South Africa - with Mrs Roberts

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Day 1: On the Job

It’s a year since I blogged my South African adventures and here I find myself again – this time in Cape Town feeling like the honoured guest of South Peninsula High School.   From the moment they met me from the plane with their school flag, I knew this was going to be South African hospitality at its finest.

I can’t tell you much about Cape Town itself yet as I have really seen any of it, but I can tell you about South Peninsula High School where I have spent the day.    You won’t be surprised to know in many ways it feels similar: the mornings start with Staff Briefings, the students go first to their ‘home rooms’ (form rooms) at 8:30am and their day finishes at 3:10pm just like yours.  They wear uniform, sit in rows and study many of the same subjects.  The obvious exceptions are: Afrikaans, Accounting and Engineering.   Afrikaans because it is one of their local languages, I assume, but yet every child I met wanted to learn French or Spanish!

You can also imagine the first word they said when I said ‘Manchester.’  Yes, you guessed it: United.  Some of them are desperate to be footballers and can’t believe you get to play in academies.  They were also desperate to know whether I had ever met the Queen (I haven’t) or any British Youtubers (in that order, honestly!)

I was also given a tour of the school by four grade 8 students – you will see them in the photo.   The location of this school is very different to ours: although Cape Town is a city, it is flanked by mountains.  Just behind those mountains in the picture is Table Mountain, Cape Town’s most iconic sight.  I hope to get there later in the week.    Some of their school building is old like ours but like us, they are proud of their school and the opportunities they receive there.   Two of them made me biscuits and one bought his favourite chocolate bar which he proudly told me was made in South Africa.  It was called a Tex – have one if you ever come here!  In case you are wondering if I took them anything, don’t worry: I had on good information that the South Africans like English Shortbread.   But to be fair, I think the Tex wins in the sugar stakes.

Tonight I will be having dinner with the Head Teacher – although over here he is known as the Principal – which no doubt will be another example of South African hospitality.  I don’t expect flags this time but I am sure there will be plenty of South African welcome!

Day 2: Teaching, Touring and Being Humbled

I finished my last blog my telling you I was having dinner with the Principal.  I said I was in no doubt I would experience yet more South African hospitality.  And it was true: throughout this whole trip I have been looked after and treated in remarkable ways and last night was no exception.   What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was to listen to this man’s story and to understand his reasons for becoming a teacher.    His history includes being forcibly relocated during the apartheid era, losing his family home and everything he had and knew.   He experienced prejudice and injustice at its extreme.  And yet he told me this story without bitterness but with a steadfast belief that being an educator is the most important job in the world: for through this job he gets the privilege of shaping the next generation, encouraging them to think and question.   Unsaid but clear was that he was channelling his truly horrifying experiences to try to ensure a better future.   I felt awed and ashamed in equal measure.

Still pondering this conversation, I went to visit the local primary school.    It is a feeder school for South Peninsula and the children are very representative.   It was interesting to see grades 6 and 7 (year 7 and 8 in the U.K.) still in a Primary School – can you imagine?!  The children were wonderful and very curious.   Talking to the six year olds was an education to me and I learnt very quickly I had to adapt my questioning.  Imagine the answer to the question: what do you know about England?
My Auntie’s friend knows someone in England. My mum’s friend wants to go to England. I have been to England (she hadn’t.) And me (neither had he.). You get the idea!! All this came with hugs and declarations of love which must all be in a day’s work for Primary School teachers!!

After untangling myself from the loving arms of six year olds, it was off to see some sights: the beach, the Botanical Gardens and, the one I was most excited about: Table Mountain.   Table Mountain is a geographical wonder, and a spiritual heartland.   It’s a place that has drawn explorers, natives and tourists alike.  It sits proudly over Cape Town and from its flat top, you can see the whole Town and even over to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned.  Myself and two teachers from South Peninsula had an absolute ball feeling like we were on top of the world!

But it’s a reflective place I want to finish today.   As I looked at Robben Island from the top of Table Mountain, I couldn’t help but wonder what Mandela thought being able to see the city but not reach it.   Perhaps he was already thinking about how he could channel his experience for good, just as our Headteacher here did.   I wonder what that means for each of us in our own lives and how we can be inspired by these great men – one famous, one less so – but each showing what it means to live with wholehearted purpose.

Day 3: Still They Rise

If you have been in my lessons, you will probably know I love Maya Angelou.  I love her courage, determination and refusal to be put down or to become bitter.   Angelou was descended from slaves and herself grew up amid racism and oppression.    Imagine the pertinence, therefore, of teaching this poem in this place.   It was my great privilege to teach it to grade 10 (year 11) and hear their responses to it.   Probably most interesting was their response to the line ‘you may write me down in history with your bitter twisted lies.’   They spoke of how their government had done that.   They spoke of how communities had done that.   And, most interestingly, they spoke of how families had done that through the narrative and prejudice of their lives.    They loved the idea that Angelou viewed her ancestors as giving her ‘gifts’ and it didn’t take long for them to name some: resilience, courage and knowledge of what the past was like so she would never repeat it.    I have never before been applauded for my reading of that poem and I am pretty sure, the response was to Angelou’s words to them as young South Africans.   It truly was a privilege.

You will also see from the pictures I also introduced grade 8 (year 9) to Shakespeare through the Witches’ Spell from Macbeth.   They were super enthusiastic and came up with some truly revolting ideas suitable for Halloween!   Giant’s slobber was probably my personal favourite!!    My take home moment, though,  was probably getting them to do ‘double, double, toil and trouble’ in their best witchy voices!!!

And then this afternoon, I have been sight seeing again – this time down to Cape Town water front where I shopped, took pictures and went to a 5 star hotel!!  Again, my amazing South African colleagues were my hosts and guides.    The day finished in Bo-kapp, which you might know as District 6.   Many Malays were forcibly removed from their beautiful, colourful homes during apartheid but thankfully, many of them have now returned.   It is a riot of colour and unlike anywhere else I have visited.   Even Meghan and Harry recently visited there!

Today the skies have been blue and the sea has been sparkling.   I can’t help but sense hope in the air here, despite its history, despite much current corruption (or maybe even because of it),  still they rise.

Final day: South Africa 32 – England 12

Well, what a day for South Africa!   All week the students have been telling me they thought England would win.   Also all week, the anticipation has been mounting:  teachers came to work in their rugby shirts; students would have done if they were allowed!    But (and I say this without any real knowledge of rugby, so forgive me rugby fans) on the day, although we played well, South Africa were just too strong.  I was out touring the Cape that morning, listening to it on the radio but I could hear the resounding cheers as that final try was scored and it seemed South Africa had it in the bag.

So my journey around the Cape was punctuated by rugby moments – game highlights and post game celebrations.   It was infectious and also amusing to admit to being English as you can imagine!!

Let me tell you a bit, then, about this beautiful coast line.   You can see from these pictures it is wild and rugged but unbelievably beautiful.    I was certainly glad to be on terra firma as I heard and recalled stories of explorers and navigators whose boats were shipwrecked there.   And I absolutely loved being at the end of the world where the next land mass is actually Antarctica.   We (myself and my primary school colleagues) drove around the Cape to the soundtrack of REM’s ‘The End of the World.’  This took us to Boulder’s Bay and the African penguins.   When I tell you I wanted to pick one up and pop it in my bag, it gives you an idea of how cute they are!

Driving back to Cape Town to the sound of ‘Give Me Hope Jo’anna’ is one of those moments I will never forget.  For if you don’t know, this is a freedom song – it was an appeal to Johannesburg during apartheid not to sell out but to stand strong.  Having met so many wonderful people with hard histories and yesterday having visited Robben Island, this moment was incredibly moving.

Robben Island if you don’t know, is the Island where Mandela was kept as a political prisoner for 27 years.   I had the incredible privilege of seeing the chalk pits in which he laboured – hard, hard labour that made many of them lose their sight.  Mandela himself lost his ability to cry.   But yet, this pit was also where the beginnings of the constitution of free South Africa was formed; it was where educated men taught illiterate men and an unofficial university was formed.   It was horrific and hard but it was not a place of despair.   The tour guide that showed me round was himself a prisoner and he said this many times: most people coped remarkably well because for them, the struggle was everything.

So back to the rugby.   Back in 1995, Mandela presented the World Cup trophy to the then white South African captain, Francois Pienaar.   It became a powerful symbol of hope for the nation.   And then yesterday, Siya Kolisi captained his team to victory – this poor boy from a township who said:

When I put on a jersey, I remind myself who I am playing for: everybody who has ever been hungry, everybody who’s ever struggled financially, everybody who has ever walked to school without shoes on.”

Wow.   What an inspirational man.   And this English visitor wants to end by saying: bravo South Africa – may this victory be the beginning of a whole new stage of your history.   And thank you South Africa for the experience of my life.