Johannesburg, South Africa

  • Date
  • 14 July 2000

(Note: Watch the videos that show our visits to Realogile School and Cotland’s Orphanage.)

One of Jim’s Oxford schoolmates, Alan Murray is married to a South African woman, Patience. They met during Apartheid, and fell in love, but this was against the law since she is black and he is white. No matter, they lived together, illegally, for several years before marrying, which was illegal until just before the fall of Apartheid. They have two charming, engaging, handsome sons, nine-year-old Daniel, and Kabila, almost six.

With Patience Murray (Pheshi Mboweni in her native Tsonga dialect) I visited Realogile (‘On the Move’) School, home to a few thousand students, in Alexandra (an all-black township) where Patience teaches eleventh and twelfth-year English. What I saw inside the grounds was alarming: no books, lab equipment, computers, typewriters (stolen) and very little furniture (much of that stolen, too). Perhaps 40 percent of the windowpanes were broken and will not be replaced. Classrooms are small and chalkboards are missing. Not one poster, sign or decoration adorns any of the classrooms. Desks and tables are decrepit. A small, shabby room, with a few books, masquerades as a library, but is rarely used, says Patience.

The dirty bathroom smells rotten. Toilets don’t flush properly and toilet seats are non-existent. Drugs are sold and smoked in the bathrooms, marijuana most common and crack for those with extra cash. No one can afford cocaine. Some students also use a small tablet to get high, but Patience isn’t sure what that is called. She explains to me that nothing can be done about the students who do drugs, break windows or insult teachers, since after Apartheid, the new South African government introduced laws protecting human rights. “So we cannot punish the students or expel them, but my human rights are abused daily,” she laments.

Patience chairs the English department at Realogile School, without a single book to teach literature, her favorite in the curriculum. The school has no money for basic resources, so Patience brings her own newspapers and books to share local events and literature with her classes, each about 45 strong, but short of that many desks. Her chalkboard is crumbling, but she adds: “At least I have one. ” How does she deal with too many students in a room without enough chairs? “We manage,” adding, “The students don’t expect paradise.” I assume that so many issues, problems and challenges come to school with her students daily that too few chairs weighs low on anyone’s priority list.

Patience has two students with AIDS who have written about their illness in her creative writing class, yet they do not come forward to discuss this with her or the school’s counselor. The students admit they have told no one they have AIDS, as they fear sharing the information with family and friends. “I question whether I should approach the students or their families,” she admits. “I always offer the counselor as a resource for my students, but how am I to teach when I spend 90 percent of my day working as police, mother and Saint. What shall I do?” She talks of the lack of computers, the desperate need for books, the absence of enough mathematics teachers. “How can we educate and improve these minds when the teachers have nothing to use to shape them?” she asks me, but moves on quickly as though she’s thought this one through and knows the answer. Patience admits she endures her job, telling that her political appointee principle is less qualified on paper and in experience than she is. Worse even, he knows this and “intimidates and victimizes” her daily.

Working in the school for 10 years, Patience has little hope for the children. One out of 283 senior students continued on to university last year. Only 10 percent of the senior class passed the standard final examination. She tries every day to excite the students with English and learning: “I’m a failure though. No matter how hard I try, students come to school with the weight of Zeus on their shoulders. Many have lost parents to AIDS, their parents have up and left them hoping to find work elsewhere, or they just walked away to escape responsibility. Many teenagers are taking care of younger siblings, so the eldest child works nights to pay for food. They come to school tired, bitter and lacking dreams. I hate this. I used to see an end to it all. I believed things would improve. Well in 10 years, even with the fall of Apartheid, things continue downhill.”

Then, Patience looks at me, really looks at me. What can I say to her? When I was little, if things were bad, I knew they would get better. I had a naïve belief that if I wished hard enough for something, it would happen. And, I admit, at 30 years of age heading off on this journey, I still held this utopian notion. Not here. Not now. This world is not the one I knew as a child. I cannot believe deep down that tomorrow will be better. Patience has invested 10 years of her life here, still reporting regression, not progression. After long moments, Patience and I shrug our shoulders and shake our heads I guess in a state of hopelessness.

After walking around a bit more, a maintenance/grounds employee tells me that local people, not present students, enter the low-fenced in compound stealing doors, knobs or chairs, which they then sell on the street to buy food. “The people are hungry,” he says matter-of-fact. Again, I can offer no words of comfort or appeasement. I look beyond the rusty gate and cement walls separating the school from Alexandra Township. I see battered old taxis and a bus stop where decade-old vehicles wait to carry another load. Some children look at me with curious eyes, while others do not hide their hostility. A couple of young men can’t focus my way – I think they are high. People’s homes are one-room wooden shacks, most without running water and electricity. We cross over a river and Patience points to the crushed-together, sagging wooden homes lining the filthy, polluted, trash-filled water. There must be 500 homes crammed on this riverbed, nearly falling into the water, which is used by women and children to wash their clothes and dishes. I have seen poor villages in Central Asia, Russia and West Africa, but I’ve never seen such cramped, dreadful living conditions as this. Luanda’s slums were dismal, but not nearly falling into the river. Throughout Johannesburg, it’s not this bad, but here, close to the Realogile School, living is wretched.

Today, private schools are booming in South Africa, Patience tells me as we drive out of Alexandra. For those who have money, a top-notch education is attainable, and then, those students go to Europe or the US for university. “But my students do not even know those kinds of possibilities exist,” adds Patience, who is trying to find another school placement teaching younger children. On this world-journey, I have seen schools in lacking condition, but I have never had a teacher speak so bluntly about the serious problems facing education, nor have I ever realized how fortunate I was to attend public school, grades 1-12, in North Carolina, where books were abundant.

Silence sat like lead over us during our drive to Cotland’s Orphanage. (Earlier, I’d told Patience I’d like to visit an AIDS orphanage and she arranged for us to visit one of the four orphan homes in northern Joburg.) At Cotland’s Orphanage 40 percent of the 200 children, aged three-months to seven years old are HIV positive. The remaining 60 percent are the lucky ones – they are simply not wanted, but will probably live. Once any of the children reach age seven, they are moved to another home and begin school, but Lindy, a public relations officer, proudly explains Cotland’s always places the children in a foster home before they reach seven years.

Cotland’s began 64 years ago when a family started taking in unwanted children. The orphanage grew, and in 1996 began taking in HIV/AIDS orphans. “That was an expensive decision since we had to add a critical care area, but the number of HIV orphans was increasing so dramatically that we decided there was no other choice,” Lindy explained. Once we made our way to the critical care ward, she told us to watch the babies through the glass windows. “Their immune systems are too weak to handle visitor’s viruses and bugs,” she continued. I admit I felt like a voyeur watching these infants who surely don’t deserve the life they inherited, but still I stood there, wondering how we can allow innocent babies to just die. I tried to hold back the tears swelling in my eyes, but I couldn’t. Not only did these children suffer from HIV, but also some had deformities. One baby boy wrapped in a blue blanket had feet permanently flexed, and he just rocked and rocked trying to alleviate the itching from the skin rash covering his body. Another tiny baby cried at the top of his lungs and reached his hand in my direction.

“We try to give the children a dignified death,” Lindy continued. “That sounds terrible to some, but that’s really all we can do. We do not have enough money to buy AZT to fight HIV in the infants and without drugs they develop full-blown AIDS and die, some sooner than others. We desperately want to prolong their lives, but we just don’t have the resources. Plus the number of infants with HIV is growing and there are not enough beds for all the babies with HIV. Government grants and stipends have decreased, but the number of AIDS babies increases daily.” Lindy tells me all this standing in a narrow, colorfully decorated hallway, as she dodges wandering children, nurses and volunteers.

“We spend 800,000 rands (more than US$100,000) per month operating this orphanage, with 80 employees and 100 volunteers. We receive far less than needed from the government, so a few years back we began fundraising with events, raffles and an in-house clothing store stocked with donated clothing. In-kind goods and money come mostly from South Africans, but a few European and American companies support us too. We say thank you from anyone, anywhere, willing to help Cotland’s.” Lindy and the others working at Cotland’s are angels in my mind.

Last year, 84 orphans from Cotland’s died from AIDS.

I left wondering what can be done to rid of this disease. Recent press reports note the dissenters who are struggling to find another solution for what causes AIDS, other than HIV. The babies dying here don’t have time for the arguments and discussion on what is the cause. They just need life.