Shakespeare: A worldwide classroom

South Africa - Part 1

February 25, 2013

Tracy's WSF blog 2012 - South AfricaShakespeare's had an interesting ride through South Africa's troubled modern history. I arrived in Johannesburg with snippets of information and anecdotes in my head: the great South African actor John Kani first learning to love Shakespeare in his native Xhosa; the Robben Island Complete Works – a copy of Shakespeare texts disguised to look like a Bible, which prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, passed around and annotated; and the weight of post-colonial baggage.

For the Shakespeare: A Worldwide Classroom seminar last September, we were joined by five South Africans: Lucky and Mualusi, students from two schools in rural Limpopo; their teachers, Marvellous and Roshnee; and the artist working with them, Lali. Nobulali Dangazele is a young actor/entrepreneur who runs a company called ShakeXperience, based in Johannesburg and it was Lali and her team of 'ShakeXperts' who became my hosts and friends for this trip.

Lali, Tumy and Mathapelo met me at Jo'burg airport, bundled me into their little blue car and whisked me through town to my B&B in Melville, a pretty artistic suburb of the city. What I quickly learned to love about them was how they combined high energy and playful enthusiasm with a very organised and professional approach. On our many car trips, there was lots of joking, laughter and singing, but they had put together a varied, detailed and full schedule of schools to visit, workshops to lead and talks to give, including trips to Limpopo and Durban – I was certainly to be kept busy. But I had to laugh at an entry for my penultimate day: 'Two hour massage for Tracy' - busy but looked after!

On my first day, we visited the local offices of the Department for Education and two very helpful ladies, Jackie and Subanashi, gave me an overview of the education system. In Gauteng province, students attend either a home language school where English is spoken at home (HL) and where Shakespeare is compulsory from Grade 10, or a first additional language school (FAL) where English is taught as a second language and Shakespeare is an option. South Africa has an amazingly rich and vibrant linguistic heritage with 11 official languages, so it's no wonder that Shakespeare's verbal dexterity can have such appeal.

That afternoon we visited a 'fairly typical' school in Soweto. As an FAL school, Shakespeare is not compulsory but the Head of English is a big fan so students study Julius Caesar in Grade 10, The Merchant of Venice in Grade 11 and Romeo and Juliet in Grade 12. He delights in his students quoting Shakespeare lines to each other in the playground! The Head explained that various politicians are trying to discourage the study of Shakespeare in FAL schools, where they believe African writers should have more prominence and yet, he said, they are always quoting Shakespeare themselves.

As a 'typical' school, classroom conditions were basic: far too many desks cramped into a featureless brick room with only a chalkboard, battered textbooks and the teacher as resources. The Romeo and Juliet lesson I observed featured 40 burly teenagers with barely enough room to sit, let alone be active with the text. In Lucky's school (five hours' drive away in rural Limpopo) 60 students share the desks in each room. Apparently only around 6% of schools in the country have libraries, and access to computers is rare.

What makes Lucky's school atypical is the sheer dedication of the teachers and students to achieving the best. The students come from many miles around and find places to stay in the local hostel or with friends and family in order to be able to attend this school. They put in long hours with the school day running from 8am - 4.30pm, rather than 2pm as at other schools, and in Grades 11/12, the students come back on Saturdays and every week-day evening. Their commitment is to gaining a high school diploma and going on to university because in that way they have a chance at achieving a professional career, which will allow them to support their extended families. 100% of students pass their Grade 12 exams here compared to 30-40% at the Soweto school.

Aspirations and motivation are high, discipline is strict - but there is also a supportive and caring family atmosphere. The Head recognises the importance of arts and sports and an extracurricular programme is available and popular. To underline the sense of fun alongside the academic rigour, the extracurricular programme includes The Willy Shakers – a club set up by the truly joyful Mr Marvellous and Lucky after returning from the seminar last September. Students here do not 'study' Shakespeare but they do enjoy performing and they showed us what they had been working on, transposing Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet to their own cultural contexts.

Later I led a workshop with the Arts Award group on A Midsummer Night's Dream. We were in an airless, hot, dusty space, working in their second, or for most probably their third language; and having observed their normal lesson set up, I wondered how forthcoming they would be with open individual responses. But these were bright kids with personalities that shone through. They had a very clear understanding and perceptive insights on Hermia and Lysander's dilemma and responded strongly to the physical effects of the language.'Shakespeare is African,' Lucky told me. 'It's like he lived here, so much is relevant to our lives.'

by Tracy Irish  |  No comments yet

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