A one-on-one history lesson from a teacher nominated as one of the best in the world can change the way you think about education in South Africa.
Marj Brown, 60, a teacher at Roedean School in Houghton for the past six years, is not your average suburban teacher.
She began her teaching career at the height of apartheid unrest. Having trained as a teacher at the University of Cape Town, she decided to forgo the prospect of a cushioned, privileged life teaching in a segregated white school to go, instead, to one of the first nonracial schools in the then Bophuthatswana homeland, which is now North West.
She recently made the top 10 shortlist for the 2018 Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, for which there were 30 000 nominations from around the world.
Sitting in her classroom, surrounded by quintessential history class props, shelves full of books, walls covered in posters and maps, her lesson begins: “I became a teacher in 1980 and I was studying at UCT and feeling a little bit uncomfortable about becoming a white suburban teacher. An ex-Catholic priest came to UCT to say that he was starting a nonracial school in Bophuthatswana and asked if anybody would be interested. I just thought, great, this is what I’m going to do.”
She and six other teachers founded Mmabatho High School, situated near a resettlement camp near the capital of the province. The first lessons she taught were done sitting on rocks in the open veld – before there was any money to build classrooms.
While most of the country’s black pupils were forced to endure Bantu education, the school taught black and white children, using a syllabus only white pupils had access to at the time .
“Mmabatho is now the capital of North West, Mahikeng. In those days, it was this sort of white northwestern town and right next to it was the black township of Montshiwa.”
This was to be the place that changed her teaching career and her way of life. It was around the time when the apartheid government initiated the forced removal of 2 000 black residents of Magopa from their village to the new homeland.
“It was very difficult; despite me teaching at a nonracial school, I was very critical of the homeland policy and we were in Bophuthatswana, and down the road was a resettlement camp where black people had been moved into as part of the apartheid policy of forced removals.”
At this point she darts across the classroom to mount a map on to the blackboard. She begins to animatedly give her account of her time as the a member of the Black Sash, an white women’s anti-apartheid resistance organisation.
“So I left teaching because it was so difficult to be a teacher at a time that this was happening. To teach in a piece of Bophuthatswana and just say we are a nonracial school, so everything is fine. Instead, I left teaching and I went and worked for Black Sash. I was a rural fieldworker and I worked with these communities here with the red arrows.”
She is now in full teacher mode, tracing the various locations around the map where 87% of South Africa’s population was crammed into homelands covering just 13% of the land.
“All these red arrows were black communities that were going to be mopped up by the white South African government and moved into pieces of Bop. “Once they were in Bop, they would lose their South African citizenship.”
Part of her job, she says, was to take statements from the communities issued with notices to move to the allocated homelands, which she would release to the media and various embassies. These anecdotes and the textbook accounts around them form part of her Grade 9 history class. A uniquely personal perspective into the implementation of the Black Homeland Citizenship Act of 1970.
Today, Brown runs several community outreach and literacy programmes. She is the national coordinator for the South African leg of Kidz Lit Quiz, a literacy competition aimed at encouraging pupils to read and write with comprehension. She oversees some of her pupils at Roedean, who volunteer for an organisation called Nurturing Orphans of Aids For Humanity.
She still remembers with fondness one of her first matriculants from that nonracial apartheid-era school in the veld. “Moss Mashishi was one of our first matrics and has got two degrees from Wits University. He’s a very successful businessman and was in our first nonracial Olympic committee after ’94 – and he is a product of that school.”