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Books will bring learning


MOST of Joburg's townships - geographically remote from the economic nodes in the city centre -  have one thing in common; they are all being spruced up to bring them more in line with the affluent suburbs in the northern parts of Jozi.

While development elsewhere in Johannesburg is accelerated, in Ivory Park, in the northeast of the city, it seems to be slow, mainly because resources are limited and are unable to match up to the number of people in need.

The neighbourhood, where most people live in a state of dire poverty, is characterised by shrubbery and large trees; construction work; informal trading; corrugated iron shacks; a few RDP houses.

It has an uneven look - clean streets pass untidy ones; roads are in turns potholed and eroded, tarred and with speed bumps.

It is both unkempt and clustered, a habitable place with an urban design. There are paved walkways and a decrepit bridge, alleyways, streetlights and access to electricity. The densely populated area has adequate infrastructure like roads, sanitation, running water and other social amenities, such as a library, a police station, a clinic, adequate housing for some, schools for all and a shopping complex. Yet it could easily be mistaken for a slum.

Locals are cosmopolitan, comprising hordes of foreign nationals. A battery of languages can be heard in the streets - Zulu, Sepedi, Shangaan and South Sotho, all embracing each other gracefully and living together reciprocally.

There isn't much hope in Ivory Park, though, and this isn't a place where one can expect youngsters or society to be ambitious - especially about graduating from university, pursuing a lucrative career, having a decent job or hoping for better opportunities at the doorstep of your community.

The settlement is plagued by a myriad of socio-economic challenges, including unemployment, illiteracy and hopelessness. There are scores of loiterers and passers-by, who almost make the streets seem treacherous. The main road through the suburb is crammed with young and old blood and litter is dumped in open spaces and on some street corners.

The clamour of roaring car engines and the strident nature of the suburb split the peace, as people go about their business. Still, there is a sense of stability in the area on a sunny Wednesday morning, although the debris of burned tyres bear testament to illegal service delivery protests, which have been called-off.

Ivory Park is conspicuously overcrowded and underdeveloped, comprising scores of households occupied by indigent and unemployable youngsters and adults, all integrated by geography and circumstances and living in majority groups. The area can barely cope with rapid urbanisation and in-migration, with housing overlapping on pavements and corrugated iron shacks erected in most yards, pushing up against brand-new houses.

Small to medium and other commercial enterprises are the order of the day, thriving very well, it seems; this is a boon for locals. Traders sell their wares and merchandise on almost every street corner, turning these into miniature malls, which supplement the area's only shopping centre.

Spaza shops are ubiquitous, as are carwashes, cobblers and tailors, public telephones and stalikies - township lingo for a small business on a street corner.

The area has a cool climate, with a moist breeze sporadically wafting through the often unhygienic air, providing calmness. The scenery is beautiful from the main road, with a quaint view of the odd skyline, which is marked by greenery, electricity poles and the colourful roofs of huddled shacks and houses.

Some households lack sufficient water for family use, access to improved sanitation, security of tenure, and housing in a permanent and adequate structure in a non-hazardous location, and in most cases homes are occupied by large families who share the same limited resources.

However, some families are better off and seem to be adapting well to such conditions. They have embellished their homes and planted sprouting flower gardens and lawns, while others have extended and painted their homes, sprucing them up.

Because of an increase in demand for sanitation services, the City spent about R495-million between July 2006 and December 2009 as part of its sewer infrastructure upgrade and expansion programme, on bulk wastewater and sewer networks. The programme was rolled out in 19 suburbs and Ivory Park was one of the beneficiaries.

As part of its contribution to the safety of its customers and the beautification of the city, City Power has rolled out 184 264 public lights around Johannesburg. About 4 000 more new public lights will be installed by the end of this financial year in Ivory Park, Kaalfontein, Rabie Ridge and other areas.

The City also invested in a pedestrian bridge in the area, which has helped to reduce drowning incidents.

Although the possibility to escape from poverty seems untenable, the people of Ivory Park are neither inert nor in despair; most of them supplement their livelihoods through informal trading. Some have cultivated land on the roadsides and are growing an assortment of crops; some charge a meagre fee to paint murals on private walls for brand promotion.

Nestled between Tembisa and Rabie Ridge to the east and the affluent Midrand to its west, Ivory Park is a dormitory settlement alongside Kaalfontein and Ebony Park, and is home to an optimistic population.

Amid a settlement plagued by a battery of social ills like drug and alcohol abuse, peer pressure and crime, pupils at Ivory Park Secondary School play truant, dawdling around the school yard. This is a drug buying and selling tactic they use at school. Because the school gates are locked at 8am, pupils are unable to buy drugs or alcohol outside the premises - so they resort to buying over the fence.

"Some school kids are sold drugs and alcohol through the school fence during learning hours, and this is worrying for me and the teachers," says the concerned principal, Edith Mamosebo.

And it is indeed worrying. All the pupils at Ivory Park Secondary School are being educated for free. The principal says they get a subsidy from the government and the children are all part of the school's feeding scheme.

Concerned parents who want the best for their children are not only involved in their education, they have also volunteered to cook at and clean the school. "The community is very supportive; they respond positively to meeting invites, and some parents are volunteers at the school to cook for the kids. The school governing body is also supportive, and it frequently checks on the school's progress," explains Mamosebo.

Learners are given free textbooks and other study material and meals at lunch time. Mamosebo says by 1 April, the school will have rolled out a free nutrition programme to benefit indigent and orphaned children.

In 2009, the school scooped Gauteng's highest matric pass rate for the third consecutive year, with an impressive 92 percent. Although this has dropped from 95 percent in 2007, this year the principal is encouraging all learners to aim for a 100 percent pass - "Nomakanjani."

"I don't want to see you back here next year," she warns sternly, fiercely looking at the pupils, who are comfortably seated under a marquee. They are learning about the American civil rights movement, which is being taught around Joburg schools as part of Black History Month and the City's library week, which begins on Monday, 22 March.

This is also part of the Grade 12 curriculum.

It is a hot Wednesday morning on 17 March, and Andrew Passen, the United States consul-general, is regaling pupils with anecdotes of the American struggle for civil rights, Nelson Mandela, apartheid, Us President Barack Obama and his stay in Iraq during the war. He is a man of great etiquette, which he imparts to the pupils, as he illustrates some of his lessons in SiSwati.

He speaks in a friendly manner, and is debonair and eloquent. Passen was at the school for its Black History Month activities, and also to donate encyclopaedias and other general science books to the school's library, which he hopes will keep "expanding".

"Regardless of where we are, my government constantly supports education and South Africa is one of our highest priorities. If there is any way in which our diplomatic mission can help to promote educational excellence, we are going to do so. For us, being able to receive books from America and donate them to schools is only one small part of it, but it's an important part of it," he says.

Passen subscribes to the philosophy that information and education can help to emancipate society. He says the US consulate will continue to make education the hallmark of its co-operation in South Africa. "Coming to schools where book donations can help their libraries, I think is a very good thing."

He hopes that the books will, in the long run, add value to the lives of many youngsters who use them. "It's a fairly small donation but the school's library will be much bigger than anything we can donate. If even one student learns even one thing from even one book we are making a meaningful contribution. Truth is, this will help hundreds of students in future. They are going to get in there and they are going to discover all over again the magic of books."

For students to walk into a library and have additional resources is a great thing, he notes.

Joburg's manager of library and information services, Sharon Mashau, says the book donation supplements the City library's 2010 World Cup promotion. "We are working with different embassies to run programmes at schools as well as to talk about their countries in terms of where they come from and maybe some embassies to teach basic languages so that when visitors come, our learners can be able to interact with them," she says.

The aim of the initiative is to promote countries that will be playing in Joburg during the football tournament, as well as promote South Africa to those countries. "It is an ongoing thing until and beyond the World Cup, because we are trying to build long-lasting relationships; in future we want to partner with them on various programmes and have more to offer our community," Mashau says.

Mamosebo says the school is very grateful for the donation. "I'm very honoured. The school is getting a lot of attention from the corporate world and I like that because it is exactly what we want. We are proud to have people who really do care and I think our kids can really acknowledge that. They now have access to more information from this institution."

Ivory Park comprises about 14 627 official stands, on which the City has built about 452 houses since the area was promulgated as a township some 13 years ago. Another 118 houses are still being built at the cost of the City. Other houses in the area are being built, some subsidised by the provincial and national government. However, not everyone in Ivory Park qualifies for free or subsidised housing.

Nonetheless, the people of that compact community remain exuberant and resilient Joburgers, high-spirited despite their socio-economic challenges.