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A World Away

Having just returned from an Easter trip to South Africa, I will devote this week’s posting to a look at an educational world rather different from the one most of my readers are familiar with. The story that I now relate begins with a black man from the rural areas of Limpopo Province, then known as the Northern Transvaal. He had little formal education but served in the South African forces arrayed with Britain’s against Hitler’s Afrika Corps. He, like his white compatriots, served “for the duration.” Unlike them, he received no recognition, and indeed not even any pay, though when he was demobilized back to the Transvaal the South African government gave him a coat and a bicycle. He and his wife later died in suspicious circumstances. Poison was suspected, but no investigation ever took place. His orphaned children ended up living at and receiving their education from a rural mission school.

That school, one of the few mission schools to remain open after the Bantu Education Act ended state funding of religious schools that did not practice apartheid, had the backing of the Cassinese Benedictines, the Ursulines, and a dedicated bishop. They say that charter schools are competing against Catholic schools in the US, but I wonder what charter school company would try competing with that kind of charitable dedication in a hostile political environment. At any rate, the school still operates and is still a beacon in the region. One nearby public school produces not a single student who can pass South Africa’s school-leaving exams; this school, by contrast, has a 90% pass rate.

The orphaned siblings received their sixth-grade education from the mission school. One of them met and fell in love with another orphan at the mission. After their schooling was “completed” (at Grade 6), they were married and had a son. Johannesburg, the City of Gold, attracts people from all over South Africa who are seeking their fortunes. This included the young husband and wife. They worked in the city and had a house in the Alexandra township. One day the boy was snatched from his front yard by a kidnapper, probably a “muti killer”, someone who kills children in order to use their body parts in witch doctors’ recipes. (The parts are “at their best” when removed from the child while it is still alive.) What the snatcher did not count on was that Mom was a championship runner. When she heard her boy’s screams she bolted out of the house after the kidnapper, who dropped the boy and ran on.

The parents decided the boy could no longer live in the township. Instead, they left him in the care of relatives in Limpopo who turned out to be unreliable. The mother eventually quit her job in Johannesburg to return to her village. She said she did it because she was tired of being shouted at by white people, but I think it was actually because she knew she would have to bring her boy up in person, and because she was an active woman who felt hemmed in by domestic work. That is when her son started his education at the mission school. He ended up graduating from its high school. He still speaks fondly of his teachers there, and his classmate the tragically short-lived author Phaswane Mpe dedicated his first and only novel to one of the sisters. As a young man the orphans’ son undertook a university course at one of the abysmal “tribal colleges,” but was unsuccessful. After a long period of time he is now in the last year of his remedial university education at a real university, about to receive a degree in social work.

His sons attend a Catholic school in Johannesburg, Catholic schools providing the best and cheapest alternative to the public schools, which in spite of some successes, still often fail to educate their black students sufficiently. The boys’ school has had a 100% pass rate on the school-leaving exams for many years now, and the boys have no doubt that they will get a solid university education. The main question is what to study and what career to prepare for. The elder son plays basketball for his school; the younger son plays in off-campus soccer and water-polo clubs; both do well in their studies. The father, a widower, has been a successful guide to them. Miraculously, even with the memory of his kidnapping, he is not a helicopter father, though he takes care to see that his sons are not exposed to undue danger and bad influences.

And he sees that his sons are effective students. No TV or gadgets till homework is done. No computer on school days except for homework. Bedtime is bedtime, though the elder boy sometimes reads in bed. I am optimistic about their prospects and hope that they will do well.

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