The Big Read: The kindness that binds us
Tyra Hendricks* can see the university from the one-bedroomed flat she shares with three other adults and a child.
"But we also use the small lounge," she quickly adds, as my frown must have questioned how five human beings fit into such limited sleeping quarters. Staring down at Tyra's Grade 12 results it is hard to believe that under these circumstances this poor student could have achieved only As and Bs from one of the less reputable schools in the area.
Now here she is, one of hundreds of prospective students who came through my office these past weeks, in person or on paper, desperately seeking money to become the "first in the family" to pursue a university degree. It must be an added cruelty to literally see the university from your flat yet not be able to enter it. And it must be a heart-stopping moment for the single mother who asked us to help her daughter, Tyra, knowing that the decision one university takes could keep them locked in poverty or change their lives forever. After the welcoming ceremony for first-year students the mother cries incessantly when she realises that pockets were being emptied on campus to find the money for Tyra.
On the other side of the country, Josephine Ngubane,* who once worked for us when we lived in Pretoria, calls to remind me that her son, "the clever one", had finished Grade 12. He passed everything, including maths and science, at an ordinary township school. Could we help? Her son Tinto* wants to take a science degree in biotechnology. The problem is how to get him from Groblersdal in Mpumalanga to Bloemfontein in the Free State. There is no money to travel and no mental map of how to get to this faraway place.
And so I call a friend, Edwin Smith, at the University of Pretoria. "Please buddy, if the mother and son take a taxi to Pretoria, would you give them some money and directions on how to get to Bloemfontein by bus? I will pay you back." It was a tough ask, even of a close friend, for he had just found his beloved young son dead in his bedroom and was in deep mourning.
"I can do better than that," says the former MK operative we once jokingly called the only black-smith at the University of Pretoria. "I will drive to Groblersdal, and then back to Pretoria, feed and sleep them in my house, and bring them through to Bloem in the morning." He was true to his word and Tinto was placed in his residence on campus as others rushed to fill his room with groceries while slipping cash into his hands as a kind of settling-in allowance.
I tell these stories for a simple reason. While I believe that the long-term resolution of the "fees crisis" in higher education can only be addressed through structural solutions - by which I mean restructuring national expenditure in ways that make free higher education for the poor a budgeted reality on a sustainable basis - we should not lose sight of the untold sacrifices of ordinary South Africans without whom many thousands of students would not be able to leave their rural shacks and one-bedroom flats. You know who you are - the grandmother who uses her pension money to help with transport to campus; the businessman who clears his bank account to help the children of parents labouring in his small company; the township church that takes special collections to help pay for registration fees; and the university secretary who takes from her meagre salary to pay off the expensive textbooks of a student in geomorphology.
It is not the big acts of government that make this country great - that is their job, using our tax monies wisely. It is the innumerable small acts of kindness from countless numbers of citizens that keep us holding on, together, in these difficult times. Yes, we get drawn into what seems like mass hysteria when an insignificant former estate agent calls us horrible names and we resort so easily to acts of violence when we protest our discontents.
But we are better than that. When the chips are down we rally together to alter the futures of individuals and families through constructive, civic actions that most times go completely unnoticed except in the lives of those blessed through the generosity of others.
*Not their real names