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Authors: Sandy Blackburn-Wright

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BOOK: Holding Up the Sky
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From the Drakensburg we drove to Port Elizabeth, or PE as it is known, my dear brother agreeing to take me to see Msizi on our trip down the coast. Msizi was in PE for work, so we met up for lunch at the beachfront. Despite my heartbursting excitement at seeing him again, it was a little awkward to be reunited in public and in front of my brother, whom he had never met. After an inadequate greeting we found a place to eat. Msizi asked if he could choose the table, my brother recalls, one at the back of the room facing the door, so Msizi could see anyone who entered. Over lunch he told us that things had been quite tense in the last month or two, with many detentions and a lot of harassment. He suspected he was next on the list; one of the reasons he was working in PE at present was that he felt too visible and accessible in the small town of Grahamstown. My brother later told me how surreal this all seemed to him whereas I seemed to be talking it all in as naturally as my next breath. As he cast around for appropriate lunchtime conversation Jon was struggling to see what Msizi and I had in common.

We stayed overnight in PE, with Jon making himself scarce that evening to give Msizi and I a chance to talk. As wonderful as it was to see him, essentially nothing had changed. We still felt as strongly for each other as we always had but saw no way to take the relationship forward–couldn't go forward, couldn't go back. We didn't know when we would next see each other, living so far apart, so it was another heavy-hearted farewell.

The next day, Jon and I headed down the garden route towards Cape Town where we stayed for a few fabulous days. From Cape Town, I few back to 'Maritzburg and Jon few on to London. I was so grateful to Jon for visiting me in South Africa–it was hard to explain what my life was now like and why I had chosen it to be so, without being able to show him around. I now felt I had had that chance. He had met some of the important people in my life and our road trip had given us time simply to be together.

Back in 'Maritzburg, I soon settled down into the workshops we were running. They were a combination of youth leadership programs for young black teenagers and dialogue and development programs which brought together black and white high school groups, one from town and the other from the township, to meet and work together. We also had a constant flow of families with us who had been displaced by the violence in the area. We would feed and clothe them temporarily while assisting them to find more permanent accommodation and new schools, and generally help them to begin the long process of rebuilding their lives. The week after my return from Cape Town a family of six showed up one morning, their home having been torched by a mob the night before. The children, in particular, had been shocked into silence by the experience. Amazingly, their hair began to show patches of grey from the trauma. The situation in the township of nearby Howick was deteriorating and given our involvement with the township's high school in Mpophomeni, we would become the first port of call for many feeing the area in the weeks to come.

The first dialogue and development program I set up and co-facilitated with Robbie was between Hilton College and Smero High School. We had invited eight boys from each school to join us for the weekend. On Friday afternoon, Robbie and I went to the township to fetch the group from Smero while Steve waited at Phezulu for the bus from Hilton College to arrive. We returned an hour later with a kombi full of nervous lads who had never stayed in a white area, let alone bunked in with white boys the same age. We parked the kombi in the carpark by the gate and began to unload. Each of the young men had brought very little with him, some holding only a plastic bag with a change of clothes. They had begun to make their way to the bunkhouses when the Hilton bus arrived. They turned and watched as out of the bus spilled eight confident young men in their matching sport uniforms, each carrying a large piece of luggage for their weekend adventure. I often wondered what the two groups thought of each other in those first moments with all the deep stereotypes passed on to them by their parents, and their parents before them, swirling around like alcohol in the veins. As we watched the faces we could spot the ones who made an effort to tuck those thoughts away, willing to give this experience a chance. We could also see the white kids who were yet to know that there was anything to be tucked away; they stepped forward with a confidence born of years of being seen, heard and in the right.

Robbie took both groups up to the bunkhouses behind the main house and sorted them into rooms, ensuring there was a good mix in each room. It was clear that some of the Hilton boys took Robbie for a worker on the property and I smiled at the thought of him running the session with them later that evening. We gave them half an hour to settle in and have a look around before we all met up on the stoep. We had planned a bit of an icebreaker to help people get to know each other, our team included. Robbie, Steve and I would run the program with Themba taking charge of the working party on the Saturday.

Soon everyone was assembled, still very much polarised into their two school groups. We took everyone out onto the lawn and asked them to take off their shoes and throw them into a big pile in the middle. Once they had done that, they formed a circle around the shoes. Steve counted to three and unleashed sixteen boys, himself, Thembo, Robbie and I into a mad scramble for shoes–any shoes. With two shoes in hand, we then had to find the owner of each shoe. It was fascinating to watch each of us approach others in the group in an effort to match shoe to owner–who did the grubby shoe belong to, the formal shoe, the tennis shoe? I was very aware of my own assumptions: what matched with black and what matched with white, dirty, dusty, new. By the end of the game, we all discovered that our assumptions were just that, assumptions, as each shoe was finally restored to its rightful place with many surprises along the way.

Next, we wanted to break down some of their physical reserve. We got them to play a game called ‘the pretzel', where they once more formed a circle on the lawn, shoulder to shoulder. Each person reached into the circle and grabbed another hand in each of theirs before trying to untangle the pretzel and transforming it back into a large circle. The boys clambered over each other, and me, some laughing, some serious about solving the puzzle, delivering orders to move this way, step that. A number of Hilton boys took the lead and the Smero guys let them, I noticed. Eventually, a large circle emerged among much self-congratulation.

The ice thus broken, we took everyone through to the front room where each found a spot on a cushion somewhere around the sunken circle in the floor; this time the arrangement was a little more mixed than before. Steve asked them to talk about their expectations for the weekend and the reason they had volunteered to come. Some of the Hilton boys were boarders and wanted to get out for the weekend. Some of the Smero guys wanted to get out of the township for a couple of days. Many wanted an opportunity to meet their peers from other schools for the first time. As would often be the case, the average age of the Smero group was older than that of their Hilton peers despite the fact they were in the same year at school. The quality of black education was so poor, each class routinely comprising forty or fifty students, that many repeated a year here or there along the way to graduating. President Verwoerd, when establishing ‘Bantu Education' in 1953, had said that there was no place for the black person in white society above certain forms of labour. He questioned the use of ‘teaching the Bantu child mathematics where it cannot use it in practice'. Not much had changed in the education system since then.

We arranged a volleyball match before supper where the guys got to rough and tumble it a bit. And I, never wanting to be outdone by a male, rough and tumbled it with them. After a supper of Mama Jenny's famous pumpkin soup and mountains of bread, we once more adjourned to the ‘pit', as it came to be called. Robbie led off this session where each person was encouraged to describe ‘a day in my life' and then to talk about why those differences existed between boys of a similar age growing up in the same city. Hilton College was one of the top boys' schools in the country, a vast campus set in idyllic parklands in the hills surrounding the city. Its students were drawn from wealthy white families from all over the country. While it was beginning the process of opening its doors to students of other races, its senior years were almost exclusively white at that stage. Smero, on the other hand, consisted of two rows of classrooms resembling abandoned railway carriages dropped on a dusty playground. It had two pit toilets set back from the classrooms, one for the boys and another for the girls, which were visited only as a last resort. As in many other schools across the country, a few neighbourhood women set up informal shops on overturned boxes at the entrance to the school where they sold sweets, fruit and drinks at break times.

Some of the guys described their average school day, others what they did on a normal weekend. Either way, each group surprised the other with the shape and form of their daily lives. Once each person had taken a turn, Robbie led a discussion on why such differences existed. This discussion was always a hard one. Some of the black guys thought white people were rich because they stole their wealth from Africa and cheap African labour; others thought white people had more opportunity and easily walked into high-paying jobs. Some of the white guys thought black people were lazy and didn't want to work; others thought they were too busy making trouble to get an education and find a decent job. Sometimes these thoughts bubbled to the surface, but more often than not they were left unexpressed. Either way, the boys were yet to know each other as individuals and each group still regarded the other as representative of a larger community they had reason to mistrust.

Robbie was usually happy to leave some loose ends and finish the evening with a briefing for the next day. Breakfast would be at 7 am and we would depart half an hour later. For most of the white students, this would be the first time they had set foot in a township; with all the stories they had heard about black people being terrorists, I suspect there were a few restless sleepers in the bunkhouse.

Bright and early the next morning, we took the two vehicles down the road to Sweetwaters and wound our way along that familiar dirt road to the creche site in Imbutshana. We parked the kombi and the bakkie at the usual spot and unloaded people and equipment in quick order. The Hilton boys were keen to see what life was like in the township and I think the Smero guys were happy to be authorities on the topic and show their new friends the ropes. What they weren't so happy about was the day of hard work ahead of them. As for me, I intended to prove my worth. I was the only woman on site and perhaps they were expecting me to make lunch and pass drinks around. But never wanting to be stereotyped, I planned to work harder than any of them. I was constantly frustrated by the sexism that existed in South Africa, regardless of race, and took it on as my own personal mission to be equal in every way. So when we arrived at the creche and Themba began to allocate tasks, he knew better than to give me a light job.

The creche was a bit further advanced than the last time I had seen it. The basic wall structures were up, ready for a layer of mud literally to be thrown onto them to make a thick mud wall, and there were now suffcient rocks to throw a slab. Today, the task was to collect and prepare mud to finish the wall on one side. Themba had us working in four crews, each with their own wheelbarrow and shovels. We followed a small path down the gully to the stream where we could dig up some mud. We would then take the wheelbarrowful of mud back up the path, mix it to the right consistency and pack it onto the walls.

Given this was normally women's work, one of the local experts was on hand to show us how it was done. Steve stood back and laughed as a handful of reluctant young black men worked with a couple of keen young white men to throw mud at a wall under the instruction of a black woman, who spoke to everyone in Zulu. It was quite a sight in our South African context, and he told us so. But soon our team got the hang of it and we fell into a routine of fetching, mixing and throwing mud, no small amount of which ended up on each other. The morning passed quickly and soon we saw Beth and the kids walking up the road with Mama Jenny, bringing us all a packed lunch. My arms felt boneless with fatigue and I suspect it was the same for many others, but as we all sat around eating lunch, we talked about how much more work we would get through in the afternoon.

At about 3.30, we downed tools and reviewed our progress. Between us, we had managed to complete more than half the wall on one side. I did notice that a number of local parents had joined the work party in the afternoon, speeding our progress as the young men's enthusiasm waned. But we were mud-spattered and satisfied as we limped back to the kombi and headed back to Phezulu.

I loved the community work component of our programs as much for its impact on the community as for its impact on the group. Less than twenty-four hours earlier there had been two groups of young men politely sizing each other up; now they were forming themselves into a single group, moving from ‘them' to ‘us'. Toughing it out together helped them to see the individuals behind the stereotypes, to substitute the name of a friend in place of the descriptor of ‘black' or ‘white'. I also saw that each time we took them out together in public over the course of the program, they began to identify more and more with each other as a single group, as the broader public became the ‘them'. Steve, of course, was well aware of this dynamic and therefore built it into the program.

Once we were back at Phezulu, a trail of muddy shoes and shirts was scattered between the kombi and the pool as everyone braved the cold water to wash off sweat and mud. I left them to it and went in search of a hot shower. An hour or so later, everyone was in clean clothes and part of the soccer match that had broken out on the lawn. Once more, the Smero guys had a chance to be the experts as Hilton College was a rugby school and soccer was the favourite game of every township boy. No matter where we went across the country, small boys would be kicking a ball around a dusty field on the edge of a township. Often, the ball would be made of plastic bags or some other leftovers shaped into a small globe and kicked until it was disembowelled from overuse. On the front lawn, the guys had divided themselves into two teams, mixing up the schools as they did so. Robbie and I joined in, Robbie displaying superior ball skills while I had only speed to recommend me. The game was fast and furious and, lacking an umpire, almost came to blows a few times between two enthusiastic township players until Robbie, the natural peacemaker, stepped in to settle the dispute. Before long Mama Jenny was beating the large triangle to call everyone to supper and the game was declared a draw.

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