Education in South Africa: Life in a “Colored” School

While the black — white conflict in South Africa is often headline news, we hear little about South Africa’s 3.2 million people of Asian and mixed race background. In the following, interview, Ashraf Jamal, a South African of Indian descent, describes his experience as an English teacher in a “colored” (mixed race) high school. Mr. Jamal has studied in South Africa, England and Canada. Currently he is a teaching assistant and PhD student in UWM’s English Department.

R.S.: Were your students college bound?

Ashraf: Oh, no. Absolutely not. It was a slum school. These are students who will become laborers. The school had absolutely no facilities for teaching them a trade and they had no chance to go to a trade school.

R.S.: Are the majority of teachers at the colored schools colored, at the black schools, black, etc. according to race?

Ashraf: Oh, yes. Absolutely. There’d be a token white, one or two maximum. No more. And there’d be no colored teachers in a white school. Ideally there wouldn’t even be any colored teachers in an Indian school. Many colored teachers wouldn’t even want to work in a black school. But the whites have the greatest flexibility. They could teach in any schools they wanted to.

R.S.: What was the general atmosphere in the school where you taught?

Ashraf : Oh, very, very political, definitely. There was a month at Ae school where the students were on strike, but the teachers came to school every day. It was a bizarre situation where the teachers were doing all their routines. They would go to the staff room and go to the classes, sit in their classes, come out, go to the next class…. The principal wanted them to go on as in normal day. There was nobody in the class, no students at all. On another occasion a huge demonstration was prompted by the burning of books. 50,000 copies of “The Hour of God” by Chinua Achebe were burnt by the authorities. The books wCTe handed to the students and then three weeks later, for no explicable reason, they wanted the books back. It was written by a black author and they decided this book was too radical.

R.S.: Do they teach South African patriotism to the colored or Indian students? 

Ashraf: In the white schools it’s very evident. Patriotism is not taught at that level in a colored school, but would be infiltrated throughout things like history books. History gets rewritten… the blacks were evidently not in South Africa before the whites arrived. The Bantus migrated from the North, but they only came after van Riebeeck landed.

R,S.: Did your colored students see themselves as equal to the black students or did they look down on them?

Ashraf: Oh, God ! They think of themselves as superior…

R.S.: Even when they’re involved in the anti-apartheid movement?

Ashraf: Oh, yes. Segregation is so deep that they definitely think of themselves as superior, and there’s still a kind of strange veneration for things white. Nothing depresses me more.

R.S.: What methods did you use to try to raise consciousness?

Ashraf: I used the newspapers. The employment page of the newspaper is defined by occupation and segregated as well. “White accountant needed,” or “Colored waitress”… you can tell the social hierarchy by the job column. I showed this to them and asked them… “What do you think of this?” And they didn’t have much to say. After a while they said, “Well, we get the sh—…”, very few opportunities. I asked them to write an essay about this job column and their own environment. The housing they lived in was pitiful; seven kids in a room. All the kids were working at places like supermarkets, as cashiers or working as laborers, bus drivers. Manual labor was the mainstay of the colored population. Manual labor and then trades like welding. The place where I lived and the place where I taught were like night and day. We had a maid and a gardener and it was a very comfortable environment, and just down the road was the slum school.

I’d write a word like “dictator” on the board… like the mapping system… and I’d circle it and ask “what do you think about?” And of course there would be a whole debate mapped out on the board. Also, the assigned text for niy class was “Black Beauty” and 1 scrapped it and told them that I wasn’t going to teach a book about the white English bourgeoisie to these slum kids, but I couldn’t choose any book I wanted. I had a limit; The one 1 ended up choosing was Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” because at least that story is about survival and struggle. I read it as an allegory for the black struggle. I used a whole range of voices as well as accents. I read the part of the “Old Man” in a typical Cape colored accent, because fishing is very strong in my area. The Old Man became this old colored guy who lived down near the docks and went out fishing. And the story talks about the little boy. He becomes symbolic of the student who is going to take over where the Old Man has left off.

R.S.: Did you find that you were having much impact… that the students were responding?

Ashraf: Yes, I felt I was extremely well-regarded by my students. I was hated by most of the teachers because I basically set up a petition to contest caning and it was promptly thrown out of the window. And then I was asked to leave the school but I didn’t resign.

R.S.: What was the relationship between the teachers and the Administration?

Ashraf: Complicit, absolutely. The colored affairs department and 90% of the staff of the school “were in cahoots in support of the government.

R.S.: Is there antagonism between those teachers and the other 10%? 

Ashraf: Oh! Antagonism between them and antagonism between the teachers and the students. There is a very strong fascistic strain among the teaching staff of the school. Things like caning as a normal occurrence… maintaining order is very important. They just want to pacify the kids. The important thing is to pacify and not to teach. They just want to-get these kids out of the school and into the labor force.

R.S.: Were there police in the schools?

Ashraf: There were these officials, teaching inspectors.

R.S.: Were they checking on the teachers or the students?

Ashraf: They were checking on both. Of course uniformed police would come in when there were riots. If you go to South Africa, one of the most striking things you’ll discover is that beside every school is a police station. Not literally beside the school, but in proximity. And in all the black neighborhoods there is one road to go in and one road to go out, and if there is a riot it takes the police no time to seal off the streets. Everything is controlled. It’s a huge surveillance system. They’re not teaching students about individualism at all. They’re teaching conformity and passivity. At least 70% more money is spent on an individual white student than is on a colored student and then progressively less when you get down to black students. Schools are a system of impoverishment in South Africa because they’re designed to enslave… to keep people^ where they are — in their places.

R.S.: In American schools, particularly in black inner-city schools or even white working class schools, there is a real drug and alcoholism problem. Are there drug and alcohol problems in South Africa too?

Ashraf: There is “dagga”… It’s a drug, a grass… It’s extremely cheap.

R.S.: Is it like marijuana?

Ashraf : Yes, except it’s much stronger… it’s very rough. But drugs are becoming less of a problem. The more students are becoming politicized, the more they’re beginning to b^ome conscious of the fact that drugs are used to keep them down.

R.S.: Since the big struggle is between the blacks and whites, and Indians and coloreds are an “in between group,” does that create a lot more alienation among these groups?

Ashraf: Yeah, there’s a split within the tolored community, for instance, over which side to side with. But although there’s still a hesitance, I think there is a resignation on the part of the coloreds to side with the blacks. The confusion is among the older people but the younger people, people in their teens and in their twenties, are definitely beginning to side with the blacks… The ANC movement more than the blacks. 

R.S.: So the ANC movement consists of all races? 

Ashraf: Yeah.

R.S.: Have you thought of returning to South Africa after you complete your graduate work?

Ashraf: I definitely would like to go back and teach in South Africa at some point. I’d go back and teach there… not necessarily at that school. One thing that’s important to talk about is the level of stress on teachers, especially among the very, very politically active teachers, constant feelings of doubt, of deciding to give up, to quit. I have a friend who studied in America, and is always thinking, “Well, I’ll go study abroad…” and he always has this need to go back to South Africa to teach… a moral obligation. He does that and then he just flips out every few months. But there’s also a level of exhilaration. I never felt more exhilarated in my life than when I taught there for those six months, because I really felt enormously alive, committed and passionate about something. There was a problem that was concrete that was larger than you, and I think that that sense among socially conscious people really they find very electrifying… it keeps them going.