Visit to a Secondary School in Pietermaritzberg,South Africa

12th March,2009

Julie had made arrangements with her sister-in-law for us to visit Esther Payne Smith Secondary School where she teaches. The school is in the Northdale area of Pietermaritzberg which used to be an Asian area. The school in days past had an excellent reputation.

Julie and I drove up to the entrance which is topped by razor wire as is the surrounding boudary fence. The gate was finally opened by a rather surly security guard. The boundaries of the property were littered with rubbish, unswept leaves were everywhere. One building was in a state of dereliction with part of its’ corrugated iron roof missing, glass was absent from many windows which were boarded up and covered with graffiti. There were holes in the ceiling in the passageways.

We were met by Julie’s sister-in-law who told us of the difficulties the school faces, There is electricity only in the Headmasters’ office, there are no administrative staff, no photocopying or other office equipment and the one computer has to be kept in the safe.The science block is unused with thick layers of dust covering everything and chairs lying at sixes and sevens everywhere. A globe of the world lay on its side on the floor. The staff room was like a prison waiting room.

The pupils are mainly from the nearby squatter camp or have been rejected by schools in their own area of Pietermaritzberg.The majority of pupils were tidily dressed wearing clean school uniforms.

The first classroom Julie and I went into was predominately a class of boys. Despite a highly energetic teacher they were very apathetic and generally disinterested in everything. One girl arrived late wearing a short skirt and a condescending attitude.

We visited a few other classes and in each when I spoke I emphasized that education is vital to their future lives and urged them to make full use of all opportunities which come their way. Questions were invited but only a few were put to me.

the Headmaster Chris Ndlela had made time in his hectic schedule to have a few words with us. He is also Provincial Chairperson of SADTU (South African Democratic Teachers Union). Mr Ndlela is a can-do person who possess both insight into the problems the school faces and is finding creative solutions to rectify them. There had recently been a high profile visit from a representative from the Department of Education which intends to channel additional funds to the school. The Department of Education is highly impressed by the school because despite its’ lack of facilities the exam pass rate is impressive.

I had been absolutely in awe of the entire staff’s enthusiasm and dedication and Mr Ndela repeatedly emphasized how important this was in getting the school moving forward and upward. Julie and I signed the Visitors Book which goes back to the schools foundation in 1926. I also presented the school with a copy of “Tales My Ghanaian Grandmother Told Me”.

Julie’s sister-in-law later told us that the teachers we hadn’t visited had been very disappointed not to meet us. Apparently our visit had had a very uplifting effect on the staff. She also mentioned the fact that a number of pupils had told her that they had wanted to ask me questions but had been frightened to do so in case the questions were considered to be stupid. This made me realize that I should have behaved in a much more interactive and reassuring manner.

I came away with great admiration for the entire staff who all have a true vocation.

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