On Saturday 5 October about 50 alumni of Opang Diatla intermediate school in Ventersdorp drove along a dirt road to gather in a celebration reunion of the classes 1970 to 1985. For many kilometres there is nothing to see on the side of the road, other than brown plains and emaciated livestock.
Opang Diatla is a farm school in Ratzegaai, about an hour from Klerksdorp. The school was founded in 1970 and started taking learners from 1971. It was built on dusty red sand and has three large blocks that contain seven classrooms. At the entrance of the school there are neatly stacked rocks that have been painted in bright colours by the learners.
The school is in an area that has in the past been a stronghold of conservative, at times right-wing Afrikaans people. Looking out of a window of one of the classrooms, one can see the farm of the late Eugene Terre’Blanche, an Afrikaans supremacist and nationalist. For years, he was the leader of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement), a motley crew of white people who had an affinity for parading in khaki clothes, waving flags and shouting about self-determination. They mounted a backlash against the end of apartheid.
Terre’Blanche struck fear into the hearts of many people, especially the surrounding black communities. It is hard to imagine that he would have been pleased with the developments at Opang Diatla adjacent to his farm. However, times have changed, and the only thing the community fears is abandoning young children who have the potential to be anything they want to be regardless of their background.
It was ironically the bravery of a white, Afrikaans family, and the deep need to do better and right by their community that spurred a group of farming families on, in building a school on their farm.
Farmer Andries Kotze, known by many as Oom Andries, was visibly emotional throughout the event on Saturday, his soft blue eyes often sparkling with tears. Kotze and his family, specifically his brothers, started the school with the local community in 1970.
“One of my friends came to me and said, “Ons kan nie dit so los nie [we can’t leave it like this], people can’t read the Bible and they can’t read and write.” So the community came together, initially just a group five or six people, “and we built this school from scratch, we used clay bricks. I wish my brothers and family were here today, to see what they created.”
Kotze, who also credits the Ventersdorp Dutch Reformed Church “Dominie” Dr Dippenaar, said he only had one message for the former learners.
He took a piece of chalk, walked up to the board and drew a simple smiley face. “That is all I can say,” he said, before being drowned out by heartfelt applause from the past learners.
Kotze said him and his brothers were more concerned about providing an education to the people whose children lived on the farm.
“In the ’70s the politicians were pulling this way and that, but in the ’70s we had 36 farm schools with about 7,000 learners.”
Throughout the event, past learners paid homage to Kotze and the teachers that they had at Opang Diatla.
“If it was not for this school, we would not be where we are, we are men and women today. This school has produced nurses, teachers, policemen and many, many other successful students,” said Mr Lebeko, a former learner and programme director for the day.
Today, Opang Diatla has seven classrooms and 220 learners. The principal, Ms Maroane, was pleased to see the former learners come back and take an interest in developing the school.
“We face a lot of challenges at this school. Some kids don’t have shoes, we have no sporting equipment to support our incredibly talented learners and also we cannot manage our electricity bill,” she said.
The former learners committed themselves to supporting the school and making sure that every child that comes through Opang Diatla has an opportunity to make something of themselves, just as they themselves did.
“This is our school and we are so proud of it. We may have gone to a farm school, but that doesn’t make us any less important. We are all important, and we should never ever underestimate ourselves,” said Lebeko
Anti-apartheid activist and guest speaker Mavuso Msimang commended the Kotze family and the former learners at the school for being committed to providing education. He spoke of the community’s power, by sharing an African saying: “If you want to go far, go alone. If you want to go further, go together.”
One of the guests at the reunion was Ms Molete, an educator who had been at the school in the late ’70s. Now 74, Molete could not believe that her kids had grown up so much.
“I keep pinching myself, I keep wondering if I am dreaming, you are my kids. I feel so proud today, I feel respected and I stand a little bit taller… had I known what this would be, I would have worn higher heels,” she said.
Former pupil and event organiser Baby Makgeledisa said Molete had always been the learners’ fashion icon.
“This woman knew how to dress, and she taught us to dress up and always look smart.”
Many of the other former learners spoke fondly of their time at Opang Diatla, recalling the lessons of punctuality handed down by their teachers, but also the value of working hard which they learned from Kotze:
“Oom Andries, you used to take us to plough in the farm. At the time it seemed as though you were being so hard on us, but the minute we saw our seeds start to bear fruit, we finally understood that it was all worth it.”
Opang Diatla is a story of community, of partnership, of selflessness and of unity. Regardless of race or creed, the community put their heads and resources together to create a space where lives could be changed.
In closing, Molete asked one thing of the group:
“When you come back, please come back in your graduation gowns. The children must see what potential they have, they must see that they are unstoppable. And even if we can push 20 out of 50 kids to excellence, we would have done a lot.”
At the end of the festivities Oom Andries looked at all the learners with tears in his eyes, and said, “Julle maak ’n Boer huil”. (You’ve made a farmer cry.)
In a day full of surprises it was revealed that former finance minister (for a weekend) and a man who has been accused of being an accomplice to the Guptas’ State Capture, Des van Rooyen, is also an alumni of Opang Diatla, but was unable to attend the reunion. He sent a message of support, promising that he would be at the school’s jubilee celebration next year. MC
Sheep wool never sheds.