Meek School students Natalia Burgos, Bracey Harris, Jon Haywood and I were in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, for a journalism class at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) during the first two weeks of August.
Late in the first week, we rode with two development workers to Ikwezi, a village of 11,000 north of Port Elizabeth.
I had met with Sizwe Mngwevu, the mayor, the night before in a restaurant overlooking Nelson Mandela Bay, and he told of the many challenges facing his little village.
Based on our conversation, I developed a list of possible story ideas for our students, and the next morning we left on the 180-kilometer drive across the plains and through the rolling hills north of Port Elizabeth.
We arrived in Ikwezi about mid-morning and talked with village leaders before visiting the secondary school. It was break time, and some boys were playing soccer in the concrete courtyard while other students chatted on the porch around the playing area.
We learned that 15 students had finished their schoolwork, but instruction had been such that none had passed their senior exams.
None would be going on to a university.
The town leadership intends to improve that record, and the two development workers told us every student would pass within two years. This is a priority.
On several occasions, the Ole Miss students came from their interviews on the verge of tears. The challenges are heartbreaking, and the emotional stress to explore the situation was telling.
The students finished their interviews a little before 3 pm, and we began our return journey to Port Elizabeth.
The traffic was slow.
It took us three hours to reach downtown, but we were early for a meeting at an auditorium near the offices of The Herald, a newspaper that covers the bay area. The event was promoted as The Herald/ NMMU Community Dialogue.
Port Elizabeth is an industrial city where so much of the antiapartheid movement developed. The African National Congress (ANC) is powerful in the metropolitan area, but internal conflicts between the regional head of the ANC and the mayor of Port Elizabeth have affected service. The city has not appointed a permanent municipal manager during the last three years, and permanent executive directors exist in only two departments in the municipality.
The students and I were early, but by the time we had settled in our seats, hundreds of residents were streaming in, and about 15 minutes before the meeting was to begin, the crowd burst into song.
They filled the aisles, dancing and clapping while they sang. One woman had a whistle that she blew as she danced, orchestrating the tempo, and the noise increased as more and more of the audience got up to dance.
Only when the editor of The Herald repeatedly asked for everyone to sit down, did the auditorium grow quiet.
Speakers on the platform were a local government official; the president of the Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber; the president of the Ratepayers’ Association; and Bishop Lunga ka Siboto of the Ethiopian Episcopalian Church.
We cannot afford a struggle between the ANC regional headquarters and City Hall, the president of the Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber said. “We need to … take the metro to its rightful place as a global city.
“Across political parties, the city comes first,” he said and the crowd responded in applause.
The president of the Ratepayers’ Association said it is unfair for the public and ratepayers to pay for the practices of corrupt politicians.
Bishop Siboto was the last to speak, and he gave the most impressive remarks of the night. He quoted from Nehemiah 2:17: “Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we no longer will be in disgrace.”
Siboto said it is “unacceptable for political leadership to abuse their positions” and asked residents to stand up against politicians. “Let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and end this disgrace.”
Then he began to sing “God Fulfill Your Promise.” The crowd heard the first words of the song and joined in a hauntingly beautiful a cappella performance of solidarity.
The hymn had been written buy Tivo Soga, a NMMU official told me.
It was vital in the struggle against apartheid. ANC delegates at the first congress had burst into singing this same hymn, “Lizalis’idinga Lakho.” This also was the hymn that inspired Oliver Tambo after street killings in Soweto during 1976 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiyo_Soga>.
Soga was the first black South African to earn a college degree. He was graduated from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. When he could see Cape Town from the deck of the ship on which he was returning, he realized that because of his education he would be viewed as a leader, and he asked God to help him.
“Fulfill Your Promise,” he sang in prayer.
The singing of the hymn at the forum was a reminder of the deep spiritual roots of the struggles of South Africans for equality and freedom, and those efforts now are not between the races but between those with and those without power.s