Friday 13 March 2015 marked Kariega Project’s first foray into the South African education system. Our approach of not assisting schools directly might seem counter-intuitive to some, given the ample need and scope for improvement but there is logic behind it. South African schools are a hotbed of political activism (and that is just the staff room), in which many a tree-hugging do-gooder has lost their proverbial shirt. One finds that the ubiquitous township school sings an almost irresistible siren's call to any well-meaning, usually white, civil society group. Like Odysseus, Kariega Project has had to lash itself to the mast in order to avoid floundering on the rocks. So why are these waters to treacherous?

It is an intoxicating mix of heartbreaking stories of tragic failures and underdog successes that feeds the addiction. Stories of lost generations of students peppered with isolated achievers, apathetic staff rooms with lone crusading teachers giving their all to make a difference, absent principals and those who valiantly ‘MacGyver’ their schools each day in the face of chronic resource shortages, underperforming education department, mutinous staff, disruptive students and disengaged parents. Enter stage right: the good-intentioned, western interventionist.

Ernesto Sirolli describes this type of person as the imperialist, colonist, and missionary whose interventions are generally either paternalistic or patronising. The former treats those from other cultures as though they were their children. The latter treats those from other cultures as though they were their staff; bwana, boss, baas. They arrive to see the sorry state of affairs and instead of taking the time to understand why this is so, they simply say ‘thank god we’re here to save the staff from incompetence and the pupils from a life of ignorance’. They swoop into action in a swirl of efficiency gains and key performance indicators. Sadly, they disregard the politics. Politics: the steely-eyed guy, silently watching you front up to his trouble-making friend at the bar. Invariably, these good Samaritans are evicted, often without warning or explanation, with a sense of resentment and betrayal on both sides.

The reality is that the average township school is a complex political environment that runs less on binary performance indicators and more on a continuum of ambiguity. There are delinquents and geniuses, teaching horrors and inspirations, and reasons why the grass is uncut or why there are man-sized holes in the ceiling. Reasons that one would most probably also acquiesce to if faced without escape from that reality. Eviction notices can also be petty and self-defeating: Samaritans can be the perfect guests, making a tangible difference in the lives of students but fall foul of an upstaged teacher, unpredictable teachers' union or for simply have the wrong coloured faced. Sadly, the problems of township schools are systemic and cannot be solved (and can even be made worse) by the well-meaning interventionista. Sometimes, what is needed is a good old fashioned South African toi-toi (protest) to raise a little ire and grab the attention of the Education Department.

So why in the world would Kariega Project even contemplate heeding the siren’s call?  Two weeks ago, students from the local high school took the radical decision to toi-toi (protest) against not having a qualified science teacher for three years. It just so happens that a visiting volunteer in our Kenton Cares programme had the skills to give targeted grade 12 biology revision ahead of this week’s national exams. The intervention had a clear mandate, realistic outputs and outcomes, and an enforced exit strategy that militated against dependency or contempt. It is also part of a strategic play to set the conditions for a potential future ‘disrupter’ intervention. Who knows, we may still flounder on the rocks, but for now it’s worth the intoxicating risk.