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Address given at the Queen's birthday and SA Presidential Inauguration celebration, Pretoria, 7th May 2009

Every year the British High Commissioner holds a function at his Pretoria residence to celebrate the Queen's birthday. His Excellency Paul Boateng, the outgoing High Commissioner, offered to promote the HSRP as the 'NGO of choice' in May 2009.

Your Excellencies, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen:

I would first like to thank His Excellency Paul Boateng for adopting the Historic Schools Restoration Project this evening, and for allowing me to ‘hijack’ this celebration of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s birthday to tell you about it.

“Upon the education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends” said former British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. All of us know that this is as true now as it was then, and that it is as true of Britain as it is of any other country. The over-riding concern of the Historic Schools Project is the state of education in South Africa in 2009 and beyond. We know that the present problems and challenges of our education system have to be addressed soon, if we are to flourish as a democratic nation.

For over one hundred years before the 1953 Bantu Education Act was promulgated, African education in South Africa was conducted from a network of private schools and learning institutions. African communities co-operated and partnered with Christian churches and missionary societies of different denominations, who built what became centres of educational excellence.

The content of education given was European and modern. Furthermore the missionaries pioneered the setting of African languages to writing. This led to a vibrant African literature, beginning with translation of the bible. The dual medium of English and African languages produced outstanding South African scholars and leaders of society in all fields.

But with the introduction of so-called ‘Bantu Education’ all these developments came to an abrupt end. Deliberately and methodically the apartheid regime destroyed the whole edifice of private African education. It was then confined to state Bantu schools whose syllabus was shorn of all aspects considered inappropriate. These actions left a devastating legacy which still impacts on black pupils today. Significantly the private institutions of the white community were left intact and allowed to thrive, so that today they still provide superior education to an exclusive minority of mostly white, privileged children.

The goal of the Historic Schools Restoration Project is to rebuild and recreate those African secondary schools which made an invaluable contribution to the African renaissance in South Africa and the continent as a whole, to revitalize our African cultural heritage and to nurture future African leaders of calibre and integrity.

The Historic Schools Project has the full endorsement of the Government and, in fact, was an initiative of Minister of Arts and Culture, Pallo Jordan. We are also working in close partnership with the Departments of Education and Science and Technology and are forming relationships with other relevant government departments and non-governmental & private sector partners.

Accessibility to quality education for as many children as possible is non-negotiable. Most of these schools are situated in economically disadvantaged rural communities and, while we intend opening them to all children who live nearby, we also plan to restore existing boarding houses to habitable levels. This will address the social difficulties of parental absence due to disease or work commitments.

I stress, however, that we are not addressing only the restoration of physical infrastructure at the schools, but – far more importantly – we want to restore educational and cultural excellence. Much expert thought and discussion is being put into means and methods of upgrading standards of teaching with additional teacher training; of providing more resources such as libraries and computers; of offering wider curriculum choices. We are also exploring partnerships with educational institutions in other countries with ideas such as staff and pupil exchanges, and co-option of recently retired teachers or teachers on sabbatical for a finite period.

Of course, physical and educational restoration go hand-in-hand to a certain extent – you cannot teach a computer class under a tree – but our emphasis is twofold. That is sustainable infrastructural and educational restoration of the historic schools.

I encourage you to view our promotional DVD, being displayed here tonight and to take away with you one of the leaflets we have provided which contain basic information and our contact details. We have an informative website and will be very happy to give you any more information that you require. Please feel free to contact us.

I would like to leave you with a brief example of the kinds of problems some of these schools currently face: Healdtown Comprehensive School in the rural Eastern Cape is the alma mater of Nelson Mandela and many other eminent South Africans. The school itself – the buildings of which have national heritage status – is in a terrible state, with only the Methodist chapel and some classrooms and offices still able to be used. The principal is working tirelessly to uplift the educational standards of the school but is hampered in his task by various problems – many of which are purely infrastructural. For instance: whenever it rains, the road to the school becomes almost impassable which means that many of the teachers cannot get there. Therefore little teaching takes place on rainy days. The Healdtown pupils are from poorer homes and have few advantages and little hope, at present, of benefitting from tertiary education. How much more difficult for them to complete the required syllabus when their teachers don’t teach – and how much this contrasts with nearby St Andrew’s and Kingswood Colleges.

Schools such as Healdtown desperately need your support, with funds, involvement and advocacy. There are more than 50 of them across South Africa and this may seem a tall order. But, to eat an elephant, you must take one bite at a time and we have chosen six pilot schools with which to begin our work. We believe that they will act as exemplars to other schools and a catalyst to the whole education system, as well as a yeast to swell many kinds of growth in their communities.

Not only is access to education a basic human right but, as the Chinese proverb says: “Education is a treasure a thief cannot steal”. To contribute to education will be an act which brings hope to our children, our society, our country and, ultimately – since we live in a global village – our world.

Thank you.

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