While many were sitting in front of their TV sets last night, I was trying to help my son with his Science Homework. I almost got impatient with him because he always leaves his school work until the eleventh hour. I gave him a lecture about responsibility and I told him that I had no mother to help me with homework. I went to boarding school!
I went to a very good boarding school in the Limpopo Province, one of nine provinces in South Africa. It was a traditionally white school. I was among the first black group of only four learners to be admitted into the school. We had to write entrance exams and THEN attend an interview. This was in 1991. The year after Nelson Mandela was released form prison. The day that we went to Settlers Agricultural High school for the entrance exam, I fell in love with it. It was green, lush and very beautiful. We wrote exams on the English language, Afrikaans and Mathematics. All in one day. There were hundreds of us black hopefuls. During the course of that day, I used the learner’s bathroom and I have never seen such organization in my life. It was very clean and beautiful. Back in the township, our school toilets were awful. If you could manage to hold yourself for the whole day to avoid using the toilets, by all means you did so by force or fire! As I was leaving the bathroom, I met a very beautiful lady who was in Standard 9 and a learner at the school. She said something to me and she smiled. I remember hearing the words ‘Next Year’. I just smiled and walked away because I could not construct a meaningful sentence in English. I just knew the basics: ‘My name is Patricia Mathabe and I am 12 years old. I am a girl and I have a brother. My brother is a boy. I live with my mother. My mother is a girl. I have a dog’. I did not even have a dog but, those were the hallmarks of Bantu Education*. We memorized sentences like parrots and often used them irrelevantly.
At the end of that long harrowing day, we went back home to await the results. I told my mother that I had a dream that I was accepted there. She just shunned me off and told me that I should stop thinking about the school too much. I went on to write more entrance exams at different schools around Pretoria. I got the ‘we regret to inform you’ responses from almost all the schools there. It was shattering because we all wanted to go to school with white people. We wanted to speak English like they do on TV.
One evening, a call came through and it must have been a month after we took the entrance exams at Settlers Agricultural High School. I picked up the call in my mother’s bedroom and the lady asked if she could speak to Patricia. The lady’s name was Mrs Driver, the school’s secretary. She introduced herself and asked ‘Will you come to an interview?’ Interview?? Errmmm… What exactly did that mean? I called out my mom and asked her to pick up the call in the living room so that we could both listen. Mrs Driver asked my mom if I could be brought to the interview all the way to Settlers. Settlers is 2 hours drive away from Pretoria. My mother did not have a car then. She asked my uncle if he could accompany us for a 2 hour drive for my interview. When we got there, there were only 4 little black girls, inclusive of me. Then there were a couple of Indian students who would later become day scholars traveling from Nylstroom.
We were called into the interview room one at a time with our parents. All the kids had both parents. A mother and a father. I was the only one who came in with a single parent. My brave strong MOTHER! As we stepped into the interview room…MY GOODNESS! GOEIE GENADE!! We were met by a panel of about 10 interviewers. All WHITE and some were more to the Pink side, probably due to the heat. Settlers gets very hot. I remember the flushed rosy big guy, as a representative from the School Governing Body. His name was Mr Fluke. He was a very big man and I was made to sit next to him. My mother was made to sit far from where I was seated across the table. I looked around the oval table and I was visibly shaken! I was 12 years OLD and had never had such a close encounter with so many white people in one room! We were scared of white people. We just saw them on TV and the only time they came to the township, was to cause havoc in their military uniform and in their military cars. Why should I trust these people and why are they putting me in the same room with them and then closing the door behind?
Mr Fluke opened his mouth and just started smiling behind his big glasses. He put me at ease. I now got to understand why I had to sit next to him. He looked unfriendly BUT, he turned out to be the nicest and the jolliest of them all. He offered me some water and some mint imperials. The house mother, Mrs Venter, also had a large frame but, she was gentle too. The interview lasted for about an hour and my mom was constantly playing with a piece of paper under the table, just to calm her nerves. One lady, Mrs Escreet, asked my mom how she was be able to get leave to come to an interview with me from her school. My mother was already a teacher by then. She told them that, ‘It is OK. I am not going to get paid for this day. I will lose money but, it is OK’. They then asked her how she would be able to pay for my school fees being a single parent? ‘I am going to surrender all my policies and I am going to try to sell clothing during the school holidays to make extra money’….
One of the questions they asked me was the obvious ‘Why do you want to come to Settlers?’ With my broken English, I answered that ‘I am sick and tired of chalks down’. They burst out laughing. A chalk down was an industrial strike action which manifested due to dissatisfaction by teachers mainly for little pay. During that period, children were not allowed to go to school and even if they did go, there would be no teachers. I sincerely disliked staying at home and really wanted to go to school.
When we left the room, I told my mom with confidence: ‘Mom, I am going to be a scholar here. I told you I had a dream about it’. I always tell my mother that no one should ever call me up for an interview just to make up numbers. If they do, I will leave them confused and they will end up creating a position for me. I have been attending interviews since 1991 and have since perfected the art.
A couple of weeks after the interview, a call came in, and I was told that I would be one of only 4 girls to be the first black students in the school. I made history and making history comes with a lot of responsibilities. In between my excitement, my mother told me that I had to do very well at school because my performance in class, my behavior around my peers and the way that I conduct myself, will ultimately determine if the school should continue to admit more black students or if they should increase the number of black intakes in the coming year! That was a mammoth of a responsibility for a twelve year old! So many children out there were depending on me, so they could get an opportunity to come to such a good and well sought after English medium boarding school with beautiful bathrooms.
Accompanied by my brother, my mother, my blue metal trunk, our neighbor who kindly drove us to Settlers and my ‘holier than though’ attitude, I left my mother’s house never to look back again. I was twelve years old and had to idea what to expect.
What is so profound is that, the same lady that I met in the beautiful bathroom when I came for my entrance exams, turned out to be my hostel prefect for the year. Lee Plotz was her name. I reminded her about our encounter, and she said that she remembered me because I had the most beautiful smile. I spent five years in the school, until I matriculated. My mother never fell behind with the school and boarding fees. Indeed every school holidays, I would go to the Marabastad Asian Market in Pretoria, to buy clothing with her. We sold it around the township, house to house, to make extra money so she could cover the fees. We made quite a profit but, some people just never wanted to pay us the money owed. My mother told me to just let them be and continue with business as usual. When I was in Standard 8, I brought stockings to school to sell. We later aborted that mission because, I hardly ever got paid by my peers. That did not sit very well with me and with my mom being away, I am not sure I had the strength to ignore them and carry on with business as usual, as she had suggested. It did not even help the situation because the same ladies who owed me money, would be the first ones to line up at the tuck shop, to buy toffees and treats, while I had zero money in my wallet. Instead of selling the stockings, I resorted to……………………
*The Bantu Education Act, 1953 (Act No. 47 of 1953; later renamed the Black Education Act, 1953) was a South African segregation law which legalized several aspects of the apartheid system. Its major provision was enforcing racially separated educational facilities.