Saved from dour future
It was a private, charitable intervention - just before we ushered in a democracy - that changed the course of my education, which eventually placed me in the middle echelons of our society. Among thousands of schoolchildren in dilapidated and neglected township schools, I was identified as "talented" and placed in two outreach programmes.
Both were run by private schools and were meant to improve my English, maths, science and biology marks and, hopefully, I would qualify for a spot in either a private or a Model C school.
Back then, a black child relied almost entirely on luck to be assured a bright future - whether it was the luck of being born into the right family or, as in my case, being found by a charitable non-profit entity that could assist.
From early in my primary school days until the last day of my university career, I relied on external intervention for financial support. In 1982, when I was born, government spent an average of R1211 on the education of each white child and only R146 for each black child.
I expected the road to an equitable education system to be long, but not to fail.
It's almost 20 years since those interventions, yet the same situation still persists. It still takes extraordinary, private intervention to ensure success for many young people who are stuck in the public education system.
Last Friday, the president urged "those who have access to the media from all sectors, including opposition politicians, to stop talking our country and economy down". Our dear president feels "no country should be made to withstand such negativity and total disregard of progress being made or any positive attribute", and so he wishes to "encourage public opinion- makers to also reflect on the strides that have been made in all 18 years" [of democracy].
Would the president also like me to ignore the scores of poor people, young and old, whose dignity has been weakened to the extent they are forced to beg on street corners, but whose dignity won't allow them to steal?
Would he like me to turn a blind eye to the plight of the majority of children born in this democracy who will be relegated to unproductive lives and, if lucky, will spent their lives underemployed?
Would the president like me to ignore his blatant hypocrisy and his recent appeal to CEOs and executives to freeze their salaries and bonuses to send a "strong signal of a commitment to address salary inequalities", while he builds bunkers, lifts and air conditioning in his private homestead, disregarding his own call?
Where would the president rather I look?
My old primary school still stands in Mamelodi, looking a bit better than when I left it all those years ago. One of the last things I tried doing before I left matric, with a small group of friends, was to refurbish the library. A project that eventually became just a clean-up operation of the book storeroom.
The good news is the Mamelodi Trust has over the years provided many resources, including books, learning materials and computers, as well as a well-equipped room for teaching science, to my old primary school. The trust, assisted by a number of non-profit organisations both in South Africa and the US, has funded the refurbishment of my old primary school's building, provided furniture and financed the purchase of books.
Almost 20 years later, my alma mater, and many like it, still relies on non-governmental organisations, rather than the government, to provide it with what should be bare necessities.
The state of our education system effectively means that, 20 years from now, another Zama will write about being a lucky exception in a society littered with illiterate and ill-equipped young people who spent 12 years of their lives attending government institutions.
But the president would rather I tell you that life is good - when it's good for too few.