For the past two weeks, the Africa Unite School Club team has visited both Gardens Commercial and Salt River Secondary schools to promote the club and facilitate official elections. The primary mission of School Club is to cultivate leadership skills within school children while inspiring them to take more initiative in their school community; it is far easier for learners to take action and feel pride in their community when they understand that they have power to make a change and a voice that will be listened to. Though only the 7 members of the elected cabinet from each school are invited to participate in the annual leadership camp for capacity building, these skills are translated back to the rest of the club through club activities, internal motivation, and peer-teaching.
Although Africa Unite officially ‘runs’ each School Club, the team will only interfere if asked or if necessary since the students are given the leadership skills at camp to run their respective clubs each year. Another purpose of School Club is to create autonomy within the student body of each school, which is why learners are in control of their elections, events and activities; the School Club team was asked/invited by the students themselves to teach the club about proper elections and therefore obliged and took the time to educate learners about a more formal method of choosing leaders, mimicking South African governmental procedures as was appropriate.
The visits during the first week were concentrated primarily on recruitment of learners which included presentations from team members Alice and Akhona. Learners were informed on the roles and responsibilities of each member of the School Club cabinet which includes a President and 6 Ministers: Education, Social Development, Finance, Information and Public Relations, Health and Environment, and finally Sports, Culture and Entertainment. In order to make the election session more realistic, presidential and ministerial positions were linked to sought-after careers. Learners were able to understand the point of the school club and why they should run for a leadership position after being reminded that lawyers, government officials, accountants and sports club managers have similar duties with the same learned skills and that many of them started their careers with leadership roles in secondary school.
Visits during the second week were focused primarily on informing learners how to run a campaign and a more official election; presentations on these topics were led by Rachel. Learners were asked to return to the next meeting with short speeches prepared for their campaigns which contained a brief introduction, reasons why the learner would be a good fit for their respective position, and any ideas they had that they would implement while holding that seat in the School Club cabinet.
Both schools have been in the School Club program with Africa Unite since 2019. Salt River and Gardens Commercial, though both public schools, teach two very different learner populations. Although not located physically far from each other, the learners do not come from the same class which creates distinct differences within the School Club members. The Africa Unite team noticed that the same activity did not proceed in the same way due to these differences. Many
of the Salt River learners come from lower income areas and therefore are not afforded the same resources and proper attention from home and from school that Gardens Commercial learners are.
I. Gardens commercial secondary school
During the election process, which aims to mimic a national government, we noticed that the students were really involved in the school club program.
Indeed, most of them already have the keys to understand the concept of leadership. In their speech, students have shown confidence and initiative spirit. This was particularly relevant in their body language.
Majority of learners came prepared, knowing exactly the role and the importance of their position. Hence, they were able to demonstrate that they have all the necessary skills to hold the position they campaigned for but also to explain how they can contribute to the national government.
It has been noted that some of the speeches were well thought out and much longer. That’s the reason why a large share of the learners were able to express themselves easily and sometimes without reading their notes. If some of them have not acquired all the elements to show more confidence, the respectful atmosphere that prevails within the classroom helps them to read their speeches without fear or anxiety that classmates might mock or disrespect them. It was clear that each student was supporting themselves and encouraging each other, hence creating a safe space. For instance, one of the learners wanted to run for a position but didn’t have the courage to do her speech. After seeing all the support that previous candidates had received, she ran at the last minute for the Minister of Arts, Sports, Culture and Entertainment. It’s mostly related to the values advocated by the school such as respect, compassion, and hardwork.
It’s also important to highlight that some students expressed how thankful they were to Africa Unite and the school club program which gives them opportunities to acquire skills to be the future leaders of tomorrow. During her speech, one of the girls underlined that she had already held the position she ran for. Thanks to the School Club’s capacity building program, she explained that she had been able to use her position to better the club and her school community, and wants to further improve herself by winning the position for a second time.
The only deplorable thing to note is the lack of male students in the program. In this session, no boys were present, compared to the previous one where only one boy attended the meeting.
II. Salt River School
The first thing we noticed from observing Salt River Secondary School was the fact that many learners arrived to participate in the election process of the school club. It was clear that the club members of the previous year had worked especially hard to recruit new members; specifically, there were many new male students (from the last meeting, there were 2 male students, yet around 10 male students arrived for the election process).
Some learners appeared very motivated to present their speeches, excited to experience and play the role of their future careers and feeling more important than an average high school student. However, for many of them, it was a very difficult exercise for them to introduce themself to the other learners. For instance, many needed extra time and support from our team to gather the courage to present their speech. They were not confident to speak in front of the group and run for the position they wanted, and some of their speeches were limited to a simple “just vote for me”, without an explanation of why they would be a good fit.
Regarding the behavior of how the learners interacted, we observed that some of the male learners were quite disrespectful and had to be asked many times to either listen to – or stop making fun of – the speaker. Some male learners had to be asked to leave the classroom due to repeated disruption and blatant disrespect for peers. However, many girls strongly supported their friends and peers during and after speaking, and encouraged each other to run for positions that they had not previously had the courage or self-confidence for. Moreover, at the end of the election some students stood up to present and campaign without a prepared speech due to the support of their friends. Finally, it was quite difficult at the beginning for many of them to concentrate (as some of them were asked to leave the room) but the remaining group understood the importance of the school club and appeared grateful and excited to have the chance to participate in the election process.
III. Differences between schools
Being able to observe the election process in each school underlined many differences between Gardens Commercial Secondary School and Salt River Secondary School. Since both of them are public schools, the location of the schools and the social background of each student plays a key role in the foundation and continuation of their respective programs. Indeed, Gardens commercial secondary school students come from higher income areas and therefore have better chances to succeed in the educational system. These differences of leadership skills can be then understood as a consequence of social inequalities. It also seems that Salt River School lacks educational and financial resources which explains why students demonstrate a lower level of development in aforementioned leadership and public speaking skills. These circumstances mostly explain why Gardens Commercial Secondary School’s students are more comfortable speaking in front of peers and the Africa Unite School Club team.
-> Rachel Lee, Mariama Camara, Celia Azegagh