Print Posted by pnealon April 2, 2011 12:40 PM
Akshan de Alwis is a freshman at Noble and Greenough School
On March 21, human rights day in South Africa, a day meant to commemorate the fallen heroes of South Africa's freedom struggle, I watched, riveted, as school children in Cape Town marched to protest the inequities in the public school system.
Some students from private schools marched in solidarity with their brothers and sisters who, even after 17 years of democracy in South Africa, still face apartheid in education.
I was in South Africa at the invitation of Taswell Papier, one of South Africa's leading corporate lawyers, who has spent much of his professional life challenging the horrific discrimination under apartheid and the more subtle, but still pervasive, discrimination post-apartheid.
Embraced by the majestic Table Mountain and heart-soaring landscapes, Cape Town is home to the National Parliament and the infamous Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years as a political prisoner.
Cape Town is Africa's most visited city, but often invisible to the public's eyes are the huge expanses of makeshift townships where the majority of Cape Town's black population still lives.
These townships are in an area called the Cape Flats, an area to the southeast of the central business area and the Victoria and Albert waterfront.
Described as “apartheid's dumping grounds,” the Cape Flats was the government -designated "non-white” area of Cape Town. Much of Cape Town's black population still
lives in the same conditions it did during the height of apartheid.
Even though apartheid has been legally dismantled, its ugly legacy endures in
Taswell is still haunted by his representation of countless families in several townships who were victims of an environmental disaster in 1995, when a huge cloud of sulfur dioxide produced by a chemical fire drifted over the townships.
A different form of apartheid is present today in the educational system. Very few can
afford to move out of the townships, where public schools lack basic resources, unlike those in predominantly white areas.
Taswell recalled how he attended the University of the Western Cape, the only law school that blacks and colored were allowed to attend. But this was not a task for the faint of heart. He needed a pass to leave the township and if he forgot it, he could be arrested.
He had to carry with him at all times a passport that displayed his color classification.
Every morning he would leave his house at 4:00 a.m. and ride the train for four and a half hours to attend his 8:30 a.m. lecture.
This was a process meant to discourage and demoralize its students, and it succeeded. He told me that in his first year there were 300 students in his class. The following year that number dropped to 20, the next year, to five. By the time he graduated, he was the only one left.
Taswell tells me that land is key to addressing the legacy of discrimination against non- whites. In 1950, the National Parliament of South Africa passed the Group Areas Act. This act allowed the government to impose urban apartheid, separating the “non-whites” from the whites.
The government evicted thousands of families from their land and forced them to move to townships south of Cape Town. Taswell vividly recalled how as a child his family received an eviction letter telling them to vacate overnight property in Cape Town. The family was relocated to Cape Flats.
Taswell was slightly luckier than his peers. He was, under the color classification system, “colored," or mixed race. This allowed him to live in a house made of concrete slabs rather than a tin shack.
Today in this post-apartheid era, due to his stature,Taswell has claimed the right
to live in dignity in any neighborhood he chooses.
But many thousands remain frozen in a time of racial discrimination. The majority
of the homes in the townships still are tin shacks or condemned concrete houses.
One of the harshest legacies of apartheid is landlessness. For many years, Taswell represented families who lost their land and fought for compensation from the government.
Today he is the government -appointed receiver for families who lost land in the eastern part of South Africa. Unless these lands are returned, children will continue to live in the townships, attend racially-segregated schools, and receive unequal education.
Until that day, when the children of Cape Flats attend the same schools as their brothers
and sisters in beautiful Constantia, apartheid's ugly legacy will linger.
Until that day, Nelson Mandela's long walk to freedom will continue, with the children of South Africa joining in.
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