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Never Forget

Comm 328: Human Rights in South Africa (2007)
Sheenan Ashley Price

 Khayelitsha, South Africa
In the light of memory and remembering. Through the streams of our senses. Reconnecting. Recollecting. We find our way home. -from
Slave Dream, by Malika Ndlovu-from , by Malika Ndlovu

Eleven adults gather in a small, crowded room for instruction, silently, patiently waiting for their names to be called.

Attendance is taken. One student is reprimanded for not following instructions.

"Get your hand up," the teacher shouts. "I don't care if you are tired. Get that hand up above your head."

The instructor is Malande Ntozini. She is 10.

Her home is nestled in the middle of the bustling Site C section of Khayelitsha, the largest black township on the outskirts of Cape Town, a jumbled mix of modest brick and mortar houses and improvised wood, tin and plastic shacks.

Malande is a born leader in a country in the beginning stages of a profound transition from one of the world's most extreme forms of racial domination— apartheid—to a democracy with a Constitution that promises not only political but also social, economic and cultural equality.

And it is children like Malande who say they will ensure its future. "I am going to first teach the children. Then go study in New York. Then come back home and teach more children," she exclaims with certainty.

On this particular day, however, none of the children prepare for school. A public sector strike has cancelled it for the next two days. But this does not slow her down or dampen her enthusiasm—it only shifts her focus of attention to her visitors.

The strike affects many government facilities and services including schools, hospitals, airports, border control, correctional services, police operations and courts, according to the global media service

"My teacher told me the strike is about more money—better wages," Malande says.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), South Africa's largest trade union federation with more than two million members, is leading the public sector demand for increased wages. COSATU, a strategic ally of the ruling African National Congress, played a vital role in the fight against apartheid in the 1980s and early 1990s. Today, however, it is challenging its long-standing political partner in the streets over basic bread-and-butter issues, a sign that the legacy of inequality from the apartheid era is far from resolved.

A week into the strike, COSATU leaders say they are prepared to extend the strike for the long haul until the government either accepts its proposal for a 10 percent increase—down from an original demand of 12 percent—or it makes a better offer than what has been presented so far, according to published reports. But with the government only upping its counter-offer from 6 to 7.25 percent, the outlook for a quick resolution is slim, which leaves Malande and thousands like her with no school to go to for the foreseeable future. But that is not the only problem she faces in trying to secure an education.

Even when they are open, schools for black South African children lack basic resources, as young children like Malande are acutely aware. "We have 40 children in one class. How can one teacher help everyone?" she asks.

But she is also aware that some black children are more equal than others. "The government children have seven in one class," she says

"It is mostly black schools that are affected—children whose parents cannot afford to take their children to private schools," says Bongi Mkhize, an artist and teacher in Johannesburg. "It means the poor suffer."

Mkhize is a resident of Soweto—a group of black townships southwest of Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city. She teaches in the Johannesburg suburbs.

Mkhize says the education system is different for the black children who attend government schools in the townships than for those who attend private schools, most of whose students are white. "It depends on how much you have or invest for your kids' educations," she says.

The fact that such racial injustice is also a prominent feature of American history is not lost on most South Africans, as is illustrated by a powerful exhibit on the twin struggles for racial equality at Cape Town's historic Slave Lodge, a site frequented by many South African students on field trips.

Although all schools in a given district were often characterized by the authorities as "equal" in mid-twentieth century America, most black schools were far inferior to their white counterparts. Lack of resources, overcrowding, and enormous travel distances were common factors for black students in both the U.S. and South Africa, according to the exhibit, titled "Separate is Not Equal: The Struggle Against Separate Schooling in America" and sponsored by the U.S. Consulate, much to the surprise of many visitors.

The multimedia exhibit starts with the subjugation and domination of blacks by European conquerors in South Africa and moves seamlessly into a pictorial presentation of the experience of African Americans at a time when legal racial segregation in public facilities, including schools, was the norm across America.

Upon entering the museum a turn to the left takes one on a journey through the history of slavery in the Cape, with an in-depth look at the role it played in the Indian Ocean slave trade. The slaves were brought from four principle areas: India-Ceylon, Indonesia, Mozambique and Madagascar. This influx, coupled with the conquest and decimation of the indigenous San and Khoi peoples by the mainly male European colonists who took wives and concubines from among the conquered peoples, formed the basis for the large "colored" or mixed race population of contemporary Cape Town and its environs, estimated today at four million.

Next, one walks through a long hall with huge, inspiring quotations on its walls, written in a flowing cursive style by influential South Africans. At the end of the walkway is the entrance to the American civil rights exhibit.

A timeline from the 1950s into the late 1960s is displayed on one panel. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech is playing. A room set up to look like a classroom has floor-to-ceiling panels that tell the story of four cases that challenged the segregated school systems across the United States.

A soulful smoky song plays in the last room, where a visitor is greeted by the disturbing sight of two black men hanging from a tree in a larger than life-size mural painted on the back wall. A white porcelain mannequin stands in a corner draped in the white hooded attire of a Ku Klux Klan member. On a small television a blackand- white news report from the period plays. Meanwhile, Billie Holiday belts out "Strange Fruit."

Throughout the museum, the exhibit draws clear parallels between the struggle for democracy waged in South Africa during the apartheid era and that fought by blacks for their rights in America. It also insists to visitors that what they are viewing is not just a slice of history to be filed away and forgotten.

On a cream wall at the end of the exhibit written in dark brown, old English lettering just large enough to make out are the words: "For too long, fear of confronting the shame associated with slavery has played a huge part in the almost collective loss of memory about slavery."