It is Aza Madiba’s 10th birthday party and she is running around in a red cape that is a tad too small to make her a plausible superhero. She doesn’t care.
She is joined by about 12 other children, mostly younger than her, as they alternate between a jumping castle and a version of cops and robbers. I imagine this is how any child’s birthday should be: surrounded by neighbours, relatives and school friends.
Yet the fact that Aza is home-schooled makes it all the more novel for a prying outsider. “It’s a cultural thing for us [as black people] that we are always very communal,” says Aza’s mother, Bongeka Madiba, dismissing the idea that home-schooled children are not properly socialised.
“Right now they do interact with kids but most of their friends right now are my brother’s kids and my cousin’s kids and other schoolkids. So they will inevitably mix with the families that we have.”
Madiba’s two eldest daughters, Aza (10) and Chika (8), are part of a home-schooling network that consists of about 10 families. For Madiba, the decision to home-school was mostly about the curriculum; she wanted her children to grow up “knowing who they were as Africans”, a mission she felt conventional schooling would contradict or undermine.
Instead of individual classes at her home, many of the lessons her children attend take place in a centralised space with the same tutor. This means parents can reduce tutoring costs and share some of the logistical responsibilities such as transport and lunch.
“It allows us to do more lessons,” says tutor Thomas Jones*. “There are the additional fees of transport for parents but my fees are also lower because my transport costs are lower.”
Jones teaches maths and science and other parents assist with reading, isiZulu, voice and dance, as well as drama. The curriculum for history, Jones says, is still under consideration.
As the children thrash about in the jumping castle in the back garden of her home in Kensington, Johannesburg, Madiba, in a Batman outfit (sans cape) and her mask perched on her Afro, explains why history is taking a while to iron out.
“People [in the group] said ‘let’s teach them African history’ and I was very adamant that we need to give them African history and the type of history that we know. Take your [United States president Franklin D] Roosevelt, for example.”
She continues: “Because you don’t want people to be talking about the New Deal and you’re like Mansa Musa [a 14th-century Malian Empire ruler]. You need to at least be able to qualify how Mansa Musa was on a par with Roosevelt, better or maybe less [influential]. I think they should have that reasoning capacity.”
(The New Deal was a series of laws enacted to counter the effects of the Great Depression of 1929. It realigned US politics by causing a rift in the Republican Party.)
Having raised her daughters for part of their childhood in a housing complex, Madiba fretted over how quickly they were exposed to what she felt was inappropriate popular culture, even though she did not own a television set at the time. The trigger for moving her children to homeschooling was hearing them sing along to Beyoncé and Professor at their creches’ respective year-end functions.
An Afrocentric perspective is what unites Madiba, her friends and, by default, their children. The American-born Jones explained how nursery rhymes were, for the most part, children’s adaptations of European tragedies.
He also broke down how many cartoons and children’s movies were riddled with stereotypes (such as the nerd archetype) that seemed to cast academic achievement negatively at an early age.
For Maditaba Msimang*, whose two eldest children are part of the home-schooling unit, the issue was the slow pace of teaching the curriculum, the 31:1 pupil-to-teacher ratio and the “God-in-the-sky” Christian dogma that most schools delineate indiscriminately.
From the parents’ perspective, this is the world of the young, black and disaffected with no dual citizenship to take advantage of. The nagging sense that the public school system is collapsing coalesces with the isolation and the fragile sense of security that suburban life offers.
A key thread in the discussion with Madiba and her friends at her child’s party centres on whether the paranoia about allowing children to “roam the streets”, as they themselves did as children growing up, is valid or classist. “When we were growing up there was a game that we used to play: ‘’Tamatie so, so, so so so … That game was about child abuse,” says Msimang. “Onbitsa kai? Na? Akibatli. Ontswara kai? Na?” Where are you calling me to?/ I don’t want to./ Where are you touching me? …
“Instead of having Barney tell you these things, we had these songs,” adds Mpho Majozi, one of the mothers. “Society worked differently when we were kids. In the township, you didn’t have to like your neighbours but you knew each other. If you did something and you lived three doors down, any adult could sort you out and take you home to get sorted out some more. It was not like: ‘How dare you abuse my child.’”
Msimang argues that a home-schooling unit offers a chance to recreate that sense of community while circumventing the realities of suburban life. “The kids have friends, so I know I can go out for a weekend of debauchery because the kids will be with Bongeka that week. They even share clothes. People don’t understand. Clothes for kids are a little expensive. Half of my kids’ clothes are actually Bongeka’s kids clothes. Half of her kids’ wardrobe are my kids’ clothes and it actually works out.”
As the party winds down, and the children take off their neon wigs and capes to watch Frozen – with its lily-white faces and Eurocentric storyline – it’s apparent that the efforts of these mothers and their agreeable children are not as cultish as they had first appeared.
If there was ever a positive response to the paranoia of living in a world in free fall, this collective’s considered response may just be it.
* Not their real names