Like many black schoolchildren from the 1960s and ’70s, Nothemba Makinana was educated in a language she really couldn’t understand. Her schoolteachers taught their lessons in Afrikaans, which most blacks couldn’t speak. The practice was formally decreed as policy in 1974 by South Africa’s guardians of apartheid.
“The agricultural subject wasn’t taught by English, it was taught by Afrikaans,” Nothemba said. “And the Bible studies, the meds — all the subjects: Afrikaans, Afrikaans, Afrikaans.”
For a time, this strategy to keep Makinana and her black peers from rising in the world worked. She did not go beyond standard 9 (grade 11), and she never really threatened the upper-class jobs of her educated white counterparts. Instead, she became a beadmaker, selling her work on a street outside of Rhodes University, a college in her hometown of Grahamstown.
But the policy collapsed with the dawn of June 16, 1976, in Soweto, the impoverished black townships surrounding Johannesburg. On that day, schoolchildren boycotted class in protest. What was intended to be a peaceful walkout grew into riots that persisted throughout the rest of the year and ended with almost 600 dead. It was one of the sparks that ignited the battle to end apartheid.
Today, schools teach in native tongues and English, which is understood by most. The higher education system that was once marked by segregation is mostly whole now. And while many blacks remain in the poverty marking apartheid, there are paths for black schoolchildren to rise. By 2004, 61 percent of undergraduate students entering Rhodes University were black.
Nompumezo Makinana, Nothemba’s daughter, was one of them.