Future lies in young hands
You could see it on their faces. These senior high school students in this poor school had already survived some tough lessons in life. Many were fleeing from the completely dysfunctional schools of the Eastern Cape, believing they would access a relatively better quality of education in Imizamo Yethu, this basic but functional school on the outskirts of George in the southern Cape.
They must have heard about Derick Petersen, the celebrated headmaster who had turned a failing school into a national success story. Everybody knows about the miracle of the turnaround at this school, and that is why I came all the way from Bloemfontein to recruit their best learners to my university.
A huge pig blocks my entrance into the school. "This is a first," I mutter to myself.
The pig takes one look in my direction and moves out of the way, which opens access to the small parking area. A booming voice can be heard in the distance. I discover it is the principal talking to his charges, encouraging and admonishing at the same time. He is present in his school. Everybody looks busy. They want results.
After an invigorating visit to the school, I try to find a number for Helen Zille. She calls back.
"I want to tell you what happened at Imizamo Yethu," I said.
"I spoke about role models and shared with them stories about Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko, warning the youth they should look beyond the miserable role models in South African society today.
"I told them we had great role models in the past, and that we could again have great role models in the future if they were prepared to step up to the plate as the next generation of moral leaders."
Zille listens carefully, and I can sense she wonders why I would call her.
"Well," I continued, "I then asked these young people to stand up and tell me about the one person in South Africa they would regard as their role model. And to my utter surprise, a young woman in front faced the class and said boldly: 'My role model is Helen Zille.' I thought you should know that."
I, too, was stunned. A poor black teenager in a black school in a tough township hailing a white, middle-class woman from the official opposition was the last thing I expected in this racially torn country.
"Did anybody object or boo?" asks Zille.
"Nobody did," I replied.
I told the young woman she was the future of our country: "When more black youth support the DA and more white youth support the ANC, we are in the process of becoming a normal, non-racial society. Thank you for your example."
It was a wonderful teaching moment and a hopeful sign about our future.
Every now and again I meet pioneers such as the student from Imizamo Yethu. It is the brilliant young black pupil who becomes the first to be head girl of an overwhelmingly white high school. It is the young black boy who competes for a place in a white rugby team because that is where his passion lies, not soccer. It is the white student who chooses to learn an African language to enable her to do social work in the townships away from the certainties of her suburban home.
As The Spear saga raged around the painting of Jacob Zuma, I missed such pioneering leaders who could step into the heat and reconcile the historic pain opened up by artistic depiction and the sacred promise of freedom of expression.
In a country where doubt has never been a virtue, we all fell into absolute, fundamentalist, non-negotiable positions that incited the vandalism that would inevitably follow. Where was the ANC leader who stood up to defend the artist, or the opposition leader who made the case for presidential dignity?
In the absence of reason and reasonableness on the part of our leadership, the stage was set for the usual toyi-toying masses hoping to influence proceedings outside a court of law.
What a terribly sad moment when what was a pedagogical opportunity for dialogue and exchange became a spiteful opportunity to once again call each other names, vandalise a painting, and seek refuge in the law. The real pioneers of a new democracy might still come from the youth.