Thursday, October 8, 2009

outside the fishbowl looking in..

During the spring break of last week, four students from Fezeka participated in a conference called Shikaya with students from a variety of schools across Cape Town. The three-day forum included discussions, debates, guest speakers and the exchange of ideas on various issues facing the youth of this country and South Africa as a whole, focusing particularly on the use of statistics and a rating system developed by the Mo Ibrahim foundation (

On Monday following a particularly heated meeting with the English department (more on that to follow), our Principal asked me if I could drive these four students to a school in Rondebosch where they would participate in the closing ceremony of the conference, including with an audience with the board of the foundation, a London-based NGO that rates the countries in Africa based on a range of criteria, offering a $5M incentive to the leader of the country that manages to top the list each year. More information can be found on their website.

The event was held at Rondebosch Boys High School. Despite being touted as a government school by the event organizer, it was difficult to imagine how this could be. From the time we drove onto the campus, it was like we were in an alternate universe. Beautiful wide tree-lined roads wove their way in and around the property. Lush green fields and plants were everywhere you looked. Stunning, well-maintained and massive structures housed the administration, school and various other buildings. A cricket field and soccer pitch, complete with their respective clubhouses rounded out one edge of the campus. As the students and I walked along one of the roads towards the location of the event, their awe was impossible to ignore. Their silence as they took it all in was interrupted only by the occasional ooh and ahh. I later found out that this “government school” has annual school fees of R40K. Right.

When we reached our destination we sat on the grass outside for a bit while the rest of the students arrived. The organizer had asked the students to think of some questions they may like to ask the board about what they had learnt during the conference, or that they may have about their rating system. They asked me for help with their questions so we sat and discussed. Despite the rating focussing predominately on economic development, the kids said that they had also talked about education and crime in South Africa. Sensing an opportunity, I asked them what they thought about the education system in this country, if they thought it was fair. They did not. I agreed and asked them to give me an example of how this is true.

“Look around you miss. Look at these trees. This grass. These buildings. You don’t see kids bunking. You don’t see rubbish everywhere. Why do these kids get to have this kind of education, these kinds of things [facilities]? How come we don’t?”

This had been exactly what I had been fishing for. The stark contrast between the school and environment we had left 20 minutes earlier and the one at which we currently found ourselves had not been lost on them. Sad as the reality of the situation was, I was happy to hear that they were at least aware of this sort of inequality.

I asked them how it made them feel when they looked around the campus surrounding us.

“I feel….small.” said one.
“Wow.” said another, under his breath.

We spoke about how they mustn’t feel small, that they mustn’t ever allow anyone – or anything – else to make them feel small. That the advantages enjoyed by the students at this school were no reflection on them as individuals, merely of the opportunities they had been lucky to benefit from, because of where and the privilege into which, they were born. By that same token, my students had been born into a disadvantaged reality. Neither them nor the students at Rondebosch boys high school had asked or done anything to be born into either world. It’s just the way it is.

We continued talking. The issue of crime and violence in South Africa was raised. What causes crime? I asked.

“Poverty.” answered one.
“Can you expand on that?” I asked.
“When you are hungry you are not thinking with your head, you are thinking with your stomach. When your tummy is rumbling you can’t think of anything else.” she continued.

As we were heading into the clubhouse for the discussion, a student from another township school approached me.

“Miss, do you teach at Fezeka?”
“I do sweetie, yes.”
“Wow. I never expected that. I thought maybe you would teach at a school like this – but a township school? Shuuu.”

The discussion was an interesting one, as the students – diverse as South Africa comes – asked a number of interesting and well thought-out questions. I was impressed at the degrees of critical thinking expressed by many of them. At the same time, there was clearly a difference between the competency levels of the students, particularly when it came to the knowledge and grasp of the English language. This saddened me. The students that had been selected from Fezeka were among the top students in their grade but yet they were miles apart from their colleagues from wealthier schools. Not that this came as any surprise but as my exposure to students from these schools is very limited, it was a jarring reminder.

I couldn’t help but smile as my students asked some of the questions we had discussed, with their own twists. One of my favourite answers from the panel came from the only South African member (it is an international collaboration, with members from all over the world). When one of my students asked her what she thought about the fact that there were so few green spaces and recreational activities available to youth and how libraries are all but non-existent, in disadvantaged communities, she wholeheartedly agreed with him on the greatness of this injustice.

“This issue is not one of a lack of funds,” she continued, “every year the Minister of recreation returns with a surplus in his budget. The money to build parks is there. The fact that this isn’t happening is because of poor organization and mis-management at the implementation level. I am glad to hear you are aware of this however, and support you in your mission to change things. You need to make yourselves heard though. Take advantage of 2010. The world’s eyes will be on South Africa. The powers that be don’t want the world to know that your schools don’t have libraries or that poor kids don’t have places to play. They don’t want people to be aware of how much worse off township schools are then richer schools, especially when they’ve sunk billions of ZAR into that “fish bowl” [referring to the Green Point stadium that is being constructed for the world cup, to be used for only 8 games]. The world cup is your window to have your voices heard. Take it.”

No comments: