There are welcome surprises to be found in schools in Katlehong. For the project Schools That Work, my brief is to visit institutions to document the academic success of schools serving disadvantaged communities.
As I go from province to province, I have become accustomed to being guided to a school step by step: "Take the exit, turn right and then call me." And after the next phone call: "Go straight, turn at the T-junction and when you see a primary school on your right, call me." Then a third set of instructions.
A few weeks ago in Katlehong, I missed a turn and the principal had to come to get me.
For some schools, where they are has a special meaning. I had only read a little about Katlehong but the founding of the Phumlani Secondary School, its past and present are grounded in its place: it was started in 1993 and was the last school established by the apartheid government in the area.
"There was a fight — a war," the principal Shumi Shongowe said, fought between the Inkatha Freedom Party, the ANC, and "the soldiers that were deployed by the previous government. There was blood all over. And there was no time even to bury those that were dead."
He paused, looked up, and said calmly: "And it is then that this school was started."
It was a reminder of the painful history of the country and the trauma and chaos out of which so much, including this school, was born.
Back to normal
Many people say that school uniforms help with discipline and focus but I rarely hear that the blues, yellows, greens and maroons have any meaning. Surrounded by brutal violence in 1993, however, Shongowe consciously chose the school's colours. Red for the blood that was spilled and white for the hope that remained — "to say, after some time, all this shall be over and life shall go back to normal", Shongowe said.
In 1994, that was a new normal.
The school's pupils also find meaning in the uniform.
"I call it a uniform of success," said a grade 12 pupil, Sbusiso Mhlanga. "People who are in jail — not that I'm criticising — but people in jail, they are wearing a uniform of regret. So this is a uniform of success."
The nuance and generosity he extended to prisoners struck me — not violence, evil or wrongdoing, but regret.
My mandate is to identify keys to success. I often find that, although those keys are unique, they really should be commonplace.
Shongowe only hires teachers who studied their subject at a college or university. That seems fairly basic, right? How can a history teacher teach biology? How can an Afrikaans teacher switch to technology, as I saw happen at a school in Nyanga?
This happens all too often, as teachers are moved from subject to subject to fill gaps despite a lack of training.
The importance of planning
At the Tetelo Secondary School in Soweto, principal Linda Molefe and his staff end the year with a two-day meeting at which they draft a comprehensive plan for the following year. Among other things, it includes informal and formal assessments, teacher allocation and meetings with school governing bodies and management teams.
Acknowledging that plans constantly shift and change once the year begins, he said: "We can start right away because we know where we're going."
I have a new word for moments in these journeys that surprise me. I now call them "a cappella moments".
At Phumlani Secondary, a group of boys approached me and asked whether I would film their singing group. I was blown away when I heard the harmony that came from the mouths of those boys, the rhythms they created through snapping their fingers and percussive beats. It was like nothing I had heard before at a school in South Africa.
The "a capella moment" at Tetelo Secondary came at the end of the day, during the grade 12 pupils' mandatory study time. Because of the heat, many take desks and chairs outside. We found one group of about 10 pupils sitting under a tree, intently studying physics, debating it, and teaching one another. They took turns at being the teacher, chalk in hand, using the side of an old container as a chalkboard.
The irony of these kids choosing to learn under a tree in a country where, for years, children like them had no choice but to learn under trees was not lost on me. I shouldn't speak of it in the past tense because it still happens in some rural schools.
When I flew back to Cape Town that Friday morning, there was an article in a newspaper about an education charter that was recently put forward by the South African Human Rights Commission. It offers rules and recommendations to the government on giving quality education to all children. It addresses issues such as crowded classrooms, suggesting that pupil-teacher ratios should not exceed one to 40 for grades one to 12.
It has a series of ambitious deadlines to meet for everything from reduced class size and ensuring all schools have electricity and running water to making sure schools have the basic and essential services needed to teach and learn properly.
The charter is filled with incredible goals to improve education.
I hate to be pessimistic, but I just don't understand how they are going to fix so much so quickly.
At Phumlani, the 1 738 pupils are based in an old primary school building. The principal is in effect running two schools at once.
At Tetelo, the pupils were mopping up in their container classrooms because it had rained the night before and the roofs leaked. In the midst of the cleaning and mopping up, many were polishing their shoes and straightening their ties.
So how will the government build enough classrooms and buildings so that these students aren't packed 65 in a class and don't have rain dripping on their books?
When will they have actual libraries and laboratories rather than a laboratory on a cart that is pushed from class to class?
I remain somewhat doubtful but hopeful, and will wait and see.
Molefe said there is no recipe for success. But hiring committed teachers, regardless of resources, seems like a great start.
For Scara Nkosi, an accounting teacher at Phumlani, it is so much more than a job. "You become a great man," he said. "You become a great man — this profession is bigger than us. And, when those learners are passing, it's like it's your party every day."