Khayelitsha is unofficially the third largest township in South Africa. It is estimated that over a million people live here. One can easily see it from the N2 highway between the Swartklip Road that goes over the N2 just south of the R300 to the Baden Powell Drive from the city centre to Somerset West. It is hard to believe that this massive dumping site for the apartheid government did not exist 25 years ago. Its size is not the only feature that stands out. Khayelitsha has had a major upgrade the last 15 years in that a lot of school were built.
The schools are a picture of the good work our government has done the past 15 years. They stare impressively in the face of shacks and makeshift dumping sights. The stench overwhelming and the crime more than a nuisance, the schools stand and remind us how strong we can all be in the face of adversity. It looks like South Africa is going forward at great pace and will in no time produce black graduates in their hundreds of thousands. This is so good to see that and it puts a lump in my throat to see how far we have come.
However, when you decide to be brave and take one of the three off-ramps that enter Khayelitsha (Mew Way, Spine Road or Baden Powell Drive), you see a different side of this massive township. You see that although hunger is prevalent, not everyone is hungry. You also see that although there is a high unemployment rate and dire poverty, Khayelitsha has a huge buying power. But more importantly, on close inspection, you see that the beautiful, steady schools that were and continue to be built by the government are very much just buildings were the youth go for six hours a day and come back to continue with their lives. I personally do not get a feeling that the learners learn as much as they should, if at all.
For starters, on average the high schools I have had the opportunity (I dare not say pleasure) to visit and/or observe have about 40% late-coming rate. And that 40% is locked outside school grounds for anything from 30 minutes to a whole school day. The time they are locked outside will depend on the mood of the principal on that day. Sometimes when he or she (principal) is in a good mood, the gate will not be locked or will be opened every couple of minutes for however long it may take to allow a constant stream of late-comers inside the school grounds. I witnessed this with my own eyes on numerous occasions in all Khayelitsha schools I have visited. I concede that while I attended a township school I was also one of hundreds (virtually half the school) who were late and missed at least one lesson (the principal woke up on the wrong side of the bad) every morning. However, I have since changed mainly because of discipline instilled in me after I left that school.
It does not end there. Go inside the school and see the evident disregard of all forms of school etiquette from the dress code and overall appearance, to clear disrespect by the learners and teachers alike. The skirts are short and there is make-up for girls and all forms of jewellery, knives and drugs and odd caps for boys. You ignore that, move on to the reception, and wait there for 30 minutes because everyone (teachers and other school staff) is having his or her two-cent’s worth in a quasi-political spat. Finally, the receptionist gets back and is rude and uncooperative for reasons only known to her. You state that you just want to have a quick tour of the school. You later discover through a sharp ear and corroboration that the receptionist wanted to give sufficient time to cover up the fact that during contact time, the teachers were having a heated debate in the staffroom about who should take the position of principal (even though they have a principal who has no plans to resign). This is so because the current principal is not a member of the same trade union as the teachers and that renders him unfit to lead them in their humble opinions.
Moreover, even though I arrived a good 40 minutes before the first break in this particular school, you could have sworn that it was after school hours. There were two soccer games in full swing with about a hundred fans each on the sidelines. And because the school has three storeys, there were plenty of fans looking on from the comfort of their classes or balconies, basking in the late morning sun and enjoying a good game of diski (township slang for soccer). I also watched over a dozen games of “spin”, “mtshayna” (gambling) drafts and playing cards. That was the perfect opportunity to chat about schoolwork. However, I had to be very careful because I did not want to chase these learners away after I mentioned the dreaded word, HOMEWORK.
I was ultimately able to manoeuvre my way through their defences and ask the grade 9’s the big question, which is: Do you do your homework or study more than one hour a day at home? The answer was largely to the negative and they looked very puzzled as to why I asked that. Before counting the numbers, I had to reassure them that no names, including that of the school would be divulged. Therefore, I will keep my word. I found that in my very first group, only one of eight boys and three out of eleven girls answered on the affirmative. I was not shocked by the results, more by their honesty. I say that because I am one of a handful of people who have had the opportunity to study at both township and suburban schools. Therefore, I was aware of the huge difference first hand as opposed to other people who guess and speculate. However, I was also not prepared for the honesty and openness to discuss freely once I had gained their trust.
Most of the learners I interviewed have one meal a day. And that is normally their mother’s lunch at work or leftovers from their mother’s employers (the mothers are normally domestic workers who have no high school education, if any education). That seemed to be a consistent story throughout the schools in Khayelitsha. Some learners just could not help but weep while painting a story of how sometimes they depend on neighbours for food for weeks on end. And a good number of them explained that they live in one-roomed shacks with parents and sibling and have no space to study. Even those who lived in four-roomed brick houses had the same problem because they lived with extended family in addition to their parents and siblings. They said that the TV, radio, sound system and conversations were always loud and prevented them from concentrating. The other major problem was that of a culture of education. The learners raised the point that their parents and other family members were not educated or did not get far with in school. Therefore, they do not understand when they have to study. The parents just see studying as an excuse to not do house chores or to escape being sent somewhere, at times to ask for food. When studying, the learners are accused of being lazy by other family members and then punished by having the already scarce food withheld from them. I have learnt that this form of punishment (having food withheld) is a very widely practiced form of punishment in Khayelitsha households. You need not be an education expert to see that as a huge challenge to anyone, especially a high school learner. The teachers also got some of the blame. They were accused of being “teachers on paper but not in classrooms” (translated from isiXhosa).
The learners practically lambasted the teachers for not doing their job. Such is the nature of the stories about teachers that I am worried that what I heard there would not be believed and my credibility questioned. They were not only horrible teachers in so far as not being able to assist the learners with their work; they also went on for weeks without looking at learner’s books. Therefore, the learners did not do the work for two major reasons. The first is that they do not understand the work. Secondly, teachers would not check the work for weeks on end. I can vouch for them in this one. I recall when I was a learner in Khayelitsha that I got 0% for Mathematics because I never understood what a gradient was. Let alone, a tangent, sine, cosine, cotangent etc. So how exactly was I supposed to work them out if I did not know what they were? The teachers ridiculed me in front of the class when I asked what a tangent was and how they could explain me in day-to-day language. Only to find out that no one laughed because they too wanted to know what it was. I later discovered that the teacher also did not know, and yet was happy to just give me 0% for all my work and then waltz to the staff room for a rest, leaving trails of cries for more explanation from us learners. I can relate totally. However, I would not let that interfere with the work. After all, I wanted to stop the guesswork and put numbers on paper. Learners also feel that the teachers do not care because most if not all their children do not attend township schools, but those in the suburbs. Therefore, they did not worry that their careless actions would negatively affect their children’s future.
I also found that the Grade 9’s are by far the naughtiest group in the schools I have visited. All teachers, caretaking team, school governing body and RCL (Representative Council of Learners) had something to say about the Grade 9’s. One Grade 9 boy told me that it is so because they were “prisoners” in primary school, did not know how things worked in Grade 8 and were now putting their freedom to good use. That made me remember that I felt exactly the same way about school when I was in Grade 9.
In contrast to what I have written about mostly Khayelitsha schools, I have also visited Plumstead High School, my other former high school and other nearby schools. If you were new in South Africa and were blindfolded while being transported from a township school to that in the suburbs, you would swear that you were in a different country or at least 500km from Khayelitsha. Other than the clear difference and standards of living, these schools have structure, impeccable discipline, and unrivalled results. Currently those results are virtually impossible in Khayelitsha other than in Luhlaza High School, which is the best school I visited. Almost everything here is in tiptop shape. When I asked the question: Do you do your homework or study more than one hour a day at home? An overwhelming number of learners answered YES and together with their teachers who were very helpful and courteous explained that the results reflect this way because the learner’s parents are involved in their education. Parents ask if there is any homework and will phone the school to double-check should they have any doubts. Parents also create the atmosphere for studying in providing their children the correct nutrition, study aids, tutoring and adequate physical and psychological space and quiet time. However, there are those who concentrate too much on sports and other extramural activities to the detriment of their schoolwork. Again, the learners who live in the townships and go to school in the suburbs are the worst performing. The teachers were quick to point out the commuting hours and lack of participation by parents as they main causes. But these learners are still better off there compared to what they would endure in township school. There is no comparison in fact. I can vouch for this too.
When I asked them (suburban teachers) about the language issue, they brushed it under the carpet saying that it was not a problem. But I can tell you that it is. The learners I have asked explained that English was their biggest problem. But their parents told them that a good command in English would almost guarantee them a good job upon completion of school. As a result, these schools have had near perfect pass rates for decades. That is because education is tantamount to culture, the way of life. In the Khayelitsha side, education in the modern sense of the word is still a foreign concept both in the language of instruction and in the methodology and the incongruent environment between expectations at home and at school. The high school learners themselves are often the most educated people in the house and will not be told by anyone when, what, if even how to study. That is if those people care. A complete contrast to what happens it the suburbs.
I suggest that learners be taught in their mother tongue. Although I have a reasonably good command in English, isiXhosa is still my mother tongue and I understand and comprehend better when addressed in it. I (and the teacher) would have understood what a gradient is and thus would have gotten better results in Mathematics. The problem is that parents themselves will not want that because they were brainwashed into elevating certain languages at the expense of their own. Apartheid maybe dead and buried on paper, but it is alive and well in the older generation’s mind in that they are more than happy for their children to be taught in a foreign language, using the excuse that they will not get jobs if they study in their mother tongue. Unfortunately, they are not aware of the clear results that show that human beings learn better in their mother tongue.
The older generation even go further and poison their children’s minds by planting racist seeds in their minds. During the 2009 national elections, I was told by a six year old white girl that I should not vote for the ANC because they are all corrupt and spend money meant for the poor. I was also made aware of something I already knew that corporal punishment was still widely practiced in the townships, even though it was abolished in 1996 when the Constitution came into power. Parents and teachers alike believe that hitting the children to submission is a good way to educate and instil discipline. Parents even encourage unwilling teachers to hit their children so that they respect them. And this is in a world where the very same township parents and teachers condemn the high crime rate and violence perpetrated by the youths of high school and university going age. They wonder why the youth is so violent, bitter, aggressive and hostile towards them as parents and teachers. They seem to not get the connection that inflicting physical, emotional or psychological pain on someone let alone a teenager with a tendency to blush, and in a group situation, including the opposite sex where the embarrassment is amplified is counter-productive and is not an enabling environment for proper learning. There needs to be a partnership between the learners, parents, school and the department in order to table these issues, find a way forward, and hopefully have a paradigm shift in the way parents of township learners think. Parents seem not to get that they are role models of the children and that these learners do as the parents do and not as they say. The thought process is the root of the problem in most instances.
When I attended a township school, I “enjoyed” many “free periods”. That is a period when a teacher is absent from class and the learners have the whole lesson to do as they please. We used that time to play soccer, smoke, fight and do nasty things with girls in the toilets. You find that the teacher is sitting the staffroom having a break or just skipping class. In the suburbs, the teachers get paid the same but almost never miss class. If they do (which is highly unlikely) there are contingency plans in place to make sure that there is a substitute teacher in place, or learners go to other classes where lessons take place. And these teachers do not strike. The less said about the public service strike that affects townships schools, the better. This further exacerbates the fact that township learners start at the disadvantage compared to suburban learners in more ways that language and socio-economically. The teachers are more eager to strike and less eager to teach.
We have a long way to go. But identifying the problems is a good start. Let us all pull together from hereon in and make Khayelitsha the beacon of hope for all other townships to emulate. At a risk of sounding very bias, I can safely say that IkamvaYouth is the driving force behind this awakening. Education is life. So let us work to guarantee a clear air for our children to breathe and thrive. It is a pity that to this day, that is a distant dream in South Africa.