The greatest gift any child can receive is recognition, to show that they matter. But for the 90 children that attend the Harvest Centre Blessing School in downtown Brakpan on Gauteng’s East Rand, this was almost a gift they never received.
“We face people every day who tell them they don’t belong and that they are rubbish. We teach them that they do matter and that in turn they must learn to respect and love one another. It’s our way of making a better world, because at their age, we can still make a difference,” said founder Yakima Waner.
Every one of the children who attend the school that grew up during Covid in the grounds of the disused Brakpan synagogue, comes from a vulnerable family. 95% of them are undocumented, the children of refugees who fled their own countries in search of a better life – only to find life in South Africa just as hard, if not harder.
Those without documents cannot get educated in state schools, but getting documents means running the risk of getting deported to where their parents fled. Without education they cannot break the cycle of poverty, nor prevent themselves or their families falling victim to a predatory society.
The Harvest Centre provides the beginning of an alternative with six classes from Grade RRR to Grade 3, run by seven volunteer teachers. On July 18, Mandela Day, the school received another classroom, an eco-classroom built in what was once the sukkah of the synagogue; an area used to represent the shelter erected during the annual seven day festival of sukkot to commemorate the successful flight of the Jewish people from Egypt and their wandering in the desert for the fabled 40 days.
The classroom; lit by natural light, the floor clad in specially recycled plastic, with a gutter running any rain water to the drip feed system for the school gardens, will accommodate the Grade 3s when they progress to Grade 4 next year. Eventually, Waner hopes the school will produce its own matric class, but under the Independent Examination Board rather than the department of Basic Education, because the IEC does not require candidates to be documented.
The renovation of the classroom was funded by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) with a grant from the World Jewish Congress (WJC). The choice of room was particularly laden with symbolism, said SAJBD national president Shaun Zagnoev. The school grew from a project that Waner, a documentary film maker, began just before Covid. It was supposed to be a documentary on the conflict on Plastic City, an informal settlement on the other side of the East Rand city’s landfill site.
“I discovered a creche, run by Jessie Nkosi and her sister, Hlengiwe, and that’s the day my life changed forever,” she said.
The two sisters who would travel every day to Plastic City to run their spaza shop, began running the school after they managed to save a toddler named Blessing, who had drunk from a bottle of disinfectant. In filming their story, Waner became drawn deeper and deeper into the plight of the community and when Covid struck began making food for the starving in Plastic City.
It made more sense to make it in town and then transport it, pre-packaged to the settlement. She turned to her father, Ernest, and her late uncle Jeff, who had been managing to run the synagogue as co-presidents of the Brakpan Hebrew Association until the lockdown. They suggested she set up her temporary kitchen there.
Eventually, the tiny kitchen would prepare 19 000 meals, initially for the people in Plastic City but eventually for some of the people living in Brakpan itself who were starving too. It made sense to move the school there too, especially after Waner’s mother had used the synagogue to shelter children inside there during the xenophobic marches following the initial lockdown.
Inspired by the stories of the Kovno ghetto set up in Lithuania after the Nazis banned the education of Jewish children after 1942, which also taught the children to become self-sustaining and grow their own food, the Harvest Centre was begun with an initial donation from Shoprite, who provided the seedlings and then donated the initial container classroom. Today Blessing is one of the Grade 3s, who will move to Grade 4 next year. But it has been an uphill battle for the Nkosis and Waner.
“A lot of the parents are against schooling because they are undocumented refugees. They are scared. Many can’t read or write, but one child who is now nine is actually helping her own parents fill in forms – and that’s what shows us that where we are doing is right,” said Waner.
The lockdown was the death knell for the synagogue. The Brakpan Jewish community had dwindled from its inception in 1913 and the building of the synagogue in 1933 to almost nothing by 2020. But it was an opportunity for Waner.
“I wanted to make it an equality centre. It’s one of the oldest shuls in its original state in South Africa and we’ve made it into a heritage site. It’s so much more. Brakpan Jews also came here as people who struggled against oppression and we want to do something now for the new people coming to South Africa in hope for a better life. It’s a place that is open to anyone and everyone. My father still comes in to sit in the pews and pray.”
The transformation of the old synagogue has been particularly pleasing to SAJBD national director Wendy Kahn, whose organisation helped fund Waner’s relief efforts during the Covid lockdown.
“What warms my heart is that a shul which once had so many Jewish families celebrating life, is continuing to celebrate life, not shutting down.” The Waner family, she said, have ensured that even though there is no longer a Jewish community in Brakpan, the community is still continuing to serve the people of the town, and especially the most vulnerable.
Grade 2 pupils lined up to show off the art they had produced, introduce themselves and tell the audience what they wanted to become when they were adults.
“What a privilege to be here on what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 105th birthday," said Danny Mofsowitz, who was representing the WJC, and cut the ribbon to officially open the new classroom.
“We’ve seen the hope that has been created in these children. Please, God, may that classroom see their dreams come true.”