of them] want to learn.

And, in light of these realities, I wind down the year feeling optimistic about next year at Fezeka. If these young people can continue to smile and laugh and try to learn, in the face of unbelievable adversity, how can I not?

Self-evaluation is customary at the conclusion of any undertaking. As I reflect and try to quantify what – if any – impact I have made during my first year here, admittedly I don’t think I am any more well-suited to answer that than I was when I arrived. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, in my soul and in my heart however that Fezeka has made an impact on me. I now have another year to see if I can return the favor. Who knows if I will.

But I’m certainly going to try.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

inside their minds...

a small selection of my students' words...both spoken and written.


"I want to know what it is like to have money...not that I will spend all of it, but I want to know what it is like to have have lots of have nice things...a nice car...a nice house..."


My First Prayer

Oh! Lovely bird,” oh lovely bird
Im Flying to no where”,
Im Flying to be there”,
But I can’t reach those Mountains
And inhale that brilliant climate
And Feel my mind by my own
But only that strong wind”,
Only that strong wind of that moving cloud
Over-powered my denstination.
I’m to weak to survive by my own
Oh! why these Earth is against me
Cause the more I goes higher my furthers
Becames wek, I can’t survive climate condistion
It becames “heavy”, oh these circumstances”,
how Can I handle these, to succeed these journey
Oh! I’m tired, “I’m tired,”
I can’t take these any “more”
I can’t handle these any “more”
Why? Can’t you take my breath
To land of peace
To the land of revealness
To the land of good hopes
To the land of no hunger
So that I can rest and pleased with peace
Please take me out of these land of ploughting and harvesting
I can’t fly any more
Even to reach the behalf of thee:
Mountain, “AMEN”

My Second prayer

Crying tears Are tired: ‘oh not’, the dams are drouned, is only vibration of voice that cannot be heard but only can be seen, Still there is no one can take out all her toilet-paper to take care of whom’s tears has been ignored.
but how can ‘it’ be?
but why it ‘supposed’ be?
but why ‘should’ it be
Like Im nothing to these earth
Like I do not belongs to human being
Like I was not borned by two people
Female and male, to come and be a hero of tommorow, be a gold in future a gold of those who loves gold
Oh! Why?
Oh!!! For what?
Oh!!!! like these?
But when it cames to ask myself
I get many answers that causes
My emotion to be eritated, oh!!!!!
Cause I don’t have loud voice?
Cause Im shot so much?
Cause Im born in a small township
Oh!! I cant get true answer that can
take me out of thse dark place that
cannot be seen or heard by an
of those who are passing.
but when I ask myself for the second time
I found one answer,
do not let the circumstances to determine my denstination.


50 tips to love a man/keep a man
Girlz feel free to give me one/two

1. Love him for him
2. Don't judge him
3. Always have a convicetion
4. Have something in comon
5. Don't be bossie to him
6. Please cheat on him
7. Don't be inocent to him
8. Know his bad side
9. Know him from A to Z
10. Know his family and friends
11. Don't sleep with him
12. Don't love sex to much
13. Kiss him only
14. enjoy his company
15. laughth at his jokes
16. always smill
17. Mic him a lot
18. Don't show him how much you love him
19. Be confident and self respective
18. Don't make him a fool
19. Be different every time you see him
20. Don't have sex on the car, kitchen, bathroom or toilet
21. Don't underestimate him
22. give him, his space
23. let him have fun with his friends
24. Drive him crazy a lot
25. Don't give him up on him
26. just be yourself
27. Have his time
28. love his pets
29. Don't fake your smile
30. Be easy to talk with
31. Don't 4get his birthday/ur anivesary day
32. Don't controil his life Plz girlz
33. Don't wait for Mr right be Mrs right
34. Never slap him
35. Don't compere hjim with someone else/with your ex
36. Don't let him see that you are desperete for him
37. Don't be too faithful


"If you want your dreams to come true, don't spend too much time sleeping. Open your eyes and realize."


My Dream Career

I would like to be a Pilot. the most I like about this career is to travel all over the world, going to other countries. because it's not easy for me to go anywhere I want because of the money but I once I get this opporturnity, I'll be able to go to those countries without paying a cent. also to experience to be on air, flying like a bird, looking down on earth. Seeing the clouds when I was young I thought the plane was not reaching the coulds, to me It was like the sky is very very far nobody can reach it. but one day I saw a plane disappear inside the clouds then come out on the other side. Since I was asking myself: "how did it happen?", until today I learned about it. but I'm waiting to be me who is doing it one day.

Oh: not forgeting to speak those different languages.


"In townships we don't really think much about things like dreams."


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

first look!

As mentioned in an earlier blog, the wonderful and talented filmmakers of CieL Productions (, have been making a documentary about our choirmaster P., and the choir's trip to England earlier this year.

Here is the trailer, a first look at what is sure to be an incredible account of life at Fezeka, in Gugulethu, and the hope, strength and talent of our kids.


*click here to visit the website that has been set up for the film and to learn more about this incredible project.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mid-morning mid-week musings

I feel sad for my students.

And not just my students but many students at my school. And since I'm pretty sure the situation that presents itself here is far from unique, by extension I feel sad for much of South Africa's black youth.

I am not even sure where to begin quantifying how deep this sadness runs.

Time and time again I am reminded of how disadvantaged these young people are, even aside from the obvious difficulties many of them face due to their socio-economic locations - hunger, neglect and the constant threat of violence leading the charge.

No, this particular sadness is more directly correlated to the realm in which I work - the education sphere - where every day I am shocked and disheartened at the utter disregard many of my colleagues have for the scholastic advancement of their students.

Teacher absenteeism is rife, with teachers missing days...weeks...even sometimes months at a time on a regular basis. And while in the contexts to which I am accustomed an absent teacher is expected to leave work for their students, in this environment - while technically a requirement - very seldom is this the case.

In addition to this problem however, there are many teachers who will be present at school but for whatever reason do not attend classes. The frequency of this occurrence is such that students are often left without a teacher for a number of their lessons in a given day. I have lost count of how many times my students have told me that I am the only teacher who has attended one of their lessons that day.

Further still there is the issue of teachers who will come to school, attend classes, but because they have not completed a certain task (i.e. tabulating end-of-term marks for the term that has just ended or marking tests), they spend the in-class time working on the task at hand and give their students worksheets (without having taught the background necessary to complete said worksheets), or sometimes nothing at all to do.

Yesterday I was in my classroom during a spare period and two Grade 10 students I had never met before came to my door to ask if they could sit and do some work in my classroom. As always I asked where they were supposed to be. I was answered with the expected reply of ‘in a class where the teacher was not attending’ and allowed them in. After a while I wandered over to see what they were working on. I asked what it was and they told me a project on Development. Development of what? I asked. Of anything, they said. They had been told that they had to interview people to ask them about development (Social? Political? Historical? Environmental?), but that they had not had enough time to complete the task and so they were taking notes from material research they had found on the Internet. I asked them if it was that they had not had enough time or if they had left it to the last minute. No, they told me, they really had not had enough time. When was it assigned? I asked. Friday, they told me. When was it due? Today, came their reply. Yesterday was Wednesday. This was a term research assignment worth a significant percent of their mark that clearly the teacher had forgotten to give them and so they are left to try and get it done in far less time then they should have been allocated. The most disturbing part is that the teacher would most likely mark the test in keeping to the prescribed evaluation standards (which assume they have been given adequate time and had access to the relevant resources necessary to complete the task), which will mean that most of them will fail.

I have seen teachers administer and mark tests that are far above the level of comprehension possessed by their students, with no regard for the fact that the language used is inaccessible. These are the same teachers who in no way see their students’ subsequent failures as a reflection of their teaching or who don’t recognize evaluation standards that are set unfairly high. Today a student who I don't teach asked me for help with an assignment. He is in Grade 12 and this was the final project for the year. It had been assigned 3 months ago and has 6 different phases. I sat down with him and read through the instructions. Although my knowledge of the assignment's subject area is basic, I was able to understand what was being asked of the students as the language used was regular English versus discipline-related jargon. This is not to say that the level of English was easy, far from it in fact. I asked him if he understood what was being asked of him, if it had been explained to him properly. 'No Miss', came his shy reply. I then noticed that the page for the 5th phase was separate from the stapled package of sheets explaining each of the other 6. When I asked him why that page wasn't attached he told me that the teacher had forgotten to give it to them. He then went on to explain how the teacher had come into class the day before and angrily demanded to know why none of them had completed the 5th phase. When they told him that they had not received the instructions on that part of the assigment the teacher went and photocopied the missing sheet, gave it to them, and set a due date of tomorrow. 2 days. They should have had 2 weeks.

Perhaps the most disheartening fact about all of this is that the vast majority of the kids aren’t even aware of the far-reaching consequences of the injustices that are being committed against them. Whereas in a privileged Western context where we are raised to know our rights as youth and as students and even as young men and women are fully aware of what we deserve, as previously mentioned, a similar culture of entitlement is glaringly absent here. When teachers don’t come to class, students kick back, chat to their friends, sleep. A stream of students milling about the schoolyard during class time is constant, a result of all the above-mentioned reasons. I see these kids sitting around…chatting…chasing each other…holding hands…flirting…laughing…and can’t help but feel saddened at how oblivious they are to what they are being denied. At how they will suffer because of this disregard.

Their learned acceptance of injustice enrages me. I encourage students to complain. To get their families to take up issue with the administration and to report those teachers who don’t come to class to the Principal. While this could be construed as a lack of loyalty to my colleagues, my primary concern is for the impact of their neglect on the kids who are here to learn and whom they are being paid to educate.

...and now the sadness has been replaced by anger.

I feel infuriated for my students.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Madame Deputy President, I presume?

On the final day of last term we had an assembly to celebrate Baleka Mbete, (South Africa’s new Deputy President)’s birthday. While this may sound strange, it happened to be something that was planned long before she was inaugurated as Deputy President and held her previous position as the Speaker of the National Assembly. Gugulethu and by extension Fezeka fell under her then-jurisdiction, and she has had a long-standing relationship with the school. Recently, and while she still held the Speaker position, a decision was made to donate some computers to Fezeka. Initially the pledge was to donate 12 computers, which was then upped to 20. When the day came however, there were 12 new computers that lay waiting in the gleaming and freshly-painted lab, waiting to be christened by Ms. Mbete.

The assembly that we had to accompany this visit was wonderful. Fully catered by the office of the Deputy President, we had about 500 students in attendance, and close to 50 officials from various positions within the Government. Speeches were made by the politicians and the Deputy President, as well as by our principal and English HOD. And then the students took over. The drama club performed, as did the choir, a ballet group of which one of our students is a part, and a couple students recited poetry they had read.

The day was capped off with lunch for everyone and the Deputy President ceremoniously cutting the ribbon that had been tied across the doorway of the computer lab, which was met with flashes and applause from the members of the media et al. who were also in attendance to capture the moment.

It was during the assembly that I came to find out that Fezeka holds a unique honor of being one of very few, and perhaps one of the only township schools in the Western Cape who has been visited by both the Deputy President and the President of the Republic of South Africa (Thabo Mbeki visited during his time at the helm). It was lovely to see the students swell with pride as this fact was brought to their attention, as it was (as always) to see their smiles and hear their cheers and laughter when they watched their colleagues perform.

It was only after the assembly however, after the cameras and bodyguards had left and school had reopened and we were back in full swing that I came to find out that despite taking the time to re-tile the floor of the lab, paint the walls, fix the broken desks, and install these shiny new flat screen PCs, they had not ensured that each of the computers was online, or bothered to install Microsoft Office on any of the new machines. Roughly half of the new computers cannot access the Internet, and none of them have Microsoft Word. Or Excel. Or PowerPoint. On high school computers at a school where we are trying to encourage digital literacy. After spending a tidy sum on the whole overhaul, they didn't think it important to invest another R1500 (roughly $200CDN), the cost of that a basic Microsoft Office 2003 package.


Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Like lambs to the slaughter...

For the past month and a bit, once a week I have been running an after-school basic digital literacy class. It is doubtful that the irony of me, an example of computer-ineptness at its finest, actually teaching anything to do with those plastic boxes is lost on anyone, least of all myself, but here we are. So far it has been going really well. The size of the group varies from week to week, sometimes upwards of thirty, others closer to three. Although I am fully aware that teachers – like parents – are not supposed to have favorites, I may have a few of my own. The computer class is composed of students from a variety of classes and grades, including each of mine.

Three young men from my Grade 11 class are the most consistent attendees of the computer class, all very eager and keen to learn as much as possible in the computer class, just as they are in English class as well. In the lesson where we set up email addresses they could not stop smiling. These three may be my favorites.

Last week was the last week of school before break, and as the norm, a notoriously low-attendanced time of the year. The turnout for the class was meager, more specifically, my three little stars were there alone. As the computer lab we usually have used was being renovated in preparation its big unveiling later in the week (more on that to follow), and students were writing an exam in the other, I opted to use an empty classroom and to change the lesson plan somewhat.

Earlier in the week, one of these three students had asked me for help with his CV. So we sat down and talked curriculum vitae. As none of them have ever had a job before, there was not much to list in that department. When we came to volunteer work, they were equally at a loss. I asked they what did when they weren’t at school. Other than watch TV, they said they played sports, and participated in their youth groups. I asked if any of them coached sports, and what sort of youth groups they were part of. One of them did indeed coach a sports team and all three were involved in youth groups related to their churches.

The conversation then snowballed into a particularly interesting discussion on religion. All three young men are Christian, though each belongs to a different denomination, none of which I had heard of before. Not wanting to pry, I asked very surface-level questions about their beliefs, and let them tell me what they wanted to. They asked me about my beliefs, and what church I belonged to. I told them that while I have been baptized as a Roman Catholic, growing up and today my church attendance has been generally limited to the big holidays (much to my devoutly religious Grandmother’s chagrin).

Then they asked me about religion in Canada, and the role it plays in people’s lives. As previously mentioned, religion has a large role of the day to day lives of the communities in which my students and colleagues live, with Christianity being the overwhelmingly dominant faith.

I talked about the religious diversity of Canada and in particular Toronto, and how we have such a cornucopia (say it with me now – cor-nu-co-pia) of people of different beliefs living together.

‘So Miss, you wouldn’t ever slaughter a sheep to celebrate an important event?’ They asked me next.

I attempted to broadly explain the Western world’s take on this sort of thing (the physical slaughter of animals for religious or cultural purposes, not to be confused with those animals who are slaughtered for human consumption, particularly on religious holidays - although in writing this now I find myself confused as to why and how the two differ). I also touched on groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the importance of respecting the laws of the land. This then bled into an analogy on Female Genital Mutilation being practiced in Canada by Sudanese immigrants and the uproar that it created. Little did I know at the time that none of them were familiar with what FGM is. Oops.

In any case, the conversation was an interesting reminder of some of the stark cultural differences that exist between their lives and my own, or more specifically the social/religious mores and attitudes that are commonplace in and unique to each of our home environments.

Oh and I received an invitation to the next sheep-slaughtering ceremony that any of them attend.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Just another manic Monday...

About two weeks ago I left my house for school in the morning. I had driven about 2 blocks when suddenly my car just died. There was no big noise or warning, she just conked out. Had thankfully not yet reached the main road and was able to steer her off to the side of the street. Attempts to restart her were fruitless. Knowing I had been low petrol on the day before I thought this could be the problem. Walked to the Engen station only a short distance away, filled up a jug of petrol, walked it over to my car, poured it in (getting a span of it on myself in the process), and tried starting her again. Nothing.

Ended up having to her get her towed. A group of mechanics crowded around my car’s engine, tried starting her and had the same luck as me. They checked my petrol tank and told me I had no petrol. Impossible I told them, as I had manually just poured about R100 into it. Well, its reading as empty, they said. Fine. Poured in another R100. and still no reading on the gauge.

Then they looked under the car.

‘You know your petrol’s been stolen, hey?’ One of them told me.

Uh, no. Might have told you if I did, no?

In any case, apparently the night before, some sneaky thief had crept under my car, cut the wire connecting the petrol tank to the engine, and siphoned out the remaining (what I would guess to be not more than R20 worth’s of) petrol out of my tank. R300 to repair the damage. Good times.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

back in the day...and how!

The day following our Sowetan tour, our gracious tour guides took us to yet another must-see on any first-time visit to Johannesburg, the apartheid museum. (

This museum documents the history of apartheid in this country – from its earliest roots to present-day, as well as the various systems of oppression upon which it was modelled (special shout out to Canada and its First Nations Reserves), with in-depth looks at key figures in its inception and implementation, countless images, reports, audio and video footage, eyewitness and survivors’ stories… a truly vivid and upsetting journal of South Africa’s history.

Authenticity and a brutal metallic aesthetic is consistent through the museum – from the separate entranceways for whites (blankes) and non-whites (nie-blankes) to the industrial high-ceilinged exposed-beam brick wall architecture and the prison bars that run throughout, to the stark and sometimes harsh lighting that you soon discover is often little more than natural light, varying between very bright and shadowy darkness.

The sections on Education* and transportation proved the most disturbing for me with discussions on the huge disparity between what was available to black (and to a lesser extent, coloured) children in contrast to their white brothers and sisters. A look at transportation offered insight into the lengths that black people had to go to to get from A to B, and the endless blockades that stood in their way of even earning enough to feed their children, let alone themselves. While I have been learning more and more about the history of apartheid during my time here, seeing photos and reading stories of people who lived in these times made it much clearer.

The exhibit ends on a positive note, with oral history stories from South Africans both young and old on their hopes and thoughts for the ‘new’ South Africa. I couldn’t help but notice how optimistic everyone was, given the realities of inequality that still exist, although I suppose, perhaps, in a comparative sense things are [inarguably] far better than they once were, and at the end of the day it is all but impossible to move forward without a hope that things will only continue to get better.

Sunday’s weather provided us with another stunning day, as we set out on yet another historical journey; though this time we were going a little further back.

The Cradle of Humankind ( is about an hour’s drive from Jozi. A UN World Heritage Site, it is the place on earth where the earliest human remains have been found. Along with landmarks and replica bones, there is a museum on location which traces humankind’s evolution to modern man. Special attention is also paid to the devastating effects humans have had on the earth since we arrived – particularly on the environment and animal and plant kingdoms – and to the inequalities in education, health care and standards of living that exist across the globe today.


*The history of the disparities in the education system (the Bantu Education Act in particular) in this country is an important one to know and understand to fully grasp any discussion on where things stand today. I will discuss in greater detail in a future blog, but in the interim, if interested, I would suggest reading the brief bit written about it here:

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

SOuth WEstern TOwnship

About a month ago my friend Saf visited me in Cape Town for a few weeks. During her time here we flew to Johannesburg to stay with her friends Lisa and Angie for a weekend. Being my first time in South Africa’s biggest city, I was especially keen to visit Soweto, the largest township in South Africa.

Initially I was wary of the day-long tour of Soweto that Lisa had booked us on, my feelings on this sort of ‘tourism’ being somewhat mixed. As mentioned in previous blogs, the voyeuristic and often intrusive nature of ‘township/favela/slum/village tours’ is generally not for me. As it turned out however, the company that Lisa found (KDR – ) was probably the best that she could have, as it is the only tour company that operates in Soweto which has an ongoing relationship with the communities which it visits, and donates a portion of its profits to the many initiatives that it has helped to develop and support.

The day began with our very knowledgeable and Sowetan born and raised-guide Bongani taking us through downtown Joburg and its CBD. Former colonial presence is evident in the architecture of the buildings we passed – from the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)’s head office and that of various banks, to the SA headquarters of Australia’s BHP Billiton – the largest mineral mining company in the world. In the middle of the last century Britain’s Barclays bank was one of the biggest in SA, but when Apartheid-related tensions grew hectic in the 1980’s the bank fled, abandoning all the buildings that they owned. Some still stand empty today, crumbling and decrepit skeletons of their former glory. Years later Barclays’ presence in South Africa has returned, in the form of one of its subsidiaries, ABSA – the Amalgamated Banks of South Africa.

As we drove around the city core Bongani asked us to keep the windows closed. Car jackings and theft – even in broad daylight in the middle of a busy street – are rife. Crime rates in the city have improved slightly in recent years (despite the international media and word of mouth continuing to propel the widely-held belief of Jozi as one of the most dangerous cities in the world), though it is definitely still a major problem and it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Past Nelson Mandela’s Peace Bridge and a long-defunct train station built by the Dutch using materials brought over from Holland, and we were soon on our way to Soweto. Driving through the sprawling metropolis and along the freeways towards the turnoff, Bongani gave us bits and pieces of information about the city and how it came to be.

Johannesburg (located in the province of Gauteng, known as Egoli (City of Gold) in isiZulu and isiXhosa, and more colloquially as Joburg and Jozi) was established as a mining town when gold was discovered by an Australian prospector in the late 1800s. This discovery soon brought people from all over the country and world, prompting the Witwatersrand Gold Rush ( Gold fever soon lead to the Boer Wars ( between the Boer (Dutch word for ‘farmer’, came to be commonly used to denote ‘Afrikaner’) Government and the new British presence in the country. The Boers lost.

The most commonly (but not absolutely) accepted story of how Joburg got its name has to do with two men named Johann[es] who along with Paul Kruger (for whom Kruger Park is named) were involved in the inception and development of the city.

Currently the population of Johannesburg is estimated to be somewhere around 4 million, with about ¼ living in Soweto.

Soweto (SOuth WEstern TOwnship) began as a township that the apartheid government established to accommodate the massive influx of migrant workers that came to the area to work on the mines. With a population of around a million (2003), today it is the largest township in South Africa. The racial demographic is predominately black, a small coloured population and even a handful of white families as well.

As we drove into Soweto one of the first things I noticed was the lack of bars on the windows of the homes. There were no bars anywhere. What is commonplace in all areas of Cape Town and certainly of what I had seen of Johannesburg was nowhere to be found here.

As with Guguletu, there was a wide variety in the types of homes we saw – from the standard corrugated-metal shacks and informal settlements, to incredibly beautiful homes and manicured lawns. We stopped in front of one house that belonged to a famous architect. Wide glass plane windows on both the front and rear of the house allowed us a view into a sparkling swimming pool. And still no bars.

Bongani told us that the sense of community in Soweto is so strong that there is no need for bars. For those that do venture to commit crime or theft, the police are rarely called. As Bongani somewhat morbidly put it, a criminal would be lucky if the police were to arrive before members of the community found him. Nuff said.

Down a hill and into a clearly less affluent area – with row houses that looked similar to the barracks one might see in a movie about holocaust-era Germany, reminders of the living conditions the apartheid Government saw fit for miners. We got out of the van and walked around, both Bongani and ourselves being warmly greeted everywhere we went. His connection to the communities is clearly real, which only further helped to cement our comfort with our visit.

We stopped at a shipping container-cum-primary school which has been established and supported by KDR. Here Saf and I were pretty much in heaven. About 20-odd amazingly energetic children, ranging in age from about 3 to 10. They were equally happy to see us, wrapping themselves around our legs, holding out their arms to be picked up. We played and chatted with them, and they sang us songs. Our stay was perhaps slightly longer than Bongani had anticipated but that’s what you get when you put teachers with kids.

Reluctantly we unwrapped the little ones from our limbs and headed off to visit a local market. We tried some local (1% alcohol content) beer that was served in milk containers and extremely bitter.

Moving on from the market we next stopped in Kliptown, an informal settlement that is one of the largest and oldest areas of Soweto. We then stopped for a visit at the Kliptown Youth Program (, another initiative that is financially supported by KDR. This organization works with youth in the community, engaging them through the use of sport, educational support and skills development. There was also a youth-maintained vegetable garden on site. One of the guys in charge took us on a walking tour of the area, where we were again greeted by smiling faces and adorable children. We passed the local telephone booth – a rotary dial telephone sitting on a cardboard box and attended by a young man. Locals could pay for three minutes of phone call use at a rate far less than what any mobile phone provider or Telkom would charge.

Our new friend then took us into his house – a small one room shack that housed him and his 7 siblings. As we took in our surroundings, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of my students live in similar settings. Outside the sun shone a beautiful and sunny 24 degrees. Inside the home was sweltering hot. One can only imagine what it must be like in the 35+ degree days of summer…or the cold, damp and rainy nights of winter.

Next stop was lunch – delicious Sowetan buffet style. Bongani’s eyes widened at the amount of food on our plates, and then again when we went for round two, obv.

Sufficiently stuffed, we headed off to the afternoon portion of our tour – a visit to the Hector Pieterson museum.

For many, the word Soweto is inextricably linked to the events that transpired there on June 16th, 1976.

Fed up of being forced to learn with Afrikaans as the official language of instruction, on this day students from Soweto-area high schools engaged in a non-violent march to demonstrate their opposition. They numbered in the thousands and marched peacefully, singing songs and carrying homemade signs. This well-planned exercise in civil disobedience soon turned ugly as students found that police had barricaded their planned route. Undeterred, they changed course, ending up near Orlando High School. The police had other plans. Although the students continued peacefully and non-confrontationally, police released dogs and tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowd. Students threw rocks at the police, and eventually one of the dogs was caught and killed by the crowd. Things then escalated quickly as police fired shots into the crowd. Then all hell broke loose. Terrified, students began screaming and running in all directions. Police fired more shots, killing two students.

One of the first students killed was 12-year old Hector Pieterson.

For 2 days following the initial clash, the violence continued at a hectic pace. Riots broke out all over Soweto, and police were brutal in their retaliation. Shots were fired at random, killing many and wounding countless others, mostly children. The anger that had been a longtime brewing had erupted. Trickle-down effects of the Soweto uprising were felt all over the country in various forms and capacities and things continued to worsen for months to follow. Final estimates put the number of dead somewhere around 600, although no one can really know for sure. In the aftermath of these tragic events, June 16th - the first day of clashes between youth and police - has come to be known as the Soweto Uprising, commemorated in South Africa on a yearly basis with a statutory holiday, Youth Day.

Today, the Hector Pieterson museum (
stands as a monument, educational centre and reminder of one of the darkest days in this country’s struggle for equality. A devastating but extremely interesting stop on our tour, I would definitely call it is a must-see for anyone going to Johannesburg and Soweto.

In the somber wake of this visit, we were all in need of a drink. On the way to our last stop at a local pub, we drove by Vilakazi street – a small non-descript road that holds the distinctive honor of being the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners – Dr. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and Archibishop Desmond Tutu. We saw the house that Dr. Mandela had lived in and took a minute to appreciate the greatness that had once walked our very steps.

At our final stop we enjoyed some local beer (this time out of bottles), watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and talked about all we had seen and done that day. Outside I met a man who had been born and raised in Soweto and like Bongani worked as a tour guide for KDR. His English was impeccable and when I complemented him on this, he said that he had spent many years living in Boston. When the Apartheid regime became too much for him and his small family to bear he had moved there in the early 1980s. His children were born and raised in the US. He returned in 1994 and today the whole family lives in South Africa. ‘It is home.’ he told me at the end of his sentence. ‘It gets under your skin. It’s in our blood.’

As we finished our drinks in silence and watched the sun set over the quiet cul de sac street the bar was on, I reflected on what he had said and what I had seen that day. I thought to myself about my own attachment to my home country, and wondered whether I, given a similar reality and my country a similar history would have done the same thing in his place. One never knows for sure, although I certainly couldn’t argue with his comment about South Africa getting under your skin.
This country may not be my home, and indeed has and continues to have its fair share of ills and misfortunes, but seldom has a day gone by where I am not reminded of its warmth, beauty, and above all the strength, resilience and hope of its people.


NB: In regards to the Soweto Uprising, I have written but a small overview of this historic and infamous event. For a day-by-day breakdown of what happened, please go here:
For a broader overview, there is always good old wiki:

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

my world...

Last week I collected my year 11 students’ books for marking. What follows is a verbatim excerpt from one of their responses to the question of how they identify themselves.

How do I identify myself?

i am a gud person, i’m adorable even if im ugly i love people who treats me gud and i also love the ones who treats me bad because they show me how life is. i don’t lyk school but it’s the must going to school because i don’t want to end up in the street there are sumthings that im good at but i haven’t seen them yet and im also a loving passionate Boy. I have a gud heart in people but i also have a bad sight but show them when you make me. My dream is to be a drug lord and make the world mine.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

acting out.

As is my practice when they haven’t finished their assigned classwork and it’s the last period, a few students were kept behind the other day to complete the work they had been given. Unless they have to catch transport, they must stay until they are done. And I have double checked with the office who does and who doesn’t as they have tried to trick me on more then one occasion. They don’t try anymore.

On this particular day, one boy told me he couldn’t stay because he had to get to drama practice.

“Drama practice?” I asked, “Where?”

“Drama club Miss,” he answered, “in 10B.”

Drama club? The school had a drama club? This was news to me. Once he had finished his work and ran off, I locked my classroom and made my way over to 10B to see if he had been telling the truth. Indeed he had. Here I found about 15-odd students milling about and chatting animatedly. There was one young man who was clearly in charge. I asked if I could watch and they quickly agreed. As I sat down they began a series of warm up activities and short comedy skits. All of them were in Xhosa, but I could still get the meanings of what was being conveyed.

Next, they began rehearsing their play. Similarly to the skits, aside from the random word of English that often intersperses the language, the play was also entirely in Xhosa. One of the students sat next to me and explained bits and pieces of what was going on. Although I didn’t understand any of what the actors were saying, with the help of my interpreter I was still able to get the overall gist of what they were trying to convey. They are incredible actors. And funny! Oh my, are they ever funny. Very expressive and ever-so-animated and serious when need be. On more than one occasion I found myself almost on the brink of tears, I was laughing so hard.

When they broke for the day two hours later, I asked them what member of staff had been helping them. They replied that they had none. There had been a teacher, they told me, whose name I recognized as one who left the school 4 months ago. This means that for the past four months, they have been rehearsing almost everyday after school, sometimes as late as 5 or 6pm, on their own. I then found out that the play they had been performing – a hilarious and socially-conscious piece about the importance of students taking pride in their environment and respecting each other – had been written and directed by the one I had noticed as being the one in charge at the beginning. Amazing.

Then they asked a favour of me. Would I be their new teacher support? Help them and give them my input? After the overwhelming pride and admiration I felt for this group of earnest young learners, how could I say no? I told them that I would be flattered and made them promise that if I agreed, they must practice their English when I was there and that the one student in the group who was in one of my classes (the one who from whom I had first heard of drama club), must change his behaviour in my class immediately. A few weeks later, while the speaking English part is still lacking somewhat, the behaviour and attendance of this one student have seen a noticeable improvement.

They are scheduled to perform their production for the school in the coming weeks, and have been marketing themselves to perform at other schools all over Gugulethu. About their home turf debut they are over the moon excited, and I am right there with them.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

a Room with a View

A couple days into the first week back, it was announced that there would be a shift in the Matrix. Rather than continuing with the current system of classroom movement, whereby students stayed in one class all day and teachers went to them depending on what lesson it was, each teacher would now be given a classroom of their own. Upon hearing this news, I was ecstatic. Aside from the sense of ownership over their learning space and belonging in their classrooms that both teachers and students would now [hopefully] feel, on the most basic of levels it would allow students to get out of their classrooms. Even if only to walk the distance between classes and various departmental blocks that had now been set up, I thought it a good thing, since for some it is the only physical activity they get at school during the day (we don’t have physical education as a learning area). Further, I hoped that this may help with the issue of absenteeism – both student and more importantly teacher – since once would always know where a teacher ought to be when it was his or her lesson.

My classroom finds itself in the English block at the very back of the school property line. Until I was given the keys, I had never even been to that part of campus. Upon unlocking the door, it was clear that this room had not been used for a while. Freezing cold, no electricity, broken windows, graffiti-covered walls, not even one piece of furniture, and the ceiling was caving in not one but two parts of the room. But I didn’t care. It was mine. And I had free reign to decorate it.

Unlike the amusement park playground of Western classrooms – with colourful posters and decorations covering the walls, modern facilities and indoor heating, these classrooms have none of that, and instead have more of an institution-like feel. There are many reasons for this, lack of funding and resources being a frontrunner. Moreover, there is the issue of theft, as being situated in a community with many more have-nots than haves, it is difficult to leave anything of value in the classrooms as it will more than likely get stolen. After school on the day that we were given our keys, I drove straight to Walton’s, the South African equivalent of Grand and Toy. Here I bought a roll of newsprint to cover the graffiti, a world map and one of Africa, brightly coloured paper and pens, a stapler, scissors, and various other organizational tools. Was so excited that I had to stop myself from getting too carried away. As no budget exists in the school’s resources to fund any of this sort of thing, clearly all these purchases are out of pocket. I was very aware of the fact that few, if any of my colleagues would be able to afford similar accoutrements for their own classrooms. Spent that night at home stuck into some arts and crafts fun – cutting out letters to spell Life Orientation and English. The next day at school I had a couple students help me staple the newsprint over the graffiti-covered corkboards, and then set about gluing the words I had so painstakingly cut out the night before. Already it was looking better. Used images from an old calendar I found at home to stick up around the classroom and give it some colour. When students came in that day, it was clear that they not only noticed, but appreciated my efforts. Before getting started, I gave them all the same speech about this being their classroom as well, and my wanting them to feel at home in it. By the same token, they must respect it and take care of it the same way I did. They agreed, and have more or less held their word ever since. In the weeks following, bits and pieces have gone up to continue the classroom’s evolution. A poster here, some student work there. Week before last my grade 11 students were the first to put their individual mark on the classroom. As previously mentioned, in order to do anything in this country, citizens must have an Identity Document (ID). This passport-like item lists one’s ID number, Name, Gender and Date of Birth. After a mini-lesson on identity and how they identify themselves, I asked them to create figurative ID documents. Each was given a piece of paper in the colour of their choice, and given the sole direction of ‘Create something that represents you’. They could use any medium and were encouraged to get creative. The results were impressive and now adorn one corkboard under the heading (again in my carefully cut out letters): ‘Who am I?’ Despite the shivering temperatures in the early-morning classes or on rainy winter days, when the sun shines in the one wall of the classroom that is covered in windows that face onto the school property line bordered by some grass with a backdrop of shacks, it’s almost poetic. Despite its ragamuffin aesthetic, there is no other classroom in the school that I would have preferred. Now that all my students (well almost all), have desks, chairs and even a desk, chair and storage cupboard for me, slowly but surely it is all coming together.

In the weeks to come I will give my other two classes an opportunity to put their own personal stamp on the classroom as well. By bringing in colour and the chance to feel connected to their learning environment, ultimately I want it to be someplace that my students feel at home in, and maybe [hopefully], somewhat inspired. Along those lines, I have also introduced the “Quote of the Day” activity to the class., Each morning I write a new quotation (that I think relevant or that they may connect with in some way) on a small whiteboard which students copy into their notebooks. The quotes come from a variety of sources – from Ghandi to Wayne Gretzky to Michael Jackson and Confucius. We discuss the quotes’ significance, where they originated and a bit about the person who said them, if this information is available. Students are encouraged to come up with their own inspirational quotes for the quote of the day, which they are expected to explain to the class, along with why they chose it. When I next have some money burning a hole in my pocket, I plan to buy another white board, this time for a “word of the day”, as I did when teaching in London, and as my friend and colleague Safia has her in classroom back in Canada.

Speaking of the homeland, a very important addition to the classroom décor is on its way to me in a few short weeks courtesy of my aunt and a care package being brought over by my friend Rosalind. Three guesses as to what it is…

Friday, July 18, 2008

the Kandinsky is painted on both sides...

It’s winter in Cape Town.

Normally, and for the better part of the last few weeks, this means torrential rain, wind, dampness and bone-chilling cold. As mentioned before, the vast majority of houses are not insulated, meaning it is often colder inside than out.

Today is an exception. An unseasonably warm 22 degrees and not a cloud in sight. To celebrate, I drove to Seapoint to take a walk along the seawall. Writing this, I am warmed by the huge sun setting in a pale blue sky while waves crash just below me and Feist sings about her moon and her man in my earphones.

Blissful indeed.

In taking in this picturesque setting however, I am reminded (as I often am, and as is so difficult not to be), of the great disparity between the haves and have-nots in this city. Walking along the seawall with a smile on my face, I pass joggers, yummy mummies pushing their designer babies in their designer prams, couples strolling hand in hand, kids playing football and people walking their dogs - a glaring distinction between this demographic and those among the crowds who clearly have very little. They are sitting on the ground half-asleep, lying on the beach fully asleep, or just walking along themselves. I did not see anyone asking for money.

When the rain fell in buckets the other night, fell with such a force that the house literally shook, we were inside. Warmed by food cooking on our stove and layers of sweaters, we were warm and dry. And yet, not 5 minutes from our house there is a group of about 60 people who sleep under a bridge, a thin piece of tarpaulin all that separates them from the elements. One cannot imagine what that night must have been like for those folk.

As I drive to work in the morning, cranking the tunes in my now affectionately-named car ‘Iron Fist’, I pass hoards of young men waiting in the cold to be picked up by bukkies. Once on the highway, I often find myself behind the same bukkies, their flatbeds crammed with young men en route to work, which is usually some type of job in the temporary manual-labor category. The safety issues around travelling like this, especially at the speeds at which they drive are tremendous, cemented by the horror stories I have heard when these trucks find themselves in accidents. And the cold they must feel in the freezing morning air?

Poverty is everywhere in this city. Urban planning by the old regime did a fine job of disguising it or at least taking it out of a perhaps obvious line of view, but a long time has passed since 1994. One never has to strain to see evidence of how far this city and country still has to go in its struggle for equality.

Today, on the 90th anniversary of the nation’s Grandfather’s birth, we celebrate Madiba’s many accomplishments and the inspiration he has and continues to offer both South Africans and the global community. We rejoice…against the stark backdrop of the reality that almost 20 years later, his fight is far from being won.


Monday, July 14, 2008

Ixnay the 'xenophobia'

June 6

Unless you have had your head in the sand for the past two weeks, you will have heard of the spate of violence that has been taking place in various parts of South Africa.

While the exact genesis event for this tragedy is unclear, the tension between South African blacks and African blacks from other parts of the continent has been brewing for some time. In 2004, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu came under fire for comments he made about his concern over the simmering pot of hostility that existed in the poorer areas of the country, in large part created and fuelled by the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, which the government had thus far done a fine job of sweeping under the rug. Well, 4 years later, this aforementioned pot has not only boiled, but overflowed and flooded the kitchen.

Starting late week before last, I began getting emails from family and friends around the world enquiring about my well-being given what they had been seeing on TV and the Internet about what was going on in South Africa. Thankful for their concern, I had to tell them that were it not for, I wouldn't have known anything was going on (we don't have a television and I don't read the newspaper nearly often enough). Truth be told, here in Cape Town we felt far removed from the violence that was taking place in areas around Johannesburg, Durban, Pretoria and other parts of the country. The horrifying images of burning bodies and stories of brutality and vandalism seemed as far away to us as they did to the international community whose media outlets were reporting the latest.

Until the middle of last week.

When the violence hit the Western Cape and things exploded here too. Reports of looting, violence, and murder in townships outside of Cape Town spread like wildfire. And then began the mass exodus. Thousands of black Africans from other parts of the continent who had been living in CT-area townships were either forced out or their homes, or took no chances and upped and left taking with them only what they could carry. Many sought refuge at police stations that turned them away or told them they could do nothing to help them. On Friday, the Home Affairs office in Nyanga was attacked by gunfire while scores of refugees waited outside. By Saturday, 5000 Somalis had assembled at Belleville train station and refused to leave or go to one of the camps that had been hastily set up by the city of Cape Town as they feared being deported. As is often the case in situations like these, churches opened their doors to house the displaced and were quickly bursting at the seams, unable to accommodate the numbers seeking shelter.

On Saturday morning, my housemate Catherine and I bought a span of groceries, baby food, nappies, toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, toiletries and toys to drop off at the Methodist church in our neighbourhood that was housing some refugees. When we arrived we were told that our donation would be better put to use at another church in the next suburb where some women and children were being accommodated. When we arrived at SHADE (, we found one woman who had not slept in two days manning the phones and running the show on her own. It was immediately clear that she needed help so we dove in. From 10am until 8pm that night we undertook a variety of jobs between two sites, from answering phones and accepting and organizing donations, to deploying volunteers and helping the refugees at the church feel as comfortable as possible given the horrific circumstances.

The scene at the church in Observatory was relatively calm, given the situation. A group of about 70 people (almost all male, this having to do with the fact that many of those who come to SA from other countries are men who work and earn money here which they send home to their families), assembled in a church hall. On my way in I saw a young man sitting on a bag which I can only assume were all his belongings, with his arms wrapped around his torso and rocking back and forth. By contrast however, there were several groups sitting around playing cards and cracking jokes. Some Zimbabwean men in the kitchen were cooking up food for everyone while women peeled potatoes and sang. I found it impossible to understand how people could manage to laugh and keep high spirits in such dire circumstances, although as one later said, many had seen much worse in their own countries.

While there, I met an Angolan woman (one of only two women in the group). Overjoyed to be able to speak Portuguese with someone, she told me her story. She had been living in Phillipi for the past three years with her two-year old daughter and her daughter's father who was also Angolan. She worked in a shop braiding hair. When the violence started she was very afraid. She witnessed people being beaten and homes being destroyed. Although she wasn't beaten because those in her community liked her she said, they did tell her that she needed leave as the violence would only get worse.

Not long after, a young Zimbabwean woman arrived with a 2-month old baby in her arms. Frail and clearly exhausted, I have never seen a more bewildered look in someone's eyes than I did in hers. To say she looked terrified is an understatement. Bewildered. Frantic. Her baby was hungry and crying, she was cold and frightened, and she was by herself. Quickly given blankets and food, she was taken to the room where the few women and children were staying. Thankfully there were mattresses there, a luxury at that point for most of those in the main hall.

Thankfully food was not an issue at any of the places we were at, the outpouring of community support in this whole mess being one of the few rays of light. People mobilized quickly and countless donations were dropped off throughout the day. When we left on Saturday night the room in which we had been organizing food, clothes, toiletries, etc. was chock-o-block.

Back at SHADE early this morning, we were greeted with a report that there were 35 people at a police station needing somewhere to go. Once we were able to get a Minister at a neighbouring suburb to agree to open the doors of his church, various volunteers with cars went off to fetch and take the refugees to safety. Catherine was one of the drivers, and when she returned told of a conversation in the car en route to the church. The women were from Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and speaking French among themselves. They asked Catherine where she was from. When she told them she was Canadian, they asked each other why she was not at risk. She too was 'foreign', so why was she able to escape unscathed? A completely valid question and one that we amongst ourselves (the majority of the volunteers that we had seen and been working with were themselves too, 'foreign'), had been discussing earlier. Upon arriving at the church Catherine said, the Minister unlocked the doors. They were then led into a large hall which while it had a kitchen and a bathroom, there was nothing else. The aforementioned chock-o-block full room of goods at SHADE was subsequently emptied and sent on to this location.

Throughout the day countless donations were dropped off and volunteers arrived, eager to lend a hand in whatever way they could. Then we got news that the old pipes at the church in Obs, unable to handle the demands that were being put on them had burst and there was now no hot water and only one functioning toilet. For 70 people.

As I answered calls, mass was taking place in the small church (which is currently doubling up as the place of rest for the Zimbabwean families who are staying there) that is attached to the main building that houses the kitchen and main offices of SHADE. Beautiful voices sang hymns which gave way to a rousing chorus of 'Happy Birthday'. I couldn't help but smile and feel my heart tighten. While not particularly religious myself, I have always been cognizant of the healing and strengthening power of religion, having witnessed it myself since I can remember. This experience has in many ways only served to further solidify this belief.

Later, a young Xhosa man came to the door saying that he had a terrified young woman and her baby in his car. He had been driving home when a young man flagged him down and begged him to take his wife and daughter to safety. He took them to the police station, who said to send them on over to us. We got the woman and her baby settled, then gave her a phone to contact her husband. Not long after, he arrived at SHADE as well, and told me what had happened to them that evening.

Originally from Zimbabwe, when the violence started the husband arranged a room to stay in with a woman in Woodstock, packed his small family and all the belongings they could grab into a taxi and headed to Cape Town. The woman he had made the arrangement with said he and his family could stay there for a fee. Eager to get his wife and baby daughter to safety, he agreed. When they arrived however, after having unloaded all their belongings onto the sidewalk, the woman he had spoken with the day before told him she had never agreed to allow them to stay there. He said she was drunk, and called him all kinds of horrible names before slamming the door in his face. At that point, a group of gangsters descended upon the small family, sensing the opportunity to help themselves to the possessions that lay on the sidewalk. Suddenly surrounded by this group of young men, the husband panicked and stopped the passing car into which he put his wife and daughter and then went back to trying to ward off the gangsters. Neighbours, he said, were out of their houses watching the scenario unfold, but not one attempted to help him. Just as he was about to lose everything, a man came running down the street and chased the young hooligans away. He then helped the husband put all his belongings into his garage – which he promised to keep safe for him until things calmed down – and brought the husband to SHADE where his wife and daughter were waiting. Upon his arrival he was clearly and understandably shaken, but still ever so gracious and thankful to us for offering him and his family shelter and safety. 'I almost lost EVERYTHING,' he kept repeating as we led him to where his wife and daughter were waiting.

The following is an excerpt from an update email sent by Masiphumelele eMzantsi coordinator Rodney Ndyalvan recounting the state of affairs as of Monday morning.


The good news: Masiphumelele
The bad news: Soetwater

1. Masiphumelele leads South Africa and restores our southern peninsula dignity.

Brief outline of events:

· Thursday night: relatively minor trouble in Masi following evacuation of foreigners by police - mostly young drunken 'tsotsis' taking advantage of the situation and looting.

· Friday: Yandiswa Mazwane, community leader, mobilises all other leaders for peace rally with help of the 'Ubuntu Coalition' (eMzantsi Carnival, Art of Living, other NGOs). Leaders address packed community hall at 6pm, vociferous support expressed for foreigners ("we want them in 2010, why not now?"), wonderful prayer and singing, and candlelit vigil (featured on eTV news Sat night). Tangible sense of calm restored on leaving at 7pm.


· Saturday: community leaders hold two follow up meetings, first to allow their community to voice any concerns. Quite apparent this is not evidence of xenophobia, but rather persistent economic stress (NB no force was used against foreigners in Masi). 2nd meeting of all community structures made a plan to restore righteous order...

· Sat night: joint community and police effort to recover all stolen property by going door to door. Involving ANC, SANCO, Salvation Army - everyone. Street committees re-empowered. Masi pride restored.

· Sun morning: people still spontaneously bringing stuff back. All taken to Ocean View police station for safekeeping.

· Sun afternoon: Premier arrives to congratulate Masi community leaders. Deputation take memo to Soetwater to read to refugees to invite them back home. More than 70 people welcomed back to Masi with a KFC supper in the late evening.

PLEASE NOTE this was a community initiated, and community driven effort. eTV news on Sunday made out this was a police exercise, but the police supported the community, not the other way round. Masi leaders should be praised for doing on Friday what Mbeki had not had the courage to do - stand up and say "This is not acceptable here. We condemn it, and we will act immediately to make amends." We in the South should be proud of them.

2. Africa Day in Soetwater

As we drove into the refugee camp just before 10am on Sunday morning, the fog hung heavy over Soetwater, like some smoking post-apocalyptic movie set. But this was not Vietnam, or Pearl Harbour – this was Cape Town on Africa Day 2008. Six huge drafty tents emerged from the gloom, and suddenly we saw vast numbers of people, queuing up for a meagre meal from the makeshift soup kitchen, or hanging around looking completely lost. Such a beautiful setting, by the side of the ocean; yet such a site of horror as we began to hear the stories of people who'd arrived there from across the city.

There was Alvino from Angola, whose brother was killed on Friday, and who was so traumatised by the guilt of leaving the body to save himself, he could barely speak. There was Maria* from the Congo, who was raped on Thursday, didn't know where her teenaged son was and just wanted to be given a pair of panties and a place to sleep. There was Noor-Ali from Somalia, a very smart young man in a stylish leather jacket, who had spent years working his way up from cleaning cars for change to owning his own business, only to have absolutely everything he owned snatched away from him in minutes. They, and most of the estimated 1500 people there, were in an extreme state of shock.

Who was there to comfort and reassure them?

Stalwart volunteers from Ocean View Baptist Church and Living Hope were already tackling the most urgent needs of feeding people and attending to the sick. But there was a complete vacuum of any central authority. The police were waiting for orders, and seemed to have no idea what to do beyond patrolling the perimeter. As more volunteers arrived to help, there was no one to direct their energies, no one with a plan, no one even with an appropriate registration document ready to distribute in order to get a handle on the situation.

Disaster management were doing what they could, which wasn't much. A official from the province explained to me that they had staff trained to deal with a local disaster – but not a whole outbreak of them across the province, from Knysna to the south peninsula – and there just weren't enough people or resources available to cope. The poor man who had been designated 'in charge' was a housing officer, untrained in crisis management or trauma counselling, and he was doing a sterling job in impossible circumstances.

As we stood there wondering where to start, two more buses arrived, offloading yet more shell-shocked people. Tensions amongst those who had been waiting 24 hours already without a single word from the authorities on what was going to happen to them began to mount. Sharp words were exchanged between Somalians and Congolese, each feeling more vulnerable than the other. Making an attempt to understand their concerns, in my inadequate French (there wasn't a single translator available), I was led to understand by a group of about 50 angry, frustrated and articulate people that many of the refugees have survived genocide once already in Rwanda and DRC, and are just not prepared to risk it again.

Unlike the foreign residents of Masiphumelele, who were evacuated by the police on Friday as a precaution, these people - from Phillipi, from Du Noon, and from Khayelitsha - had been violently chased from their homes. They do not trust South Africans anymore. They want to leave this country. They do not trust the government. Why should they – the government had 2 weeks' notice to make a plan to safeguard them, and they didn't. They do not believe the local police can protect them, and fear a mob coming down and driving them into the beautiful sea.

In the late afternoon, the Premier finally arrived, ready for a triumphant photo opp as he planned to announce the Masiphumelele community leaders' magnificent mobilisation to restore the homes and property of those foreigners expelled last week. His staff had no idea the majority of the refugees were not from Masiphumelele and were completely unprepared for the hostile reception he got. But he responded well, sitting down cross-legged on the ground, first with Congolese leaders and then with the Somalians, taking the time to listen to their fears and their written lists of demands. He promised that the UNHCR would be here by tomorrow, that their concerns would be respected and their opinions consulted.

He left as the sun began to set and the cold fog began to creep back in. If by the time you read this, there are still people at Soetwater who don't know what the government's plan is, we should all be ashamed. Ashamed enough to stand up and act without them. There are pregnant mothers and children sleeping tonight on cardboard on the freezing floor whose only crime was to be born elsewhere on our continent.

Happy Africa Day.

* not her real name

NB: Reassuringly, local councilors Felicity Purchase and Nicki Holderness were on the ground as we left last night, local police were doing the best they could, and bakkie loads of officials had started to arrive... watch this space.

The Art of Living Foundation is offering trauma relief programmes in both Masiphumelele and Soetwater – contact Candi Horgan on 082 561 2879 for information. They would like to thank Cafe Roux, Noordhoek, for lending them their tent.

If you have food, clothes, blankets, heaters or baby supplies to donate, please take them to the Sun Valley Pick'n'Pay for distribution to those in need.
If you would like to volunteer an hour of your time, email or leave your contact details on 021 789 1665. We will call you if and when we can use you.

Sam Pearce
from the office of the eMzantsi Carnival project

When I arrived at SHADE after work on Monday, I went to greet the Angolan family that was staying in the attached church-cum-shelter. I found the three young boys with whom I had been playing and chatting in Portuguese with the day before sitting outside accompanied by a fourth boy I had not seen before. A few seconds into our conversation they informed me that this new boy did not speak Portuguese. I asked him his name and where he was from. He told me and said he was Zimbabwean. I asked him his age. ‘15’, came his quiet reply. I asked him where his family was, he said Zimbabwe. I asked him who had brought him to SHADE and he told me a white man had. Confused, I asked who he lived with in South Africa. He said his older brother. I asked where his brother was, and he replied that he didn't know. That when the violence had started his brother had left and never returned. He had no phone number for his brother, nor for his parents in Zim. A feeling of dread filled my stomach and I quickly did the math. This young man was on his own. Completely on his own in a foreign country with only the clothes he was wearing. Best case scenario his brother was in another shelter somewhere in the city and worst case…well…

I asked him to write down his brother's name and told him that we would try and locate him. As he did he told me that he thought his brother had gone back to Zimbabwe.

We went to the room that was being used to store all the donations to get him sorted with some basic toiletries, blankets and clothing. As I kneeled on the ground and rummaged through the [once well-organized but now] pile of donated clothes, I was overwhelmed with sadness at imagining what must have been going through his head at that moment. The fear. The confusion. The loneliness. And yet he wasn't complaining. He wasn't making a fuss. He just stood quietly and watched. He asked me where I was from. He laughed when I handed him a pair of jeans about 8 times too large and said that we could fit both of us in them – each in one pant leg. When we were done he thanked me and headed back to the room where he would be sleeping.

Later I found out that he had been in South Africa less than three weeks.

And then there was the young Malawian man who had been in South Africa for two years on his own, working to earn money and send home to his two younger brothers. His parents had both died, so the responsibility for providing for the family was his. He said that earlier that day he had gone back to where he had been staying only to find that his house had been burned down. Everything he had was gone. 'I don't know what I am going to do now, but all I know for sure is that I can't go back there. I can't go back,' he said. Fighting some sort of cold since he arrived at SHADE, almost every time I saw him he was either lying on his mattress or sitting outside by himself, staring off into the distance.

People came and went throughout the evening, needing everything from food to nappies and clothing to soap. We would get a call about another church being opened and have to organize food to send over. I don't think I've ever handled more cans of baked beans, corned beef, tuna, peanut butter, long life milk, sugar, maize, rice, cooking oil, toothbrushes, toothpaste, toilet paper, bread or vegetables than I have in the last few days. Catherine's car has put more clicks on it and had more people in it since Saturday than in the past 6 months combined.

By early Tuesday things were looking up somewhat as news came through that some of the violence was calming down. Community leaders were making efforts to get talks going between those who had been perpetrating the violence and those who it had been committed against, and some stolen goods had been returned to local police stations.

And then there was the bad news.

The 'camps' that had been set up by the state Government were a mess. Overcrowded, dirty, not enough food, and cold. There were reports that media was being denied access into them. Outbreaks of diarrhoea were popping up everywhere. Basic medical care was inadequate, never mind the attention needed by those on anti-retrovirals. That evening, when Catherine went to pick up a few people who we had arranged to transfer from Soetwater to the Methodist church in Elies River, she was greeted by scores of people lined up for food, and begging her to take them with her.

That afternoon I had a conversation with the Zimbabwean husband. He asked me what I was doing in South Africa. When I said that I was teaching high school, he told me that he had been an Economics teacher in his country before he left. He came to South Africa 3 years ago, he told me, and set up a small barbershop business out of a ship container. Things were going well for him and his wife, and they were welcomed by the community. A few years later their daughter was born. Then his business went under and he got a job working construction at the site of the stadium that is being built for 2010. When the violence started everything changed overnight. The same community that had welcomed him were now strangers who were thirsty for his blood. His success, and that of any other non-South African-born black he said, was seen by community members as their failure. When the first house on his street was torched, he knew things were going to get much worse, and fast. He was the first one to the police station in his community he said, and half an hour after he arrived 2 Somalian men arrived bleeding profusely from their heads. I told him that I was worried about my students, as most of them lived in the communities where this was happening. He asked me how old my students were. When I told him he said that they were the main ones perpetrating the violence. The ones burning the homes, looting and attacking people were mostly teenagers.

Later that evening we drove out to the Elies River church to drop off supplies. We were pleased to find that the floor of the rooms where people were sleeping were wood rather than concrete, although even still, the church was cold. In the room where the women and children were staying there were about 6 children, all under the age of 8, and all of whom had been born in South Africa, and were being chased away from their homes with their families for being 'foreign'. How's that for irony?

As we unloaded the car the parish members who had mobilized and assembled there had a million questions for us regarding what they should do to get things going. On the car ride back to town we couldn't help being somewhat amused at how on Saturday morning our plan had been to drop off a donation of goods, and now 4 days later we were being sent to set up refugee shelters.


I began writing this post early Monday morning when we had returned from SHADE. It is now Wednesday and have only just had a chance to catch my breath. On both Monday and Tuesday I went strait to the church from work, and stayed until exhaustion got the best of me. I have spent almost every minute of the last 96 hours that I have not been sleeping or at school at SHADE, and while it has been overwhelmingly intense and devastating and draining, it has and continues to be, an incredible experience. The strength and resilience of the people I have met absolutely blows me away. In an instant many have lost everything, yet are not seeking pity, only food, shelter and safety. The four teenaged Mozambican friends who had fled Khayalitcha together and came to us for help were so thankful when I loaded them up with food, clothing and magazines, and I couldn't help but laugh when the last one in the group called me an angel and then cheekily grabbed my bum as he hugged me goodbye. And the faith. The one constant thread between all of the refugees I have come into contact with – be they Somalis, Mozambicans, Zimbabweans, Rwandan, Malawians, Angolans, or those from the DRC – is their unwavering faith that God will take care of them. 'Que Dieu vous benisse,' I have been told on more than one occasion. While he was talking about everything he had seen and experienced, the Zimbabwean husband interspersed his words with jokes and laughter and 'thanks be to God'. I told him how it amazed me how much laughter I had heard and smiles I had seen in the midst of all this chaos. We have to laugh, he told me, otherwise we will go crazy.

And then there are my students. All of whom, in some way have been affected by what is going on. Either as witnesses or in some cases active participants, it is in the very communities that they live that these atrocities are taking place.

On Monday's assembly at school, the Principal and English HOD (P.) had spoken about the attacks and violence that had taken place over the weekend. About how it was wrong and how students must stay away from it. 'Even if you only take a loaf of bread from a shop that has been broken into,' P. told them, 'you are just as guilty as the one who broke the window to get in'. The reaction from students had been mixed. It was clear there was a divide in where they stood on the issue. In my classes that day, I asked them what was going on.

'Xenophobia!' came their chorused reply.

'Okay,' I replied, 'now how many of us know what xenophobia means?'

Not one student in any of my classes knew.

And so, I wrote the definition on the board.

Xenophobia is a fear or contempt of that which is foreign or unknown, especially of strangers or foreign people.
[1] It comes from the Greek words ξένος (xenos), meaning "foreigner," "stranger," and φόβος (phobos), meaning "fear." The term is typically used to describe a fear or dislike of foreigners or of people significantly different from oneself.

After we read through it, I asked them why, if it's a fear of that which is foreign or unknown, I am not under siege. I am clearly foreign, so why is my house not being burnt down?

'Because you are white, miss', they told me.

Okay, so how about the part where it says people significantly different from oneself? Are these people from neighboring countries not our brothers and sisters who happen to live on the other side of a border someone drew once upon a time?

It didn't take long for any of the discussions to take flight and become very heated. Their views came from both sides – those who were in favour of kicking out the Makwirikwiri (the word they use to refer to foreigners), and those who said they should stay and that the violence was wrong.

Those against the violence raised valid points about the fact that the people who are here are often fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries, that during the Apartheid era many South Africans sought refuge in neighboring countries, and that people were now doing to others what had been done to them under the old regime.

Those on the other side of the fence echoed the sentiments that we have seen quoted in the newspaper and that I heard even some of my colleagues discussing regarding their belief that foreigners come and steal jobs from them, commit crime and sell drugs, put South Africans out of business by selling their goods for lower prices, and – from the boys in the group – steal their girlfriends.

For the most part it was a gender divide, girls against the violence, boys in favor, although there were definitely boys on the anti-violence side as well. Those in favour, I imagine, are likely being used as pawns by older siblings and relatives, and have likely committed some of the crimes themselves. As always however, I do not ask or listen when they try to tell me as this is not something I want to know about them, and when some of the boys began talking about how the foreigners must go back or be killed, I felt sick to my stomach. Teenagers speaking in such a way, and with such conviction in their voices. Shocking. Equally awful was the calm with which one of my students told me that he had seen a Somalian man beat to death in front of him the day before, right after a group of tsotsis burnt the shack of a Congolese family to the ground. 'It is the gangsters doing this miss,' he told me, 'They like it. We can't tell them to stop or they'll hurt us too. That's just the way it is.'

And now….

It has now been close to five weeks since I began writing this blog. I added to it throughout the two weeks that we were immersed in helping out in whatever way we could, and as I recounted the events gone by, reality unfolded itself all around me. Since the day this all began, things have quietened down significantly and SHADE has gone back to its regular working hours. This is not to say that things have gone back to normal – far from it. While some people have moved back to the communities from which they were originally driven, many are still displaced, living in shelters or homeless. Some have been deported. Others have willingly returned to their home countries where despite likely facing persecution upon arrival, prefer this option to staying in South Africa and dealing with the aftermath of the attacks.

Ten pages in Word feel far from sufficient to address the full extent of what has been since termed as the “dark days of May” here in South Africa. In reading over the words I wrote what now feels like forever ago, I can only hope that they offer at least a glimpse of the horrors that the nation’s people – driven to such action by poverty and neglect created and maintained by their own government – inflicted on their neighbouring brothers and sisters in a turn of events that Dr. Tutu was chastised for prophesising almost 5 years ago.


NB: see,,2-7-2382,00.html for more up-to-date information on the current state of affairs regarding this issue.