As we rode through Cape Town on our township tour this week, our guide told us about District 6. District 6 was a community where whites, blacks, and coloreds all lived and worked together. It’s only a few blocks from the industrial and port center of the city. It was easy for people to walk to and from work. It was a place where everyone lived peacefully together.
When apartheid came, it was decided that the races couldn’t live together in the same neighborhood. The blacks and the coloreds were forced to leave their homes. Those who weren’t out by the appointed time had their homes demolished by bulldozers, with their belongings still inside.
For the most part, District 6 wasn’t rebuilt. Huge tracts of land are still vacant. Some redevelopment is happening now, but it’s a very slow process.
Where did the people go when they were evicted? They were moved to the townships, large areas on the outskirts of town. The townships were segregated by race. So the black people live in some townships, and the colored people live in others.
I’ve used the terms “black” and “colored” here to refer to groups of people. Those aren’t terms we typically use in North America. I’ve heard several definitions of “colored.” Some say that the term refers to people from India, the middle east, and other parts of Asia. Others say that colored people have mixed race. Either way, the lines are pretty arbitrary. The old “pencil” test was used to determine if someone was black or colored. A pencil was placed in their hair, and they were forced to shake their head vigorously. If the pencil fell out, they were colored. If it stayed in, they were black.
It didn’t take long for people to catch on, and it became very popular to wear very short hair. If you can’t put the pencil in the hair in the first place, you can’t take the test. So the pencil test was replaced with the needle test. When pricked with a needle, the testers would listen to see which language the subject used when crying out in pain. Since they’re most likely to use their native language, that gave an indication of race.
Interestingly, blacks and coloreds live in townships adjacent to each other. But they never venture into one another’s territory. Mixed marriages are practically unheard of. There’s a fair amount of tension between the two groups, especially as they compete for government resources. And their problems are different too. Blacks have poor housing conditions. Though the government is working to solve the housing crisis, there are easily hundreds of thousands of people living in informal housing, made from corrugated steel, scrap wood, and anything else they had laying around. Some are living in buildings originally built as dormitories. In each room, there are two or more whole families. The children sleep on the floor, and the families share a common space with a kitchen.
Government projects have started the construction of small, simple, single-family houses, as well as the renovation of some of the old dormitories to provide better conditions for families. Both of these solutions, though, reduce the density of people living in those spaces. So people are displaced when these projects occur, and the problems continue.
Despite all of this, there are some surprises. Many of the people working in the townships have very nice cars, for example. Cars are a status symbol more important than housing. Those who have some wealth show it through the cars they park outside their meager dwellings. Cell phones are also very common. Electricity may be spotty (though it is generally available). Practically no one has a computer at home. But they all have cell phones. And most of the people are remarkably happy. In general, they’re more optimistic, cheerful, and hopeful than most North Americans I’ve been around.
That doesn’t mean that they’re complacent. They’re working to try to improve their living conditions. They’re putting pressure on the government to solve the housing crisis. They’re trying to improve their schools, and they’re very worried about their children, and their society, being left behind.
I’ve always approached technology in education with a “basic needs” approach. Technology can improve education, but I would never advocate the implementation of a 1:1 laptop program, or additional computer labs or interactive whiteboards at the expense of class sizes or instructional resources, or maintenance of facilities. But that’s exactly what they’re trying to do. They see technology as a way to revolutionize their educational system, not just incrementally improve it. They have computers, but they don’t have school libraries. Their classrooms are sparse by American standards. They have basic tables, a couple bulletin boards, and a chalk board. But they have interative whiteboards in some of their classrooms. They’re focused on improving education with technology in any way they can.
Like North America, the faith in technology is not universal. There are many detractors. They’re having problems with technology planning and leadership and pedagogy. We’re working on those things. I hope we can live up to their expectations.