African Journal - Report 6
the days in South Africa are finally getting shorter, it gets cooler (occasionally the temperatures don't exceed 20C!), and it's time for a new report.
The fact that it took two months before I found the time to update you again is just another indicator of the fact that I have not been destined to find peace in South Africa. But not all's doom and gloom - in some aspects, my life has improved quite a bit. So what's been happening?
On the workfront, things have turned out for the better. When you last heard from me, the school I worked in was to close down. Well, it didn't in the end. Most of April, however, was an involuntary vacation for me (ten days of which I used for a cool trip with friends through Zimbabwe, our northern neighbor country. Great place, so friendly, and thanks to President Mugabe's blunders extremely cheap at the moment. And it's so different from SA - it showed me that "Africa" can have a lot of charm, after all.).
After the closure because of the strike, the school reopened for another two weeks, and just about made it until school holidays. Everyone thought that these three weeks off would give the warring parties time to solve the conflict. Not so. In fact, the real bomb only exploded during the holidays. It turned out that the school was bankrupt. Already in March, money had been borrowed to pay teachers' salaries. Everyone asked the same question - how was that possible? When the current principle took over, the school was run directly by the catholic Loreto convent, with a white nun as principle and nuns as teachers. The school was running under a strict regime, with discipline, a broad range on subjects offered, and 1.5 million rands cash reserves in the bank.
After the end of apartheid, the nuns decided that it was time to be progressive, liberal and uplifting, and to hand control to the local community. Lay teachers were hired (not all of them catholic), and in 1996 a black lady, who'd been a teacher at the school for many years and who also excelled in loyalty to the catholic church, was appointed principal.
It was the beginning of the end. The new boss was quite surprised to find herself appointed; after all, she didn't really have the necessary managerial qualification to run the school. But the school board believed that she had potential and should give it a try. They sent her on a tour visiting principals in schools the USA, and put her on a management crash-course.
She was never accepted by her subordinates. Jealousy and obstructive behavior mixed with little tolerance to her inevitable mistakes started to sour the atmosphere. The old "white dragon" principal had enjoyed a degree of fearful respect; not least because she was white and therefore sort-of "predestined" to be qualified in the eyes of apartheid-battered blacks. With "one of their own" in charge, the gloves came off. The new principal tried a hands-off approach, relying on self-governance of the staff. Consequently, she was permanently accused of not being tough enough, of not making sure the teachers were in classroom, etc. Following twisted South African logic, these same teachers who criticized her then didn't teach, and laid the blame for it on her because she "didn't make them to". Sounds weird to you? Well, so it does to me. Anyway, constant warfare and faction fights (principal's loyals vs. enemies) with occasional strikes and sabotage became common.
The principal herself, however, is to blame just as much. Besides her obvious lack of leadership skills, her managerial incompetence was devastating. Working without any budgets ("we don't need that"), she took from the reserves whenever someone requested money for something. Accountability was low. An ill-conceived upgrading operation of the computer lab cost the school tens of thousands of rands, leaving a quarter of the computers unusable. One month, several teachers were accidentally paid twice. Neither did the principal or her clerk notice, nor did the teachers concerned notify anybody - they simply held on to the unearned cash and hoped nobody would notice. Tuition money owed to the school by parents was not collected with great vigor, leading to huge amounts of outstanding fees while the concerned students were allowed to remain at the school. Encouraged by the laxness and driven by the prevailing culture of "if you can get away with not paying, you don't", by the end of last term a total of 88 parents owed the school the term's tuition. Additionally, the new principal lacked both the experience and the connections to the first world to continue the successful fundraising efforts of the previous one.
On top of mismanagement came, unfortunately, also criminal activity. Not able to resist the temptation of the cash available, huge loans were dished out by the principal and clerk - to teachers, friends and acquaintances, and ultimately, to themselves. In the usual short-termist thinking, the money was often spent quickly, making the "loans" irrecoverable. Finally, a case of a substantial cash donation that never showed up in the books suggest that even plain theft might have occurred.
Looking at these practices, it doesn't surprise that the substantial reserves still available in 1996 were depleted and turned into debt in just three years of blunder. The curriculum was reduced to only core subjects. Things like arts and music were eliminated, and sports cut to a minimum, for lack of organizational drive and to save money. School retreats became rare.
Facing this situation during the holidays, the school's board decided to set an ultimatum. Only if the 88 parents owing fees had paid by a certain deadline, and if enough parents paid next term's fees up front, would the school re-open. That was when I was certain that the school wouldn't reopen. After all, many kids had told me that their parents were looking for another school for them after the strikes and disruption, and anyone owing fees had an even greater motivation to switch school and avoid paying the debts that way.
By the deadline, 8 parents had paid their arrears. And the school didn't close. The board had bluffed, and their bluff had been called. Closing a catholic school in a township meant too big a loss of face for the church. The deadline was extended for twice for a weeks, and meeting after meeting took place.
In the end, only a radical solution moved things again. End of April, a decision was taken to retrench half of the school's teachers to make the school financially feasible. The principal and her clerk were suspended pending a criminal investigation. A white principal, an educationist lady spindoctor, was brought in to take over "for a number of months".
And a little miracle happened. The mass exodus from the school didn't happen. Upon re-opening two weeks ago with the new principal, almost 300 of the former 370 students returned, money in hand. For now, the school has been saved.
As for me, I'm back in the classroom, and have also been put in charge of long-term development of the computer teaching program by the new principal. She's trying hard to re-invigorate the damaged morale in the school, and with some success. School sports has been re-introduced on Wednesdays, and (through a coffee-acquaintance of mine) we're going to offer a drama club on Saturdays soon. So the outlook is positive, even though the question remains what will happen once our spindoctor pulls out. Will things continue to run smoothly? The school's pulled away from the edge for now, but the crater is close, and it will require careful threading will be needed to stay away from disaster.
So much for the long story of the school. In a nice twist, the shutdown has presented me with an opportunity to improve my financial situation. Since I couldn't totally sit on my hands during the shutdown (lest my supervisor getting itchy on me), I started working for a charity called DSG Outreach. They help primary schools in Attridgeville township to improve their management, teaching methods, and administration. I'm now working for them on Fridays (and some Thursdays), in their computer literacy program. I'm spindoctoring school computers, training people, and teaching a class of really young kids in our computer lab. It's a fun job, with a cool boss and not boring. Best of all, I'm earning a bit of money from it, too. I hope that, if that whole arrangement proves to be stable (*knock on wood*), to be able to get a cheap car for the rest of my stay here. It would be nice to be more mobile, even if I'd miss using black taxis. :-)
So what's the instability about that I've been moaning about in the beginning of this report? Well, as you might have noticed, I have moved again. The fourth move in 8 months. This time, however, it wasn't voluntary. I WAS moved. Or, to be more precise, I was KICKED OUT of Malvern House, together with about 20 other people.
How that could happen? Did we vandalize the place? Hurt someone? Not the least.
We suggested that the food could be improved.
Food quality at Malvern House has been an issue with basically every resident ever since I got there. The meals often repeat themselves, they all taste very similarly, and don't contain a lot of fresh veggies and healthy ingredients. Cooked, watery rice with some sort of cheap meat and some (often canned) veggies most evenings, and a combo of egg/bacon/toast and the cheapest cornflakes every morning. That's ok if you're there for two weeks, After four months, it becomes slightly repulsive. If you're paying R 1450 per month, you can expect better than that; at least that was what everybody outside Malvern told us.
At one point, I had the idea to bundle our individual complaints in a little petition to the management. It was carefully and non-aggressively worded, and about 35 people signed it. We figured that this would lead to a greater effort of the management to improve the food. After all, if more than half of your residents put in a complaint, that's cause for examining your service. Or so we thought.
What we hadn't taken into consideration was old-South African mentality. The first day after the petition was submitted, Rik, one of our friends, was thrown out. Most of us were away on a weekend trip, so we only heard when he had already left. He had to leave WITHIN 24 HOURS, for "having smelled on the food served at dinner and doubting its freshness".
In case you wonder, no, not even in South Africa is it legal to immediately evict a resident, who has paid and booked until the end of the month, unless he vandalizes the place or does something similarly serious. A critical remark on the quality of the food served certainly doesn't qualify as serious.
But Rik was working at a catering company, and had repeatedly criticized the food before. The manager and the owner combined their narrow-minded brains and swiftly concluded that Rik was the one "stirring trouble" and enticing others into protesting. Removing the "ringleader" would quickly quieten the "revolt". (If that doesn't sound like a typical hospitality business would react to negative customer feedback on its service, you're not alone. There are hotels out there who spend millions to find out where their customers are not completely happy, and when you tell them, they'll give you a week at the hotel with your spouse for free. No kidding!)
Well, the move backfired. The mostly Dutch and German residents were outraged at the action, and protested in defense of Rik. The following day the owner, an old-style English apartheid-supporter called Mr. Twist, marched into Malvern House. He had foam on his mouth. He screamed around all over the place, calling for the ring-leader of the rebellion and the "one behind" the "inexcusable accusations". He distributed a 4-page pamphlet to everyone who had signed the petition, in which he ridiculed our concerns in a very insulting and rude manner. The pamphlet ended with a request for anyone "not happy with his business" to leave immediately.
Somehow he had guessed that the petition came from my room, and after a swell of insults I was happy to admit that I had indeed drafted the text of it, though in the name of all signatories. He then shared his life wisdom of "people are like sheep, they always follow a leader". Since I was that leader, he insisted that I was to leave his establishment (as he put it "this is my little kingdom, and I am the king") by 10 am the following day.
Initially I wanted to put up a fight. I had consulted a law-student friend of mine, who had told me that the immediate eviction was unlawful. I made that point the next morning with the manager, and told him I intended to stay in my room until month's end. He then told me with a big smile that he didn't give a damn about the legal situation and that, should I refuse to leave, he would remove my belongings from my room. Should I resist that, he would get his gun "and shoot me in the kneecap". I decided that my health was more important to me than a legal victory, and moved.
I stayed for a week with a German family who were very nice to me - felt like being home again for a while. (In fact, I have been more homesick here in SA that anywhere before. Not surprisingly, homesickness seems to increase with the amount of shit that I wade in. I'd have never thought I'd ever get to glorify my hometown Dresden that much...)
But the family lived far out of town, and I had to inconvenience them for lifts every time I needed to get anywhere. Also, I wanted to stay somewhere with my friends. So I had to find an alternative soon.
Then, for a change, a rare stroke of luck happened. Most of my friends who had gotten letters over the petition, about 20, moved out two days after me and Rik. While I searched by myself and with little success for a place to accommodate all of us, two of them were able to organize a big house through a work-contact. Their boss allowed us to stay in the building of a former crèche which he owned, without paying any rent (only water/electricity)! We've been staying there for a week now, and although most of us still sleep on the ground in fairly empty rooms, our designated living room already has a couch and armchairs, a coffee table and, best of all, a fireplace! As we beg together more and more cheap or free furniture, the place will become more friendly and comfortable. The area is quiet and residential, and reasonably centrally located. It is also safer than the one Malvern House was set in.
So, after all the commotion of the last two months, it seems as if things have finally turned out for the better. But looking at the past experience, I'll be careful not to rejoice too quickly. Once all of this has been going well for a couple of weeks, I'll start believing that my time to feel comfortable in South Africa has come after all. I certainly could use a bit of normality, rest and plain old happiness. Would be nice if, come December, I'd be able to say "I'm sorry to leave".
Guess what, I've been complecent enough not to publish theat report yet. This time, it's got nothing to do with stress or bad luck. I've just been too lazy. Time in the "Twisted Little Kingdom" is running fast and smooth. I'm comfortably living in the usual student-like commune mess, the only piece of furniture is still the bed. But I don't care too much.
Not much has changed on the workfront, only Pat, my boss at DSG Outeach, has given two months' leave notice. It's a pity to see her leave! She's been great, and we're getting onlong wonderfully. She's looking for a new person to replace herself from August, and I hope that I'll get along with the new boss as well as with her. Not surprisingly, Pat is resigning because of her totally incompetent superior. What else is new in South Africa. She'll go to Botswana to equip all their primary schools with computer equipment. Cool project. I hope to visit her some time.
Oh yes, and we've just had elections. Remarably normal, and pretty boring, considering that there was only one party certain to clock up victory - the ANC. According to latest numbers, they're close to a 2/3 majority in parliamant. That majority would allow them to change the constitution of SA - a prospect that has 99% of the whites here running scared. Also, Nelson Mandela is retiring and Thabo Mbeki is taking over. He's a lot more authoritarian that Madiba with his "magic" reconciliation skills. Most whites are afraid of SA going the way of Zimbabwe, our neightbor up north. There, 15 years of 2/3 government by authocratic Pres. Mugabe has run the country's economy into the ground. Not surprisingly, basically all opposition parties in SA have run on a call "not to let the ANC get two-thirds". We'll see who's right soon enough. I personally think that Mbeki will "kick some ass" and bring some order to the chaotic civil service, downsize the buerocary and fire some incompetent people. Most of my neighbors would call me crazy for that, though.
Surprisingly, I find myself less negative about SA as a country as I used to be. I'm sure that my improved living conditions and the absence of personal tragedy is directly responsible for that. I'm starting to look more towards the positive aspects of the place and the future potential, then the negative sides. Sure, the crime is still appalling, and a feeling of personal safety will probably remain elusive (at least here in Gauteng Province, which is quite appropriately dubbed "Gangster's Paradise" after it's GP car license plate).
But I'm talking more with some liberal and progressive whites now, people who have also fought against Apartheid and see the big picture. I'm reading some more enlightened magazines, to whom the ANC doesn't only incarnate evil. I'd say I'm gravitating to the small but sympathetic group of South African white liberals. That seems to be the niche in which I belong.
Although I have friends in the townships, I've come to realize that I will never be really integrated and "at home" there. The rules are too different, the mentality to different, for me to make my own. A good (black) friend of mine, whom I spend a lot of time with, has been working for SA Special Forces for years. He's killed people in Angola's guerilla war, committed political assasinations on command, the works. He knows the whole criminal scene, and he thinks it's not particularly wrong to steal (and even kill) as long as it's not friends who are concerned and the justification is sufficient. He thrown his trash out on the streets, but his home is meticulously tidy. Most of his "ethics" goes against everything I believe in. Yet at the same time he's both more liberal then most of the blacks I know. He's very smart, a pleasure to have a debate with. He's helped me enormously and has shown me so many aspects of township life I'd never have gotten to see without him. He's a loyal and trustworthy friend, and I care to say he'd die to protect me (not that I ever let it get far enough to put myself in situations where he would have to - I'm still the my old careful self - don't worry!) And, no, I'm not deluded and out of my mind. Both aspects of him are totally real. He's just like the country - a huge controversy.
This is what makes this place interesting. Maybe as everywhere, it totally depends with whom you explore the place. Up until recently, I had met mostly pessimistic, racist whites, and often apathetic, consumption-focused blacks. I've had trouble identifying with either. But when you meet the community leaders, you see why intellectuals all over the world see so much promise in SA. You see what could have happened (civil war), and you come to appreciate things like the Truth and Reconciliation Commision.
I've come to conclude that the promise is very real, and that in a number of years this place could be absolutely cool to live in. I've simply come into the transitional period, where the initial 1994 euphoria has faded and the problems still to be tackled loom large. Maybe, just maybe, I'll even be bored once I'm back in the faily settled European normality. *smile* We'll see.