Louis Mzomba: 'The Government has to do something to make sure that when we teach these kids, proper learning can take place'

Peter Bills
Tuesday 21 July 2009 15:45 BST
(Hannah Bills)

Louis Mzomba is a schoolteacher in South Africa. He’s a man in love with his job and his country but sometimes they make him cry. Take the case of Andile.

Andile was a bright boy, 14 years old. He impressed his schoolmaster with his attitude to his studies, his devotion to school work. But he always came late to school and was never dressed neatly.

One day, Andile didn’t come to school. So Louis Mzomba went looking for him. He went to his home in Khayelitsha Township, outside Cape Town but there was no answer at the door. The door was unlocked and Louis walked in. The house was dark, dirty and it smelt.

He called the boy’s name but, through the darkness, there was only silence. Then he found another room and walked in. Andile was in bed, asleep. Louis woke him up and told him "Andile, it is 9.30; you should have been at school at 8. Why are you still here."

Andile quickly awoke his 7 year-old brother and they got dressed. There was no-one else in the house.

Louis Mzomba is a man of much experience of the world. But his face crumples in anguish as he tells the story. "Andile told me there was no-one to wake him. I asked him where his mother was, and he looked down at the ground. She was in hospital, dying of Aids. His father had gone years before; there was no-one else."

Andile and his brother were staying in the house, trying to manage, trying to survive. They had no money, so no food. The only food they ate in a day were the two slices of bread they were given at school at lunchtime.

Mzomba says simply and humbly, "To me, it was tragic. I just cried."

He arranged for the boys to be taken to a local social worker in Nyanga for care. But their condition did not improve. Eventually, Louis Mzomba, the humble schoolteacher, had to go and search for any relatives of the boys. A month later, after their mother had died of Aids, he found the mother’s sister living in Khayelitsha and she came to take the boys and look after them.

A happy ending to a sad tale? No. Andile, this clever boy in the words of his teacher, just dropped out. Today, he is involved in drugs and violence in the township. Louis Mzomba’s heart weeps at such an outcome.

So how does the Cape Town schoolmaster feel at such situations? "I feel betrayed by our Government when I see this situation. Because if you look at how the white schools operate, they enjoy a completely different situation. They have security people at their gates; we have none, we cannot afford it. So our schools in the township are vulnerable to violence and robbery.

"The (mainly) white schools are so successful partly because the corporate world supports those schools. That doesn’t happen to us. All our money comes from one source, the Government. The corporate world should put their shoulder to the wheel as well, so that we can all go forward as a people, as a nation. If that happened, things would be much better.

"But also, the Government has to do something to make sure that when we teach these kids, proper learning can take place."

Louis Mzomba knows a bit about the big, elegant white schools of the Cape. Back in 1993, he was offered a job at Bishops, one of the most luxurious and successful of all the private schools in Cape Town. He had been made another offer, by a poor Township school named Nomlinganiselo Intermediate School in New Cross Roads, close to Nyanga. Bishops offered the kind of money, privilege and facilities Nomlinganiselo could but dream of.

"It was a dilemma, a very difficult decision. Bishops offered a lot and there was a house for me to live in. I would have taught only one subject and coached rugby, which I love. The money was better, it was very comfortable and a good future."

He chose Nomlinganiselo. His words may haunt you. "As a principled man I said no. I wanted to coach rugby in the Township and wanted to achieve my objectives. I could be of much more value going to this school."

So he turned his back on the neatly dressed boys of Bishops, resplendent in their smart uniforms and the manners typical of their parents' social standing, for Nomlinganiselo Intermediate where the children sometimes never turned up and where hunger, not lessons, was their paramount thought most days.

At Bishops, class sizes might have been 20, perhaps less. At Nomlinganiselo last year, the Grade 1 class for 6-7 year olds had 62 in a single class. A total of 22 teachers cater for around 900 children, and the school offers education for youngsters from the age of five up to 16 and 17. Shrewdly, Louis Mzomba goes to the heart of the problem.

"The worrying factor is, if you have a huge number in Grade 1 where the kids are supposed to get the basics of reading and writing, there is no individual attention with such numbers. Grade 1's should be the smallest class, no more than 30, so you can have individual attention.

"This means that many children are not getting the basics. Up as far as Grade 9, when I ask some children to read, they cannot do it. They still use a finger to point, very slowly. But if you cannot read, no effective learning will happen."

Lous Mzomba was recently Deputy Principle, second in command at Nomlinganiselo. But the teacher who held that post has now returned, although Mzomba has applied to be a Head of Department and would like that post.

In all he does, in his every living moment, Louis Mzomba tries to make a difference. But his 16 years experience of teaching in the Township have given him a brutally clear picture of the youngsters growing up to become the citizens of South Africa’s new generation.

"There are two different groups of youngsters. Those that are very keen to learn take full responsibility. But there is another group of the age 15-16 and they are exposed to outside influences like drugs and girls or boys. That is a very difficult age group to control: they know their rights in this society but they don’t know their responsibilities. We in the schools have been very handicapped by the Government saying, ‘the children have their rights and you must abolish things like corporate punishment.

"Kids take advantage of the law. They tell us, the teachers, ‘You can’t discipline us, we know our rights’. That is the challenge we face.”

Violence is the biggest problem confronting teachers like Mzomba and his colleagues. It happens every day in some form. Violence runs in many forms: between the teacher and children and among the children themselves. A 15 year-old once hit a teacher with a brick. Another teacher, frustrated by a child’s refusal to remove his hood, snatched it off. The child left school immediately but returned later with his friends, members of a gang.

As Mzomba says "We teach in those situations where our lives are in danger. There is a lot of violence in the Township and the Government should employ a company to provide security for schools."

Mzomba has personal experience of the violence in their midst. One day, as he and some colleagues met to discuss the appointment of a school principle, three young men with guns walked into the room where the interviews were about to take place. Shots were fired; the school officials had to dive for safety. Watches, cell phones and wallets were taken at gunpoint.

Yet still Mzomba insists his country can go forward, can anticipate better times. "The major problem is all about unemployment and the poverty arising from it which is damaging our country. The percentage of unemployment in our community is perhaps 65 per cent. If the parents of the children at our school were employed, we could have raised funds for security. But we cannot do that. The parents are not involved in the development of our school for they have no financial means to do so. We know why, they have other issues."

Government funding per child at a state school like Nomlinganiselo amounts to R548 (approx. £44.55p) for a whole year. But such a modest sum hardly covers the expensive books needed by pupils or so many other things. And Government funding does not cover the 4-5 year-olds that Nomlinganiselo welcomes. "That is our baby, somehow we find the money to provide for them too," says Mzomba.

Teacher, social worker, carer, mentor... to all his titles, official and unofficial, add another one to Louis Mzomba’s name. His lifelong love of rugby football means he spends countless hours out of school teaching kids the rudiments of that game. In truth, as he says, it is as much about keeping young people off the streets after school as trying to turn them into rugby players.

Yet that flicker of belief, all those years ago, that he could make a difference at a school like Nomlinganiselo is born out by subsequent triumphs. Some of the youngsters he has coached have made Craven Week and gone on to achievements like Western Province Under 13s and Under 21s plus South African Schools.

And if he doesn’t have enough on his hands, what with his teaching and attempting to be a family man to his wife Nokhaya, their three children, Zimkhitha, Mihlali and Yonela as well his elder boy Monde, Louis Mzomba is leading a drive to revive rugby in all the High Schools in the Western Cape. They started with 24 and hope to add another 11. As Tournament Director, he was in charge one recent Sunday when an all-day competition was staged, girls included. Thousands turned up but now they desperately need a commercial sponsor.

"I get so tired doing all this," he concedes. "But I know it will benefit the nation, not me. We don’t want these children to be involved in drugs, so let’s keep them busy."

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