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Learning after work

The bell rings. It’s five o’clock and it’s tjaile time at the Rolfes Factory in Elandsfontein.

Some workers walk back to the hostel for a rest. Others go straight to the canteen for a carton of Daveyton. Some go to help the nightwatchmen fix his old car ­ or to give advice.

But 12 workers do none of these things. They make their way to two small rooms near the factory. They meet there every Monday and Wednesday. They meet to learn English.


Simon Ntombela was one of the first to join the group. He told us how it started.

“The first group started in 1981,” says Simon. “Judy from Learn and Teach came with people from our union. They spoke to the boss. The boss said Judy could start a group if the workers wanted to learn English. So the union called a meeting. They told us about Learn and Teach. Then they asked who wanted to learn English.

“I wanted to learn English because my father didn’t send me to school. At my home in Nqutu in Zululand people do not send their sons to school. The sons must herd the cattle. But my sister went to school. She taught me to read and write in Zulu but she didn’t know any English.


“My father had three wives,” says Philemon Nemalamangwa. “There were 19 children at home. So when my father stopped working, I had to leave school. I was in standard four.

“At first I worked in Louis Trichardt. You will not believe the pay there – R5.00 a month! At Rolfes the pay is better. I like to come to Learn and Teach. I think I will get good ideas here because I did not go far at school.”


Everyone in the group belongs to the union – the Chemical Workers Industrial Union. Watson Mphaphuli told us about the union.

“They did not pay us enough at Rolfes,” says Watson. “We were all unhappy. Then Richard, who learns English with us, told us about the union.

“We called meetings. Everyone wanted the union. When everyone joined, the union said we must talk to the bosses at Rolfes.

“Since then they pay us better we get R 1.80 an hour more than before. We also asked for more leave. We only got two weeks paid leave. Now we get four weeks. But we have not had a strike here. Mr Rolfe, the owner, is very frightened of strikes. So he gives us what we want.”

“1 really wanted to learn English. But I was frightened. I did not know one word in English. And maybe I was too old to learn. I went to Judy. I told her my problem. She said I was just the right person for the group.

“Judy was right. After three months I knew ‘Good morning’, and I knew how to talk to the supervisor. I always try to speak English now and it feels good. When I go to the shops these days, I always talk in English.”


Joseph Ndou is also learning English. He also only went to school for a short time. “I left school in 1959/” says Joseph. I left because my father wanted me to look after the cattle. Now the cattle are gone and I am ‘dom’ .”

But Joseph is not ‘dom’. He has learnt much. His English is good ­ and it gets better everyday.


“I left home at Moletjie, near Pietersburg, 41 years ago,” says another learner, Alpheus Semenya. “I have worked at Rolfes for 21 years. I never went to school. In the 1940‘s I went to a ‘moruti’ once a week. He taught me to write in Sotho – but no English.

“Learn and Teach was late in coming to Rolfes. They should have come here 20 years ago. I didn’t know any English when I joined the group but now I can talk a little.”

Alpheus’s friend, Bra Dan, has also worked at Rolfes for a long time. “I have worked with Alpheus for 20 years,” says Dan. Now that we know English, we can read together in our free time. We are reading a book called The Sun Shall Rise’. We like the book because it is about a worker like us.”


“I left school when I was in standard four,” says Thomas Mabasa. I was nineteen. I was big and I was shy to learn with the small children. I was so old because every year, in December, I had to leave school to help with the ploughing. I didn’t write the exams. So I had to stay in the same class again and again.

“When I came to work, I saw I needed English. I could read English but I could not talk. I was a worried man. I was afraid to speak to the bosses in English. When the. telephone rang, I was afraid to pick it up. Now I can answer in English. I am also not afraid to speak to the bosses anymore.”


“Our learning group is not like school,” says Richard Rambau. “We don’t learn ‘The cat sat on the mat’, or ‘Jack and Jill went up the hill’. We learn English that we can use everyday — like how to tell the supervisor that you want time off, – or how to tell the doctor that you are sick.

“It is not just English that we learn. In our lessons we learn about other things too. We choose what we learn about. We told our teacher that we wanted to know about pensions and insurance. We also wanted to learn about the overseas unions. So our teacher taught us and now we know.”


“Our lessons also help us with the union,” says Richard. “When we talk with the bosses, we now understand what is happening. We also practised how to hold meetings in our group. We use this in the union.

“We like the way that we learn. Everyone works together. If someone doesn’t understand, then another learner will explain – not just the teacher. We all teach each other. “


“In South Africa, when you can’t speak Afrikaans, they say you are stupid,” says Thomas. ‘And if you speak English, they say that it is not England here. Very few whites want to learn our languages. But we must learn English and Afrikaans.”

Richard agrees with Thomas. “Whites must learn African languages,” says Richard. “At the universities now, they have black teachers who can teach them Sotho or Zulu. But they teach the whites so they can say, ‘Watson, my boy, you must wash the dishes’. We don’t like that.”

And at Learn and Teach, we agree with Watson. Whites must learn African languages so that they can talk nicely, not just order people around. We also wish the learners at Rolfes good luck in their struggle to learn English .

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