Courageous Conversations

While working at my dad’s coffee shop in the 1980s, one of our customers was Steve Van Zandt, a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band. “Little Steven” would come in, order breakfast, and begin reading the New York Times . One day, I remember Little Steven shaking his head back and forth with a concerned look on his face.  I asked him what he read that was so troubling to him.  This one initial conversation led to many subsequent conversations about apartheid in South Africa and the injustice resulting from years of racism. I learned about Stephen Biko and Nelson Mandela. Van Zandt was involved in the anti-apartheid movement, which culminated in a protest song that he wrote and produced.  The song was called Sun City, and Van Zandt led a boycott of this wealthy, white-only exclusive resort.  The video of Sun City can be seen below:

Eventually, the unpopular reaction of de Klerk’s National Party to anti-apartheid protests as well as international pressure for the elimination of the apartheid system, led to the abolition of apartheid by the mid 1990s. Nelson Mandela came to power, and it seemed like justice prevailed in South Africa.

Two decades later, when a colleague of mine, Dr. Arnold Dodge, offered me an opportunity to travel to South Africa, I jumped at the offer.  I had wanted to see for myself what happened after apartheid ended and political freedom was granted to all people.  The main purpose of my trip was to visit schools in South Africa, partner with one high school, conduct research, and write about our findings. Our group consisted of principals, college professors, and curriculum directors, and our task included visiting and critically examining the educational system in South Africa. Departing from JFK airport, we embarked on a 24 journey with Stellenbosch as our final destination. Our host and driver met us at the airport in Cape Town. During our one-hour ride from Cape Town to Stellenbosch our driver stated that the socioeconomic conditions were as unequal as ever even though apartheid had been legally eradicated.   Our driver began explaining some of the changes in post-apartheid South Africa. In fact, the chronology of this nation is divided between two epochs: apartheid and post-apartheid. He explained that during apartheid, there were four racial categories: white, Indian, colored (a person of mixed European and African or Asian ancestry), and black. In post-apartheid South Africa, four was reduced to three. The “Indian” distinction has now been removed. This type of re-categorization of racial classes shows the concept of race is very much a human-made, social construct.

When we visited our first school, Lynedoch Primary School, there were no white students. Keeping in mind the distinction between two categories “colored” and “black,” I asked the principal how he was able to tell the difference between colored and black students. He asked me for my pen. Then, he ran the pen through the center of his scalp from back to front. Midway, the pen stopped and was stuck in his hair. He looked up at me and asked, “Do you see this? The pen is stuck in my hair. My hair is kinky. This means black.” I was shocked that racial distinctions are so arbitrarily made. The difference between “colored” and “black” does matter since neighborhoods and schools are segregated. Often, the racial distinction defines and determines a student’s future and status in society.  Below is a photo of the principal and staff of Lynedoch Primary School.


After this episode, I began to notice who lived in the dilapidated shantytowns. Students from our sister high school in South Africa, Hector Peterson School, guided us through their neighborhood, which was composed of homes and stores built from aluminum, wood, cardboard, and plywood. We were escorted through some of the poorest and most unsanitary living conditions I have ever encountered. Indoor plumbing was nonexistent; meat was cooked on twigs and newspapers that were lit on fire; toilets were public and located outside without any privacy slabs or doors; electricity was “borrowed” from the street poles that held electrical wiring, and; litter was scattered all over the sidewalks.  Below is a photo of homes that was part of the landscape in these shantytowns.


The building conditions at Hector Peterson High School were indicative of the neighborhood in which it was located. Housed in a building that was originally constructed for 800 students, the high school is now home to 1300 students.  Most of the teachers are black with one or two “colored” teachers among the staff. The student to teacher ratio is 35 to 1.  Large class sizes, a library with scarce resources, poor lighting and ventilation, and lack of technology were quite apparent and alarming. Yet, students studied for and took their final exams, which would be scheduled over a one-month period.  Below is a photo of the mural outside the main entrance of this high school.  Hector Peterson was a 13-year-old student shot by police during the Soweto uprising and demonstrations in 1976.  The day of his death, June 16, is now honored as National Youth Day, when the the nation honors its youth and brings attention to their needs.


The poster below illustrates the inadequate resources of school libraries in South Africa.


My guide stated that education was important for him since it represented a way out of the shantytown and a possible path for him to fulfill his goal, which was to open up a business and travel. Though he had no hope of being accepted into one of the “better” colleges, he was still planning to go to college to obtain a degree in business.  Below is a photo of my student guide, looking through art work that Clarkstown North students exchanged with Hector Peterson High School.  Thanks to North’s Art Department, art students at North participated in an art project called “WE ARE.”  Students took photos of an art project that represented them and wrote about themselves on the reverse side of the photo.  I delivered a binder full of North student projects when I visited Hector Peterson High School.


A few hours later we traveled to another high school about half an hour away. Leaving the poor conditions of the shantytowns, the environment began to change. We drove through farms, and, ultimately, drove through a main road with many high-end shops. Along the way, we saw beautifully landscaped homes in a well-developed neighborhood. We came to unplanned stop at one of the local high schools, Hoerskool Paarl Gymnasium. The school had a beautiful front entrance, tennis courts, swimming pools, and playing fields that are more reminiscent of a private, elite preparatory school in the northeastern part of the U.S. At first, I thought this was a private school only to find out that it was a public school; however, the parents were able to pay extra money that funded more teachers (and thus smaller class sizes); sports (this school had a rugby team that was a feeder for South Africa’s National Rugby Team, i.e. the Springboks); music and art programs; and other amenities. I asked the school’s Community Relations Director about the racial composition of its student body. He proudly stated that the school was 80 percent white and 20 percent colored, and he also noted that there were a few black students among a student body of 1,080. The school employed 110 teachers resulting in a 10:1 student to teacher ration.  In the apartheid era, colored and black students would not have been allowed to enroll in this school.  Below is a photo of the entrance of this high school.


Our group visited seven more schools in a period of three days.  At one school, Parkdene Primary School, the principal was concerned about break-ins.  A microwave and a refrigerator had been stolen.  He was able to allocate funds for a security system and also to build a wall on order to separate the school from the kids in the neighborhood. It seems that drop outs would interfere with students during recess time and when students assembled in the courtyard.  Below is a photo of the wall that was built to secure part of the school’s perimeter.


Social issues, such as poverty, racism, and concentration of wealth affect schools in South Africa in the same manner, but perhaps to a different degree, as in the U.S.  I remember my conversations with the Chancellor of Education, Meryl Tisch, who stated to me that “poverty is an excuse” for why students do not do well in school.  After witnessing traveling conditions in South Africa and teaching in some poor areas of New York City, poverty is not an excuse, it is reality for students.  To think that unsanitary living conditions, crime, substandard housing, poor drinking water, lack of health care, and other conditions found in poor neighborhoods will not have an effect on student readiness for schooling is irrational and/or disingenuous.

After we returned from South Africa, our group was discussing what next steps we should take.  Dr. Dodge, in collaboration with Dr. Berte van Wyk from the University of Stellenbosch, has already published a chapter on this exchange with South Africa in a book.  Besides writing about these very important issues, we are discussing how to expand the Courageous Conversations project.  Richard Roder, a principal in Queens, has nicely summarized the project on his web page, courageous conversations.

My goal is to have students visit schools in Stellenbosch while also studying about these issues at the University, which is one the premiere learning institutions in South Africa.  Learning about these important socioeconomic factors and studying their impact on society will have a greater effect when students witness and experience conditions first-hand.  Such an exchange program will require planning and funding.  It will be a worthwhile experience and given North’s designation as an I.B. World School, our mission to take into account a global perspective can be realized with such an exchange project.