In Ogwini Technical School, I taught a few English lessons to a class of sixty. You could have heard a pin drop. One day I had these pupils of mixed ages writing letters to schoolchildren in Sheffield. As best I could, I circulated around this crowd of sixty giving hints and praise. About three rows back, there was a beautiful fourteen year old Zulu girl. I checked her letter and damn me it was pretty much word perfect.
"This is excellent. How did you learn to write in English so well?"
"Well sir, I had a very good teacher - Miss Marshall."
"Oh yes. That's good. And where is she now? Is she still in the school?"
"No sir. She was raped and murdered."
I almost staggered back from the desk. Was this sweet girl joshing with me? I couldn't tell so I moved on to other letter writers.
Afterwards, I enquired about Miss Marshall. It seems she had been the only white teacher in the school and sure enough, in her home a few miles away, she had indeed been raped and murdered by intruders. All of Ogwini Technical School had attended her funeral just a few weeks before.
When I left Ogwini, I had to make a speech to the assembled staff. I told them how privileged I felt to have been able to visit South Africa in the years beyond the fall of apartheid. I told them about the anti-apartheid demonstrations I had been on in Edinburgh and London and my admiration for Nelson Mandela and how important they were as teachers in helping to build the new Rainbow nation.
|Morning assembly at Ogwini - which caters for 3000 pupils|
But you know - during my time there - I also visited a rural primary school twenty miles from Durban in the hot stillness of the countryside. The pupils walked to their school barefoot. There was no electricity and no running water. The classrooms all had flaking blackboards but there was very little chalk and the furniture was ancient. I was in a black country where whites and apartheid seemed far distant - something that belonged in cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg. Here life went on - regardless of the ANC or Nelson Mandela or The Springbok rugby team. And scrapping the pass laws and enfranchisement seemed somehow irrelevant. Somebody's else's business.
In London in the nineteen seventies I met Aziz Pahad - a South African in self-imposed exile. He was a member of the ANC and had fled his homeland to escape incarceration. In Islington, we twice went out to pubs for a few drinks together - just me and him - and we exchanged stories about our lives. Little did I know that when, years later, apartheid crumbled and Mr Mandela was released from jail, Aziz would become South Africa's foreign minister. On television, I watched him greet the Clintons at the international airport in Johannesburg and then returned to marking the pile of books I had brought home from school.
Yes - right now - I can't get South Africa and its first true president out of my head. This isn't even the post I planned to write as I sat down at this keyboard but there was nothing I could do to stop my fingers from typing what you have just read.