Queen risks the Daimler to visit township school

Alex Duval Smith,Johannesburg
Friday 12 November 1999 00:00 GMT

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"It's Queen Alexandra!" shrieked an excited nine-year-old as the royal Daimler cruised through the shacks and over the potholes of possibly the single most crimeridden square mile in the world - Alexandra Township.

"It's Queen Alexandra!" shrieked an excited nine-year-old as the royal Daimler cruised through the shacks and over the potholes of possibly the single most crimeridden square mile in the world - Alexandra Township.

This was where Nelson Mandela once hid from the South African security police. This is where people sleep nine to a shack and have jobs, running water and electricity only if they are very lucky. Save for the Queen of England, no one in their right mind would arrive in a gleaming white Daimler and expect to leave again in it without being hijacked. Sixty per cent of households have an income below £150 a month and the crime and rape rates are higher than anywhere else in the world.

"Praise the Lord," chanted a small group of women in Zulu as the Queen's motorcade pulled up in front of Skeen primary school. Dressed in a bright pink dress - "very African," commented one woman between ululations - the Queen stepped on to the packed red sand soil of the schoolyard.

"No one as big as the Queen has ever been to Alex," said Patrick Ndlovu, a 60-year-old bricklayer in the crowd. "I have prayed all my life to see her before I leave this world. This morning, when I heard on Alex FM that she was coming, I thought I had died and gone to Heaven."

In the schoolyard, girls and boys in black and white uniforms chanted and waved paper flags as the Queen toured the denuded classrooms of the breezeblock building. Skeen, in common with most township schools, has no glass in its windows, no chalk for the blackboards and, typically, no textbooks.

But the Queen was here to highlight the work of people such as Elizabeth Motokong, thus named because she was born in 1947, the year of Princess Elizabeth's 21st birthday, spent in South Africa. Mrs Motokong, who trains teachers of Skeen's adult night school pupils, said: "People forget that everyone here wants to learn. If there is one thing every person in a township has in common, it is hunger for learning."

Several hundred peoplecome regularly to the school for the British-funded classes in everything from basic literacy skills to business practice. Britain announced this month a £2m grant for adult training, aimed initially at helping 10 million adult South Africans who cannot read or write.

Mrs Motokong said: "If you forget the other thing - colonisation - Britain is a good country because it cares about education. Now the Queen has been here, the people feel that they have been put on the map and they will study harder."

At 11 o'clock sharp - 9am British time - the dancing and clapping ceased, for a moment of silence that nobody in the crowd quite understood. "We explained it to the children during the rehearsal," said a British official. But to others gathered at Skeen yesterday, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month was as distant from their sphere as Daimlers, schoolbooks and jobs.

Cricket also is a pretty distant concept for most black South Africans, as the England fast bowlers Andy Caddick and Alex Tudor discovered down the road, at the Alex Cricket Oval. For the benefit of the Queen, Caddick and Tudor, currently on an England tour of South Africa, shared some tips with two dozen young players in the nets at the Oval.

"You start them young," the Queen was heard to say before leaving the township to travel to Durban and the opening today of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

She may not have left behind a new generation of cricket-playing Remembrance Day-observing black South Africans. But she did succeed in bringing a little hope, just by turning up.

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