Glimpses of a Transformative Primary School in Johannesburg
How Race and Class Divisions Still Shape South African Lives
At the end of the year 2001, my mother informed Tshepiso and me that we would be leaving Tshimologo Junior Primary and Retlile Senior Primary schools respectively and start attending a multiracial school in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. To say we were thrilled would be putting it mildly. For many years, I’d envied the scores of children in my township who paraded their fancy Model-C school uniforms around the neighborhood every afternoon. Most of them wore blazers and ties. Even the girls! They all looked so suave and dignified in their uniforms and I always craved the feeling of wearing a uniform just like theirs. Hardly any township school had a uniform that consisted of a blazer and tie. In summer, we wore tunics and shirts. In winter, girls wore knee-length pinafores with long socks or thick wool stockings and long-sleeved jerseys. The boys wore grey pants with shirts.
Upon being informed that we would be taken out of the township schools, I immediately decided to cut my relaxed hair and start dreadlocks. My mother had had them for just over a year by then and was always telling us that dreadlocks are an expression of blackness. I decided that, even as I was leaving the township to study in white suburbs, I would take my identity along with me. I wanted to retain my identity no matter how consuming the multiracial environment was. I had seen many children in the township who had gone to these schools being transformed into what we called “coconuts”: black on the outside and white on the inside. And while I envied their uniforms and sophisticated demeanor, I was appalled by the way they related to those of us who were less privileged than they were. They hardly ever played with us. They did everything in their power to steer clear of us, avoiding us like the plague. And when they did speak to us, once in a blue moon, it would be in English spoken with a twang. It was always a humiliating experience to speak to them because those of us who were studying in the township had a dismal command of the English language and so we’d mumble incoherently, ashamed yet determined to prove to them that we were not inferior, that our education was not inferior.
And so I wanted to enter their world, to be part of their reality but on my own terms. I wanted to wear their blazers and ties, to travel in their school buses, to look as dignified as they did. But I wanted to do this as Malaika Lesego Samora Mahlatsi, a product of the township, a product of Meadowlands Zone 8. I wanted that part of my identity not to be destroyed.
When I informed my mother that I wanted to have dreadlocks she was thrilled beyond measure. She immediately made an appointment for me with her own hairdresser, abuti Vusi. He agreed that he’d start with my dreadlocks in a week’s time. But a week was too long. I was impatient and excited all at the same time. I wanted my hair locked immediately, and so I went to one of the older boys in my neighborhood, Veli, who also worked at a salon but often rendered services to people from his own home, to start on my hair immediately. Veli agreed and, soon thereafter, he proceeded to cut the relaxed part of my hair off, leaving only the part that had started developing growth. A day after that, he had locked my hair into a terrible mess. Needless to say, my mother was not amused.
When Tshepiso and I informed our friends that we would be transferring to a multiracial school they were genuinely excited for us. The nature of our friendship with Dipuo and Ntswaki in particular was such that none of us could ever feel jealous of another. We loved one another dearly and were as inseparable as a tongue and saliva. It was a happy time after a period of suffocating sadness and despair.
At the beginning of 2002, Tshepiso and I were students at Melpark Primary School in Melville, a beautiful cosmopolitan neighborhood in the north-west of Johannesburg. Melpark Primary was completely different from Tshimologo. It was a three-story building with four classrooms on each floor for the senior phase. The junior phase section of the school was separate from where the older students studied. It had its own quad and playground. The reception area was magnificent, with doors that opened out into the quiet street. The offices of the principal, the finance secretary and the admin clerk were situated in the same building. There was a sickroom for boys and a separate one for girls. A staff kitchen and meeting room were also situated in the vicinity.
Outside this block was a huge quad area for senior phase students. Directly opposite the quad was a grand hall where weekly assemblies and formal events were held. There was a tuck shop just next to the hall that sold refreshments during breaks. The piano room was located at the other end of the quad, necessarily far from other classes but next to the computer laboratory, which, at that time, had approximately thirty computers: enough for an entire classroom. A lapa was situated behind the quad and would be open during lunch breaks for students who didn’t want to sit on the bleachers on the field behind the grand hall. The field had a netball court, a soccer pitch, a softball pitch and athletic tracks. It was a beautiful school, unlike anything I’d ever seen, even on television. As I toured the premises with Tshepiso, we couldn’t help but compare it with Tshimologo and Retlile, which had no field, no proper playing grounds, no grand hall for assembly, no piano room and no computer laboratories. It made sense why the children in our neighborhood who attended this kind of school believed themselves superior to all of us. This privilege they were exposed to was extraordinary and exclusive.
But my first month at the school was a living nightmare. I was in a class with students who’d been there since grade one. They’d known each other for many years and had developed close friendships, which they guarded jealously. They were grouped with their own circle of friends and it was difficult to be part of any of these circles. My command of the English language was terrible; I could barely speak a complete sentence. But more than that, I looked completely out of place in that class. I was a very dark child with a mane of dreadlocks. This was at a time when little could be done with dreadlocks except to braid them in one style or tie them backwards. The problem with this was that my dreadlocks were not long enough to be tied backwards or braided. So they were just a mane of hair that looked rather untidy. The girls in my class all looked very neat, with their relaxed hair tied into cute buns or plaited precisely. Some even had long braids and synthetic ponytails. The first day I stood in front of my classmates, I was a heap of nerves. Never before had I felt so uncomfortable in my own skin. I felt ugly and was certain that all those children were looking at me like I was a laughable figure of pathos. I was extremely grateful when the bell rang to announce lunch break. I ran out of the classroom to look for Tshepiso and, when I found her, she enveloped me with her fragile arms. She’d gone through the same experience; she understood what I was feeling.
Back in the township, everyone was excitedly asking about our Model-C experience. Ntswaki and Dipuo wanted to know what it felt like to be in the same class with white and Indian students. They wanted to know what it felt like to have white teachers and beautiful classrooms that had no broken chairs or scratched tables. They too, like us before the year 2002, had dreamt of attending multiracial schools where the students wore blazers and ties. It was a dream that many children in the township had. But now Tshepiso and I had finally got the chance to live this dream. And yet it did not bring me the happiness I had anticipated. I felt lost in that world, unable to find the way back to myself. I could not identify with the superficial monotony of my new life. It was suffocating me and I wanted out of it. But I didn’t dare to say all this to anyone, least of all my friends. I was terrified that they would tell my mother what I had told them and she in turn would be crushed.
Our being at Melpark Primary School was not a result of a windfall that had happened at home. My mother was still employed at an NGO and was the sole breadwinner in the household, looking after me, Tshepiso, Vina and Ali. We were still living in a shack, the same one that had almost been destroyed by heavy rains a year before. My grandmother was still at her sangoma school. Things were rather difficult and it was becoming increasingly harder for my mother to make ends meet but she was determined to take us out of township schools. She wanted us to have a better chance at escaping the clutches of poverty than she had had, than many children who are confined to township life ever would. And as she would always tell us, “The ANC fought hard so that you would have these privileges, so that you too would have the opportunities that were only available to white children in the past. I joined the ANC because of this and the two of you shall be beneficiaries of the gains of that struggle.”
I could not tell her that I wanted none of those gains. I could not tell her that the privilege of being in a multiracial school meant little when being in that environment was taxing me emotionally. I was terrified of revealing to her the truth about this new South Africa that she so desperately wanted us to embrace: that in Melpark Primary School, rich black students and white students were treating the rest of us like inferior beings, flashing their wealth before our desperate eyes. And so I kept quiet.
As the weeks went by, Tshepiso and I made new friends and Melpark Primary School, with all its foreign ways, became bearable. But, despite the improvements, I was still battling to feel a sense of belonging. My English had improved and I was doing well academically but something was missing in me, something that I left at the gate every morning when I entered the school premises and only found again when I stepped onto the streets of Meadowlands Zone 8.
From Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the New South Africa by a Member of the Post-Apartheid Generation. Used with the permission of Seven Stories Press. Copyright © 2018 by Malaika Wa Azania.