Tuesday, January 27, 2009

in the staffroom during lunch just now,

some colleagues sitting around me were deeply involved in a conversation of a serious matter. As they were speaking in Xhosa it was their body languages and hushed tones that conveyed the topic of their discussion to me rather than their words.

When they stopped, I asked the one closest to me what they had been talking about.

"Death," came her reply. "Death and breavement."

Death is an inescapable part of township life. It is everywhere - from the dead dogs that are so common on the roads into and around Gugulethu, to the shack fires that regularly destroy homes (the most recent a mighty blaze that erased 200 shacks and left over 1000 homeless), to the teacher absences several times a month for bereavement, to the metaphorical death of potential so visible in the countless young adults - high school dropouts or grads - I see wandering around the townships during the day, desolate and unemployed.

I asked my colleague what she would guess the leading cause of death to be in those that are dying before their time.

"HIV, especially young women," she replied without a moment's hesitation.

I asked her if she knew many people who were positive.

"Yes. And who have died. We all do."

She spoke of how women are the more easily infected and how the power balance in sexual relationships is so extremely far from equal.

"It is not even a surprise," she said, "to hear of a married woman who has been infected by her husband."

This increasingly common occurrence is of course due to the husbands in these relationships being unfaithful, not using protection in these extra-marital affairs, and refusing to use condoms with their wives.

My colleague continued. “Men - especially married men - do not like to wear condoms. They say that they do not enjoy sex with them, and find it an insult to even be asked."

Confirmation of this behavior by adult men comes as little surprise. I have often seen evidence of these learned attitudes and beliefs exhibited by my male students who spout a similar rhetoric when justifying their unsafe sex practices.

Friday, January 23, 2009

happy new year!

At Fezeka we spent the first few days of this week preparing for a new school year. Monday and Tuesday were dedicated to planning, timetabling and analysis of last year’s (rather discouraging as failure rates were quite high) student reports.

In these meetings I learned that I would not be teaching my 2008 Grade 11 English students, despite what I had been previously advised and what I had subsequently told my students. The reason for this decision was explained as follows. Grade 12 is the Matriculation (exams students must pass in order to graduate high school) year for students and as such is a very important milestone in their education. Those who teach Grade 12 are subject to rigorous and continuous evaluation and monitoring by the Western Cape Education Department (WCED). When Fazeka’s Senior Management Team (SMT) met after the close of school last year, they decided that my students should be taught by a teacher who is actually registered with the WCED (versus myself, who since I am not, am not technically qualified to teach in a Western Cape school), to avoid any issues with departmental officials.

While I was disappointed to not be spending another year with this group of students, I understood the reasoning behind their decision. On the plus side, I am still teaching 2 of the classes I had from last year – those from my grade 10 English classes who were promoted to grade 11 (sadly, only about 60% of them), and those from my grade 10 Life Orientation class in the same situation (a slightly better average with about a 68% pass rate). I am also teaching a new grade 10 class – a mixture of new students from our [feeder school that teaches grade 8 and 9] Songeze campus and repeater students from Fezeka who did not pass grade 10 last year. Further, fortunately the teacher who will be teaching my Grade 11s from last year is my closest colleague and we have since discussed ways that we can share the teaching of this group of students.

Although I know teachers are not supposed to have favorites, I must admit that I was particularly saddened to find one of my brightest pupils from grade 10 last year had not made the grade to pass on to grade 11. On the first day of classes one of the class teachers (Fezeka’s equivalent of a homeroom teacher) was absent. As I am not a class teacher, I was asked to mind the class for the day. I won’t get into the chaos that reigned supreme on day one of the 2009 school year, but suffice to say that things could have been far better organized. When the dust settled, the group I had herded into my classroom was composed of about 48 students who had chosen this classroom based on a sign I had held up during morning assembly that listed the subjects students who chose this classroom would be taking. (At least most of them did. Once inside my classroom I informed them that I wouldn’t actually be teaching them and that I was just filling in for their actual class teacher who was absent, 4 students asked to be excused and never came back). Other teachers also held up signs with course lists on them, and students grouped accordingly. In this class I spotted about 10 students who had been in my English class last year. I was surprised to find this particular student among them as I had assumed based on his performance in my class last year that he would have breezed into the next year.

I could tell as soon as I saw him that he was embarrassed to be there. He didn’t speak once during class, even when his colleagues were chatting away noisily while I distributed their school-issued stationary and books for the year. When it was his turn to collect his allocation, I quietly asked him what had happened.

“Maths, Miss,” he immediately replied without looking up, as if he had known I would ask and was too shy to make eye contact. “Math is not my thing,” he continued.

I asked him what else he had failed, for as far as I knew if students failed one subject but attained at least a level 4 (40% and above) in all other subjects, they were promoted to the next grade. He said only Maths. This both confused and surprised me, and as he shuffled back to his seat I made a mental note to explore this further.

After school I went to speak to relevant department Head (incidentally, the same person who is responsible for students’ social welfare is also the year head for grade 10), to ask her what had gone on. We looked up his report card from last year and found that not only had he failed Maths, but History and IT as well. I also noticed that the mark he had received in my class was the highest of the lot, and that he had only passed [Home Language] Xhosa by the skin of his teeth (Home Language is often one of the highest marks students receive). Hm.

The next day I found him in the schoolyard during lunch and asked him to come to my classroom. When we were inside I asked him why he had told me that he had only failed Maths. Though his skin is quite dark, I could still notice a reddening in his cheeks.

“Because Miss, I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to be the one to tell you. I wanted you to find out for yourself.”

We then spoke about the year ahead and what he could do differently to ensure that the same mistake doesn’t happen. He said he was going to be more focused this year and try harder. I asked him about his Xhosa mark. He said that before Fezeka he had been at an English school (which explains his strength in English), and that when he was put into Xhosa class here at Fezeka it had been difficult for him because it had been some time since he had studied the language.

Before we parted I told him that I would be keeping an eye on him this year and checking in with him every once in a while to see how he was doing on his studies. He thanked me for this and said he would not let me down. I reminded him that it was himself more than anyone that he should be worrying about letting down but whatever works as the motivating factor works for me, so long as he tries his best.

And so, we start the New Year. At the beginning of the second week of school, things are beginning to calm down somewhat, as students are moved around to best accommodate their desired areas of study as well as class sizes, and timetabling kinks are ironed out.

Over the next stretch some of the initiatives that Education without Borders,
www.educationwithoutborders.ca has been the catalyst for in a variety of ways will begin to take flight. After school photography workshops with a fantastic local photographer www.vanessacowling.com and a chess cum life skills program (Chess 4 Hope, a community project being offered by Ikamva Labantu www.ikamva.org/index.html) are due to get going in mid-Feb. The procurement and distribution of English dictionaries to all students at Fezeka (something I am extremely excited about and have been advocating for some time), will hopefully come to fruition in the next few weeks. We are continuing with the very successful dance workshops that began last year with ikapa Dance Theatre www.ikapadancetheatre.co.za, and once school has settled into a more stable routine, I will resume my after school computer classes, meet with the students who had expressed an interest in starting a school magazine, and check in with the Drama Club to see how things are going.

Despite the fact that this year has only just begun and I have said that my time at Fezeka will likely come to an end at the conclusion of this school year, people (students, staff, family and friends both here and at home), have already asked me about where next year (2010) will find me. Although it is indeed far too early to tell, the warmth that I felt from staff and students who welcomed me back and eagerly shared their summer holiday stories with me while asking about mine, coupled with the familiar high I experienced during a terrific class last week give me the impression that I may not be going anywhere fast…

Sunday, January 18, 2009

We didn't start the fire...

…It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it..

Adderley Street is one of the main avenues in Cape Town, running through the centre of the downtown core. Every year about two months before Christmas, a celebration is held to herald the turning on of the holiday lights that bridge the street.

In an attempt to get into the Christmas spirit (no small feat for Canadians who are accustomed to cold weather accompanying the season celebrating Christ’s birth, and for whom 30+ degree weather is generally more closely tied into our nation’s birthday), my housemate and two other Canadian friends headed downtown to scoop it out late last year.

One of the first things I noticed as we approached Adderley was how many coloured people there were. Everywhere we looked, everyone was coloured. It was an interesting experience. As mentioned in previous blogs, despite the ‘end’ of apartheid 14 years ago, people often still remain separated (metaphorically as well as demographically) with certain neighbourhoods being clearly dominated by one race or another. Working in Gugulethu, the primary ethnic group that I associate with is black, whereas living in Cape Town there is a much larger percentage of whites and coloureds. I have been to nightclubs in Athlone – a suburb largely populated by coloureds – where the majority of people there were coloured, and of course on a daily basis interact with coloureds in various capacities. T
his was the first time that I had been in an environment where there were so many coloureds and little else.

To put it into context, according to the newspapers that were out the following day, close to 50 000 people attended the switching-on event. I would wager that about 99% of those in attendance were coloured. During our close to 2 hour time there, I saw about 15 black people and about 5 other white people. I kid you not.

In a later conversation with one of my coloured friends, she explained to me that for many coloureds who live in the Northern suburbs, particularly those who come from working class and poor homes, this night is an event that is looked forward to for much of the year. It’s a chance to engage in a quasi-cultural event with the whole family. As many do not come into the city that often, it is indeed a special occasion.

While I did not at any time feel unsafe during this excursion, for some reason it got me to thinking about my safety.

By far, the most common question people (white Capetonians, many of whom who have never been into a township, equally as much foreigners) ask me when I tell them I am working in a township has to do with whether:
a) it is safe and b) I feel safe.

My answer to both questions is always the same: Yes. That said, I do not drive into the heart of Gugulethu, I do not walk around beyond the school gates, and I do not drive to the townships at night alone. My school is enclosed by an electronic barbed wire-rimmed fence, and those at my school – students and staff alike – always look out for me. Before I had a car and would take public transport, they would never let me walk to the bus station by myself, despite it being a 4 minute walk in a strait line on a wide open road in broad daylight. You can literally see the bus station from the school gates. Regardless, I have been reminded countless times how easy it is to get robbed or worse, and have heard stories of students getting mugged steps from school property and how my white skin makes me an easily visible target.

As with any urban metropolis, it is important to have your wits about you when navigating the streets of Cape Town. I don’t take chances, nor do I believe in being overly-cautious. Crime happens everywhere, all the time. I know of friends here who have been robbed, hijacked, had their cars and homes broken into and held up at knife and gunpoint in every corner of the world. While the frequency of such crimes may not be the same in a city like Toronto, New York, Shanghai or London, the reality is that they still do happen.

The fact that where I work happens to be a black township I believe plays a significant role in people’s questions relating to my safety. There is a common belief, particularly among those Capetonians and South Africans who have never been into a township, that black townships are extraordinarily dangerous. This belief is to a large extent perpetuated by the media and the headlines that are regularly posted on signposts around the city having to do with murders, hijackings and theft in the townships. In no way am I disputing that these are dangerous places, but perhaps more pointing to the importance of contextualizing such incidences. Poverty and decades of oppression, understandably, leads to anger, resentment and desperation. Such emotions and sentiments lend themselves easily to crime and substance abuse as a (albeit extremely misguided) means of attempting to level the playing field and/or escape. Ostracizing a people, forcing them to live in areas away from the city centres, with education, health care facilities and everyday conveniences that are far substandard to those enjoyed by their white and (although to a lesser extent), coloured countrymen, only serves to further stoke the flames lit by this injustice.

All this said however, when I am in and around Cape Town, there are a few times that I have felt my safety may be at risk. Despite holding what I consider to be an extremely liberal ethos in all aspects, I would be lying if I said that I haven’t noticed a trend in the race of those around whom I have at times felt uneasy.

On those few occasions where I have thought I may be in danger, or felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle, it has almost always been coloured – not black as many would and do believe – young men and women that have the source of this uneasiness.

This said, I feel it important to clarify that in no way do I feel uncomfortable around all coloureds, only that in these few instances I couldn’t help but notice the common thread. My liberal guilt forces me to question why this may be, and why I don’t feel the same threat around young white or black youth. Working with black youth accounts for the overwhelming majority of my interactions with young people, so perhaps this has made me more comfortable with young blacks than most living in Cape Town may be. I do not interact with white youth very often, aside from in shops, at concerts and out and about around the city. Coloured youth perhaps more so, although not a great deal.

So why the apprehension?

As mentioned in various blogs over the past year, race relations and their according power dynamic are inextricably linked to the history of this country. The apartheid regime indoctrinated a nation with an innate sense of self-worth – ranging from positive to extremely negative – depending on where one is located on the skin colour hierarchy.

To this day, South African blacks, for all intents and purposes, are and continue to be on the lower level of this hierarchy. They have been seen and treated as the lowest class, and kept in oppression through a range of means (an article on the current state of the education system and its continued devastating effect on black youth can be read here:
http://www.news24.com/City_Press/News/0,,186-187_2448315,00.html). Most understand themselves in relation to this powerlessness, and many have accepted it as such. The immediate and undue respect I was accorded by my colleagues, as a white Westerner whom many assumed knew better than them, is perhaps one example of this acceptance. At the top rung are the whites, which will come as no surprise. The coloureds fall somewhere in the middle.

Perhaps similarly to the middle-child syndrome, I believe that the poorer coloureds of this country are the most affected by feelings of inadequacy, as while they are not as disadvantaged as the blacks, they are a far cry from the privileges enjoyed by the whites. For many on the lower end of the socio-economic scale, I believe this has created a deep-seeded resentfulness and sense of unfulfilled entitlement, particularly towards whites.

In no way do I claim to be a sociologist or equipped to make any kind of psychological analysis based on any of what I have written, these are only my thoughts. When a coloured girl swears at me in Afrikaans or a group of young coloured men walk a little too closely to me my heart beats a bit more quickly than usual. And not in a good way.

Am I foolish to think that [my believed theory of poor coloureds’] resentfulness means that I am any more likely to be harmed or have a crime committed against me by a coloured person than by someone who is white or black? Probably. Unsubstantiated fear is indeed a difficult thing to justify and understand.

…We didn’t start the fire
But when we are gone
Will it still burn on, and on, and on and on…

- Billy Joel

Friday, January 16, 2009

Welcome home!

I returned to Cape Town on Monday of this week, after being home in Canada for a month over the summer holidays. During that time my life here in South Africa might as well have been on the moon, so distant was it in my mind. Despite being sad to leave my loved ones in Toronto behind, I wasn’t dreading a return to a South African summer and going back to school. I am one of the fortunate ones who actually enjoys their job, I suppose.

As my visa to be in South Africa was to expire on January 27th, 2009 (as stated on the visa that has been in my passport since late 2007) and applications for visa extensions must be lodged at least a month before the old one is to expire, I began the initial steps of my application before I left for Canada at the beginning of December. I was unable to complete the application before my departure as it required a Police Clearance certificate from my home country that was valid within the last 6 months (the futility of requiring such a thing when I have been living here for the last year seemed to be apparent only to me), and I would need to be in Canada to acquire said documentation. I was given an extension on my visa application, with the police clearance and the R11,500 repatriation fee (as I am without a valid return ticket), to be rendered upon my return and the completion of my application.

Our plane touched down in Cape Town around 6:45 am on January 11th, 2009. Bleary-eyed from the close to 12-hour sleepless flight, I made my way to customs, pleased with the place at the front of the customs line that my speedy exit from the plane had provided me with. I greeted the customs agent with a sleepy smile, and handed over my passport. On numerous occasions upon my re-entry to R.S.A. I have had customs agents who are from Gugulethu and some who even studied at Fezeka. They are always pleased that I am working there, and usually send me on my way with a big smile. Not this customs agent. As she checked my visa, her brows furrowed. She then asked for my return ticket. When I told her did not have one, and that my visa extension application was with Home Affairs in town, she looked even more confused. Oh boy.

She then called over who I can only assume was her superior, who curtly informed me that my visa was no longer valid. Say what?

Ignoring the preamble and the parts of the visa that give my name, passport and visa number, what is printed on my visa follows:


Authority to proceed to the Republic to report to an Immigration officer at a port or port of entry has been granted by the Department of Home Affairs.

Number of Entries: Multiple Entry on or before 27/01/2009
Issued at: S.A. Consulate General Toronto on 28/12/2007

To be admitted for a period of twelve (12) months.
Volunteer at Fezeka S. School in Gugulethu Cape Town.

Despite my pointing out to this ever-so-charming individual that it is clearly printed on the visa that it is valid until the 27th of the month, she refuted what I said, claiming that they pay attention to the ‘admitted for a period of 12 months’ part, and that since my first entry into the Republic had been on January 9th, 2008, my visa had expired on January 9th, 2009;

the day before yesterday.

I told her that I had spent time at Home Affairs in town prior to my departure, that they had scrutinized my passport, looked at my visa, and said that I had until the 27th of December to lodge my visa extension application (a month before my existing one expired). The agent was unmoved and advised me that Home Affairs and Customs were two separate things. Exhausted and uncharacteristically too drained to fight, I asked her what my options were.

“You can either go back to London (where my flight had just come from), or buy a one-way ticket home to Canada,” I was told.

I asked to speak with her supervisor, who, although friendlier, basically reiterated what she had said, with the added option of paying a R12,000 repatriation fee on the spot. When I told him I had this money at home to submit with my visa extension application, he asked me if there was anyone at home who could bring it to the airport for me. It was now 7:45 a.m. Feeling my anger rise, I told him that there was not, and that I lived alone. Could I put the fee on my credit card? Yes, he said, although it would be a mission to get back. What? He said that it takes time, it has to go to Johannesburg and that sometimes they take a fee. WHAT? This man was telling me that I could pay a deposit of which I might not get back the entire amount?

Fine, I acquiesced; I would buy a one-way fully refundable ticket, which I would refund as soon as my visa extension was approved. He then told me that he didn’t know if I could get a refundable ticket. It was at this point that I demanded to speak to a British Airways employee who could sell me the refundable ticket and get me out of the holding room they reserve for interrogating people they suspect of misdoings and illegally entering the country.
The BA employees were lovely women, who walked me passed the baggage reclaim, out the gates, through the airport and into the departure terminal, and helped me get my [indeed, fully refundable] ticket. When they found out that I was volunteering, they shook their heads in disgust at the fact that I had been denied entry. They told me they had heard all kinds of stories; of families being turned back because of a spelling error on one of the children’s visas; of people being sent back on the next flight because they didn’t know they had to have a return ticket and didn’t have the money to pay for one on the spot, or people being denied entry because they didn’t have any spare pages in their passport upon which to stick the 1.5 x 2.5 inch visa sticker.

I was then escorted back where I showed the customs agent my ticket and was given a 3 month visitors visa. After I collected my bags and was about to exit into the arrivals terminal, I was stopped by two men who check bags and asked about the contents of my luggage. Any alcohol, food, cigarettes or gifts?

“No,” I replied, “I prefer to support the local economy.”
“Oh do you live here?” One of them asked.
“Okay then. Welcome home!”

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

On Wednesday I spent almost the entire (sweltering hot) day at Home Affairs in town waiting to submit the remainder of my visa extension application. I was a bit concerned that the fact that I now had a 3 month visitor’s visa might affect the fact that I was applying for an extension on a different visa that was apparently no longer valid, but wasn’t about to point that out to any of the officials with whom I spoke. My experience at Home Affairs and what I witnessed other applicants going through could fill another blog in of itself, but suffice to say that one would be hard pressed to believe that the Republic of South Africa welcomes visitors and those wanting to extend their stays, so rude and dismissive were many of the people behind the counter, particularly towards those whose grasp of the English language was not very good.

At precisely 12pm, 6 of the 8 staff who had been working behind the counter went on lunch, leaving 1 manager and 1 trainee to handle the 100+ crowd of people waiting in different lines. I didn’t say a word when I was sent to the wrong line twice and only told I was in the wrong line when I reached the front of the line as this had happened when I had been there to submit the first part of my application in early December. Not to mention when I was sent to the wrong office on the other side of town, only to be told when I arrived there that I couldn’t file the visa extension at that location. I later found this out to allegedly be untrue, but at this point I think it better to cover all my bases than to believe anything anyone who works for Home Affairs or Customs says. Finally, after waiting, starving and sweating for over 6 hours, my visa extension was in my passport. Success! This only happened because the 4th woman to handle my application was herself a former student at Fezeka and walked me up to the office on the floor above where the visas were physically put into the passports. After I paid my repatriation fee, the man behind the counter asked me if I hadn’t had to pay one in Canada when I made my initial application in late 2007. Indeed I had, I told him. He then informed me that the receipt for that deposit would have sufficed to pay my deposit here. Of course, I had not been told this by Home Affairs in Cape Town prior to my departure, nor was I informed of this little tidbit of information by the staff the South African Consulate General in Toronto, whom I spoke with on 3 different occasions during the month I was in Canada for the holidays, and as a result the receipt for my initial deposit is somewhere at my mother’s house in Toronto.

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

To add insult to injury, when the refund for my airline ticket appeared on my credit card statement yesterday (2 days after the initial charge had been processed), because of foreign exchange rate fluctuations, I ended up getting charged $55 CDN or close to R450 (almost a quarter of my monthly rent) for the ticket.