The smiles in the picture above at the end of our transect walk through the Soweto On Sea community weren’t all happiness. We were certainly humbled by the warm reception, incited by the desire to do something, but also disturbed by the mounds of trash, the broken abandoned houses where rapes and murders frequently occurred.
The community’s struggles reach back to times of apartheid in South Africa. Because Soweto On Sea had been a difficult area for the police to penetrate, the square we were standing in had been the center of the anti-apartheid movement, filled with activists who were hiding from the police, rallying the locals and planning their next moves. “Each week there would be a funeral for those who had died that week and a burial for those who had their funeral the previous week,” one of the NMMU students told us. “It became the basis of the political platform and language.”
The irony of it all, he told us, was that most of these people who fought were now the same ones who were unemployed in the township: “Victory has not served those who were on the frontlines.” When asked why, he struggled a little to answer, ultimately settling on his belief that the current parliamentary was no longer connected to the township. “The people who fought at the time were not being educated,” he pointed out. “They were busy planning attacks, sitting in prison, running from the police. They can’t take part in the system now because they don’t have the education to be on the same playing field. Now their only value to the parliamentarians is a voting majority, nothing else.”
The man from the small car wash came up to our group and emphatically pointed to the square behind him, “This place is the reason we have a black president now.”
The point of the day suddenly became clear: all of the issues that South Africa faced, just like any other country, were the result of their history. As we returned to NMMU, the community workers and NMMU students filled in more of the gaps about this connection. Later that evening we even heard from two activists who were prominent during the anti-apartheid struggles, Bongani Gxilishe and Winky Mgqibisa, both of whom had been involved in the famous student uprising of 1976, in which black students protested against the requirement to be educated in the Afrikaans Bantu education system that had been enforced by the Afrikaaners.
“During apartheid, education was different for different people. It was meant to keep the blacks in different economic roles than the whites. That difference in quality has remained stagnant.”
“My father was originally in the military before apartheid. Then he stole their money and left to the North to be trained so he could come back and fight. Come to think of it, I’m more fortunate now because my father’s father was a doctor and my mother’s father was a teacher. So when my parents were growing up in the struggle, my grandparents ensured they were getting their education first.”
“I lost both of my parents when I was five. In the culture of black people, my child is your child and I was taken in by my neighbors. And it is because of them that I became what I am today, a firm believer in the Black Consciousness Movement. It’s unfortunate that this history of the BC movement is now being distorted and students now don’t care. Back then we were politicized at such a young age by what was happening around us. You know that building across the road? It is where most of the activists were tortured and killed.”
The development crises that townships like Soweto On Sea faced today could then truly only be solved sustainably in the long run through education, a theme that came up again and again with many of the community workers and MIT students. We were shocked to find kids in uniform walking around the neighborhood, not in school. The community workers told stories of schools with 42 children in a ten-square-meter area, with the teacher not even being paid for the first five years of teaching. “My child goes to this school,” she said. “How is a teacher supposed to teach if she is hungry and frustrated without electricity?” Another student stood up and cried, “Is there no over-sight to who is teaching in our schools? People who are educated just leave the township and there is no inspiration for children who are hungry to go to school because they see no value. There is not a culture of learning here. You know this whole host of problems? Everyone talks about them and how we need solutions. But no one ever really works out those solutions.”
Indignation started to fill the room, and continued to follow us as we loaded onto the bus. MIT and NMMU students were talking together, expressing their frustration by the problem, without a viable solution. So when we arrived at Charles Duna Primary School, the atmosphere of desperation was looking for some answer, for a glimmer of hope. And Nombulelo Sume, the principal of the school, gave us just that. She told us the story of how she fought to balance the school’s lack of access to water with her fervent belief in placing the education of the children, “the poorest of the poor” first above all else. Here’s a glimpse of what she had to face:
You could hear a quiet awe and empowerment that everyone felt as she told us of the challenges she faced and her ability to rally the community behind her. Most of us could not imagine parents volunteering their time to carry buckets of water and manually flush the toilets in the school, just to ensure that their child could have an education after the government could not support that change. Having just seen communities where education was completely disregarded, it was refreshing, inspiring to see how the indifference toward education could be overcome. Because of Ms. Sume’s persistence, a representative from Coca-Cola’s rainwater harvesting program heard about the school. Despite the fact that they had already filled their quota of 100 schools, the representative pushed ahead and listed Charles Duna Primary School as the 101st school. As of July of last year, thanks to the program, the school finally had water flowing from their taps.
And her efforts didn’t stop there. “One of our other community projects is a vegetable garden,” she said. “When I started this school, I was burying a child each year. When I asked their parents what they would eat, it was full of carbohydrates. No fruits, no vegetables. So we are using the school as a center of progress for the community. We haven’t had a single HIV-related death now in 8 years.” Nombulelo also talked about giving everything else she could to make the students competitive, like arts, drama, and sports programs (“We have a student who is now playing on the national soccer team!”).
Nombulele showed us that it is possible to make progress despite the overwhelming sense of complexity in the status quo: “I ask for the richer schools’ old, used uniforms. I find scraps of boxes and metal for the kids’ projects. I am trying to build a library. You know, you have to dispel the myth of ‘poor me, I can’t do anything because I don’t have anything.'”
When we passed by a room under reconstruction, she said, “It’s going to be my future science lab. You have to dream, right?”
MIT Terrascope is setting up a Principal’s Discretionary Fund. We would like to raise at least $1000 or about 10,000 Rand for Nombulele to continue the amazing work she has done for the children. Please contact me if you would like to donate!