South Africa's School of Self-Worth

Johannesburg's Open School offers a program of cultural enrichment in the arts to school-age students from black townships

IF the legacy of apartheid has been to rob black South Africans of their human dignity and spirit, the Open School here provides a richly creative environment where township pupils can regain their sense of self-worth."We use culture - drama, art, dance, and music - as a means of self-expression to encourage the students to articulate what they see around them and to increase their sense of self-awareness," says Colin Smuts, director of the Open School for the past 15 years. "We emphasize aspects of a child's development and education which have been totally neglected under the system of Bantu education." The Open School, situated on three floors of a building in downtown Johannesburg, provides a program of cultural enrichment in the arts for township children all day Saturday and after school hours during the week. This year, in addition to its cultural program, the Open School began a full-time academic program for grade three. The pupils in this program are all products of Bantu education who have lost touch with the learning as a result of years of inferior education and disruption of schooling. "It is a real indictment against the present system," says Mr. Smuts."It is going to be a real challenge to turn them [pupils] into productive human beings." The school has developed a thematic approach to teaching in which a topic - the environment, education, or health, for example - becomes the theme for art, drama, and dicussion. "This approach helps the students to analyze critically the issues facing their everyday lives," Smuts says. Drama class at the Open School becomes a living workshop in which the students script their plays from everyday life. It offers an opportunity for the young people to articulate their feelings on taboo subjects at their schools - like corporal punishment and police harrassment - and in the home - like child abuse, the exploitation of women, and arranged marriages. "In this way it has a therapeutic effect," Smuts says. "It provides an outlet." The message is taken to the community when the plays are performed at community centers and schools as part of an outreach program. Parents attend the annual "open day," when the year's work is put on display. The Open School's program caters to 350 children between the ages of six and 18, covering a cross-section of the socioeconomic spectrum. The community program trains people to run cultural education programs at schools and community centers in the townships. During the nationwide emergency from 1986 to 1990, the community and outreach activities of the Open School were severely disrupted by the repressive environment, mass detentions, and harassment of activists.In 1986, the writings and drawings of younger children - asked to depict their experience of life in the community - were such a vivid portrayal of state repression that the essays were published as a book ("Two Dogs and Freedom"), which became an international bestseller. The repressive mood of those times was reflected in the children's artwork, which is published annually in a 12-page calendar. The creative artwork depicts socioeconomic deprivation in the black townships, harsh methods used by the security forces to crush youthful protest, and the chaos in black education. Symbols of resistance - the colors and acronyms of the liberation movement and anti-apartheid youth groups - portray the hope and determination to change the status quo. The cover of the Open School's 1991 calendar reflects the changing political reality. A drawing by 18-year-old Lincoln Tshabalala of Soweto depicts African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela with his arm around President Frederik de Klerk while people cheer in the background. This was offset by the Nazi-like symbols of the neo-fascist Afrikaner Resistance Movement on one side and armed warriors of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha movement on the other. "This year we are coming out of the closet," Smuts says. "We have been able to resume the outreach and community programs, which had almost come to a standstill." At the last "open day," one group of drama students re-created life in the once-thriving black township of Sophiatown, which was destroyed to make way for a whites-only township. "We wanted to capture the spirit of Sophiatown," said Mpho Mosieleng, one of the teenage actors in the play. "Our grandparents have told us what it was like, but we want to make sure that our people don't forget what happened." South Africa's cultural diversity has posed a challenge for the Open School in devising its cultural programs. Dance teacher Wendy Newstadt encourages improvisation by the students to help develop a new kind of dance that draws on the various tribal traditions. "We want to mold them together," Ms. Newstadt says. "It's not easy but it's very challenging and provides a new direction." The Open School has produced many talented artists, actors, and musicians and is evolving a new philosophy of education. "With our academic program we are developing a new model of education," Smuts says.

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