Up from the Free State: Puleng Motsoeneng and Ntataise

This is the story of Pulen Motsoeneng a South African woman who not only managed to recover from the devastating consequences of apartheid but also to influence her community in a positive way through the NGO where she works, Ntataise.
Ron Singer
19 October 2011

Contemporary South Africa’s most pressing problem is the gap between rich and poor, wider here than in any other nation on earth. Travelling around the country, one is struck by both the ubiquitous poverty and the proliferation of efforts to remedy it. The story of Puleng Motsoeneng and Ntataise, the NGO for which she works, is a microcosm of the last half-century of South African history. There are many Pulengs in South Africa today, who together represent the best hope of overcoming the enormous inequities that attended the advent of majority rule in 1994. 

This is also the story of four South African farms, linked by this wonderful woman, located in the northern part of the erstwhile independent Orange Free State.


Puleng Motsoeneng. Full name: Puleng (“It’s raining”) Lydia (babtismal and sometime professional name) Mamorena (“mother of kings”) Dlamini (maiden name) Motsoeneng (married name).  b. Nov 18. 1964.

For some years, under a now-deceased owner, her father was a labourer at what is called Matol Guest Farm. She spent part of her childhood there. Farm #2, Hunters Vlei, where the idea for Ntataise germinated thirty-one years ago, is just a few kilometers down the road from Matol. (Vlei is Afrikaans for a shallow, seasonal pool of water.) Finally, the farm where Puleng was born and the one to which she moved upon marrying, are both within thirty kilometers of Matol.

The old regime

Underpinning the system of apartheid was a body of law designed to limit the movement of the majority population to what was absolutely necessary for serving the minority. Like many black South Africans of her generation, Puleng’s life and career unfolded within a very circumscribed area. As a primary-school “learner” (i.e. pupil), Puleng faced a daily ordeal stemming from the limited mobility of the black population: she had to walk very long distances in all seasons to and from school, without being allowed to take short-cuts across the farms. Her attitude toward this ordeal is the first example of a major theme in her life, “lemonade from lemons.”

RS: How long did it take [from farm to school]?

PM: Two to three hours. Each way. And the bus would be taking this white child to school, and it would pass you. We know, if the bus is collecting Mr. So-and-So's child, it keeps us moving, and we know, "We're still on time, we're still on time." So it was our clock.

In order to condition them for lives without good opportunities, Black South Africans were denied good education. The Bantu Education Act (No. 47) of 1953, for example, “widened the gaps in educational opportunities for different racial groups.” Maths and science were not even taught, the rationale being that black graduates would never hold jobs that involved these disciplines.

Perhaps the most notorious among apartheid’s many education laws was the one decreeing that all instruction be given in the language of the oppressor, Afrikaans. When this law triggered the Soweto uprising of 1976, there was a ripple effect all the way down to Orange Free State. One day, the farmer for whom Puleng’s father worked assembled the families and beat the children in front of their parents for singing (without knowing what they were doing) the Soweto liberation songs. 

In spite of not only the limited resources of a one-room schoolhouse, but old-fashioned, repressive pedagogy, Puleng’s early years were driven by her desire for education.

PM: When I was in Standard Three [third grade], I would participate when the teacher was giving a lesson for Standard Four. And that year, I passed my Standard Three, position one, my Standard Four, position one. For other children, you know, it wasn't so good.

RS: Did you have competent teachers?

PM [considers]: They were good, but the way of looking at it now, if they only did that [beat the children] for the purpose of us to learn, I would say they were fifty-fifty percent. I don't think there was a need to force, and scold, and beat us. Maybe, if they hadn't ... .

Central to the geographical machinations of the apartheid regime were South Africa’s numerous townships, which began as enclaves into which non-whites (blacks, Indians, and people of mixed race) who were needed to work in towns or cities were herded. Rammulotsi, where the Free State operation of Ntataise is currently headquartered, is one such township. Within the municipality of Viljoenskroon, Rammulotsi still comprises dusty, rutted, red-clay roads and mostly small bungalows and shacks. This was the second stop on Puleng’s educational journey. Here she encountered another policy designed to implement the goals of apartheid: divide and conquer, which, in this case, meant engineered, racist divisions within the Black population:

PM: To come and apply to be allowed to stay in the township, you have to apply for a permit.

RS: How old were you?

PM: Sixteen, if I’m not mistaken. They were black people [the clerks]. They were just supposed to have taken our names, the payment, and allow us to go to school. But making it so horrible: “Where are your parents? Why didn’t they come?”

RS: Why did they do that?

PM: I think it was a way of trying to impress the government, to say they’re really screening people. As if we bring in, like, poison, or something. It was lovely! The first days of school, the township girls and boys, they are more classy. I remember, when I passed my Standard Eight, I cried to my father. I wanted to have a decent shirt. Just to match the standard of the township.

RS: Children can be so mean to each other.

PM: So mean! And it wasn’t only children, even teachers, who would actually discriminate where you’re coming from.


RS: Were you still a very good student? 

PM:  I was…  trying. I wasn’t one of the geniuses. And, then, with Standard Eight, it was different from now. It has to be external exams. And that’s where I performed to my average. Maybe, it was also the pressure of staying away from home, without your parents. And for me it’s also a bad high school experience, because my mother passed away when I passed my Standard Five.

RS: Did you have to go home for a while?

PM: When my mother passed away, my father wanted me to go to school. But it was, “If I go to school, who’s going to look after you?” I went, but my heart would be here.

RS: So when you finished high school …

PM: I did my Standard Six, Standard Seven, Standard Eight, and that was it with Rammulotsi. If we wanted to go on, Standard Nine, Standard Ten, we’d have to go even further, to other towns. That’s when I was moved to Welkom. I think it’s 144 [kilometers, 90 miles] from here.

RS: Did you stay with relatives there, too?

PM: Yes, and it was horrible! It was difficult to catch up with homework and stuff. And we couldn’t go home until holidays. It was very short – like a month. Wow! “Happy New Year!” and go. Continuing with high school, my father got sick. I came back home, didn’t pass [the Matriculation exam] well, it was just a pass. It wouldn’t allow me to go to University.

So, as time passed, ever-mounting hardships and indignities took their toll. Soon afterward came her father’s death, and, in 1984, her marriage. 

From the old to the new regime

By then, change was in the air, and a combination of circumstances carried Puleng into Ntataise and, one might say, into South Africa’s modern era. The marriage, which brought her to a fourth farm, owned by the van Birjoen family, turned out to be a mixed blessing. To her hopeful in-laws, she was “Mamorena” (“mother of kings”). 

PM: It was 1984, the first year that I completed my Matric. We got married on his farm. For me, it was, like, now I’m married. I had a baby, I think I was twenty. My husband, working in the gold mine, far away. Even though I was happy for the baby, first baby, mom, I was kind of … bored. From school, I wanted to do something that would take me to another level. 

That ‘something’ would be Ntataise. Jane Evans, the Founder of the organization, described to me its origins and the eight-year history preceding Puleng’s involvement in 1988. 

Before marrying businessman/farmer Anthony Evans and moving to Viljoenskroon, Jane had been a journalist in Johannesburg. In the course of writing a women’s column for the Rand Daily Mail, then South Africa’s leading progressive paper, she had become interested in Early Childhood Education (ECE) for Black children. So, when she decided to start a nursery school at Hunter’s Vlei, her husband’s farm, she already had some grounding in ECE, and already knew people in the field. Furthermore, a primary school was already in operation at Hunters Vlei, administered by Anthony Evans. Even then, before jumping in, Jane made it her business to learn more about ECE. She found helpers and parents to sign on, and her husband generously bankrolled the enterprise. Within a year, there were two more nursery schools on nearby farms, initiated by the farm wives.                             

Outsiders tend to oversimplify when they view the apartheid era as a time of monolithic racism, even in bastions like Orange Free State. As Puleng hypothesizes (and Jane agrees), people there may have pursued enlightened policies from self-interest. For instance, the farmers may have seen the nursery schools as freeing mothers for field work, and they may also have regarded their support as good labour relations. Nor does Jane, a white South African of British origins, regard her own actions as political. Instead, she took on the project because she felt a moral imperative: why shouldn’t Black farm children and mothers enjoy what their white counterparts were already enjoying?

Jane also saw the future in terms of affirmative action. Soon, a Trust was established, with herself as Director, and two Black women, Maria Mohlahledi and Lydia Khoabane, as Assistants. (The programme remained unnamed until, years later, Lydia came up with Ntataise: “to lead a child by the hand.”) Khoabane and Mohlahledi were thus Puleng’s predecessors. Thanks mostly to them, the exciting news soon spread that nursery schools were being formed on Free State farms.

Then, a Dutch philanthropist, the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, funded a six-farm pilot programme in the Viljoenskroon area. These first six schools drew interest from other local farm couples like the van Birjoens. Puleng provides an interesting insight into some of the complexities of race and class relations in the decade preceding majority rule.

PM: The farmer’s wife on this farm where I was married, she was an Afrikaans speaker, but very kind. You know, I think she was also bored. Sometimes, she would be at our level in a way that you would actually wonder. She would say, “What else do you think we can do for our homes?” Like her house was like our house. They used to be called “Mrs”-- “Mrs. Trix.” I don’t know, actually, if I would say that now.

From the outset, the leaders of Ntataise had been cognizant of the need for follow-up and site support. It was during a routine visit to the van Birjoen farm school that Jane first met Puleng, who immediately bought into the Ntataise idea. According to Jane, Puleng was soon doing a very good job of running the van Birjoen School. Her education gave her status on the farm, and then there was her enthusiasm for learning the necessary new skills.

RS: Were you the only woman on the farm with Matric?

PM: Yes. I could also speak Afrikaans. In these meetings, I would translate, and I was called the chair lady. The people on the farm regarded you, “You are educated, better than us.”  … . I had to go to Hunter’s Vlei to get my first training. It was 1988. I know today that it was the beginning of my dream. What was so good about the first day, she started talking about children’s needs: love, protection, safety, development. I was thinking about my daughter. She was four.


To survive, Ntataise had to grow. By 1994, it had long been apparent that the initial training programs funded by the Van Leer grant, two-week workshops without follow-up, could not have a lasting effect. So further grants were obtained, which facilitated the creation of provincial satellite training centres. Soon Ntataise was training teachers all over the country. Ultimately, nine such centres were developed, including the one in Free State of which Puleng is now Director, and three others also run by Black Women.

Puleng’s move from teacher-trainer to Free State Project Director illustrates the different perspectives of white and black women who came of age under apartheid. In 2004, Puleng’s predecessor resigned, and, fully confident that Puleng was ready for the jump, Jane approached her. 

PM: I was told one morning that the Director, a white lady, has just resigned. Jane was talking to me, “And you are the next Director.” I said, “I’m sorry, no way. My life won’t be in the office. I like teaching people, I like running sessions. That’s my strength.” “You’ll learn, I’ll support you.” That afternoon, it was an announcement. Everyone was in the office, and she said, “As you know, Zunel Deru has resigned. And your new Director is … Puleng!” It was difficult. Because some of them I find there when I came, learn with them, learn from them. And, after years, I’m now becoming their Director.

RS: How did they react? 

PM: They clapped hands! I said, “Please, I’m still Lydia, I’m still Puleng. I will need your support.” And my first day, I was told, “This is your office. Now out of the board room with trainers.”

Puleng ran the van Birjoen nursery school for about six years. Quick to recognize that Ntataise represented a bold new way of dealing with Black children, she also saw the work in personal terms. What we are familiar with as progressive education was a dramatic departure from what Puleng had experienced as a young learner.

PM: Sometimes, I was so touched, to hear the parents talking, even men, while they were having their beer over the weekend, say, “Yah, that child, he can draw! He was telling me about green colour.” Even the farmer’s child, a boy of four, attended the pre-school. In the women’s meetings, while we’re sewing, or doing stuff, I would start telling them about mental development, social-emotional, expression of feelings, which was a huge barrier where I’m coming from, my background. The way we were raised, if a child said, “Hey, I did it, I did it by myself!” they would say, “You should never do that again.”

Since its onset twenty-two years ago, Puleng’s career has been completely linked to the development of Ntataise. In 1994, after a decade on the van Birjoen farm, she was ready to leave, and sought advice from Jane Evans. Jane asked whether, if a job were to open as a teacher-trainer, Puleng would be interested. It did, and she was. Once again, the Directorship was a position into which Puleng needed to grow, and once again she was equal to the task.

RS: Where was the office?

PM: Hunter’s Vlei, just next to Jane’s office. Yah, the first year was huge. I didn’t really know what I’m doing. But Jane was very supportive. She said, “Even if you have answered one phone call, that is work. Written one report, that is huge. One proposal: that means funds for the future.” So I started to understand. “Oh, that is work.”                                                 

In 1999, with money raised by Jane Evans, Free State operations were transferred to Rammulotsi. After majority rule took effect in 1994, many farm workers had started moving to the townships, so it was only logical that the farm nursery schools should follow. Although the semi-independent provincial centers were started before Puleng’s time, she was instrumental in their development. As Free State Director, she has helped bring the organization into its second generation, in Rammulotsi, where they work with a wider population. As Jane put it during the August 2010 Ntataise Network Conference:

 One of the reasons for Ntataise’s phenomenal success has been its ability to adapt to South Africa's changing education landscape without losing sight of the needs of the people with whom it works and its primary objective - development of the young child.     

Puleng now owns a house and car. (When she became a trainer, she had to learn to drive so that she could visit the nursery schools.) Both house and car are measures of how far she has come since the days of walking miles and miles to school, from farms where her father spent a lifetime toiling without prospect of advancement, let alone ownership.

But Puleng’s road never became smooth. At first, her marriage worked well. When she started running the van Birjoen nursery school, her husband would come home from the mines on weekends.

RS: Did your husband like that you were doing this?

PM: Yes, because I was happy, I was doing something. Plus I had to teach adults, in the evening. I was a busy lady. Teaching them how to read and write. And guess who was in my classrooms?

RS: Who?

PM: My father-in-law and mother-in-law. Beautiful!

However, as she rose through the ranks of Ntataise, not only did Puleng’s workload increase, but serious marital problems occurred, for, as she rose, her husband looked like being left behind.

RS: Was he still working at the mine?

PM: No. They got retrenched. After that, he worked in town, in Viljoenskroon, as a petrol attendant. And then … I couldn’t understand, “Why is he not supportive, anymore?” He was jealous or something. His self-confidence was low. We almost divorced. I started to realize it was very hard for him. 

At this point, in her usual take-charge way, Puleng confronted the problem.

PM: Constantly fighting, not feeling good. But my children were so connected with their father. He wasn’t actually good to them, but he was their father. Anyway, we just separated for a couple of months. I started to think of ways to make him come to his senses. I would say, “We’re still a family, you’d better get out of this other stuff. Remember, you’re part of this success. Get yourself organized.” I went and got a court interdict for what it was that was stopping him -- drinking, fighting. He had to obey the interdict, or else...

PM: It worked. I think now we are in the fourth year that he stopped drinking. He’s self-employed now. Here in Kroonstad. Building stuff, construction.

Bad education

The achievements of Puleng and Ntataise are even more impressive when seen against the stark backdrop of South Africa’s educational failures, past and present. The root problem can still be characterized as educational apartheid. In 1994, the majority-rule government, the African National Congress (ANC), assumed the ambitious mandate of providing quality education for all children, but the mandate was, itself, a recipe for failure. Study after study has identified pervasive problems in South Africa’s educational system. These are so numerous that one recent book carries the alarmist title, The Toxic Mix. In a separate article, that book’s author, Graeme Bloch, formerly Education Specialist at the parastatal Development Bank for Southern Africa, argues that, although education has been the largest single item in South Africa’s recent budgets, money is by no means the only problem:

  “Research shows that more money or increased physical infrastructure has surprisingly little impact on the poorer schools. Their failures are due more to how the education process is being ordered, managed and translated into classroom practice. The government must address a complicated nexus of other factors, such as “the need … for an enabling macro-environment for youth development and for large scale programmes that provide hope to all South African youth.”

This “enabling macro-environment” would begin to provide an antidote to the toxic mix. Bloch summarizes a set of further recommendations known as:

The Education Roadmap

proposal #1: bring the relevant parties together in a productive spirit.

proposal #2: facilitate more effective teaching of basic skills, through means including workbooks, better teacher-training, and increased teacher accountability.

proposal #3: drastically improve administration, including coordination between the central government and, especially, the rural and township authorities.

In its thirty-first year, Ntataise has become something of a poster child for ECE in South Africa. Educational apartheid underlines the organization’s success. The central premise on which Ntataise is based, similar to that of Head Start in the US, is that excellent ECE makes children more likely to become successful learners. In addition to working directly with parents and children, by training teachers Ntataise achieves replication. So far, more than 10,000 women have received training, and they have taught more than half a million children. As the details already described, suggest, Ntataise practices the professionalism, consistency, and good management techniques identified by Bloch and others as essential to reform. Finally, by addressing community needs such as health, social welfare, and financial management, Ntataise bolsters 'the macro-environment.'

Ntataise continues to grapple not only with poverty, but with that other African scourge, the HIV epidemic. The morning I visited Rammulotsi, while I waited in the reception area for Puleng to arrive, two women walked in with three toddlers, plus a baby riding on one of the women’s backs. Everyone was well-dressed and scrubbed-looking, which suggests that coming to Ntataise was an event. Unimpeded, they proceeded to the toy library in back. Later, Puleng explained who these guests were.

RS: What are those women and small children doing here?

PM: Very small, and orphaned. Someone is looking after them in their [the care-giver's] house.

RS: Do the women work for you?

PM: No, no, it's just someone in the township. So we say, "Okay, if you're just staying at home with these babies, you can access our toy library [playroom], you can come here once a week.” The children come and get the stimulation that they deserve.    


Women with orphans in toy library.

The good educational practices defined by the Educational Roadmap can be seen in the day-to-day details of Puleng’s current work, much of it performed collaboratively. She sees the personnel part of her job as a way to play her part in the creation of South Africa’s future. Just as Jane recruited and trained her, Puleng, at forty-six, is now in a position to help do the same for women born only a decade or so before the advent of majority rule. One such hire of which Puleng is especially proud is Dikeledi Tsuela,  a young woman she and Jane first spotted bagging groceries at a local supermarket, and looking for a better job. Still in their twenties, Dikeledi, a receptionist who also works in the toy library, and Puleng’s extremely capable Administrative Assistant, Cecilia Mpongo, represent the new generation.  

Fund-raising is more complex and laborious, entailing numerous detailed reports and grant applications, both to the South African government and private donors. The government’s administrative shortcomings, highlighted by Graeme Bloch and others, have constituted an obstacle, but the pragmatism of leaders like Jane Evans and Puleng Motoseneng has allowed Ntataise to overcome this obstacle. The beginnings, however, were anything but smooth. 

PM: I remember, we had a big one [government grant proposal]. We went into filling out these huge forms. After I went to the orientation meeting, where they explained what this thing was all about, I said, “This one is perfect. We’ll take it.” To my disappointment, we didn’t get it. We had to go submit it in Pretoria, too far. Then, something terrible happened that day. We got lost in Pretoria. Four minutes late. Michelle [van der Merwe, another Ntataise administrator] stopped the car in the road, and I ran to that building.

RS: What did they say?

PM: “It’s late, you’re late.” And it was like all the work we had done …

RS: That’s really awful.

PM: And this was my first experience with fund-raising. And I think it was better like this than if it [the application] was submitted, and then they said, “Sorry,” and made up something. For me, it was a big lesson. Very hard. I started to think about all the time I had spent, to collect all of this, everyone involved to compile this, my accountants, to do the budget.  And we come home without anything.

Of course, Puleng persevered.

PM: I’ve started to like fund-raising now. That is my strength. I’m doing all it takes to make someone think, “We have to invest in this.”              

In 2005, the organization began receiving government recognition and money. Of course, there are many strings attached, but, having weathered that first fiasco, Puleng has learned how to work within the cumbersome, often frustrating, system. Recently, Puleng and the other Ntataise leaders  landed two major grants, one of which combines outreach with a controlled study of results. 

PM: Right after we identify the children, we conduct a baseline, we test them as to where they are in terms of knowledge, needs, and so on. Before any intervention. So it’s not just a programme we say is good. We say, “Look at the results.” … During the first meeting, in February, I said to the parents, “You know what? You might be thinking, “We’re sitting here in the sun, meeting children, playing with toys. We don’t have work, we don’t have food. What’s the use of sitting here?” And I said, “I know it’s very far, but I want you to think that we’re starting something here. Just think, ‘I’m doing something good for my child.’ ”


Note: Most material for this essay comes from three interviews with Puleng Motsoeneng; a conversation with Ntataise’s founding Director Jane Evans; and Ntataise annual reports for 2008, 2009 & 2010. The essay is the basis for Chapter One in my book, Uhuru Revisited: Interviews with African Pro-Democracy Leaders (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press).

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