South Africa has made tremendous progress since the turmoil of the apartheid era. Politically, socially, and economically the country has lifted itself from the depths of South African society’s dark ages and has been reintroduced as an acceptable member of the international community. The conversations I’ve had with many South Africans during my time here that trumpet the importance of racial and cultural diversity have tempted me to dismiss apartheid as an ancient relic of the past. The lingering consequences of apartheid however, continue to dominate the realm of education. Upper and middle class white children predominately populate the country’s private schools along with a few “coloured” and black children in an attempt to escape the inadequacy of South Africa’s public schools. The virtual absence of a lower class white population in South Africa renders the country’s public schools overwhelmingly populated by black children, almost perfectly mirroring the system of separateness that was nationally institutionalized only twenty years ago. Such residual reminders of a history tarnished by racial segregation and discrimination prompt us to remember that apartheid wasn’t so long ago after all.
Through my internship at the District Six Museum, I have seen firsthand how poor education affects the intellectual enthusiasm of the students here. Currently, my fellow interns and I are planning an educational sleepover at the museum for primary school children in Grade 7 called “Night at the Museum.” We hope to foster rich discussion surrounding the topics of human rights and diversity through various workshops, and have been personally delivering invitations for the event to most of the schools in the District Six area, all of which are public. Through these many visits I have noticed that all of these schools are overcrowded and that teachers are forced to prioritize maintaining order in favor of providing individual attention. While most students here recognize the value of a good education, it seems that few are able to achieve it through the current system. Although matriculation rates are deceivingly high in South Africa, averaging a high school graduation rate of 70%, underlying issues jeopardize the futures of these graduates and their chances of success. Soaring teen pregnancy rates and corruption or incompetence among teachers threaten to lead the country’s youth to ruin, as inadequate education contributes to the staggering unemployment rate of 25% in South Africa.
When I showed up to work last week to assist with “ConCamp” (a 4 day constitutional law camp at the museum for gifted high school students), I must admit I did not have high hopes for the participants. Most of the public school Cape Townian students I had had worked with up until that point did not have a strong grasp of basic knowledge taught in school. The first day of ConCamp validated my pessimism, as many of the students participating in activities centered around apartheid hardly knew anything about the brutality and injustice of the history that their own parents experienced. I was disappointed, but not surprised. As the week progressed, however, I noticed profound progress with the students’ interest in law and South African history. On Monday, few of them were comfortable speaking in front of the large group facing them to present their analysis of the daily activity or discussion. Many experienced typical stage fright, but a language barrier elevated others’ anxiety. While ConCamp was conducted entirely in English, many of these students spoke either Xhosa or Afrikaans at home and were less comfortable communicating in English, especially in front of an audience. Most of these students were thankfully able to overcome their nervousness through the incredible human resources that ConCamp offers. First, were the facilitators of the camp, who were all law students from either the University of Cape Town or Stellenbosch University. Each of them was volunteering for ConCamp through a volunteer organization partnered with their universities called CLASI (Constitutional Literacy And Service Initiative), a constitutional literacy program for high school students. These law students were instrumental in providing individual attention to small groups of students to facilitate discussion and prompting them to share their thoughts in a controlled and respectful environment. I noticed that throughout the week more and more students became comfortable participating as a result of this atmosphere of intimacy and mutual respect.
Another major impact on the students was Mandy. Mandy is our boss at the District Six Museum and is the head of the education department here. As a former teacher in a township of Cape Town, she has extensive experience working with children and truly has a gift for commanding respect, connecting with youth, and compelling them to think and reflect about the ideas she introduces. After the first day, Mandy made an announcement to ConCamp that really struck me. She reiterated that there was a high level of linguistic diversity among the student participants, and thus a wide range of English fluency. She stressed that no one should be made to feel inadequate because they could not articulate their thoughts in English when under pressure, as in a moot court setting. Instead, she suggested that whenever someone was at a loss for words, they should articulate what they are trying to say in their native language, which would then be translated into English. She wanted everyone to understand that our differences make us beautiful and that everyone had the ability to rise to the occasion for the moot court regardless of their first language.
By the end of the week teams of two students were each preparing arguments centered on youth and education for the culmination of the ConCamp experience. The law students taught them legal jargon, proper moot court protocol, and research techniques about the case at hand. Even though ConCamp ended at 3:30 every day, I noticed that on Wednesday most of the students decided to stay in the museum past dismissal so that their team could deliver the best argument possible. On Thursday, the students presented their arguments. Many were flustered and stuttered their way through, but I was blown away by how dedicated they were in convincing the court that their argument was right. These students used each other to navigate the nerve-wracking tension of standing in front of a moot court, consulting with one another whenever one of them were lost for words. I couldn’t believe how drastically these students’ attitudes and confidence had transformed in less than a week. They had channeled their nervous energy and disorganization from the beginning of the week into focused dedication that carried them through the objectives of ConCamp and made them excited about learning more about South African history.
After the moot court was over, all of the students received a certificate and two teams won the overall competition. Many of the students stood up after the certificate ceremony to express how grateful they were to participate in this experience and gain knowledge and personal attention about something that is so important to their daily lives and identities. ConCamp restored my faith in the power of good teachers and facilitators. It wasn’t that any of these kids were incompetent—I just don’t think their school environments allowed them to thrive in the past. ConCamp allowed all of these students to realize their potential as articulate actors in a formal intellectual setting. This week underscored for me the immense value of a good education (something I all too often take for granted) and has prompted me to try to understand and analyze the South African education system from a policy standpoint. In a country as complex and increasingly volatile as South Africa, putting education on the back burner is simply no longer an option.