A question that I have been asked frequently during my time here has been “So what do you think of South Africa?” My first reaction is always to say how much I have enjoyed my time here, but that is never what they are asking. The question that they are asking is, “what do I think of South Africa and the current political/socio-economic situation we are in as a country?” and I can only ever reply, “South Africa seems to be full of some of the most horrible problems, and the most wonderful people.” In talking with the learners and marking the many of their papers, I have been able to hear and read their stories and get to know where they come from. Just earlier this week I was reading a learner’s paper, and this is what she had to say about her life in Khayelitshia: “As I said living in Khayelitshia is not good. Life is not perfect everything that is bad is there. Every human trafficking is there, every drugs is there, every abusing people are there, criminals are there, gang groups are there. I find that life is too hard for me there…The life we live there is bad in such a way that the teenagers are become the destroyers of their freedom and future.” This is one excerpt from one paper, and sadly these kinds of stories are the norm, not the exception.
Almost all of the teachers at Thandokhulu are also Amaxhosa and live in the townships. As they have told me “Yes it is sad, but these are simply the lives we live. Everyone has nothing. We can only do what little we can to help those around us who have even less.” A teacher’s salary in South Africa is fairly small. However, one of the teachers, Cana, was telling me about how, when she was teaching in a primary school, the teachers and administrators would identify learners that were in the most need of assistance, and the teachers would essentially adopt them. They would pay for their school fees, transportation to and from school, and help provide lunch and books. Teachers would even collect used clothes from their family and bring them in for the learners. They would pour their own small amount of resources back into their learners, because they knew that the learners needed it more than they did.
Another story Cana was telling me was of a brother and sister. The boy was grade five and the girl grade four, and she learned that their father, the only person that they had living with them, had passed away. Every day the brother and sister went home to a two room corrugated iron shack in the townships with no one there to look after them. They would sit there, decide to go to sleep, and then wake up and walk to school the next morning. That was all they had. When Cana learned of this she told the administration and the social workers on staff. Unfortunately, because the school year was coming to a close, the administration felt it wouldn’t have enough time to adequately address the situation, so the social workers asked Cana to take the two learners in for the summer break until they could find other family members or figure out what to do for the next year. And she did so, unhesitantly.
“All of us have nothing. We can’t change the facts of our existence; it is too large, but we do what little we can.” South Africa is full of some of the most horrible problems. It has extreme, concentrated poverty that feeds into problems of drug addiction, violence, sexual exploitation, and gangsterism, all on a scale that we could not possibly imagine in the United States, but it is also full of the most amazing people, people who are always willing to give all they have and more to help someone else. It’s not charity; it’s a part of the culture. It’s Ubuntu, and it’s alive and well in South Africa.