It was only in South Africa that I realised just how much my learning was ‘westernised’, for lack of a better term. I grew up in Mauritius where the end game was to pass the Cambridge Ordinary and Advanced levels. I then went to university in the United States. I found it amusing when I received my accounting paper with a thumbs-up and a smiley face sticker against my grade. As much as it seemed very ‘American’ to me, the content in itself was not vastly different from what I had studied. At the business school in South Africa, I was suddenly exposed to a completely different world. The professors in our class were mind-blowing. They had an incredible wealth of knowledge, a different understanding of how things were the way they were, and a perspective that I found riveting. I often sat listening to them in awe, my mouth half open. I was also amazed at how they were also so incredibly well connected – the CEOs of the biggest companies or the celebrities or you name it were their friends and they spoke of them on a first name basis. Lectures were probably one of my favourite South African experiences.
And outside of lectures, there was a fair amount of learning outside of class. One of my most memorable outings was a visit to a high school in Zeerust, a commercial town not too far from the border of Botswana. We travelled for a few hours from Joburg, and then hit the single-track dirt road. This was the only way to access to high school. As soon as we pulled into the school’s parking lot, we were greeted by the sounds of a school choir. Our class representative stepped out of our van to find out where we should go. I saw him talk to a plump lady, who was standing at the front gate. She seemed very timid, holding her hands tightly to her sides, smiled a lot and kept her eyes down. A few minutes, we were called out of the van – this lady was in fact the principal and had been waiting for us to arrive.
We were taken through the school, which was immaculately clean. All the kids were outside of their classes and mostly singing. They were all well dressed in white shirts and ties. I asked if it was the school recess – it was not. They were waiting for our visit. We were taken to a classroom which has been set up for our visit. There the principal opened up to us, welcoming us to their school, and still smiling from ear to ear. At some point we realised there was a delay of some sort. It turned out that they were waiting for a laptop to start the presentation. We learnt that there was no funding for computers, and so on occasions like this, where a laptop was needed, they would use this one teacher’s laptop.
The principal, Mona, started off by telling us that the pass rate of the students was at 90%. You must understand, the parents of most of these children were illiterate and worked as domestic workers. Of the 250 students, 45 were orphans, and many were the head of their families. The town of Zeerust was plagued by unemployment and poverty. So this was no small feat. She went on to describe the lengths that they took to make this possible. First, it started with the teachers themselves. The treacherous meander via this single access point to the school was a significant hindrance to attracting and retaining quality teachers. Mona tried her best to work with the teachers she had - the teachers that Mona had were committed. Mona showed us the mattresses stacked at the back of the classroom – during exam time, the teachers slept at the school as classes ran till very late.
Mona and the teachers involved the parents of the students actively. At the start of the school year, they held a day with the parents and outlined what they expected from the parents. Sometimes parents didn’t bite the bait. And in this case, Mona sought help from the tribal authority. These were elders of the community who were separate from the police, but had an important role to play in this community. With their help, Mona managed to get more parents on board. She even got parents to contribute to shape the school’s Code of Conduct.
The school had regular ‘accountability sessions’, where the school management, teacher, parents and students were involved. When grades were low, these sessions focused on subject improvement plans, and targets were set within this little group and monitored actively. What Mona found, was that if she got the parents on her side, that’s when the children responded most. And then, where this method didn’t work, Mona involved the … pastor. The pastor of this town donates uniforms to all the orphans and was often a key motivational speaker at school. And when they needed professional help, Mona and the teacher tapped into the Employee Assistant Programs that were available to teachers as part of the employment, but somehow managed to use it for the students. And like most of South Africa, this town was not free from crime. Students falling into the wrong path was a real danger. And what did Mona do? She approached some of the troublemakers of the town – she asked them to protect the school. In this way, she made friends with the thugs and also got them invested in these kids’ futures. And so when the matric exam results are released, Mona tells us that the teachers, students, parents and the whole town celebrate. It really takes a village.
The resources that the school had were limited. There was a building facility, electricity, running water and a tennis court. But the school didn’t have enough classrooms or an administration building. But the most alarming fact was the lack of computers and access to the internet. The impact was heart-breaking. Many of the students had missed the deadline to apply for university. Some had assumed that they wouldn’t have the financial support, unaware of the scholarships that they might have been eligible for. I asked a few students what they would like to study at university. An overwhelming number of them wanted to study geography. I understood later that Mona was the geography teacher and had instilled a love for the subject for them. They didn’t know of the opportunities that their own town offered them, let alone their country. They asked me what work I did, I found it hard to explain. I didn’t know where to begin.
As we left the school, my heart was filled in awe of what this school was achieving. I had heard of the Ubuntu philosophy many times before – ‘I am, because we are’. This was a living story of it. I asked one of my classmates how she felt about the visit. She said it made her sad. She had grown up in similar circumstances and knew many who did. But whether it was one uncle, aunt, grandmother or teacher, or whether it was that computer at school, somehow she – and most of the people in this MBA class – had found a way to universities. They had often been the first to do so, and the first to work in corporations, where their parents were domestic workers or security guards. After this visit, in spite of the spirit Ubuntu amongst the entire village to make sure these children passed their high school, that’s where it ended. So many wouldn’t go beyond. So many would be left behind.
And this is what I witnessed overwhelmingly in South Africa. I had at first thought that Mandy was a generous hearted person – which she absolutely was. What took me a longer time to understand, is that the innate obligation that she had towards her community, inculcated into her by her surroundings. That paying for one person’s school application would give that child an opportunity that would make the whole difference in that person’s life. It wasn’t a nice to do, it was a responsibility, a duty, a way of life
. A few months later, in yet another class, one professor went through the requirements of what could make for thriving economies. This included things like access to education and healthcare, sound institutions in place and open market trades amongst others. The picture was again more than a little depressing for South Africa at that point in time, especially in the midst of massive scandals being uncovered by their government. Looking at the gloom around the room, the teacher then spoke about the conversation she had with one young person she knew who made her way to Australia who was trying to find her way around there. After she clumsily tried to summarise her conversation with that person, she sighed and said, ‘All I’m trying to say is, as much as this sounds daunting, just know, that if there is any place on earth that you can do God’s work, you can do it here.’