A school, a town, a dream

by Anne Sherwood, Spring 2003 IRP Fellow
Reprinted with permission of USA Today

JOE SLOVO, South Africa — As in many small American towns, the school in Joe Slovo is the heart — and hope — of the community. And an American’s dream helped make it a reality.

This settlement of squatters outside Port Elizabeth has few amenities. There is no infrastructure. Roads are dirt. Houses have no plumbing, no electricity, no concrete. There are a handful of communal water taps and six 100-foot-high security lampposts that give the village an eerie pink glow, turning the hazy night sky to cotton candy. (Related item: Gallery of a South African settlement [offsite link])

South Africa, a nation of 43 million people, has been described as a country with a first-world face and a third-world body. Shiny skyscrapers rise in view of destitute townships. Though South Africa has a thriving economy in comparison with other African nations, years of legalized racism under apartheid left a gap between rich and poor as wide as the Kalahari. Laws forbidding blacks to own property and shunting them to the outskirts of town contributed to rampant poverty and homelessness.

Though apartheid officially ended with Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994, many blacks are still homeless, and 7 million people live in squatter camps like Joe Slovo — named for a revered labor leader.

It was during the historic 1994 elections that American high school student Jacob Lief first traveled to South Africa. He was so moved by his experience that he returned in 1998 during his junior year at the University of Pennsylvania. In his travels, he met a local teacher, Banks Gwaxula, in a bar. Before the end of the night, the two had scrawled out a dream on a napkin. A year later, as co-presidents, they founded the Ubuntu Education Fund, which raises money to implement social change in the Eastern Cape.

Settlements such as Joe Slovo lack even basic social services crucial to the development of a healthy nation. For years, this was a community without a school. So the 4,600 residents started their own with the only resources available: unemployed teachers and a shack. They called it the “Shack School.” For two years, more than 150 students crammed into the tiny building. With the help of the Ubuntu Education Fund, the community pressured the government to build an official school this year.

Simphiwe Vubela, 24, has lived in Joe Slovo since 1996 with his mother, father and six siblings.

Unlike 90% of the villagers, he has a job. An example of the early success of Lief’s program, he works for the Ubuntu Education Fund and supports his entire family on his $150 monthly salary. He counsels people with AIDS and started a Xhosa music and dance group for village children.

“We don’t have to talk about the apartheid regime anymore,” he says. “We need to think more of how we can help ourselves, what can we do to build our future.”