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South African youth lead a new protest movement

by Linda Bloom
September 25, 2009

Last night, my husband, Paul, and I participated in the “open school” night at the public high school Jack attends near our home in the Bronx. We were impressed with his young, committed teachers and the rigor of the curriculum for the coming school year.

Abongile Ndesi, a ninth grader in South Africa, wants to learn, too. She was one of thousands of children who thronged the city hall this week in Cape Town to demand libraries and librarians, according to The New York Times. “We want more information and knowledge,” she said.

In New York, Jack is taking an advanced placement course in biology that offers him the potential of earning credit for college. In Cape Town, students at Chris Hani High School were finally successful in their demands that the school hire a science teacher.

South Africa’s educational system is failing its young people. Students are so desperate to learn that they tutor each other for exams and attempt to teach classes when the adult instructors fail to show up. For those of us in the United States, fretting over standardized test scores and student dropout rates, it’s almost hard to imagine such zeal on the part of students.

Education has been one of the cornerstones of mission for The United Methodist Church, particularly in Africa. Nelson Mandela was educated in a Methodist school, along with many other African leaders.

The United Methodist-related Africa University in Zimbabwe has become a beacon of hope for that part of the continent. “Bible Women” being trained by the Women’s Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, teach literacy in their communities in Angola. The church-led Operation Classroom focuses on everything from providing pencils and notebooks to building schools in Sierra Leone and Liberia. At the end of October, United Methodists in Minnesota will celebrate their 20th year of ministry with Operation Classroom.

Younger South Africans are now taking the organizing lessons learned from the apartheid struggle and applying them to reformation of the education system. Equal Education, a citizens’ movement, had a campaign to fix broken windows in schools last year and is leading the charge on libraries.

Many United Methodists were actively involved in the long fight against apartheid in South Africa. Perhaps it is time to expand on this legacy and help that country’s youth secure their dreams for the future.