By Felicity Herd
The story of St Martin de Porres School is intimately linked with the history of Soweto township, bordering Johannesburg in Gauteng.
After the Second World War, the shortage of housing became critical around Johannesburg and some desperate people settled on a piece of ground south west of the city, which was later to become Soweto. The settlement spread west across the Klipspruit River and informal settlements were erected from wood, cardboard and hessian. Temporary shelters were later erected by the municipality. By 1947, the population of the area was estimated at 20 000. In these circumstances, the parish of Blessed Martin was established by Father Albert Vandenbussche of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) in Belgium.1 He acquired land in the Soweto area and built the church and school of St Martin de Porres. On 1 April 1947, the British royal family paid a visit to Orlando during their South African tour, and were welcomed by singing children from the school. In 1953, Father Vandenbussche died and an enormous outdoor funeral was held to honour him. His legacy lived on, however, and the school continued to grow.
Some years later, Orlando became a symbol of the perils of apartheid and its ability to tear at the fabric of society, to undermine humanity and even to take life. On 16 June 1976, the children of Soweto marched en masse towards Orlando, where they were met with a hail of police bullets, resulting in the death of the young and innocent Hector Pieterson and many other students.2 I still cannot visit the museum that honours them3 without having to hold back tears of shame, desperation and anger at what happened at that time.
In 1985, the parish was entrusted to the Jesuits, together with the Notre Dame sisters, who came to live in Orlando West. Still today, the Jesuits are working to provide a holistic and Christian education to students in the area. Money has been raised to build a new, “green” St Martin de Porres School, which will build the awareness of young and old that we have a responsibility to be the guardians of our environment. Learners at St Martin de Porres already have a deep understanding of the shortage of resources and the need for the responsible management of the country and the earth. We look forward to being able to share the story of our “green” township school when the time is right.
My own story
If you had asked me a few years ago, as I finished off a locum position at one of Johannesburg’s most successful private schools, with manicured lawns and modern buildings, what my future would hold, I would never have believed it would include a school in Soweto. However, despite my own reluctance to venture out of my comfort zone in the suburbs, despite my ignorance of the beauty and rich diversity of Soweto, despite me, God decided to answer my prayer that my wealth of experience in education would somehow be used to make a difference.
From day one, I was welcomed at the school with open arms, and I have been deeply humbled by the love, openness, support and appreciation that I have received. I have grown to love our learners and my colleagues. I feel that I can be myself and that I am understood, and that makes me relaxed and happy. Many of the pupils suffer from economic disadvantage, and through their pain, and the way they have borne it, they have shown me that wealth is not always an advantage. Some of our pupils have learnt that it’s not things like techno gadgets and brands which make them truly rich. An American visitor told me he was very jealous of my distance from materialism, something that I have been learning from my experiences here.
No matter what our circumstances are, every one of us is human, and the pain and the joy and the lessons of life are the same no matter who we are, or where we are. I have learned deep understanding and compassion regarding the human condition and I have experienced joy together with suffering, spiritual wealth in the throes of poverty, and love, forgiveness, warmth and understanding in the midst of hurt and disillusionment.
I deeply respect and appreciate the parents, grandparents and guardians of our children who work so hard on a daily basis to give them an excellent education. The Department of Basic Education must also be applauded for the support it has provided to the school. It is easy to criticise and complain when one has no concept of the challenges facing education in the townships today. The lack of paternal presence, the health issues, the availability of drugs, the abuse of alcohol and the legacy of apartheid’s destruction of the family unit all take their toll and can undermine our efforts to uplift the lives of our students. If, however, we all continue to work together to uplift our learners, and instil in them truthfulness, inner strength, discipline, morality, gratitude and belief in themselves, I believe that they will overcome these hardships and become dynamic leaders that can help the future of this country.
ISASA membership will expand school network
My prayer today is: “Thank you, Almighty God, for sending me to Soweto. Thank you for talent, the academic brilliance, the wonderful personalities and the resilience that is found among the students. Thank you for our diversity, for the challenges that make us grow and develop, and most of all thank you for the forgiveness and love which is alive and well in our country today.”
It is a great honour, after all has been said and done, for us now to belong to ISASA, and I hope that this relationship will forge a future of greater understanding and communication between St Martin de Porres and other schools, cultures and creeds in South Africa.
Please feel welcome to come and visit us at any time. I can assure you that the experience will be a deeply meaningful one, and we will relish your knowledge, input, assistance and support.
1. See: http://www.omi.org.za/.
2. See: http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/june-16-soweto-youth-uprising.
3. See: http://www.apartheidmuseum.org/.
Category: Summer 2016