Alfonso Louw is the principal of St Agnes Primary in Woodstock. It is a good school with a diverse student body, hands-on leader and innovative learner-focussed projects. But St Agnes is also a poor school in a working-class neighbourhood, meaning the odds are massively stacked against its learners succeeding.

Words by Janine Stephen | 21 Jun, 2015

Alfonso Louw sometimes tells a wry joke when introducing himself. “Hello, I’m a primary school principal,” he says. “What kind of superhero are you?” The humour is self-deprecating; it refers to the multiple roles he is required to play. A youthful 55-year-old (“I think I have the sexiest man on earth,” his wife says), Alfonso sits in a computerless office, surrounded by administrative files. A rosary dangles from the wall, which sports a plethora of intricate timetables and a showcase of messages from pupils past and present. “Thank you for how you have encouraged me this past seven years,” one reads. Another, from a 32-year-old alumnus who is now a doctor, says “I was awkward & nerdy and you always treated me with such dignity and respect.”

The day before, by 11am, Alfonso had taught a class, attended assembly, prepared for an Institutional Management and Governance (IMG) visit and an evening Governing Body meeting, begun collections for a raffle, checked in on a Grade 3 class that wanted to show him how they had grasped their two times table, and investigated quorums for a high school governing body by-election he had volunteered to chair. This morning, he has dealt with an email system on the blink, a tea urn that was left on (the element can burn out, it’s happened before), plus briefed a handyman on leaks that have sprung in the winter rain. Exams are looming and assessment tests are underway. He’s also gathered Grades 4 to 7 in the school hall for a LeadSA event (they’re 15 minutes late, enough to play havoc with the intricate school timetable). Alfonso is as agitated as I ever see him, and even now he’s full of humour. “When my IMG came in yesterday he said to me, Alfonso, dit lyk as of jy besig is [it looks like you’re busy]. Really? You don’t say.”

St Agnes Primary School, the centre of Alfonso’s working life, is tucked off one-way Dublin Road in Woodstock, a dilapidated block that falls between Albert and Victoria roads. The school has the arched corridors and voluminous spaces of times gone by, steeped in chalk dust and repetition. It was opened by the Dominican Sisters in 1899, with a further building added by the Christian Brothers in 1936. Today there are 381 children—but with plans to grow. The same can’t be said for the sisters. In 1970, there were still seven, but pupil numbers were dropping. A school history attributes the decline to the Group Areas Act of 1950, smaller families, and the development of Bothasig—named after then Minister of Community Development PW Botha—into “little Woodstock”. In 1994, Sister Justina, the last Dominican Sister, stepped down as headmistress and St Agnes became a public school on private land. Despite being government run, it has permission to retain its Catholic ethos: statues of the Virgin Mary and other saints stand pastel calm on corridors.

The school is co-educational. Fees are R275 per month for 11 months for Grades 1-7 and there is an extra annual R280 “resource levy”. St Agnes is slap-bang in the centre of a working-class suburb full of poverty and new migrants to the city; it is also gentrifying around the edges. Historical photographs show football and cricket teams from the 1940s. The strapping children’s surnames suggest homogenous European roots: Hay, Derby-Lewis, Smith, Tyldesley, Hawkins; the odd Fiorentinoes. Now, like many former Model C schools (and particularly non-elite English schools in accessible areas), the demographics have flick-flacked. Up to 50% of the children in the foundation phase classes (Grades 1 to 3) are not English mother-tongue language speakers. Many students live nearby, in Woodstock, a suburb with mixed demographics: 50% coloured, 25% black, 14% white. Others travel in from the townships, sent by their parents in search of that luminous chance of a better start in life. Khayelitsha mom Nosisa Ndlebe, fresh from picking up her child’s report, says that despite the cost and extra two hours travel time a day, “I’m trying by all means to give [my daughter] a better foundation”. As Crain Soudien, a sociology professor and vice-chancellor at the University of Cape Town, puts it in his book Realising the Dream (2012), while the family “remains the central space for shaping a child’s values, the realisations of the range of potentials a child has is pre-eminently the terrain of interest of the school”. And many parents believe this potential will be best realised through an English education.

A winter’s morning in Kensington, and Alfonso greets me from outside his home, a cup of the strong instant coffee that fuels his days in his hand. (There’s also the smell of cigarette smoke in the air, but I never see him light one.)

The front yard is firmly paved—until last year it was an immaculate lawn. It was Alfonso’s “pride and joy” says wife, Tracey-Lee (49). “Friends said you could play golf on it.” Alfonso has lived in this very road ever since his parents moved here soon after he’d started primary school, and he married the girl-just-about-next-door, Tracey-Lee, who now works in the finance department at Rennies Travel. They’ve been married for 30 years, and live in Tracey-Lee’s mother’s house—it was sold to the couple to keep it in the family.

The sale meant hard times for a while: bond rates were then still over 20% and the couple had a new baby, Keshan (now 26), plus the older Keenan (now 30) to worry about. But slowly, things stabilised. Keenan is now married and working in a supervisory position in the call centre industry; he lives out in Tableview. He has two children, little Zion and Eden, the apples of their grandparents’ eyes. Keshan is engaged, and his room in the house—the door is covered in trance party fliers—is nowadays often empty. He too does call centre work, although he studied graphic design.

Kensington itself lies off Voortrekker Road, one of the city’s main transport spines. An apartheid-era suburb, it was still undeveloped when Alfonso moved here as a boy and rode bicycles across the fields, looking for frogs in the vleis. Tracey-Lee remembers going to the ice-rink and drive-in near Goodwood; Alfonso remembers the stock car racing. Now the avenue is an informal pedestrian through-route to Canal Walk, just over the N1. There is a lot of gangster activity, including drug turf wars in neighbouring Factreton (the family hears gunshots at night). “The gangsters we grew up with know who is from Kensington and don’t actually interfere with us,” Tracey-Lee says. The couple has no plans to move. “Kensington has too many memories,” Alfonso says. Still, they didn’t send their boys to local schools.

The “hip” Woodstock that gets media attention is clustered along just a few main streets, but says Alfonso, “Go up a side street and you’ll find this contrast between these posh restaurants and extreme poverty.”

The children went first to St Agnes and then, figuring that boys need extra attention and a push to get them somewhere, their parents decided on a private high school, also Catholic, in Greenpoint. Here classes were smaller, the surroundings less disruptive. The boys both passed matric with ease. About 42% of people living in Kensington have matric; 14% are unemployed. Tracey-Lee herself left school in Standard 8, and only years later she finished matric and studied further.

It is a casual household. The couple shares chores like cooking and laundry, and weekends are for braais with friends, long drives, grandchild entertainment (they enjoyed the Cape Town Food Festival), and watching Grand Prix racing on TV. Alfonso is out back, weeding, and giving his other pride and joy some attention: a Suzuki GSXR1000 motorbike, which has clocked eye-watering speeds. Alfonso is no stuffed shirt. He has always gone his own way, always been direct—one reason why he has no patience for yes-men in the education system. He is big on treating people equally. “I can mix with anybody [irrespective of status or class],” he says. “I don’t regard myself as superior. People who unfortunately, because of the roll of the dice, are not well off—I’m not going to treat them any differently. It’s the same with the kids. Does it matter where they come from? Their religion, their gender?”

For many years Alfonso was the member of a motorcycle club called the Black Angels. They wanted to be a chapter of the Hell’s Angels, but apartheid scuttled that. Vehicles are obviously the family indulgence. Alfonso also drives a Mercedes that groans with restrained power on city streets. But his real passion, says Tracey-Lee, is his job. “There are very few people in the world who have a passion like that. And he’s become much busier since he was appointed principal.” That was in 2002. Being principal means long days: Alfonso leaves before 7am to avoid traffic, and gets back in the evening. It can worry Tracey-Lee. The school can “take over his life, to the detriment of his health”. She shares a story about the time Alfonso was diagnosed with a near-ruptured appendix. The doctor ordered it out. Alfonso asked if he couldn’t come back in three weeks—when school holidays began.

There are 37-odd children scattered about a Grade 1 classroom in St Agnes. They are being exposed to a mock-test situation, and it is organised chaos. The children’s names are a medley of Xhosa, English, Afrikaans, Muslim.

One boy, focused on everything other than his paper and the board, interrupts his teacher over 20 times in 10 minutes (he’s a foster child, diagnosed ADHD and “difficult” to handle). Others are concentrating, some randomly getting up and down, or having a chat. One boy is listening to instructions, but obviously unable to decipher the English; his paper is a mass of erasures, drawings and gaps. The teacher, a remarkable woman, doesn’t miss a beat. Moving between children, she answers questions and defuses arguments. It looks exhausting.

“You have to take your hat off to the foundation phase teachers,” Alfonso tells me back in the safety of his office. “They’ve got their work cut out for them. But if you get it right in the foundation phase, the rest of the building blocks fall into place.”

This is the phase where South Africa’s education system is falling down. For various reasons, children in state schools—particularly those in lower income areas—are simply not performing. Over half don’t make it through the system. Of every 100 learners, 50 make it to Grade 12, 40 pass and 12 qualify for university, writes Nic Spaull of the University of Stellenbosch. Spaull says that in effect, two public school systems exist in South Africa: wealthier schools, and the poor majority (75%). Someone coming through the latter system has a very high chance of being functionally illiterate and innumerate. Struggling children tend to fall further behind as they progress through the system, this in a system that is marked by strict rules: a child can only fail once in the Foundation Phase, once in the Intermediate stage, and again, once from Grade 7 to 9; otherwise they are “pushed through with their age cohort” says Alfonso. Outcomes Based Education was worse: in 2002 St Agnes wanted to hold back over 40 children in various grades; they were only allowed to fail six.

Spaull’s analysis of the situation is damning: “After 19 years of democratic rule most black children continue to receive an education which condemns them to the underclass of South African society, where poverty and unemployment are the norm … Poor school performance in South Africa reinforces social inequality and leads to a situation where children inherit the social station of their parents, irrespective of their motivation or ability.” Social mobility is stopped in its tracks. The Western Cape, particularly Cape Town, is not as badly off. Its literacy and numeracy results are far in excess of provinces such as Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. But as Soudien notes, the Western Cape’s low-income schools are also in trouble. He believes legacy issues—apartheid, or the “A-factor”, as he once described it—are to blame.

“The Western Cape is simply a stronger managerial environment,” Soudien says in a phone interview. “But we must not run away from the reality. At historically disadvantaged schools, and the better disadvantaged schools, you’ve got fewer than 15% of children able to perform at grade level in an area like maths. That’s disgusting. In schools at the poorer end of spectrum, former DET schools, something like 0.1% of the children are performing at grade level in mathematics. The figures have improved, but marginally. This comes back to legacy factors, which operate at all three dimensions of what the school experience is all about: first, the home level; secondly at a teacher level. Teachers have to operate a new curriculum with which they are struggling. But then there’s almost inexplicable stuff around student and learner cultures themselves. The commitment to doing homework in poorer schools and discipline around this has gone away.”

As Soudien has written, parents with an understanding of the role of education (like Alfonso with his sons) tend to search out the best schools they can access and afford. Schools in poorer areas then suffer a further ghettoising as parents with extra resources, who could be more invested in the school, move on. Institutions abandoned in this way have even less hope of success; they are called “sinkhole schools”.

St Agnes is not immune to these systemic and socio-economic challenges, but it is leagues away from being a sinkhole school. Alfonso feels the greatest challenge to improving results over the past decade has been the ever-changing curriculum. St Agnes is getting to grips with the latest, the Department of Education’s Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS), although it is very deadline and results-oriented. It also comes with mountains of administrative requirements. At this time of the year, teachers show strain: head of department Elesia Colbe speaks of how the curriculum leaves little time for extra intervention and is all about “teaching to assess”. But Alfonso says the wider education system in Cape Town on the whole is “working and functional … I think you have a lot of functional schools—in all areas. It can be in the heart of the Cape Flats, but if you’ve got dedicated, committed teachers, willing to offer up their time on a Saturday for the benefit of the kids, qualified people, dedicated people—that makes a difference. Without the support of all role-players the system will collapse, and it will show in your results.”

Unlike some principals, Alfonso has no desire to leave the classroom, and he teaches 12 hours a week, mostly mathematics. Watching him with the older Grade 6 class—some already pimply, others childlike—is like a choreographed act: a multitude of tasks is performed in swift succession. The lesson has unfashionable aspects (Alfonso is unrepentant about drilling times tables), but he commands respect. Discipline is simply not a problem. Alfonso won’t allow laughter at those who get things wrong, even as he expresses disapproval at those who don’t try. And thanks to teaching pupils himself, he knows every kid in the school’s story and potential.

We’re near Mountain Road, after school, never mind that it’s exam week and the teachers have been looking distinctly tense. The Grade 4 teacher and Alfonso duck between a gap in some vibracrete panels, where an unobtrusive building that looks like it was once a clubhouse stands on the edge of an old sports field.

There are two children in this orphanage from St Agnes, both of who once lived under the bridge from Salt River Circle to the start of Voortrekker Road. One child came here because she was being molested (the school, meaning Alfonso, intervened). The second was at risk of violence as a relative had had an altercation with drug dealers. Again, Alfonso set the necessary processes in motion for the child to be placed. Now he just wants to check on the set-up. We’re shown around the dorms, crammed but clean, and the communal areas. There is supervised homework time, something the children have probably never experienced.

There are many caring and dedicated parents at St Agnes. Watching them stream into the hall to receive their children’s reports and chat to Alfonso and the class teachers makes this clear. Many are smartly dressed, eager for news of their child. But there is hardship too. When tragedy strikes the children at this school, it takes forms that link back to poverty: a child dying after touching an exposed wire; a young boy killed in a house fire, found hugging his brother in the bathroom, an event that “tore our hearts”. A memorial service for the boy was held at the school, but for 24 hours, Alfonso had not slept: his own son, Keshan, had fallen in Porcupine Ravine on Table Mountain and rescuers couldn’t reach him to establish if he was alive. Alfonso went straight from the mountain to school and gave a tribute to the lost boy, even as inside, he gave thanks that his own son had survived.

“I can mix with anybody [irrespective of status or class],” he says. “I don’t regard myself as superior. People who unfortunately, because of the roll of the dice, are not well off—I’m not going to treat them any differently. It’s the same with the kids. Does it matter where they come from? Their religion, their gender?”

Alfonso’s level of community involvement is unusual. If a child doesn’t turn up at school for a while, he’ll go to the parents to find out what’s wrong. He is familiar with parts of Woodstock that few visit: Hard Livings stronghold Wright Street, the Plaasie, an informal settlement on Pine Road. St Agnes, with the help of the Peninsula School Feeding Association, caters to 100 children a day: breakfast and a hot lunch (pilchards and rice, samp and beans). Some families are near desperate: one unemployed woman’s husband abandoned her and her four children; they live in a partitioned room next to a drug house, a bucket the only ablutions. One day when I come around the corner to the office, I see Alfonso enveloped by four kids, hugging him thank you for a loaf of white bread.

This goes beyond “Christian charity”. There is a complete lack of judgement of those in need—also, the student body is only 5% Catholic. Alfonso is Christian, certainly. His assemblies are a mix of inspirational story and more uncomfortable sermonising. But the values Alfonso upholds so determinedly are about right and wrong. “Morally, I don’t think I’m corrupt,” says Alfonso. He has an admirable lack of interest in power. He winces at principals who speak of “my school”, “my teachers”. “Shoot me if I say something like that,” he says “It’s not my kingdom.”

Alfonso has earned his respect. Early days were more volatile, when the school was wobbling following a number of short-term and inept principals—the last was fired for financial mismanagement. There were no systems, no records and no discipline. Two years later, the bursar was found to have defrauded the school of R290 000. Getting things back on track meant endless overtime, but eventually, things stabilised. Maintenance budgets have not increased in all the time Alfonso’s been at the school, even as electricity and water costs have soared. Thankfully, the school is currently exempt from rates (paying even a percentage of rates based on the land’s current value would be prohibitive). They “survive”. Alfonso is proud of a newly paved playground. A few miniature plants reach for sun in pots and tyres, tended by the children through the summer.

Some say that to understand a man, you must know his memories. To meet his mother also helps. Alfonso’s mother lives on Twelfth Avenue, Kensington.