The IHM Sisters Improving Education in South Africa


CAPE TOWN, South Africa — For something to truly flourish and grow beyond its beginnings and its flaws, someone must believe in it, invest their time in it, and above all else, practice great patience. The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) are a powerhouse for positive change fully embodying the concept of practicing what they preach. The order takes an open-minded, academic and forward-thinking approach to engaging with and working to fix major problems in the developing world. Education is perhaps the best way to help a community rise out of poverty, providing the opportunity to develop without relying on indefinite aid. Education is the reason that IHM Sisters have been present in South Africa since 1985.

Troubles in South Africa

South Africa is a country that continues to combat a slew of harrowing issues many in the developed world have forgotten. With roughly 50% unemployment among the country’s youth, the newer generations benefit greatly from educational mentors who give them a leg up in an incredibly challenging reality.

Fortunately for South Africa, the IHM Sisters realize it is a land of great promise. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Sister Peg O’Shea stated that she believes the lack of widespread access to quality education in South Africa is the most significant obstacle regarding poverty reduction there. She pinpointed this as a problem originating from laws that segregate education based partly on race. This doctrine is reminiscent of the “Separate but equal,” ideology that the American south perpetuated through Jim Crow laws. In reality, there is no such thing as “Separate but equal,” as separation inherently breeds inequality. Worldwide, inequality often links to an education divide. This stratification of the social hierarchy ultimately does not help any country thrive. Sister Susan Rakoczy expressed a similar sentiment in an interview with The Borgen Project, referencing how the income level of the parents can often leave many schools under-resourced.

The Mission

The sisters initially responded to a call to help local religious leaders develop education centers. Sister O’Shea traveled to South Africa in part because of Nelson Mandela’s hope that churches would build and run adjacent preschools. The IHM Sisters are proponents of what they describe as “ministering in education.” Mandela knew that this was the best way forward to build a proud population and democratic country, to give it a chance to recover beyond apartheid.

Education in South Africa allows individuals to build a community. It facilitates a deeper understanding of the wider world, the bigger picture and how one fits into it. It brings about the potential for growth based on an understanding of past mistakes and moving beyond them, not wading back into them. Moreover, a more educated populace achieves a higher level of innovation which generates economic growth. Education is the stimulus that keeps in motion the generational quality of life in a healthy and growing nation.

Effects of the Sister’s Work

Several IHM Sisters have devoted a massive portion of their lives to this endeavor. They left the relative comfort, safety and stability of the United States to live in a developing country with high rates of gender-based violence and political corruption. While progress occurred on both of these interconnected fronts, their prevalence is still visible. Sister Rakoczy’s favorite part of the job was “Working with women students and empowering them to be women theologians, to be academics.”

Many women in South Africa marry very young and do not receive much education if any. Sister Rakoczy pointed out how Mandela implored people to, “send your boys and your daughters,” to school. He advocated for universal access to education in South Africa as a way to combat the hard racial lines and crush the poverty the nation had experienced for decades. Now, South African Colleges and Universities receive students from other African nations and beyond. Education as a solution takes time, generations even, to effect fundamental changes in the cultural framework. The positive effects of these efforts are already apparent though, and the current direction is of a hopeful trajectory.

COVID-19’s Effects on Education

Quality of living was already wanting for many in South Africa, existing well below the average global standard. In an Interview with The Borgen Project, Sister Judith Cole pointed out that, “South Africa is a country of glaring inequalities…the standard of education reflects this inequality. All of this has been exacerbated by the pandemic.”

South Africa does not have the same level of interconnected cell networks and reliable internet connection inherent to developed countries. When self-quarantine started, many students did not have access to the resources necessary to continue their studies online. COVID-19 was the cherry on top of a multitude of healthcare horrors in South Africa, HIV being one of the most prominent. For a healthcare system already not living up to the scope of its constitutional mandate, COVID-19 threatened to push it far past the breaking point. It might not be immediately apparent, but the situation further showcases the need for better access to quality education. A more educated workforce would include more healthcare workers, something that will be necessary even after COVID-19 leaves the world in its wake.

Continuing Positive Progress

The efforts of many, including the compassionate and highly devoted IHM Sisters, have helped grow South Africa immensely in comparison to where it was during and immediately after the waking nightmare of Apartheid. Even so, the wanton corruption of the country continues to act as a chokehold, strangling the pace of development that South Africa could and should be enjoying. Some have proposed international debt forgiveness being a tactic that could provide significant relief if gone about the right way, with rigorous oversight and accountability.

The IHM Sisters who The Borgen Project spoke to were positive about their experiences, expressing profound thankfulness for the opportunity to see history play out, to see the world change in South Africa and to be a part of helping the population build upon that change. Sister Coyle described the country as, “Freed from the slavery of apartheid, it now struggles through the desert in search of the promised land.” That journey has not adhered to a steady course, but ultimately, South Africa should continue to progress towards a strong future given ample opportunity. The compassionate work of the IHM Sisters showcases the life and death difference that education and mentorship makes, especially in the direst socioeconomic circumstances.

– Jack Leggett III
Photo: Flickr


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