On a blisteringly hot Saturday, 19 October 2013, Vygieskraal Stadium in Johnson Road, Rylands, Athlone, was the venue for an exciting annual interschools event: the Western Cape Schools Drill and Marching Festival. I had been to the 2011 festival in Vygieskraal and the 2012 festival in Florida Park (see photos and reports on those links) and was rather looking forward to this year’s event, as it is always a colourful spectacle – and a great photographic opportunity. 🙂
The marching drill project was initiated by Mr Saeed Ruiters, a teacher at Portland High School in Mitchell’s Plain and now President of the Western Province Marching Association (WPMA), and Ms Lyrice Trussell, Senior Curriculum Advisor for the Western Cape Education Department (WCED).
After the programme had proved so successful at Portland High School, improving discipline, respect for authority, and pride in the school uniform, as well as inculcating positive behaviours and leadership skills, it was rolled out to all the schools in the Mitchell’s Plain area. It now extends across much of Cape Town, i.e. to the Metro South, Metro East, Metro North and Metro Central areas.
The WPMA wants to extend it to other provinces too, but so far the focus has been on the Western Cape, and this is the only area in the country where this competition is held.
Mr Ruiters and some of the other educators involved were recently interviewed for an eTV documentary, “South African Heroes: Teachers” (you can see some Facebook photos here and an inspiring YouTube video clip here), focusing on the benefits of the programme.
Not surprisingly, given the positive impact of their programme on learners, they have received accolades from the SA Army, Navy and Air Force, the London Metropolitan Police, the MEC for Education in the Western Cape (Donald Grant) and the Mayoral Committee Member for Safety and Security (Alderman JP Smith), among others.
The SANDF and especially the Reserve Force volunteers were very supportive of the programme from the beginning; a partnership has now been established with the War Veterans Association (the so-called Friends of the Force Association, or FOFA), which is sharing its skills and expertise with the participating learners.
The marching drill programme was rolled out at Western Cape schools as part of a Life Orientation activity in 2007, which meant that it was incorporated into the weekly school timetable as a physical education class. The youngsters practice, train and drill throughout the year.
When I arrived at the stadium around 8am, I wandered around to get my bearings, and to take some photos at the static displays on the far side of the sportsfield. The City of Cape Town’s Emergency Services, Traffic Department, Fire and Rescue Services, and Disaster Risk Management, as well as the South African Police Services, had all set up stands. And so had several military units.
Immediately recognisable was the Rooikat armoured reconnaissance vehicle of Regiment Oranjerivier (ROR), which is usually driven by MWO Karel Minnie, the Regimental Sergeant-Major. Although it looks extremely intimidating with its eight huge flat-run tyres and its powerful gun, this never seems to deter youngsters – or adults – who invariably ask for permission to climb aboard (see photos in previous posts – WP SMDEA Drill Squad visits Fort Ikapa; Women’s Day at Fort Ikapa; Imbizo at Nomzamo; Personal perspective on the Imbizo)!
Nearby stood the heavy SAMIL 100 gun tractor of Cape Garrison Artillery (CGA), with their fearsome Oerlikon 35mm twin-barrel quick-firing anti-aircraft cannon. And Cape Field Artillery (CFA) had arrived with one of their 25-pounder guns, which are towed by SAMIL 20 gun tractors. These guns are traditionally used to fire salutes at ceremonial and annual occasions, such as the Opening of Parliament, Remembrance Day and the Gunners Memorial Service. They also regularly participate in the performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture at the annual Cape Town Military Tattoo.
Troops from 9 SAI Bn (South African Infantry Battalion) – a Regular unit rather than a Reserve unit – had set up an excellent weapons display in a camouflage tent. The soldiers on duty there were, as always, very knowledgeable and informative, and patiently explained what the weapons could be used for, while stressing the safety aspects.
The atmosphere was positively electric with anticipation – I felt myself getting goosebumps, despite the heat, when the Cape Field Artillery Pipes and Drums, led by Pipe Major Staff Sergeant Andrew Imrie, marched across the field and formed up in front of the grandstand to play, among others, the powerful Highland Cathedral and an exquisite Amazing Grace. What is it about the sound of the bagpipes, that it sends shivers up one’s spine?! Judging from the loud cheers and vigorous applause from the grandstand, the rest of the spectators felt similarly.
After this musical introduction, the City of Cape Town’s Mayoral Committee Member for Safety and Security, Alderman J.P. Smith, delivered his keynote address, and Deputy Chief of the Cape Metro Police, Yolanda Faro, also spoke to the learners. And then, the marching began in earnest!
“Left, left, left-right-left – left, left, left-right-left…” chanted a chorus of young voices behind me. I turned to see a squad of youngsters, marching down the distinctive red track of Vygieskraal stadium; they were swinging their arms shoulder-high and stepping out proudly. All were neatly attired in matching uniforms and shining shoes, their hair tied back and tucked under peaked caps or berets. Led by a drum major with a twirling baton, they were marching in sync with the thump-thump rat-ta-tat of a couple of drummers, who were walking close behind them.
As the announcer called out the name of each school over the loudspeakers, a roar of cheering came from the spectators, who were seated in the roofed pavilion along the western edge of the large sportsfield. Some leapt to their feet, and were waving their arms about, and shouting at the tops of their lungs – clearly, these were happy supporters and parents of each team!
Although it is officially called a ‘festival’, in the spirit of encouraging closer ties between the participating schools, it is definitely a ‘competition’ or ‘championship’ too, judging from the intense looks of concentration of the participants, their high levels of discipline and the evident pride they displayed in their uniforms, their squads, and their schools. Trophies and awards are handed out in various categories, such as: Best Dress; Grand March Past; Best Drum Major; Best Exhibition; and Best Overall.
Mr Ruiters advised me that the adjudicators were all experts in the field of drilling, with a wealth of knowledge that they shared with the schools and the WPMA. They included SA Army veterans from the SA Coloured Corps and based at 9 SAI; Lt Col Andrew Anthony, Major E. Estruis, Major Keith Gordon, Warrant Officer 1 A. Bengell, Warrant Officer 1 J. van Zyl, Warrant Officer 1 Tiny Meyer and Ms van Zyl. There were also active members of the SA Navy, Warrant Officer 2 J. Bright and Warrant Officer K. Swartz.
I later received the results from Mr Ruiters, who also pointed out that, during the schools’ individual performances, the Western Province selectors chose the best marchers from each of the schools to form the Western Province Schools Marching team, which is a big honour!
“Elsies River High School won the overall highest points in their division, followed by Oval North, who came second, and Beacon Hill High School, who came a close third. Cascade Primary School scored the highest points overall in the Primary School division, beating Merrydale Primary with only two points, followed by Harvester Primary in third place. There was a thid section made up of Community Cadets, in which Scottsdene from Kraaifontein took the highest honours. Bishop Lavis Community Cadets, who are managed by a Metro Police Officer (NSO) and trained by community worker Martin Ruiters, took second overall, while Saints Maniac Society of Mitchell’s Plain came third overall.”
Each squad marched proudly down the track, saluting as it drew level with the chairs, where the dignitaries, VIPs and judges, some from the military, were seated. They passed between the guard of honour, which had been formed on either side of the track, as the roar reached a crescendo. They marched around the gently curving track, until they had reached an empty space at the far side of the field, where they halted, lined up in neat rows, and turned 90 degrees. Then it was the turn of the next drill squad to march past the grandstand and the judges.
I tried to count how many participating schools there were – and I think there were about 18 or 19.
According to Mr Ruiters, three high schools were attending for the first time: Crystal High School of Hanover Park, Oscar Mpetha High School of Nyanga, and Phoenix High School in Manenberg. Their squads had been trained by the Western Province Cadets and managed by Metro Police Officers.
What makes this so interesting is that they were part of a pilot project of the Department of Safety and Security of the City of Cape Town, to reduce crime at these schools. The learners performed extremely well, even though they did not have much time to prepare for the competition.
I was so impressed at how disciplined and tidily dressed all the participants were, and at their focus and concentration. As I walked around the field, trying to make sure I took photographs of each of the participating teams, I was struck by how self-confidently, calmly and patiently they stood in their rows.
Thinking back to my own school days, I could not recall any occasion, where we had stood properly and quietly in line, or worn our school uniform with pride – or looking anywhere as neat as these youngsters. We weren’t exactly an undisciplined, badly behaved rabble at school, but I don’t think our principals or teachers ever praised us – or had reason to praise us – for consistently good behaviour, excellent discipline or correct and matching uniforms. In fact, we usually got a bit of an earful.
All the people I chatted to during the couple of hours I spent at the event, emphasised the positive effect that the marching drill programme had had on these youngsters.
The schools and neighbourhoods of Mitchell’s Plain and the rest of the Cape Flats are often in the news for all the wrong reasons: violent crime, rape, murder, gangsterism, drive-by shootings, violence, protests, poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, abuse of women and children, unemployment, vandalism, truancy from school, breakdown of families… it is a litany of all kinds of social problems.
Children who grow up in these areas are exposed to and witness violence from a very young age. Many seek friendship, companionship, safety, and a sense of being part of a group, by joining gangs, which draw them further into a world, where violence and substance abuse are accepted as the norm. Many also join gangs because they find it difficult, even impossible, to remain neutral in a polarised, divided street or neighbourhood.
It is not surprising that the education system is suffering, and that teachers and schools are frequently challenged by absenteeism, a lack of discipline, classroom unruliness, and even gang shootouts right outside their doors. Thankfully, it is not always like that, and not everywhere is the situation so extremely volatile. But that undercurrent is always present, creating a level of stress and anxiety, which does not contribute to the creation of a positive, encouraging, stimulating environment where learning and creativity are fostered.
Thankfully, there are good role models, and teachers who do make a difference in the lives of these youngsters. The marching drill programme has had a significantly positive impact by instilling qualities such as discipline, self-confidence, teamwork and leadership. This has led to many of them reaching out to mentor their fellow pupils and to pass on these positive qualities.
I think it is wonderful when these youngsters, their schools and their neighbourhoods appear in the news for all the right reasons.
As in previous years, I could clearly see from their excited, smiling faces and their enthusiastic participation, that the youngsters had a great time on the field, and that they had enjoyed the opportunity to show off their marching skills.
Well done and congratulations to all the winners!