‘Half-naaitjies [little bastards].” This is one of the stinging labels that children of farm labourers in South Africa have endured for generations. Children like these have, for centuries, been denied any value beyond the cheap muscle-power they provide to farm owners.
But some — like principal Andries Esau — have had enough of that. He has been the head of Boplaas Farm School, buried among livestock farms between Upington and Olifantshoek in the Northern Cape, for four years, and is passionate about the role education can play in rewriting the script for his 97 charges.
‘From my point of view, OBE [outcomes based education] will be the answer for the [learners at] farm schools,” says Esau. ‘Farmers in the past wanted people who can just take orders — they musn’t think. OBE is all about teaching the kids to think. I can write books about how my kids struggle to have their own thoughts and do things that other kids take for granted.
‘I have a saying for my kids and I make them recite it all the time. I tell them, ‘Wherever you are, wherever you go, you must say: I am somebody’. I hope I have imprinted it on their minds that they also have a right to excel in life.”
Boplaas is more than just a school to the children; even five-year-olds in Grade R live in its hostel, and most go back to the farms to visit their parents every two weeks. Some have to wait for a month or more before they can see their parents because there is no available transport for them, says Esau. Some learners come from farms 180km away.
The reception year was started last year to give little ones, who would otherwise have had no preschool experience, some educational grounding before they join Grade 1. The decision to remove five-year-olds from their families was not taken lightly. Explains Esau: ‘On the one hand, it is important for a child’s development to be around their families — their mothers especially. On the other hand, the reality in this area is that most mums are working, so the little ones just play around in the dunes. If I look at the two issues — leaving the children at home or bringing them to school — on the balance, I think it’s best for them to come to school.”
While legislation aplenty has been passed in the past decade protecting the rights of farm labourers and children, few at Boplaas seem to have experienced the benefits. Esau says it is a common practise for farmers to pay their labourers with goods and services, rather than give them cash. This is despite a law that stipulates that a maximum of 10% of farm labourers’ wages can be deducted by employers for housing and food.
As a result, ‘they [the labourers] don’t see the money. Only about 30% of our parents paid their school fees this year. But you can’t ask for fees when parents stand before you and ask, ‘Sir, how can I pay when I don’t have a cent in my hand?’,” says Esau.
These ongoing issues affecting farming communities continually touch schools such as Boplaas. Children often drop out of school to work on the farms and they live with drastic insecurity. Says Esau: ‘Sometimes labourers are [suddenly] told to leave a farm and the child only finds out that they need to go to a new farm when they go home during holidays. There isn’t a child here who is sure about living in one place for even five years.”
Esau also complains that neither parents nor farmers see the value in his learners getting an education. In fact, ‘Some farmers warn me not to develop the school too fast. When I think about why they would say this, I think it’s because when people develop mentally, they free themselves.”
Alcohol abuse among the parent body also impacts badly on the school. Esau describes the functions they hold at the school — to which the farmers are invited, but don’t attend — where the smokkelaars [shebeen owners] dish out wine. ‘After a couple of hours, I must intervene in fights and spend all night handling the trouble,” says Esau. ‘We usually ask the police to come, but last time I said, ‘Why must we have the police? Let us show people we can look after ourselves’. Unfortunately it failed — we had lots of fights.”
But for all these complicating issues, Esau clearly believes his charges are diamonds in the rough, and can point out each one’s talents and potential. And he has every intention of building the school further, with dreams of establishing a vegetable garden, introducing agricultural subjects, and providing sports and a choir.
Perhaps some of Esau’s passion to make a difference comes from his own experience. Born in Mietjie Rivier on a farm outside Upington, he was raised by his grandparents — both farm labourers — who told him to believe that ‘you don’t have to stay as you are”. His personal journey has taken him all the way to a post-graduate degree in education — and to persistently shaking the sense of resignation from his learners.
Says Esau: ‘I always tell these children, ‘When you’re finished at Boplaas, you’re going to a town school’. And you know what people think about farm children — they say, ‘Ag, you’re just from the farm’. I don’t want that. People must see them as ordinary children — and, as I tell my learners, that all depends on them.