Mandela said I could, so I got my doctorate


I am a first-generation university graduate and I spent the first 12 years of my education in township schools in Evaton in Gauteng. The township was established in 1904 for black gold miners and was one of the few townships in which black Africans could own land before 1994. 

I was born on a farm about 15km west of Evaton, where my paternal extended families were tenant labourers for more than two generations. Education was highly valued in my family, even though neither of my parents had formal education. They instilled the value of education in us from a young age, stressing that it was the only way out for a black child in apartheid South Africa. 

My father was, at some point in his life, a mineworker in Rustenburg and my mother was a domestic worker. My parents’ attitude towards education was manifested in them making a tough decision to move from a farm to Evaton. This was because there was just one small school on the farm, which offered only grades one to three. 

This groot trek happened when I was four months old, and led to us leaving behind the secure farm life and the safety provided by the extended family. My siblings and I were educated in Evaton, which had a number of schools. 

Life in the townships in the 1970s and 1980s was harsh, because regulations controlled and disrupted the lives of black African families. These were the pass and permit laws that led to the constant arrests of black people. My parents were well aware of these realities — they knew exactly what they were getting into. This was the sacrifice that my siblings and I would eternally be grateful for. 

My encounter with learning began on the floor of an overcrowded classroom with no furniture, no teacher and no teaching materials. The school was in an area called Small Farms; the year was 1980. 

The education district office made a decision to enrol all leaners without the necessary documents such as birth certificates and family permits. In townships, it was illegal to accept learners who were not in possession of these documents. 

This resulted in the high enrolment of learners but not enough school buildings. For more than three months my classmates and I were placed in a church-like classroom at Mme Christina MaNku’s premises, while we waited for the authorities to come up with a plan. My family did not have a permit, and I was placed in a class after a plan was devised to offer learning in two time-based streams.

My schooling was constantly disrupted by the political unrest that affected most townships in the 1980s and early 1990s. During the years of military occupation in Evaton, I witnessed the dehumanising brutality and atrocities perpetrated by young white men in the army and police force against innocent residents who were fighting for their freedom. 

I learned at a young age how to escape rubber bullets and tear gas; how to leave my classroom through a small window; how to jump over our high school fence when running away from white men who wanted to shoot my “k….. kop” in their quest to improve their skills of shooting at a target whom they did not see as a human being. 

This was my first experience of open violence in an oppressive system that denied us our humanity. I had many unanswered questions and my 11-year-old logic could not make sense of everything that happened around me. 

It was in a first-year sociology lecture that my questions about an unjust society were answered. One of my professors covered a section on education in apartheid South Africa; this included how Bantu education was conceptualised and how much the National Party government spent on the education of children according to their race. It waas if someone had dropped a bomb on my head; as though a big family secret had been disclosed. 

I did not know this part of history: it had not been covered in my school curriculum. For the first time I understood what was going on in this country. 

The Bantu education system was highly co-ordinated, with a clear agenda of turning black African children into drawers of water and hewers of wood for a white-run economy and society, regardless of an individual’s abilities and aspirations. 

This was a turning point in my life. Everything about the schools in townships made perfect sense for the first time, from the empty laboratories to school libraries with empty shelves and a shortage of text books to no sports fields or equipment. I abhor admitting this, but it was Hendrik Verwoerd’s assertion about the position of a black child that made me more resolute to become part of a space that he maintained was reserved for white people. I was determined to achieve this, despite the fact that my schooling had not prepared me for it. 

This led me to pursue my childhood dream of obtaining the title of doctor. Some adults dismissed this dream. I was advised to settle for a more modest level of achievement that could be more easily attained. 

But my dream was realised in December, when a degree of doctor of philosophy was conferred on me by the University of the Witwatersrand. This achievement became a reality through the support of family, friends and many academic aunties, and through overcoming the countless obstacles confronting me as a black African woman. As Nelson Mandela said in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (1995): “It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation.”

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Motlalepule Nathane
Dr Motlalepule Nathane is a lecturer in the social work department at the University of the Witwatersrand

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