Apartheid became entrenched in South Africa when the Nationalist Party won the election and passed a series of draconian laws separating the four main racial groups, (White, African, Indian and Colored) in every possible way: preserving privileges of all kinds for Whites and depriving the other groups of freedom, representation and access to good education, health care, legal rights and social services.
By the early 1970’s, Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned for a decade and nobody knew if he’d ever be released. The most radical Black people had given up hope that Whites were seriously interested in changing the situation. The Black Consciousness movement was growing steadily, brilliantly led by Steven Biko, who was a medical student at the time. His movement encouraged young Blacks to believe that change would never happen unless they took responsibility for it themselves.
I was working at the time with the Christian Institute, a small group led by Beyers Naude, one of the great heroes of the Anti-apartheid struggle. In 1972, Steve Biko came to me and asked me to teach the leaders of the Black student movement to run a national literacy campaign, using Freire’s* method of conscientization, i.e. involving groups in a radical process of reflection and action. He selected teams of three from each of the five main cities, twelve men and three women from many different tribes and faith communities. All shared a vision of justice, and all were prepared to work hard and take great risks.
We held four intensive one-week workshops over the next four months focusing on group leadership skills and deep listening. Participants surveyed their communities for the generative themes over which people would be anxious to take action and prepared posters and plays depicting the most urgent social problems. Deep trust grew in the group as we discussed sensitive issues so close to our hearts.
When the three women banded together and drew a poster showing twelve men comfortably smoking and talking while the women faced piles of dishes in the kitchen, the men exploded with anger. In his quiet way, Steve Biko said: “Let’s be honest- Does this really happen in our work? Is this what we want for South Africa?”
It was a breakthrough in consciousness, so moving to witness. However, the national literacy campaign never happened, because these brilliant leaders were arrested at a major rally in Mozambique. While they were imprisoned this grain of wheat fell to the ground and died, but it did come up in different forms when they later applied Friere principles in arenas of public health and education. It was very meaningful for me to be a part of this transformative moment in South African history.
-Interviewed by Judith Favor
All shared a vision of justice, and all were prepared to work hard and take great risks
Anne Hope, a South African, studied at University in Grahamstown. Through the Federation of Catholic Students, she became convinced that the situation was grossly unjust and that “If you want Peace, you must work for Justice and Development”. She and others were constantly searching for effective ways to transform and build communication between the different ethnic groups, but movements for social change were ruthlessly suppressed.
She, later did graduate studies at Boston University and came upon the work of Paulo Friere* and realized his approach could be relevant in South Africa, using literacy teaching to build awareness, from the bottom up, and it gave faith that change is possible. Anne entered Pilgrim Place in 2015.