What is it like to be born dirt-poor in South Africa?

Clinton Chauke knows, having been raised alongside his two sisters in a remote village bordering the Kruger National Park and a squatter camp outside Pretoria.

With great self-awareness, Clinton negotiates the pitfalls and lifelines of a young life: crime and drugs, football, religion, friendship, school, circumcision and, ultimately, becoming a man. Throughout it all, he displays determination as well as a self-deprecating humour that will keep you turning the pages till the end.

In this excerpt, published with permission from Jonathan Ball publishers, Clinton reflects on the moment he first realised that the lack of equality regarding school resources showed that South Africa was born free in name only.

In primary school, I used to be number one in athletics, but the white kids would always outrun me. I decided to change sporting codes.

I tried long jump, since there were few people doing it. Long jump proved to be a revelation.

It even took me to an inter-schools athletics event at the Afrikaans high school in the eastern suburbs of Pretoria known as Hoërskool Waterkloof, not far away from Hatfield Christian Church. I still remember the school’s motto, ‘We build by faith’.

There were few black learners at that school. Leadership in every area – sporting, cultural and academic – was very important there. I could see it in the learners, who were all dressed in their beautiful blazers.

I walked through well-maintained gardens, on green grass and weedless pavements.

President Mbeki was spot-on when he declared that South Africa is ‘a country of two nations’– one is white and wealthy, and the other is black and poor.


In the pure cleanliness of every block, I saw computer centres, a fully equipped kitchen, an art studio, pavilion and media centre. The classrooms had Internet access and were fitted with data projectors, and all teachers were equipped with computers.

They had a big hall, which looked like it could hold the entire school.

The school shop sold the official uniform. It also sold new and second-hand textbooks.

When I walked past there, I remembered the state that we were in – I had to share a maths textbook with Floyd. I was shocked to see the beauty of Waterkloof High.

I was used to seeing long buildings with colours painted on them running parallel to each other, from Nkandziyi to Masizane to Saulridge – to me, that was what a school represented.

Until I got to Waterkloof.

My biggest shock was when we got to the event itself.

They had hockey fields, cricket fields, rugby fields, netball courts and swimming pools.

Seeing the playing grounds, each of which was bigger than the yard of my school, it really hit me hard that, on paper, Saulridge and Waterkloof were considered ‘normal public schools’.

Our intelligence was measured by how well we were able to articulate our ideas in English.


Yet the effects of apartheid’s unequal education system could still be felt. I was very angry with the state – very resentful.

I noticed that there was a big difference between our schools and, as a result, a big difference between us as learners.

When I tried to look for the main cause of this difference, its root, I found that it came from the fact that they had better resources for teaching and learning.

This better explained the achievement gap between black students and white students.

White people were privileged and black people were poor. So, poverty continued to have race.

President Mbeki was spot-on when he declared that South Africa is ‘a country of two nations’– one is white and wealthy, and the other is black and poor.

When I asked for directions from one of the Waterkloof learners, I was amazed by their eloquence and precision.

On the field, they would outrun us.

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When we engaged in debates with them, we would always come second – not because they had better ideas, but because of their Model C accents.

Our intelligence was measured by how well we were able to articulate our ideas in English.

You know that people like to applaud eloquence more than content.

Years after Bantu education, we were still trapped on the lonely island of inferior education.

There was nothing wrong with their expressing themselves and their views well, but we should also have paid attention to what they were saying.

I remember having an argument with Thabang Mala, who attended Pretoria Boys High.

In the middle of our argument, he paused and said, ‘Dude, I get the best education. My folks pay a lot of money for my education. So, trust me. I know better than you in this matter.’

In a debate, when a man hits your insecurity, you have no choice but to concede and keep quiet. So, I immediately kept quiet.

Over and above the contents of books, the learners at schools like Waterkloof were well-equipped about life.

Since they had competent and skilful teachers, they had been taught about the virtues of life and how to conduct themselves.

They learnt about leadership from an early age, so they were poised, confident and charismatic – things we were never taught. Like how to carry ourselves as young professionals, and the implications of a firm handshake, strong eye contact and posture.

They participated in spelling bees, debates and other useful activities. I mean, these activities may have seemed like they did not matter, but in the long run they did.

When we came back from Waterkloof, our Life Science teacher, Mrs Bopape, would teach us how to label the internal structure of a fish and a locust. I would sit there wondering how relevant that was to me.

Years after Bantu education, we were still trapped on the lonely island of inferior education. Some liked to talk about the victory of the class of 1976.

To me, it was a victory that you could talk about, but not a victory that you could show me.

As young as I was, as young as our democracy, I had so many thoughts and unanswered questions running through my mind. I sensed a lot of optimism from young people like me.

But the stations in which they were born did not allow them to express their full potential.

It was easy for the short-sighted to say that, for young people, the sky was the limit. But to understand that phrase, somebody must first teach you.

Despite all the solid evidence that I would give to Mr Mathibela about the inequalities that existed in our societies, he would always push back with some strong statements.

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‘Well, Clinton,’ he would say, ‘we have all read about people who came from rough backgrounds.

We have all heard about people who came from poor backgrounds and made it big. The greatest person ever to have lived on earth, Jesus Christ, came from a place that was not great.

Someone once questioned, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Bob Marley comes from one of the poorest regions in Jamaica. The village in Qunu where Nelson Mandela was born is not that great. Malcolm X grew up on the streets.

Do not be shaken by the shack.

You were born there for a reason. You were born there so you may observe what is unfolding there and learn from it as you go out and try to change the world.’

When I tried to talk to him about the things we were taught by people like Mrs Bopape – stating that

I would prefer to be taught about how King Shaka defeated the British than about the concentration camps in Germany, about how Sekhukhune and Nghunghunyane led the troops from the north – and when I asked him why we were still being taught about the French Revolution and not about Paul Kruger, the man I had seen in town, he would simply say, ‘I understand where you are coming from. Look at the Anglo-Boer War, for instance.’

I would quickly jump in. ‘What is that?’

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‘It was two nations fighting about who should take our land. To put it in terms you will understand, it is two guys popping into your house and starting to fight about who should take it,’ he would patiently explain.

The conversations I had with Mr Mathibela developed my conscience. It is for the same reason that, today, I fully support efforts to decolonise school and university curriculums.

Because doing so will help people of colour out of the poverty that we find ourselves in today. An identity crisis coupled with ignorance will worsen our problems.

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