December 18, 2013

‘Apartheid’ Days Remembered

“Make every home, every shack or rickety structure a centre of learning.” (Nelson Mandela)

Throughout his life, Mandela stressed the need for education as a means of liberating the oppressed and enabling them to live in dignity. Even when he was imprisoned on Robben Island, he encouraged others (his white jailers as well as his co-prisoners) to keep on striving for an education. Above all he led by example – managing against all odds to qualify as a lawyer.

Iona Convent

The South African apartheid regime used education as a means of oppression: firstly by providing education of an inferior nature, secondly by limiting access to any kind of education and thirdly by not making attendance at school compulsory for black Africans as it was for whites. (Mandela had been educated at a Methodist mission school before apartheid became a law).

How did the Church, and in particular, the Mercy Sisters contribute to Mandela’s ambition of universal education for every South African?

At first, we must confess that we, to some degree, complied with the government’s directions: we had schools in segregated areas for segregated pupils – in Mafeking for Coloured people, in Soweto for Africans, in Mmakau for Africans. The only difference was that saw to it that the standard of education was of the best – in fact it was the same as in our ‘white schools’ in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

In the 1960’s and early 70’s, we co-operated with other groups in having literacy classes for adults, many of whom were completely illiterate. These people were not able to function effectively in a world where the ability to read and write is essential. They had to have someone to help them fill in forms and to read any written communication they received. Often these ‘helpers’ were unscrupulous and would rob the people of their pensions or contributions from their families.

In Pretoria, a major step forward was taken in the late 1960’s. An African nurse at the local hospital told one of the Mercy Sisters who was visiting the hospital that she would love to become a psychiatric nurse but could not enroll for any courses as she did not have a matriculation certificate and had no opportunity or means of obtaining it. The Mercy Sisters at Iona Convent changed her situation. Every Sunday, three of us gave her private tuition; she passed her matric and had that magic piece of paper that enabled her to continue her studies.

Iona School

Needless to say, the news spread. Nurses, teachers, policemen, secretaries and others requested similar assistance. The following January saw crowds enrolled at Iona Convent that became an adult education centre in the late afternoons when our white children had gone home. As many as two hundred people made use of the facilities we offered. We were assisted by the lay staff of Iona, by Loreto Sisters and by university students. [Personally, for me it was a joy to be alive, to be breaking the law and to be doing something we ought to have been doing all along.] The fact that there was a hostel for police over the road from Iona Convent never disturbed us.

Our adult education campaign spread to Tsogo High School in Mmakau (40 kms northwest of Pretoria), and then in collaboration with other Congregations some of our sisters worked in Centres in Soweto, central Johannesburg and in Boksburg. Looking back on this campaign, I feel that its effect was probably much greater than we can imagine. It meant that people attained the qualifications to further their studies, gain promotion at work and earn higher salaries. In fact the man who is now working in the Mercy bakery in Winterveldt told us that ‘half the people’ of Ga-Rankuwa had been educated at Tsogo Night School.

Fast forward to 1975. The Bishops of South Africa had declared in 1973 that they would no longer abide by unjust laws and all Catholic institutions would be opened to all the people of South Africa irrespective of race or colour.

This meant that African and so-called Coloured parents began to apply for registration at our schools. The first Coloured child from Eersterust (a segregated area east of Pretoria city) was enrolled at Iona at Easter 1975. She had just started high school, so her father thought it would be advisable for her to start at her new school as soon as possible. Iona’s name was well known in the areas around Pretoria because so many people had benefitted from the evening classes, As a result Iona had an influx of applications for school.

One of the first African children to be admitted to Iona was Tumi Dishego whose mother had passed matric at our centre and she wanted the best for her only daughter.

In ‘opening’ our schools, we had to deal with the Department of Education and with local government authorities. According to the law, our schools were registered for the education of white children: removal of this registration would mean that parents of white children attending them could be brought to court for not sending their children to government registered schools. The media did not help us. They ‘sneaked’ into school yards and took photos of black children to accompany the sensational stories they published in their pages.

Iona School Students today

Hardest of all, was the reaction of many of our white parents, particularly in the working-class area of Iona. I shall never forget the phone call I received from a parent who had three children at our school. He wanted to inform me that he had to remove his children from Iona because he could not have them attending the same school as his driver. He regretted having to make the decision because his mother, his aunts and his sisters had all attended Iona and he wanted to continue the tradition. I had to tell him that I regretted I could not change our policy which was in keeping with the teaching of the gospel that all people were created equal and children of God. I was, however, not feeling very happy. I went to the chapel to have a few words with the Lord about the matter. While I was still in the chapel, the door bell rang. I answered it and found two young girls at the door with their parents – asking for admission to the high school. That, to me, was the Lord’s answer.

Sr Majella Quinn has a rather amusing story about Tsogo High School. Behind the school there is a mountain which was often used as a hiding place for criminals as well as a sacred place for many traditional believers in the village. One morning a group of 35 young people involved in anti-apartheid activities came running into the school grounds looking for a way to the mountain to escape the police. Instead, they asked for help and the teachers put them into a number of classrooms where there was enough space for them to share desks with the regular pupils. During the political protests of the 1980’s, school children often did not wear their school uniforms for safety reasons. (The protesters tried to disrupt the education system and children in uniform could be targeted by the freedom fighters.) The police arrived on this particular occasion and told Sr Majella that they were going to search the classrooms for the ‘suspects’. She warned them that it was a futile exercise as no child was wearing school uniform.

The sergeant said that they would go for re-enforcements to help conduct the search. A means had to be found to get the young people to safety very quickly. They gathered in a spare classroom where the leader, unsure of the intentions of the staff, went on his knees and begged Sr Majella not to hand them over to the police.

Assured that they were safe, a plan was devised: a dozen or so left the grounds in the school mini-bus: the rest dispersed in pairs in different directions. When the police returned they could not find the ‘terrorists’. Sr Majella later received a message from the leader of the group that should she ever have any trouble at school, she could contact them and they would give her the necessary assistance.

Sporting competitions and cultural activities presented problems. According to government rules, whites competed with whites and black with blacks. (South Africa was isolated from international sport because of its apartheid laws. In fact isolation from international sport was the strong factor in creating awareness about the evils of apartheid and eventually bringing it to an end). What happened when a school appeared for a netball competition with a ‘rainbow’ team? The answer was: ’They may not compete!’ This did not deter us: we kept on sending our racially mixed teams to the competitions. The Mercy Sisters informed the Department of Education that should they not allow our schools to compete, we would publish this information as widely as possible and so draw attention to what was happening in South Africa. The ‘ploy’ worked and within a short while our teams were allowed to take part in all school sporting events.

By degrees we returned to a more regular routine – the whites who objected to sitting beside blacks left our schools, newspapers no longer found our activities sensational enough for publication and the government decided that there was really no point in trying to prevent the inevitable. All schools are now to some extent mirrors of our rainbow nation.

Immaculata Devine RSM 

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