Education as an elixir for freedom

Doron Isaacs
Young learners demand minimum standards in schools during a march arranged by Equal Education in 2013. Photo by Zodwa Sinkempele.
Doron Isaacs

In 2010 there were 3228 matrics in Khayelitsha’s 19 high schools. They achieved just 44 ‘A’ symbols between them, in all subjects.

Thirty kilometres away, at Westerford, a top school in Rondebosch, there were 165 matrics. Between them these students achieved 403 ‘A’ symbols in their various subjects.

This is a snapshot. Things have improved slightly since then.

I mention this matric class because I knew many of them well, at a time when I spent many afternoons facilitating the after-school youth group meetings that Equal Education continues to run. I had no doubt that they were every bit as bright as the students at Westerford. But from the moment they entered school – and even before that – they were falling behind. How immense are the odds stacked against these young people?

We had read in the 2006 PIRLS report – in which South African performed worst of 40 countries – that 89% of students in the other 39 countries had access to school libraries compared to just 7% of South African students . In the other 39 countries, on average, half of the children were taking library books home on a daily basis and half made use of a central school library at least once a week.

We began a campaign for school libraries, and began to open libraries ourselves. To date our Bookery project has opened over 30 school libraries. As the 2013 NEEDU report made clear, education starts with reading .

And reading starts with books.

Numeracy is just as crucial. We saw that whereas over 60% of grade 6 learners in the formerly ‘white’ Cape Education Department schools were numerate at grade 6 level, only 2,1% in the formerly ‘black’ DET schools were.

Amidst all of this, where is the light?

The motto of the school I attended in Durban, Carmel College (which no longer exists) was “Torah Or”, which the school translated as “Knowledge is Light”.

The first light is in young people themselves. Amidst the gloom a vibrant, articulate mass movement of youth has arisen. Fundamentally, the young members of Equal Education, and their parents, still believe in the power of education to change lives, and to transform communities.

In the past six years EE has, amongst other things, forced government to fix schools, provide toilets, supply textbooks, appoint teachers, remove a negligent school principal, and pass a new law – the minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure – which has set binding timelines by which every school in SA must be provided with water, electricity, toilets, adequate classrooms, libraries, computer facilities and even sports fields.At the same time we have fought discrimination on the grounds of language, religion, pregnancy, race, geography and the ability to pay fees.

The other light is in the teachers. Yes, there are very serious problems of a lack of subject-content knowledge, appointment of principals, of resistance to proper evaluation, and there are times when a union puts its own interests ahead of learners and education in general.

But we know, from interacting with brilliant young people, members of EE, that some of them have wonderful teachers, despite the tough conditions. And because we know, from our members, how hard it is to learn in a township or rural school, we also know how hard it is to teach in these schools. We know that teachers have over-crowded classrooms, and experience great stress. We know that a teacher’s salary often supports an extended family. And we understand that it is difficult to achieve job satisfaction, and to remain motivated, when all of society’s social challenges are felt in the classroom.

There is no way forward in education without the teachers. Some betray their professional duties, but most derive great pleasure from seeing children learn. Those EE members who are about to graduate from university are the proof of that.

Here are two stories about how teachers can change lives, the stories about two great South Africans: Oliver Tambo and George Bizos.

Oliver Tambo’s life and education show the contradictions between modern education and traditional life. Tambo’s boyhood name was Kaizana, after the German Kaizer who was at that time battling England, the colonial enemy, in WWI.

Where does the name ‘Oliver Tambo’ come from? Tambo’s Biographer, Luli Callinicos, tells the story:

On his first day of school, Kaizana discovered something that was as important as the reading, writing and arithmetic his father hoped the teacher would instill in the young boy. He learnt that schooling also required him to manage another identity.

‘The teacher approached me and asked me for my name. I gave him my name and he said, “No, you are giving me your home name. I want your school name.” I told him I did not know my school name. “Well then,” he said, “you also have a second name, which should be the name of one of your ancestors who has died. So tomorrow you bring your name and surname.”

‘Returning home, I told my parents that the teacher did not want my name… The following morning, my father told me that my school name would be Oliver and the second name, Tambo…’

At first, Tambo was a reluctant schoolboy:

‘I did not like going to school, firstly because it was far, and I didn’t enjoy it. My father was aware of this and he sometimes lent me his horse to go to school just to encourage me. But of course, if I was going on horseback it was great fun; but when I didn’t have the horse, I would find excuses not to go. I would play sick, and I found the weather a great ally of mine. If it was raining then my parents would say, “No, don’t go to school.”’

Apart from his preference for horse riding, other, more serious factors made Tambo reticent about attending his rural mission school:

He was becoming increasingly concerned that he was not contributing his fair share to the productivity of the homestead.

‘My father now had to look after cattle as if he were a herd boy,’ recalled Tambo. ‘[His friends] thought he was silly and stupid… – and he was just about the only one who did that… My father was determined that we should go to school.’

Would Tambo have become who he became without such a visionary and self-sacrificing father?

And there was another factor that threatened Tambo’s education. His family was poor, not well-connected, and couldn’t afford the school fees.

‘[We] were increasingly giving in to despair and sadness; but … after several painful anxious days, he brought the great news that we were to be admitted to the school and would stay at St John’s Kraal as boarders… We came to know that the relief … was provided by two women, Joyce and Ruth Goddard, who lived in England.’

But, in fact, this was not enough. Again Tambo’s education was threatened by poverty:

‘The Goddard sisters could not, in fact, afford the full amount needed for the boys’ education, so Oliver’s … oldest brother, Willy, who was working in the coal mines in Natal, undertook to provide £6 a year, to match the £6 donated by the English sisters.’

Tambo completed the majority of his high school years in Johannesburg, a completely different world from the Pondoland hills in which he had grown up. The standard of education was also higher, as he himself observed:

‘It was becoming clear that, from being at the top at Holy Cross, we were at the bottom at St Peter’s.’

Having navigated these challenges Tambo began to enjoy school and thrive. In November 1936, the time came for Tambo to write his Junior Certificate school leaving examinations along with other black and white students throughout the Transvaal, who all sat for the same examination.

‘The results showed that Joe Mokoena and I had made history. For the first time in the history of education in South Africa, two African students had passed the JC with a First Class degree…’

A fellow student explained the reaction of the country:

‘We were then writing the same examinations as any white school… They excited the whole of South Africa that for the first time two black students can get First Class, First Division and come out with distinctions; the examiners in Pretoria were very surprised. They had to come and inspect the school, because they couldn’t understand how black people could acquire such high standards. [The examiners wanted to know] where they were sitting, because they suspected that they may have been copying. [But] they had been sitting far from each other when they wrote the exams’.

In that same year, only one white boy in the whole of the Transvaal managed to equal Tambo.

Tambo’s story is partly a triumph over adversity produced by his own talent. But his father gave him the opportunity, the Goddard sisters and his brother Willy provided the funds, and his teachers enabled him to be brilliant. There were undoubtedly many other brilliant young mathematicians in those Pondoland hills whose lives never unfolded in the unlikely and spectacular way that Tambo’s did.

George Bizos is one of the most celebrated lawyers in South Africa. He was part of the team that saved Mandela, Sisulu, Kathrada and others from the death penalty at the Rivonia Trial. Throughout his life he has defended poor people.

Bizos grew up in a small rural village in Greece. He began school a year before Tambo wrote the JC examinations:

‘My primary school was not unlike those the children of Soweto attended during the apartheid years,’ he writes in his autobiography Odyssey to Freedom. ‘In the 1930s there were no fewer than a 140 of us of different ages in one room with a single teacher. A blackboard, an abacus and a slate were the main teaching aids. A tattered reading book was passed from one year to the next, while a new exercise book, a pencil and an eraser were all we had.’

But Bizos was also very lucky. His father was mayor of the little village. Therefore the teacher stayed in their house. This meant he got a lot of extra instruction and attention.

As Bizos recalls:

‘She managed the school with ease and grace. We were not afraid of her. Before we arrived at school she wrote exercises on the blackboard for the older ones to do on their slates or in their books, then she read lessons to us, the younger ones.’

During these years fascism was rising in Europe and then WWII broke out in 1939. One day it was reported to Bizos’ father that a shepherd had seen a group of hungry, frightened men hiding in the hills.

In fact, these were New Zealand soldiers who had been fighting to protect Greece from Germany and Italy. Young Bizos and his father set out to find them, carrying food. After finding them Bizos’ father used most of the family’s saving to buy a boat to help the New Zealanders sail to Crete, which was still under Allied control. This heroic journey successfully rescued the soldiers, with George and his father on board.

The two were told they could not return to Greece until after the war and so elected to go to South Africa. In Johannesburg George and his father achieved some fame when a Sunday Times journalist discovered their heroism and published the story with a picture.

At that time the likelihood was that George would never finish school. He worked all day in a small shop

But as he tells us, ‘chance would have it otherwise’.

‘One day, while serving a customer, I noticed a young woman in the middle of the shop staring at me… When I served her, she turned her head sideways, smiled and asked, ‘Are you not the boy whose photo appeared in the newspaper? With your father? The ones that escaped from the Germans?’ I said I was. With an even broader smile she reached across the counter to shake my hand. ‘What school do you go to?’ I told her that I didn’t go to school…

She introduced herself as Cecilia Feinstein, a teacher… Then she said she would come back in a day or two, by which time she hoped all would have agreed that she could take me to her school the following Monday.’

George joined Miss Feinstein’s class, and after a while, he flourished.

In 1996, the University of Natal in Durban conferred an honorary doctorate of law on George Bizos. He was asked which special guest he wanted to invite to the ceremony. Cecilia Feinstein was top of the list.

Finally, after more than fifty years, he was able to make a public acknowledgment of her role in his life.

As he says in his autobiography: ‘I often wonder what I might have made of my life if she had not insisted that, refugee or not, I was entitled to the right to learn.’

OR Tambo and George Bizos are two South African heroes. But they were also both very lucky. People came into their lives at the right moments and helped them get a really good education.

Today, as in the past, there are many young people as bright at Tambo and Bizos who never get that lucky break. Some of these are members of Equal Education.

Schools and teachers exist to give everyone a chance to use their talents. When that happens humanity benefits, because we don’t lose out on the contributions of the many other potential Olivers and Georges.

Equal Education secured a major breakthrough for poor schools with the finalisation of binding school infrastructure standards, the first law that says what every school must have. Implementing that law will be a priority of ours in coming years. We are also now beginning to turn our attention to an even bigger challenge: the quality of teaching and learning in schools.

As we educate ourselves about what undermines the quality of teaching we are inviting teachers to help guide us. As long as we are all putting education first, teachers will have a strong ally in EE.

Ruth Simmons, great-great granddaughter of slaves, and the youngest of 12 children, the first woman president of Brown University, and the first black president of an Ivy League University, has described education as an ‘elixir for freedom’.

That is the challenge for South Africa. Will poor quality education be a poverty trap, as recent research has suggested, or can it be an elixir for freedom?

Isaacs is the deputy general secretary of Equal Education. This is an edited extract from a speech he delivered at the national conference of the National and Professional Teachers Organisation of SA (Naptosa) in Durban last week.

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TOPICS:  Education

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