I am an urban kid who has been raised on tarred roads, electricity and running water and the occasional use of a public transport system that works in spite of rude taxi drivers (I mastered the art of being able to walk everywhere for much of my time of growing up in East London CBD). I have no conception of what it is like to grow up in a village and we moved from the township when I was very young. I do not know what it means to arrive at school with no teachers to teach and no-one to account this to. I have no idea what it means to go to school where there is no water or basic infrastructure. I have never had to share one textbook amongst a classroom or peers or have no textbook at all. And I definitely do not know what it means to ward off any sexual advances from male teachers for special favours in the classroom.
But for a period in my life I was exposed to the worst of urban poverty after my family was evicted from our home in the suburbs in 1994. For complex reasons, my parents didn’t go back to the township and didn’t remove us from the school in town. So I know what it’s like to walk for an hour before I get to school (in rain and in winter and sit at school wet and cold throughout the day) or miss school because busfare is an expense that cannot be afforded. I know what it’s like to leave home with no food and come back to no food with only a meal at school in the form of a chelsea bun and niknaks a friend bought for me or a packed lunch from a teacher. I know what it’s like to do my homework by candlelight or paraffin lamp. I know what it’s like to live in a shack in an informal settlement, sharing a communal toilet that is cleaned out once a week where the only running water is from a single tap in a street of many families. I know what it’s like to move from place to place hoping for people’s kindness where we can stay without paying rent. I know the best of both worlds: urban poverty and a great education(in spite of the complexities of a black child in a former white school)—the poor little rich girl.
Because of the education I had, many of the woes of the new South Africa have been buffered. I was able to consider higher education because I went to a school that made a priority of producing students who would be able to go to university. I knew I had what it takes to be at university (the question of passing was never the problem, it was always about how well I passed). However tertiary education funding was no easy task. I applied for NSFAS (National Student Financial Aid Scheme) and endured an arduous process with endless forms and affidavits proving that I qualified for the funding which covered my tuition and residence for three years. Even though the loan repayment awaits me, I am now doing a postgraduate degree that would not have been possible without the foundations of a good education with supportive structures in place(and an awesome sister and mother who were encouraging throughout the crazy times).
I am not simply exposing the misfortunes of my family but trying to show the link between a good education for someone who comes from a poor family. I am not one who advocates that education is the panacea to our social problems, but a quality education has given me options and choices that have led to much of the success thus far in my life. In the midst of the struggle of being poor and trying to make sense of the world I decided that the life I lived outside of school should not be the norm. But how to effect change on a larger scale is proving to be simply a dream considering the state of education in South Africa. My fear is that learners from poor family backgrounds and no buffer of a system that encourages them to do better by offering a safe space to learn in a formal education system, have two worlds to fight against. And what is to become of them? Resilience is an understatement for what it means to emerge from poverty and neglect (whether in a family context or a social context).
Somehow the social contract has been broken. Many young people are becoming adults in a world that doesn’t believe that it takes a village to raise a child, where many teachers are willing role models for young people. It’s the survival of the fittest. The true test will be the kind of adults that will emerge in a few years time and what upward mobility and success will mean for them in relation to the kind of homes they have been raised in and the kind of communities they emerge from and the values they learned along the way.
For now, I am trying to finish the masters and maybe thereafter I can think more clearly of the role I can play in the education system as well as society in general. I am tempted to hide away in a foreign country because I have the social capital needed to survive in any country in the world and escape the woes of the Eastern Cape for a few years. I am, after all, only a small part of the world and I can’t help but wonder what my role is in making things better in South Africa after what will eventually be 3 degrees and 18 years in the privileged section of the education system.