Ahead of Freedom Day, City Press followed two children to document their vastly different lives
It’s 6am in Blairgowrie, 40km northwest of Katlehong. Tolga Güles (9) untangles himself from his blanket cocoon. He rubs sleep from his eyes and pads across his bedroom’s carpeted floor to give his mother a kiss.
“Come on, time to get dressed and have breakfast,” says his mother, Nicki.
He nods, still half asleep. His mother checks that her daughter, Saffiyya (11), is also up and hurries to the kitchen, where she prepares breakfast and packs their lunch of chicken sandwiches and a naartjie. The gleaming island in the kitchen’s centre is a celebration of choice, with butter, bread, cereals, vegetables and fruit on parade.
Light pours through the large glass windows in the kitchen and living room. The din of the morning news on the radio, the whisper of the stainless steel fridge, the final zip of a schoolbag packed and ready, and the dutiful plinking through a piano piece fill the four-bedroom house.
360 view of Tolga's room
The framed photos of Tolga and his family offer a glimpse into Tolga’s middle class life, the culmination of generations of privilege. His home was bought with the help of a deposit secured by an inheritance from his great-grandfather. His life is enriched by overseas trips to London and Turkey to visit family. He spends holidays with his university-educated grandparents, learning maths and how to identify 25 different species of bird.
His parents, who are both employed, give Tolga and his sister what was given to them, and more.
A little before 7.30am, Tolga scrambles into his mother’s comfortable SUV with his sister and a neighbourhood friend. They pass private security guards on patrol along their 1.4km route to Blairgowrie Primary School.
The former Model C school, with its sports field, swimming pool, courtyard and state-of-the-art learning facilities – from the maths centre to the media centre bursting with books – overlooks the city. Johannesburg’s opportunities beckon the school’s 819 pupils, 55% of whom are black.
“I want to be an engineer one day because I like to make things,” says Tolga. “I want to build a robot that can cut bread for you. I want to create a chocolate that tastes the same but doesn’t make you fat.
“But I know I can be anything I want when I grow up. I can even be a cow – I’ve always wanted to be a mascot dressed as a cow for something.”
360 view of Tolga's classroom
As the bell rings, Tolga and his fewer than 30 classmates find their seats in Mrs Rene Nel’s Grade 3 classroom. Colourful laminated posters adorn the walls, urging the children to “B Someone U Would B Proud 2 Know!” and reminding them of their times tables and vocabulary in English and Afrikaans.
“Today, for our lesson on healthy eating, we’re going to do a tasting activity,” says Nel. “You’re going to get a plate of apples, grapes, oranges, carrots, peas and tomatoes, and I want you to taste each one and write down in your workbook a word that describes what it looks like, feels like, smells like and tastes like.
Remember, we don’t want to use the word ‘good’ to describe everything and I don’t want to hear anybody say things like ‘yuck’ or ‘ew’.”
Tolga rummages through his pencil case, filled to the brim with a variety of stationery. Nel peruses each pupil’s work, encouraging them to use creative descriptions and spell out words they are unsure about.
“You can make or break a child who is struggling,” says Nel, who has been a teacher for more than 30 years.
“I try to instil a sense of self-awareness and pride in every child to get them to believe that they can if they try.”
Nel credits principal Pat Oosthuizen with fostering an environment of academic achievement, but also one of support and development.
“The ethos of our school is all about the unity between the parents, the teachers and the children,” says Oosthuizen, who has taught at Blairgowrie Primary since 1984.
“We have a strong school governing body and a strong parent-teacher association, which allow us to raise extra funds and charge school fees. It means we can constantly improve our school, hire extra teachers and keep our classes small.”
Tolga’s school fees are R18 715 a year.
Close to 1.20pm, Tolga and his classmates get antsy. As the final bell rings, Tolga grabs his backpack and winds his way down the steps, past the Grade 1 classrooms, to the pick-up area. His private transport, Granny Ann, drives him home and to the family’s domestic worker, Auntie Mmapula.
After unpacking his bag, Tolga finds his mother’s laptop, connects to the family’s unlimited fibreoptic internet and plays one of his favourite online games.
When his sister returns, she signs in to the same game from the desktop in their parents’ bedroom. The house is quiet except for the click of the keyboard and the soft sizzle of the stove as Auntie Mmapula makes lunch.
When the virtual world no longer holds their attention, Tolga and his sister delve into the depths of their imagination, creating fictional worlds and breathing life into their toys. Later, as Tolga does his reading homework with his sister, he voices each character differently, in a tone and an accent he imagines would befit such a character.
“We try not to limit him,” says Tolga’s father, Bülent. “We want to be home early to look after them and help them. Education starts at home.”
It is important to his parents that Tolga understands he is privileged. “To whom much is given, much is expected. He must have empathy for and help those who don’t have,” says his mother. “Privilege is largely about what you have, but it’s also about what you have in your head: the tools you’ve been given to succeed.”
For Tolga, this is beginning to sink in.
“Privilege means I’m very lucky to have what I have. I have an education, toys, books, experiences like travelling, a family, a roof over my head, clothes and food,” he says.
“I would say my life is lucky, appreciated, lovely, full of fun and excitement, and happy.”
After dinner, a little before 8pm, Tolga’s mother tells him it’s time for a bath and bed.
“Come lie with me,” Tolga says to his mother as he climbs into bed.
Tolga wraps his arms and legs around her as the two share a pillow, touching foreheads and whispering about his day. As he drifts off to sleep, she gives him a kiss, turns off the light and wishes him good night.
Tolga is the son of a City Press staff member
At 6am, Thuli – short for Thulisile – Malinga is awake. The seven-year-old lives in a one-room backyard shack with her father in Katlehong. There isn’t much in the room – a television, two chairs, a bowl and a few dishes on the shelves. The bed takes up most of the space. Aside from stickers of smiling faces and stars, there isn’t much evidence that a child lives there.
Freedom Day may not yet be significant to Thuli, but it is relevant to her life because the promised equal society is still not available to her.
His income is not always reliable, but Thuli’s father Lucky Fakude (32) works at a funeral parlour as a tent, chair and table packer, for which he earns about R400 a week. When he can, he gives Thuli a packed lunch and some money, but there are some mornings when she receives neither.
On Thursday morning, she has a lunchbox and R2.
360 view of Thuli's room
Thuli’s mother lives about 5km away with Thuli’s younger brother. Fakude says he has not paid lobola for his girlfriend of nine years because he doesn’t have the money. Without it, her family will not allow them to live together.
Fakude ensures Thuli has her morning bath, eats her breakfast of two slices of bread with butter, brushes her teeth and combs her hair before 7am. He walks her to Intokozo Primary School, less than five minutes away, and leaves to catch his taxi to work.
Other pupils arrive, some with their parents, others alone and others by bus. Just before school starts at 7.30am, the children assemble near the classrooms and begin to sing the school song.
Intokozo Primary is a no-fee school, says principal Obert Mazibuko. But Grade R, which is not subsidised by government, has to be paid for. Fakude says they paid about R800 for Thuli last year.
Mazibuko says most pupils are poor. “Most of the parents do not work,” he says.
Sometimes these parents cannot give pupils all the support they need and the parents may have limited education themselves. Fakude left school in Grade 7.
Mazibuko says, despite their problems at home, his parents try to help the school with donations. The “spirit of the community” is one of his favourite things about working at Intokozo.
360 view of Thuli's school
“When we call a parents’ meeting, they come in great numbers,” he says.
But problems persist. There have been burglaries at the school and what little they have is lost.
“Our computers get stolen. It’s very difficult to replace that,” he says.
Inside Thuli’s classroom, colourful letters of the alphabet decorate the wall above the windows. Above the chalkboard, the numbers one through 10 are stuck on the wall, along with posters depicting different shapes. The classroom isn’t small, but with 37 pupils occupying the space, it can feel cramped.
Thuli’s teacher, Ms Bonisile Gule, faces her own struggles with her pupils and their parents, who battle financially and socially, which affects the children. When she sends work home, some return the next day with little to nothing done.
Education is not prioritised in some homes, she says. When her pupils returned from holiday last week, she had to reteach some of her first-term lessons.
At about noon, the children are fidgety. It’s lunch time. Most are eating a packed lunch from home or one provided at school. One girl in Gule’s class has nothing to eat. Gule encourages her pupils to share their lunches and a child offers to do so.
Thuli knows there are differences between her life and those of others in South Africa.
“I’d like to go to a white school,” she says, explaining that she thinks they have better food. Also, teachers at “white” schools don’t mete out corporal punishment, she says.
Thuli says her teacher doesn’t beat them, but she hears that it is different in other classes. Mazibuko says the school does not use or condone corporal punishment.
In Thuli’s classroom, the children finish eating and go out to play. When they return, it’s time for their isiZulu lesson.
There are few after-school activities because there is no hall or sports field, and Mazibuko says they try their best with a community soccer field.
Thuli walks home by herself, stopping briefly at her aunt’s house before going to a neighbour across the street.
She changes out of her uniform into a pair of jeans and a purple T-shirt.
She claims not to have any homework and takes a book that needs fixing out of her suitcase. She grabs a stick of glue and puts the book back together. It is her isiZulu workbook.
“It’s my favourite subject,” she says, but quickly adds that there’s “too much work”.
Thuli dreams of becoming a teacher. When she’s older, she says, she wants to pass her matric, and buy a big house and a BMW.
Other children trickle in and Thuli starts playing hopscotch and skipping with two other girls in the front yard. Their laughter occasionally disrupts the silence on the block.
A squabble erupts, and Thuli begins to cry. Her cry is loud enough to catch the neighbours’ attention, but no one comes outside to see what’s going on. Her two friends realise they hurt her and try to comfort her with hugs, but Thuli, who hasn’t smiled much today, continues to cry.
Later, Thuli follows another child to the spaza shop on the corner, where she buys and eats a bag of chips.
After 6pm, she receives her second bath of the day and changes into her pyjamas. As she waits for her father, the neighbour gives Thuli dinner of chicken and pap, which she eats in front of the television.
Fakude arrives after 7pm, but doesn’t stay long. He checks in on Thuli and leaves to take a bath himself. She sits around waiting, watching the soapies. When the TV no longer interests her, she begins writing in a magazine.
On some nights, she returns to her aunt’s home, where she falls asleep on the couch. When it’s time for bed at 9pm or 10pm, Fakude fetches her and takes her back to the shack.
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