I have never spoken about this, but maybe it’s time.
During the bloody birth pangs of The New South Africa, I was afraid – sometimes very afraid. In my cosy, suburban house with high-walled garden and “intruder alarm” (read “over-protective Rhodesian ridgeback called Nkosi”), I was relatively safe and the days could have seeped away in a vagueness of coffee mornings, school lift club and company dinners.
Except they didn’t. I tackled the fear and went to teach in a “rebel” school – a school that remained open and viable for those that dared to run the gauntlet of stone throwing, fire and mob-rage that fuelled South Africa in those dark days. The school was in a barren, forgotten no-man’s-land between privileged White suburbs and the burning townships – a little haven which more than once opened its doors and took in the disenfranchised and dispossessed to live and learn, literally.
I went in twice a day. In the mornings I drove along the motorway from the privilege down through the squatter camp (I’ll tell you about that another time) and in through the “safety” gates to the school. The mornings were taken up with teaching exam candidates. I use the term “teaching” fairly loosely: it was more drilling in exam technique and endless “past paper” practice. In the evenings, I went back along the motorway from the privilege and down through the squatter camp and in through the “safety” gates to teach literacy to those who had fallen through the cracks and needed now, in a world that was so very changed from the one they knew, to read and write – even just a bit. Most of these students were unskilled labourers who lived in a nearby township and had been persuaded to attend classes by their pastor. Most were members of the church choir and they would head off to choir practice after their lesson.
This was my daily routine until one day near exam time. The mob-rage was flaring and bulging into once-safe areas. I had finished my morning class – a quick run-through what was expected in the “Comprehension and Language” paper the next day. As I sat at the stop street thinking about my classes and whether they were adequately prepared, a shadow fell across my driver’s window. I looked around and saw a crowd of faces contorted with such monstrous hatred and loathing, pressed up against the window, screaming at me to get out of the car. What happened next, I can’t really recall. All I know, from the evidence that remained, was that the windscreen of the car was smashed, the car radio had been ripped out, my handbag gone and all my teaching books taken and strewn across the barren, forgotten no-mans’-land. For what seemed like infinity, I stood waiting. The sun dazzled down, the dust swirled and silence returned. And that was all.
I drove home. I went through the rest of the day’s tasks and at 6pm found myself once more at the “safety” gates. I couldn’t not have gone: my literacy students were doing their first exam. I watched numbly as they arrived and took their places in the exam room. I slit open the exam paper envelope and walked up and down the aisles handing the papers out. As I walked back to the front of the class to give the final instructions and set them off on this momentous exam, the hairs on the back of my neck started. A slow harmony, barely audible at first, swelled like the ooze of honey until it filled the room with a sound so complete I was paralysed. The collected voices of my students accorded peerlessly through the stark beauty of “Amazing Grace”; I saw such warmth and gratitude and devotion in their eyes as they thanked me, in their way, for teaching them and I knew that I could no longer contain the extremes that living and working here demanded.
I went home and never returned……..