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Methodist school survives challenges over 150 years

 


Methodist school survives challenges over 150 years

Oct. 5, 2004

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

HEALDTOWN, South Africa (UMNS)-Sitting amid the rugged and rolling hills of rural South Africa is a majestic monument to the dreams of Methodists who founded a school that will not die.

Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of Healdtown, a school started by Methodist missionaries in 1845. During the years since its founding, the school has suffered from repressive government, fire, looting and vandalism.

In 1855, it became a college and flourished until 1953, when it was taken over by the Department of Bantu Education. The Bantu Education system was designed to train black Africans for roles as laborers, workers and servants only.

Healdtown was the first Methodist educational center to suffer from a wave of burnings that swept South Africa in 1976. In the 1980s to early 1990s it was closed due to the widespread repressive measures of South Africa’s apartheid government. In 1994, the school re-emerged as Healdtown Comprehensive School.

Despite all the problems, Healdtown is still known for producing many African leaders who were educated there, including Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who became an international symbol of human rights and the first post-apartheid president of South Africa.

"When Healdtown was closed down, not only education went, but the economy of the region was depressed, and the morale of the people went down," says Bishop Zipho Siwa, of the Grahamstown District in which the school is located. "Now with the new government in place, it is our intention to re-establish Healdtown and make it a beacon of hope again."

The area in which the school is located is rural and extremely poor. "The problem is that the children in the area come from very poor families and they cannot afford the privilege to go to more prestigious schools, so we want to make Healdtown prestigious but accessible," Siwa explains.

About 250 children from surrounding villages attend 8th through 12th grades at Healdtown today.

Headmaster Francois Kalp says about 21,000 people live in 17 villages within 40 kilometers of the school.

"Many of the children have never been out of their villages," he says. He brings in newspapers and magazines for them to read, "so they at least see more of the world."

The Rev. Martin Songelwa lives in the parsonage on campus and is pastor of the Healdtown Methodist Chapel. He has been there for less than a year. "It is like coming to live with a skeleton," he says. Pointing out all the ruined buildings, he says it is easy to imagine how majestic the school once was.

Siwa says part of the strategy in restoring Healdtown is to reopen the boarding facilities. The hostel in which Mandela lived while attending the school still stands, and plans call for it to become an information and tourism center.

All involved in the restoration agree other projects must also be developed to help the school and surrounding community survive. Some of the ideas include operating a bakery, and growing and producing paprika.

"The idea is to use local people," Kalp explains. "We cannot build a white elephant; commercial ventures must be part of the plan."

Something must be done soon, before the remaining buildings suffer further damage, Kalp says. "The church can play a big part in making something of Healdtown."

"This is a huge project," Siwa adds. "We do not know if we will have the capacity to achieve it, but we are working hard."

Healdtown stands as proof to the rest of the world that there are ways of overcoming challenges, he says.

"There are many lessons to learn from the history of Healdtown," he points out. "The previous government was very strategic in trying to destroy the culture and the morale of the people, and they were very successful in doing that because the people in that area are very much depressed.

"What I want to say to the rest of the world is come and help us to be us, and through this journey also perhaps we can teach other people to be themselves as well."

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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