Thursday, December 19, 2013

Remembering Mandela

I got an email from my friend Miriam last Friday. “We are counting on you to be the eyes and ears for all of your friends back here in the US,” she wrote, “…to let us know what it’s like where you are, where the life and the loss has much more powerful meaning.”

The request seemed daunting. Here is my attempt. In an effort to share the writing, I have included quotes that have struck me for their passion and their insight.

I found out about Mandela’s death from an email from my friend Thea and one from my dad. All I could see of Thea’s was “sorry for your loss,” and I knew who she was talking about. The email from my dad confirmed it. The subject read:  

NYTimes: Nelson Mandela, South African Icon of Peaceful Resistance, Is Dead.

“Mandela is dead,” I shouted to my roommate.

Mandela, some say, has been dying all year. He has been so sick, his deathbed, and so his big presence did not loom large on a daily basis. Some are not mourning now because they say they have been mourning all year, that for them he already died. His impact this week has been far larger than his impact over the last year.

My roommate went off to work and I sat there reading. And reading. And reading. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I turned on the radio, the most accessible and popular communication here and got what I needed in a call in show where people were sharing stories of him, moments when they met him or moments that meant so much to them. I never met him, but in 1990 my parents took me to hear him speak at the Washington Convention Centre. Almost 25 years later, I couldn’t have imagined I would be here, experiencing this moment with South Africa.

When I walked around that morning, I kept staring at people wondering what they were thinking. Of course it’s not like the people at the shop were going to say, oh today is so sad. It’s their job to be perky. But I kept looking.

At the grocery store I pushed the woman at the counter. When she asked how I was I said, “Well it’s quite a day.” Then she asked, “Why? Mandela?” When I answered affirmative and asked how she felt she told me that she was wondering if the country would change and go down hill in any way.

That was bound to be one comment. Over my years here a few young people have said the exact opposite to me. They worried that apartheid would come back once Mandela died. Neither is going to happen. South Africa will continue it’s journey and in that, many people have said this week, try to live up to his legacy.

When I reached my favorite coffee place, I got what I wanted in a conversation with the woman who makes the coffee – who I have known for several months. We talked about how we need to celebrate his life at this moment of death. That he was 95 and this was bound to happen and we need to let him go, just like she let her 80-year old grandma go the week before.

The question I think of now is not only of my expectations of how people might feel, my desire for dialogue, but also how different people feel and mourn. What this has meant to people here. What it has meant for those abroad. For some it is immediately devastating and full of rich meaning, but some struggle to figure out how or what they should feel.

In the last two weeks, I have continued to read everything – news, editorials, a beautiful essay by Nadine Gordimer about how her book “Burger’s Daughter” was snuck into Robben Island so Mandela could read it, a warm and loving obituary by Desmond Tutu. All of this reading and knowing is part of what helps me feel. It has been positive and also an overwhelming barrage, which has rendered some of this coverage and commentary meaningless. Sometimes the more you read, the less it means.

Now when I read the profound statement that Mandela made in court during the Rivonia trial, I skim over it because the more it is quoted the more it loses it’s power to me. If you haven’t read it, I am sharing it here, because of the extraordinariness of the moment.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Read several times a day over a week, for me it almost became just words. I wonder if people ever feel that way about the “content of character” section of MLK’s speech at the March on Washington.

Now, it is other things he said that tell me more about Mandela.

I read many personal and opinion pieces too. Several people felt that Mandela’s true and complete self was often quashed in the memorializing of the man, particularly in international coverage.

The issues they remind us of is that amidst discussion about how much Mandela was like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., which is quite true, we must remember that he took up a philosophy of violence when he felt like non-violence was not achieving the struggle. This is why he and other comrades started Umkhonto weSizwe --  Spear of the Nation.

There is the myth that without Mandela, South Africa would have erupted into a bloody civil war at the end of apartheid. We cannot know what would have happened. We do know that Mandela was a man of force who chose reconciliation, who staved off violence after apartheid, who chose to talk to his jailers and a hostile government, opting in later years for negotiation over earlier strategies of violence.

Mark Gevisser, the author of a biography about Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki, wrote about the message underlying much of the media coverage,”

 “For those of us who consume media, our week was full of content…. But it was also burdened by an overwhelming message: that we, Mandela's children, are his primary legacy, only worthy of his paternity if we live up to his exemplary example. This is a consequence of the way Mandela's legacy has been popularised: the world's embrace of him only as an icon of forgiveness and reconciliation – of love – rather than also as a fierce combatant for justice who turned to forgiveness and reconciliation because he understood it as the best route to the liberation of his people… The pressure of needing to live up to the legacy of Mandela exceptionalism is too much to bear: it can cause us to crack.”

In his writing, my friend Dylan, who works with teachers and who collaborated with me on my film Where Do I Stand?, honored Mandela as a teacher:

“Today we say goodbye to a great teacher… He has taught us all what it means to make choices, to sacrifice for something greater than oneself, to work hard, to laugh and dance, to love our children, to love our land and find love for each other. He has taught us to forgive where we can and be humble in asking for forgiveness when we need to. He has taught us to belong, accept and include. He has taught us to cherish this democracy, not to take for granted what has taken so long to build. He has taught us to share and be kind. And he has taught us that in teaching, we can give all of South Africa’s young children hope, opportunity and the courage to build on what he began.”
That evening, I went with my friend Greer to an Interfaith Service in front of City Hall. Right after Mandela was released from prison, he spoke to thousands from the balcony of this same building. The service was quiet as representatives from several religions spoke and prayed. It was both times that we sang the national anthem that really moved me. How amazing it is that I live here. That I am a part of this moment of celebration and mourning. That I am part of this country that is growing and changing, that despite disappointment and corruption, has so many people working to overcome its challenges. And that I have an opportunity to play a small part in that.

Last Wednesday I attended the Mandela Memorial Celebration at the Cape Town Stadium with my friend Bulelwa and her 16-year-old son Khulani. We told Khulani that when he is older, he would remember this day and be glad he was here.

There was a beautiful energy in the stadium, a unified and spiritual sense. A unique moment and an acknowledgement of this amazing man and the country he helped create today. There were inspired speeches and songs. Many who spoke reminded us that the struggle to maintain democracy was not over. That the responsibility to defend the democracy, to live with Mandela’s spirit of reconciliation must continue.

Western Cape Premiere Helen Zille came out singing a Xhosa song before she spoke, first in Xhosa and then English. When rugby player Francois Pienaar, the former captain of the Springboks – who you may only know as Matt Damon – the entire crowd broke into applause. He spoke of the power of sport to unify people and of his special relationship with Mandela. He referred to one of Mandela’s favorite poems, “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley.

“Our heartfelt thank you, to our spiritual coach and our captain. A flower that blooms in adversity is the most beautiful and rare of all. Madiba mastered his fate. As a nation, we must be the captain of his soul. Our present, our example, thank you Tata.”

Former Minister of Finance who now works in the Presidency Trevor Manuel spoke with incredible passion and used the moment to remind South Africa of the challenges that are left to overcome.

“We are soldiers and we need to take forward the spirit of democracy as Madiba would have wanted…We must take forward the spirit of struggle that Madiba represents in our lives. He leaves us with a spirit of struggle, spirit of self-sacrifice, humility and inter-relationship with the rest of us… Let us take forward the spirit of reconciliation… let’s listen to each other, let’s hear the pain of people who don’t have houses, let’s hear the pain of people who don’t have jobs, let’s hear the pain of people who don’t have access to toilets or water. Let’s hear that pain. Let’s take forward the spirit of reconciliation and as we do it and as we reach out to the other, as we reach out to the people in need we must remember everyday we are acting that way, we can say to ourselves Long live the spirit of Nelson Mandela. Long live. The spirit of Nelson Mandela lives inside us. Inside us. The back and forth chanting continued until he ended with Amandla. And the crowd responded Awethu.”  – Power … to us.

Mark Gevisser was at the memorial for Mandela in Johannesburg where Zuma and Obama and other world leaders spoke (and an incompetent sign language interpreter gained notoriety). It was pouring, the program seemed to be more for dignitaries than for the people, and when President Jacob Zuma was shown on the screen, he was booed, in what some say is democracy at work. A people who cannot communicate with the government choose to speak out in a different own way.

In his article, Gevisser issued a powerful reminder of where the country is today and the work that is yet to be done.

“I am grateful for … the way the earthiness of the crowd's behaviour deflated the notion that we are a special people with a special destiny: the rainbow children of a saintly father. We are not. We are a troubled and fractious country in a tough neighbourhood. We have problems. Who wouldn't, given such a history? And we have leaders who don't do us justice. We need to do something about this. It's a long walk to freedom indeed. Even if we are sad about Mandela's death, we have already looked up from the sombre task of burying him – he is not even in the ground yet – and we have carried on walking.”

The most inspiring speech at the uninspiring event on Tuesday was the one given by President Obama. He pushed people to be accountable to their own behavior, to take action and to not be complacent when they should be speaking out. Quoting Obama here isn’t raw patriotism. On Tuesday night after the ceremony in Johannesburg, many South African’s I know have said the same thing.

With honesty, regardless of our station or circumstance, we must ask:  how well have I applied his lessons in my own life?...  We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again.  But let me say to the young people of Africa, and young people around the world …while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be better.  He speaks to what is best inside us.  After this great liberator is laid to rest; when we have returned to our cities and villages, and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength - for his largeness of spirit - somewhere inside ourselves.  And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, or our best laid plans seem beyond our reach - think of Madiba, and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of a cell:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul. 

 Mandela was buried in Qunu on Sunday. I went back and forth about where I should be for the service, if I needed to be watching it outside of City Hall with others or watching with friends or if it was okay for me not to watch, if I had already done enough memorializing and the rest would come and go on a personal level. I ended up choosing wisely, listening to the service with friends in a car on the way back from a night away, where I had slept under the stars. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Part 2: Journey to Johannesburg

As I go from province to province, I have become very familiar with being guided to a school step by step. “Take the exit, turn right and then call me.” And after the next phone call, “Go straight, turn at the t-junction, and when you see a primary school on your right, call me.” Then a third set of instructions.  A couple of weeks ago, in Katlehong, outside of Johannesburg, I missed a turn and the principal had to come get me and guide me to the school.

Some schools simply exist in an area and for others, that space has meaning. I had only read a little about Katlehong, but this school’s founding, its history and its present are grounded in the space.

Phumlani Secondary School was started in 1993. “It was the last school formed in the area by the previous government,” Principal Shumi Shongowe told me. “There was a fight, a war between the IFP and the ANC, the soldiers that were deployed by the previous government... People were killing each other. There was blood all over. And there was no time even to bury those that were dead.”

Then he paused, looked up and calmly said, “And it is then that this school was started.”

It was a reminder to me of the painful history of this country and the trauma and chaos out of which so much, including this school, has been born.

Many people who work in schools say that uniforms help with discipline and focus, but I rarely hear that the blues and yellows and greens and maroons have any meaning. Surrounded by brutal violence in 1993, Shongowe consciously chose the school colors. Red for the blood that was spilled. White for the hope that remained. “To say,” he told me, “after some time, all this shall be over and life shall go back to normal.”

In 1994, that was a new normal, one might say.

The school has grown from 200 students and a 5 percent pass rate in 1993 to 1,783 students and a 94 percent pass rate in 2012.

These 1,783 learners also find meaning in the uniform. “I call it a uniform of success,” one learner told me. “People who are in jail, not that I’m criticizing, but people who are in jail, they are wearing a uniform of regret. So this is a uniform of success.” The nuance and generosity he extended to prisoners with the use of the word regret struck me. Not violence, evil or wrong, but regret.

Just after our interview with the principal, I casually peered into the school’s log book and amazed that it reaches back to the very establishment of the school and reads like a historical journal:

Sept 6, 1993: There was a national stay away called by the African National Congress and the alliances. The entire work force and the schooling community responded positively to the stay away and therefore teaching and learning did not take place.

April 22, 1994: Due to excitement of the first democratic election in the Republic of South Africa and the usage of the school building by the IEC for elections, education in our school came to a standstill.

May 10 1994: The inauguration of the state president. The whole world came to South Africa as Mr. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was inaugurated as the first Black president of the Republic of South Africa.

My mandate here is to identify keys to success. I often find that while those keys are unique, they really should be commonplace.  One principal only hires teachers who studied that subject in college or university. That seems fairly basic, right? How can a history teacher teach biology? How can an Afrikaans teacher switch to technology, as I saw happen at one school? This too often happens as teachers are moved from subject to subject to fill gaps, despite a lack of training.

In another example, at Tetelo Secondary School in Soweto, Principal Linda Molefe and his staff end the year with a two-day meeting where they create a comprehensive plan for the following year. Acknowledging that plans constantly shift and change once the year begins, he said, “We can start right away because we know where we’re going.”

I always ask about parent involvement because I know it’s a critical factor but often very difficult to achieve. Both principals emphasized that getting the parents to show up wasn’t enough. It was their obligation to teach parents how to be involved, to be clear about what is expected of them.

One principal has created an easy way for parents or grandparents, regardless of their education, to check their children’s progress. It involves simple numeric indicators. “Some of these grannies, they have never been at school… it is your responsibility to try and school them. To say what role are you expecting them to play. And these grannies with the issue of indicators, they also become excited because they can now get involved and give support to their granddaughters and grandsons.”

I have a new word for moments in these journeys that surprise me. I now call them “Acapello moments.” At Phumlani Secondary, a group of boys approached me and asked if I would film their singing group. I was blown over when I heard the harmony that came from the mouths of these boys, the noises they created through snapping and percussive beats.  It was like nothing I had heard before at a school in South Africa. The Soul Singers (as you may have guessed) are an acapello group.

The accapello moment at Tetelo Secondary came at the very end of the day, during mandatory study time for grade 12 learners. Because of the heat, many bring desks and chairs outside. We found one group of about 10 learners sitting under a tree, intently studying physics, debating and teaching one another. They traded off being the teacher, chalk in hand, using the side of a Cell C container to write on.  (If you aren’t in South Africa, this looks like a shipping container and you often find them in townships. They usually have public phones inside. I am not sure why this one was on school grounds.)

The irony was not lost on me that these kids were choosing to learn under a tree in a country where for years children like them had to learned under trees. I shouldn’t speak of it in the past sense, since this still happens in some rural schools.

When I flew back to Cape Town on Friday morning, there was an article in the newspaper about an Education Charter that was recently put forward by the South African Human Rights Commission. The charter offers rules and recommendations to the government on giving quality education to all children. It addresses issues like crowded classrooms, suggesting that pupil teacher ratios not exceed 1 to 40 for grades 1 to 12. It has a series of ambitious deadlines to meet aims for everything from reduced class size to electricity and running water for all schools, to making sure schools have other basic and essential services needed to teach and learn properly.

The Charter is filled with incredible goals to improve education across the country.  I hate to be pessimistic, but I just don’t understand how they are going to fix so much so quickly. At Phumlani, the 1738 students are based in an old primary school building. The principal says he is basically running two schools. At Tetelo, I saw students mopping out their container classrooms in the morning because it had rained the night before and the classrooms leak. In the midst of the cleaning and mopping, some were polishing shoes and straightening ties.

So how will the government build enough classrooms and buildings so these students aren’t packed 65 in a class and don’t have rain dripping on their books? To have actual libraries and labs rather than a lab on a cart that is pushed from class to class.

I remain somewhat doubtful, but hopeful and I’ll wait and see. In the meantime, maybe the government should bring some of these principals to other schools to share their best practices. “There is no recipe for success,” Principal Molefe from Soweto told me. But I think sharing ingredients would be a good start.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Part 1: Journey to Mafikeng

I disappeared in 2012, but I’ve decided to write again in 2013. This dispatch is the first in a series of reflections about education in South Africa. Over the next several months I will be visiting 14 schools in seven provinces across the country. The mission of the Schools That Work project is to create a series of videos that serve disadvantaged communities and are having academic success – or but are having academic success, depending on how you see it. When compared to other schools in South Africa that also serve poor children, these schools are excelling despite. Despite the hunger and poverty of the learners which negatively impacts their experiences in the classroom, despite struggles with parental involvement, despite lack of classrooms and toilets, despite sometimes unresponsive provincial and national governments, and sometimes, despite necessary resources. I was hired to do this project by Jonathan Jansen, Rector at the University of the Free State.

Last year, in Limpopo, pupils were without textbooks for the first half of the year because the government had not delivered the books. And just before the beginning of Matric (school leaving) exams this year, the Minister issued an open letter apologizing to grade 12 students. In it she said, “I know 2012 has not been an easy year for you. I also understand that you may feel I, Minister of Basic Education, have let you down. I apologise unreservedly for all you have been through as a learner.”

It is likely that for many students it would have been a difficult year even if their schools had proper infrastructure and enough resources. They didn’t need school to make life harder. You know things are really bad when the government feels it has to apologize to learners for failing them, for not giving them the education they deserve. And this apology just devastates me. Kids deserve so much more. Governments, education departments, politicians should all be advocating on behalf of students. They should be the good guys. Unfortunately, they often aren’t.

So this week, I traveled to Mafikeng. Mafikeng is a small town in Northwest province. It is about a 20-minute drive from the Botswana border. The first language of most people is Setswana and there is also a significant Indian population. At one school a boy stopped me and asked, “Why don’t you film the Indian kids, we’re here,” and pointed to a group of his friends. I told him we were filming everyone. It was interesting to think about how he sees his place at the school – a school where most students are Black, the principal and one of the deputies are Indian and the staff is very racially diverse. I still haven’t found out why there is such a large Indian population in Mafikeng.

Every time I visit a school, see a classroom, watch teachers and principals, I think about my own experiences. I think we frame how we see all schools through the lens of our own experience as students, as educators, as parents. My cameraman Felix and his soon to be wife are expecting a baby in a few weeks and all this time in the classroom led to conversations about where and how we would want to educate our children. This week after watching a trigonometry class, Felix, and I talked about our failed attempts at solving sine and cosine. I remember the teacher; I remember the class and some of you reading this might have been in it with me. Felix grew up in a small town outside Stuttgart, Germany and no doubt our school experiences were very different. But regardless of the country, trigonometry seems to prevail.

Each school has it’s own feel to it. Some feel warm, some chaotic, some very structured or disciplined, others a combination. The first school we went to has incredible academic success but felt very chaotic – more outside of the classroom than in. I was only aware when we arrived that the school did not fit into the mold of the project, as most of the students there are middle class. I don’t think I have ever been to a school here that is mostly middle class students. Where the challenges include things like Facebook and cell phones. I have been to very poor township schools and formerly all White more resourced schools, but never something like this.  South Africa is full of extremes and one doesn’t often see the middle.

The second school was a warm place. The buildings are physically spread out because it used to be a teacher training college before it became a high school in the 1980’s. The physical plant reminded us of a missionary school with long white buildings of classrooms and nice trees and flowers. But the school no longer has laboratories or a library because they were turned into classrooms for it’s 1441 students. There are 18 toilets for 800 girls and 16 toilets for 600 boys. When I asked the principal what his priority was, he chose classrooms over toilets.

When filming, I try to represent reasons why a school is so successful and often that comes through excellent teaching. In one English class, 9th graders were reciting Shakespeare’s sonnet Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds,
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove…

Many made it their own with tone of voice, body, energy, and humor. The teacher affirmed them, allowed the class the space to laugh and clap noisily, and before each student began grounded them by saying, “The stage is yours.” Some of excellent teaching is personality and after filming we talked about how his classroom felt different. Positive and full of joy, and that wasn’t just due to a love of Shakespeare.

At an economics class – if you’ll believe me – we found students almost equally excited. Who knew learning about land, labor, capital, and natural resources, labor could be fun? The teacher brought two students up to the front, had one take off his tie, roll up his sleeves and hold a bottle of water  -- the laborer. The other one remained staid in his uniform, tie and all. He was the boss. Above the chalkboard were photos of Martin Luther King, Obama, Mandela, Malcolm X, Walter Sisulu and W.E.B. DuBois and quotes from Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. What was notable for me were the diverse notable people who he brought into the space. (It would have, of course, been nice to see a woman too!)

But just because a school has high Matric pass rates, it doesn’t mean that every teacher is going to show such passion and energy. I also saw teachers on the other end of the spectrum – one struggling to control students (as I once did), one who seemed barely interested and others who stood at the front of the class and talked at students rather than with them. I saw young teachers and older teachers, and I know that no matter who they were, they all try and they all care. But I keep thinking about how we define good teaching and what makes good teachers.

One moment in particular sticks in my mind. It was an 8th grade English class.  As the teacher called student’s names for presentations, she didn’t make an effort to pronounce them or seem to care which face belonged to which name. As she sifted through her cards, she even named the same kids twice. Many students were not ready which I know is frustrating as a teacher. But in the environment in the room was uninspired and felt negative. I wouldn’t have felt supported or wanted to try very hard in that classroom. Why is this worth telling? Well the teacher was white, her students Black and in a place like South Africa where questions of race are still so prominent, these moments are all the more significant for me.

I’ll close on a picture that will make you smile. Picture a group of girls on the edge of a field in funny hats twirling batons and flags. Behind them, on the big field, is someone mowing a lawn. In front them, a team of boys, in bright colored shirts, run in circles around the field. Amidst it all, if you look carefully, you’d find Felix kneeling and lying on the grass in an effort to capture it all.

I love those moments.