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Filibuster – South African Style

 

This country, and this education system continue to amaze me. Yesterday, I was at Makopye More, doing some demonstration classes. It was a good day. I was able to teach Grade 9 math. It was wonderful to be back in the classroom. Unfortunately, it was a sobering experience at the same time. I was teaching the class about numerical patterns and how to look at them graphically. It was somewhat of an introduction to the Cartesian plane. Now that I have bored most of you, I will tell you that I was very surprised at the learners’ math abilities. They had very poor arithmetic skills (trouble with 1 + 3 = 4), but they were very good at the larger thinking. I refrain from saying abstract thought, but most of them seemed to get the bigger picture. I taught two classes, and the difference between them was remarkable. The first was a very energetic class. They participated and wanted to be involved. When we moved to group work, they mostly worked alone and didn’t debate the answers very much. The second class, there was almost no energy. It seemed that they were very scared to speak up and were trying to figure me out. When I asked questions, no one volunteered to answer or guess. They seemed afraid. When we started the group work, they were much more animated. They were arguing and battling for their answer. It was truly group work. It was an interesting day. After the class, I was supposed to meet with the regular educator, but he seemed to be avoiding meeting with me to go over the class. He did ask if I would continue teaching the following day, to which I declined. I have had many instances in which the educator basically tries to have me teach so that they can have some free time. This was not true in this case. I am very disappointed in the overall educator motivation that I have seen, not to say that I have not seen some very good educators here. After failing to pin down a meeting time with the Grade 9 Math educator, I was told that there was a Department of Education meeting for all of the educators in the North West Province. There was going to be a panel of the Regional Director, the Area Manager, and other high ranking officials in the DoE of North West. It seems that the educators that I ran into found out about the meeting that morning. (It seems that it is a common practice of the DoE to call meetings, workshops, and seminars at the last minute. I know of principals that have been called at 9am and told that they must attend a meeting at 10am in a town an hour away.) So, the learners of Makopye More were released early (12pm) and the educators loaded up in different cars to go to the meeting, about an hour away.

 

I drove with the principal and three other educators from Makopye More. It had been an exhausting day and I was not really looking forward to a meeting that I had no idea what it was about. So off we went. Luckily, we made a pit stop for gas and I was able to recharge with a liter of Coke (my intake of soda has risen sharply in SA. Maybe that’s why I have lost weight.). We arrived at the meeting hall early and sat near the back left entrance of the hall. I got a kick out of people-watching. I watched how people came in a interacted with each other. Since being in SA, I have become acutely aware of race. People are very conscious of race and major stereotypes abound when talking to your average South African. During Apartheid, everyone was divided into 4 racial classes – White, Black, Coloured, and Indian. I think that Asians fell into the Indian category. Nonetheless, those were it and everyone was put into one of them. Needless to say, old habits die hard. As I sat with my principal, talking a little, but mostly watching, I was overjoyed with the camaraderie of the black educators. They were all very happy to see each other and greeted each other with a smile and a hug. After about 45 minutes, I saw the first white educators walk in. My first thought was that they were scared, but I think that they must have been tired from a day of teaching and didn’t want to have to go to another meeting called at the last minute. The first 20 or so walked in, no smiles, said hello to whomever they knew, then walked to the middle of the seating to find a seat. After an hour, the seats were about half full. The principal of Makopye More got my attention and motioned to the back left entrance. It seemed that a group of the younger white educators had decided to sit on the concrete stadium stairs near the entrance rather than sit in any of the remaining chairs. He said to me, “Interesting that they have decided to sit over there. What message are they sending?” I though about it for a few minutes, only coming up with two. (1) I don’t want to be here, so I am going to sit by the door and make a break for it if I get a chance, or (2) I don’t want to mingle with the black educators. Either way, it is not a good message to send. I had to fight the urge to get up and talk to them about their nonverbal language.

 

So the meeting finally began around 2pm (on time!). There was a prayer to start, which is par for the course, then a programme change. And the Regional Director was introduced. She stood up, got the mike and was about to speak, when a booming voice started to chant and about 20 members of SADTU (SA Teachers’ Union) got up and started to sign and chant in a language that I don’t know (probably Setswana). They were singing and dancing and overpowering the speaker. I didn’t know what was happening at first, but I was about to figure it out very quickly. The union was upset about something and this was their was of expressing it. They were blocking the meeting from progressing. So I asked my principal why the union was upset. He said that they were chanting for the Area Manager to leave the meeting and that they would not stop until he had. And on they went. After about 10 minutes, the voices seemed to die down and the Director started to speak again, but didn’t get a word out before the singing started again. The union members (or at least a small part of the union) were singing louder than before. I looked around and noticed that the vocal minority only made up about 5% of the educators in the room. And they did not all seem fully invested in the demonstration. There were 5 educators near the front of the seating area, standing and singing. As they sang, two or three of them frequently were turning around, seemingly looking for support and strength from their ringleader (the man who started the singing who I unfortunately could not see from my seat). The panel quietly sat and waited for the commotion to subside, but it didn’t seem to be losing steam. Finally, there was some moment as the Area Manager got on his cell phone and moved to the back of the stage for any chance of having a normal volume conversation. I asked my principal why they were protesting, and why they didn’t like the Area Manager. His response – “They think that he is arrogant and that he makes decisions unilaterally.” I have met the Area Manager and I would say that he does come across as arrogant, but I didn’t see how that mattered if he got the job done. I learned later that the educators main problem was the merging of schools that they seemed to think was his doing. The singing continued and then there was a rise in the decibel level. There seemed to be a rush of energy through the crowd. I looked around and finally realized the reason. Four SA police officers had joined the meeting and were walking up to the stage. I hoped that they were coming for protection for the Area Manager so that he could safely leave the meeting hall. Alas, that was not the case. They were brought in to restore order to the meeting. Everything remained non-violent, but there certainly was a new charge in the air. My principal said to me that we should probably start going. Before we left, I told my principal that I needed to find my wife and that I would meet him at the car. I found Robi at the other side of the hall and talked with her and her principal about the “festivities”. We were standing about 25 feet from the exit. As we talked and reflected on what was going on, one of the officers went into the crowd and trying to settle things down. Unfortunately, it did the opposite and people got riled up. I don’t know what started it. Maybe the officer reached for someone to talk with them, or a simple hand motion in a charged environment like that can ignite it. Whatever the cause, the officer reacted to something by stepping and pulling out her pepper spray. So it was time to leave, and quickly. In the end, the spray was not used, there was no violence, and the meeting was called to a close to a rousing cheer. The union felt that they had won. The party moved outside to the gate where many more people joined in on the jumping and dancing, having a grand ole time. By the time we were able to leave, there must have been about 20-30% of the educators dancing and singing (most in their SADTU hats and shirts. Interestingly, this was a much larger group than the ones who halted the meeting a few minutes in.) So it was the end to a very strange day. On the way home, I was dropped off in our shopping town to try to catch the Vodacom Manager about a donation we are negotiating, and grab some things at the ShopRite. At home, Robi and I (Mostly Robi) cooked a great meal and went back over the day. Was this the right way to get their point across? In the end, will they be heard or ignored? I don’t have the answers to this, but I’m sure we will see what happens over the next two years.

 

Hope all is well wherever you are.

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