The governing body member had a huge tattoo on her muscular forearm spelling the name of her lover. “Risky, isn’t it?” I teased the round-faced woman who looked as if she had won a few boxing rounds in her life.

This was Elsies River, gangster paradise even to my community on the equally volatile southern side of the Cape Flats. It is here in “Elsies” where then president Jacob Zuma came to offer a RDP house to a family whose three-year-old daughter had been raped and killed by the family boarder. Elsies, said a local preacher in a botched attempt at exegesis, “breaks down as El, the Hebrew for God, and ‘sies’ — need I say more?”

“I am suspicious of this school,” I told the more than 20 teachers spread among the black computer stations in a crowded room for my motivational talk. “Why is the school so clean, spotless?” They assured me that it was always like this in the 57-year-old institution. “How are you?” I asked the well-dressed woman waiting for me in the foyer. “Blessed!” shouted the other governing body member with Pentecostal fervour.

I was inside one of SA’s miracle schools where everything you see is counter-intuitive. The school is not supposed to do well. It is in a high-crime area where gangsters sometimes lurk near the fence. As in so many township areas, parents with some money have long abandoned places like Balvenie Primary for the former white schools; those who stay have few options. There are none of the luxuries like teacher assistants in grade 1 classrooms or immaculate green sports fields or a nice big school hall for assemblies that shelter pupils in the Cape of Storms. My assignment from the principal was to deliver a motivational talk near the end of the school year to give these hardworking teachers some encouragement, to lift their spirits. They engaged, some taking notes from the PowerPoint presentation, and with the usual mix of humour and serious talk generating a surprisingly high energy on this late Friday afternoon. Then something stunning happened: several teachers got up in turn to say...

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