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Letter From Cape Town

Dear Diane,

I'm sitting in Cape Town, having just cabled down from fabled Table Mountain. Even before that we were in love with Cape Town. We leave tomorrow, so I thought I'd send a few words for Thursday. I imagine that when I get into my own bed Thursday a.m. I won't want to stop to write!

We've done all the usual and delightful tourist things—like safari'ing near Cape Elizabeth where we saw lions, giraffes, warthogs, hippos, many antelopes of every sort, and two elephants at play—and ooh'd and ahh'd and snapped photos galore. We drove along the eastern shore on a route that makes Route One in California seem like a snap, and all the while driving on the wrong side of the road. Our first stop was at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein in the center of the country. We spent three days being feted and feasted, and more or less giving the same talk to three mostly different audiences about the complexity of schooling if we have democracy in mind.

But there's no serious or even half-serious way to sum it up, after two weeks!

How easy conversation flowed at the university despite our differences. It is amazing, although so much of history is different, our racism (all racism?) plays out in eerily familiar ways. And the inequality in resources between the races makes it hard to not keep reinventing apartheid in new forms—as Michelle Alexander noted in the book I wrote about a few weeks ago. The divide between the top 10 percent and the bottom 90 percent kept revealing itself as we drove about.

On the one hand, it was amazing to spend time at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein and see blacks, whites, and coloureds (people of mixed ethnic heritage) mix so freely. The prosperous and favored seem to come together as naturally—or more so?—than back home. Having political power matters but.... The same themes emerged in all three settings where I spoke, to overlapping audiences, and continued late into the night. I'm ready to go back!!

What about education? I couldn't quite be sure about the slightly different stories I was hearing. It would be much the same of course for visitors to the United States. Most of South Africa's poorest and blackest citizens live in "townships" (areas with one-room shacks crowded closely together with minimal if any modern facilities that are legally part of a nearby larger town or city).

The children in these townships attend government-funded and -operated schools. That is, they seem to have four walls and a roof, and very little else. No books—except textbooks of a sort for older children and workbooks for young ones. When I think of all the books we regularly toss out in New York City schools it gives me chills. Unions are blamed for having unrealistic wage expectations, and many teachers are woefully unprepared.

After that, the schools are something between public and private: subsidized through a combination of tuition and government subsidy, or tuition only. The more the tuition, the less the government contributes toward the total costs. Well-to-do coloured, Indians, and black Africans can attend such schools if ... I'm not sure what all the ifs are, but one if is being able to pay. The governance system of these schools differs—many are religious—but I'm too ill-informed to say more now. I'm going to learn. There are, I believe, reserved places for very gifted low-income students at boarding schools, etc.

Are we going to see a coming together of the conditions of the first and third worlds? It reminded me of China! With its huge rural population eager to move into the richer urban areas but unable to do so. And it seems impossible to tackle this given the huge numbers of poor black South Africans and a country that has not got the economy to do well by its own citizens, not to mention other Africans who immigrate (illegally?) to its prosperous cities.

The folks at the University of the Free State were unbelievably kind to us. We talked for hours about the dilemmas posed by democracy—even a shallow one—and the connection to schooling. I'm hoping to keep conversations going so that I better understand what ideas they have for our mutual future.

Meanwhile, the only thing I can speak with any certainty about is the beauty of the country—its vast spaces where one can find amazing rocky mountains, the Indian and Atlantic oceans coming together at Cape Hope, its wonderful winter weather, mostly blue skies, and the good wines we spent a day tasting!

Deborah

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