(This story was published in 2007).

By: Jordan Goldwarg

(Editor’s note: In 2003, Jordan Goldwarg wrote about coming out to his cross-country ski team for Outsports. Upon his return from a project in South Africa this year, we asked him to write about his experiences researching that country’s educational system.)

On a sweltering, late-summer day in Cape Town, South Africa, I found myself sitting with 10 high school students in a small, airless room in a community center in Kensington, a predominantly poor, coloured neighbourhood on the edge of the Cape Flats, the sprawling desert to which most of Cape Town’s non-white population was forcibly relocated during the years of apartheid.

We were there to talk about what high school is like if you are poor and coloured (the term used for people of mixed racial descent) in South Africa. And despite the oppressive heat, I was completely transfixed by what the kids were telling me.

They told me about the state of disrepair of their schools, with walls and windows that are broken, and classrooms that could badly use a fresh coat of paint. “We have one class where the wall is broken,” said one. “It’s almost like if you push it, the wall will fall over.” They pointed out that schools are so overcrowded that there are often 60 students in one class, sharing textbooks and desks. Other supplies are limited, too: there are not nearly enough computers to go around, and a science lab has only two microscopes.

They talked about things we frequently take for granted in North America. Their schools have no lockers, so they must leave their bags and books out in the hallways, making them vulnerable to theft. School toilets are filthy, dangerous, and often not functioning. Libraries are poorly stocked and rarely used, if ever.

There are few classes offered outside the core curriculum, so things like art, music, and drama are rare or nonexistent. Sports facilities and physical education classes are absent, prompting one student to say “fighting is the only physical activity we do.”

And there’s no doubt that fighting and violence are very much a part of these students’ lives. Gangs and gang-related violence are a major problem in Kensington, and this spills into the schools, where gangsters come to sell drugs, steal things, and recruit new members. These recruits will very often become dropouts, leaving them without a high school diploma in a country where even those with a diploma have a very hard time finding a good-paying job.

One of the students shared with us the story of his dropout brother: “My brother, he dropped school, he dropped out of school at Standard 3 [Grade 5]. Gang-related. Peer pressure from friends. And now, he’s a drug addict. At the moment, he’s a drug addict, looking for help.” Sadly, help is hard to come by.

Clearly, some of the problems present in Kensington are present in North American schools, too — especially inner-city schools in poor areas. But while we view these situations as the exception in North America, they are more of the norm in South Africa. And although I had been studying education in South Africa for four months when I talked to the Kensington kids, this was the first time that I really began to understand how difficult it is for these students to get a quality education.

South Africa is a country that has a magnetic attraction on me, drawing me there three times in the past 18 months, with each trip longer than the previous one. I first went there with my family for a vacation in March 2006. Captivated by the stunning natural beauty of Cape Town and the volatile mix of social issues that coexist uneasily with this beauty, I returned there in June 2006 for a month to do research for my Masters dissertation on the social aspects of HIV in South Africa. While doing my research, I met Zackie Achmat, a lifelong political activist who has made a lasting impact on South African society through his work on issues linked to apartheid, gay rights, and health care (especially HIV/AIDS).

After finishing my Masters, I still wanted to spend more time in South Africa, so I accepted an invitation from Zackie to return to Cape Town and help him start a new project to improve the education system in the country, which still suffers from gross inequalities, 13 years after the end of apartheid. My task was to conduct research that would help identify the major problems; this research will later be used in a political campaign to achieve better education.

In November 2006, I returned to Cape Town, this time for six months. As soon as I arrived and began reading about what was happening with education, I was shocked. During apartheid, the government openly aimed to ensure unequal education: schools were strictly segregated by race, and the government provided overwhelmingly more money to white schools than to non-white ones. (As an example, in 1986, the government spent 2,428 rands per white student, and only 303 rands per black student.) Today, although schools — like the rest of the country — are integrated, even public schools can charge tuition fees, so the former all-white schools generally charge very high fees, ensuring their student body remains upper class, which by extension, means that it will be mostly white.

One day, I visited one of these wealthy, former all-white public schools to observe a Grade 3 class. I was greeted at the front entrance to the school by two students from the class, looking sharp in their clean uniforms, who then led me to their classroom. Over the course of a few hours and conversations with students, teachers, and administrators, I was impressed to learn about the opportunities available to students at this school: small class sizes, enrichment classes, a full art and music program, extensive sporting facilities, and the opportunity for team trips to Europe and Australia — even for elementary students.

Along with being impressed by all this (and remember, this is a public school), I was also shocked that such relative opulence could exist less than 10 miles from Kensington, where the students were still fighting with each other over who would use one of the two microscopes. Yet such contrasts are evident everywhere in South Africa, with the difference between wealthy and poor still all too often drawn along racial lines.

So what can be done to change things? As with most major problems, there are no easy solutions, especially since it’s not simply a question of throwing more money at the poor schools. The larger problem lies in the broader socio-economic reality in which the majority of South Africans live. More money could certainly construct better school buildings, equip them with proper supplies, and even provide facilities like sports fields and art rooms. But more money will not help the fact that many non-white teachers currently working in poor schools were trained during apartheid, which meant they received a vastly inferior training compared to their white counterparts.

More money will not help the fact that many students are coming to school hungry since their families cannot provide them with decent meals. More money will not help the fact that many kids expend considerable time and effort taking care of their parents who are sick or dying from AIDS (I visited a desperately poor school in KwaZulu-Natal province, where 35% of women of child-bearing age are HIV-positive). And more money will not help the fact that many children are scared to come to school because of the gangs that could attack them either on their way to school or once they’re there.

Reasons for hope

Tackling all of these problems will probably take at least a generation. But in the meantime, I still find South Africa to be a remarkably hopeful place, in large part thanks to the resilience of its people. As dismayed as I was to hear about the reality of schools in Kensington, what struck me more was the desire of the students there to get a good education and succeed in life, no matter how much effort it might take.

As we sat around the table, talking and laughing, they produced a steady stream of creative ideas that would help make their schools better. One suggested that the school could start a large garden, which would serve the dual purpose of providing healthy food for students and employment for parents. Another expressed a strong desire for her school to offer night classes, which could provide remedial work, enrichment, and the opportunity for students who need to work a job during the day to still get an education. Other students had great ideas for strengthening school security to ward off the threat of gangsters. Admittedly, these are small steps — and not necessarily easy to implement — but they provide an example of the kind of creative thinking and engagement with the issues that will be needed.

As I left the students in Kensington, it was this message of hope that I took home with me. Despite all the obstacles that had been put in their way, they still cared; they still wanted to succeed. If that concern can somehow be translated into action, it will be a formidable force for good in South Africa, especially since education is key in solving so many other socio-economic problems. But I was also left wondering how caring and hope can be converted to action that will help change a country.

Jordan Goldwarg grew up in Montreal and earned his BA in History from Williams College in Massachusetts. After working as an NCAA ski coach for two years, he went to England, where he obtained his Masters in Geography. Now back in North America, he is considering which adventure to pursue next.