I am a criminal. I was ten years old when I got caught for stealing a mini bar chocolate at a nearby supermarket. The security guard was aware that I was a novice shoplifter, he let me go after holding me in for two hours. I got home that night, Sunday evening, and my mother went to work to do her night shift, like she did most evenings. My two sisters, aged five and three, were seating by the heater eating hot porridge with no sugar. My mother had prepared that for dinner.
Why I stole a chocolate bar? Because I had promised my little sister to do dishes for me and I would get her a chocolate in return. I knew that I could not afford one and I did not want to disappoint her. I did not want to disappoint her like my father when he promised me a BMX bicycle for getting good grades and then did not even get me a toy when I showed him the report card. I did not want her to constantly remind me of my debt to her.
When a few (former) childhood friends, acclaimed shoplifters, asked me to accompany them to a nearby supermarket to “buy” sweets and chocolates and promised to get me some, I was excited! I was glad that I was going to fulfil my promise to my little sister. Little did I know that I was going to be talked into smuggling a chocolate bar through my half cup and (un)fortunately got caught by the guard before I even thought of leaving the building. My eyes reddened as if I was high and got teary. I felt like my knees were unplugged from the knee cap and my body was about to collapse to the floor. Fear paralysed me. The fear of being put behind a supermarket fridge terrified me.
I did not want to steal that bar of chocolate, circumstances pushed me to do it. I knew I had a choice, but at that time, it seemed like the most plausible thing to do. As a kid growing up in the township, we don’t choose to be criminals, we are chosen to delinquency through circumstances. Our role models are those guys who drive top of the range cars (BWMs, AMGs & Audi’s), guys who wear gold chains and have gold teeth as if gold was dug up in their backyards. Our role models are those who don’t even know the discomfort caused by wooden classroom chairs and the torment of chalk residues from the chalkboard that is trying so hard to hold on to the wall. We look up to these guys because they live lives that we aspire to. Flashy lives. The “haves” life. The kind of lives we would trade our current ones for. The type of life that we would trade our souls and dreams just have, even for a second. The easy life. When the few selected ones become doctors, engineers and so on, they leave the townships. We cannot call them role models because they are not there for us like these amazing role models. We cannot even begin to call them role models because they don’t know us.
We are told to go to school: obtain better education than our parents, get a matric certificate and then go to university. This is preached day and night. It is made so simple as if everyone has the same opportunity to go through that path. Along the way, crime chooses us. You wear the same pants from Grade 8 to Grade 10, these pants become discoloured, people laugh at you- you are left with no option but to HUSTLE for new pants. How do you even begin to ask your parents for new pants when they cannot afford a sack of maize meal? How do you ask your neighbours for help when they are going through the same struggle? Whilst you are busy trying to get new pants, your shoes become equatorial. When it rains, you might as well walk bare feet because water will invade your shoes and drown your feet. It happens to rain a lot when you don’t have proper shoes. Whilst all of this is going on, you go to school with an empty stomach. How are you expected to listen to teacher and grasp enough will the stomach is having a conversation of its own with your attention span? Do you keep on going to school and hoping for the best? Crime then comes knocking at your door and like sin tells you of all the good things and does not make you aware of the downside of all this.
After being held for two hours, I never went with my friends to “buy” sweets and chocolates again. I did not want that to be my life. I could have managed to live without getting my sister that chocolate bar, but that is not the case for all the young people rotting in prison cells because of crime. Some of them started off like me, trying to help their situations. We should never look down on those kids we see being carried into police vans because we really don’t know their stories. Some of them are caught with drugs because they want to settle their university bills. Some of them steal portions of chicken because the family has not a decent meal in years. Some of them steal cars and rob people because they were promised a good life- lives they terribly desire to have.
Education alone is not enough to fight crime and poverty in townships. There is absolutely nothing wrong with encouraging (and forcing, to an extent) a black township kid to go to school. But there is certainly more under the sun that can be done to make their lives better. Ensure that the child sees no boundaries and then expose him to an array of opportunities, then you have done justice to a township kid. We do a great injustice in just telling kids to go to school without giving them life opportunities. Opportunities that can save them from the snare of poverty and crime. We do a greater injustice to township kids when we just send them off to school and don’t make them value education beyond the classroom. In many homes, matric certificates hang on walls like spider webs in dirty corners- no one is attending to them. Matric certificates have turned into pillows. We sleep on them. What more can we really do with them? What more can you honestly do with it when your dream of becoming an acclaimed person in your career of pursuit is shattered by your inability to access educational opportunities?
Education will never bring equality until the formerly and currently disadvantaged are educated in a way brings back their dignity and does justice to them. If not, the rich will continue getting richer and the poor will continue getting poorer. Classrooms will continue being places of lost hope, prison cells will be packed with Africa’s potential and graveyards will continue telling tales of untapped riches.