Struggle heroes for children

30 May 2003

A series of books for children on 10 of South Africa’s prominent freedom fighters is not only a wonderful classroom resource but a good place to start for anyone in search of introductory information on the struggle against apartheid.

Freedom Fighters Series Freedom Fighters, from the Learning African History series, documents the lives of 10 legendary activists – Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Seretse Khama, Desmond Tutu, Chris Hani, Helen Joseph, Thabo Mbeki and Steve Biko.

Pitched at 9- to 10-year-old English first language speakers and 11- to 13-year-old English second language speakers, and written by award-winning children’s book writer Chris van Wyk, the series colourfully documents the lives of 10 extraordinary people.

The books are written in a crisp and direct way, and easily hold the interest of the reader. What attracts the young reader in particular is their colourful packaging and captivating original pictures (many of the photographs have never been published before).

Using individuals as the vehicle to describe the country’s journey from apartheid to democracy is a clever one: it sustains the interest of the reader and allows him or her to identify with each of the individuals’ very different stories as well as absorb the historical context in which their struggles were played out.

Helen Joseph Although the series includes individuals with vastly different backgrounds – from Helen Joseph, a party-loving socialite from Durban, to Seretse Khama, chief of the Bangwato people in Botswana at the age of four! – what is apparent is the extent to which so many of the country’s political activists overcame obstacles like poverty and rural isolation to get their school and university education and pursue their goals.

The early lives of these “struggle heroes’ will be of interest to young readers. Such as how Chris or Tembisile (his real first name) Hani got teased for doing “women’s work’ – helping his mother collect water and firewood – when he was small; or how Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had to leave school for six months at the age of eight and milk cows and look after sheep and goats; or how Desmond Tutu was born so tiny he was not expected to live.

The realities of apartheid – the “whites-only’ areas, the struggle for education, the indignity of passes – are clearly described and will help convey to the younger generation, whose understanding of apartheid is largely theoretical, what life was like for their parents and grandparents.

The lives of the activists are painted in broad brushstrokes, with the more complex and controversial aspects of “the struggle’, and those surrounding some of the individuals themselves, usually omitted. The controversies that have dogged Madikizela-Mandela are hinted at with the sentence: “Some people do not like Winnie Mandela, but many admire her for her courage and her strength and for her role during the struggle.’

The death of Stompie Sepei and subsequent conviction of Mandela on kidnapping charges are briefly mentioned without much explanation. No mention is made of Steve Biko’s relationship with Mamphele Ramphele and the child that was born from it, for example. Although the imperative to keep the books simple and brief enough for young minds to absorb clearly places constraints on the extent to which the author can delve into the complexities, I believe these details are important.

It could be argued that young minds are not sophisticated enough to deal with complex subjects without losing the general thrust of the series – celebrating the lives of brave and remarkable people who helped bring about the downfall of apartheid.

However, the “rosy-tinted treatment’ is a weakness. Painting the heroes as flawless individuals makes them seem less real – even to young minds – and gives the series a whiff of dogma. It also patronises children who are in fact old enough to question and debate.

The “Freedom Fighters’ series was tested on a Britney Spears/ Eminem-obsessed nine-year-old, Alice. Far from needing a preparatory sermon to fuel her interest in the books, she was immediately drawn to them and spent a long time poring over the pages. She particularly liked the one on Winnie Mandela, who for all age groups is a fascinating figure, whether one likes her or not.

Thabo Mbeki as a young man This is what Alice had to say: “Generally I like the books. They teach us about racism and apartheid. The one on Thabo Mbeki is interesting because it tells you things about him you didn’t know. The one on Nelson Mandela isn’t that interesting because everyone knows that stuff about him already.

“I don’t know if I would read all of them. They would be great to have in the school library for school projects, but I don’t know if someone would just go and read them. They prefer Sweet Valley High and other books like that.’

The 10-book boxed set is published by Awareness Publishing and costs R975.20. Tel: (011) 403-3008; fax: (011) 403-1150.