Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Overhauling education in SA

AS A YOUNG South African I have recently been trying to grapple with the idea that my generation has not inherited a new South Africa but a country that is under reconstruction every day.
I do not take lightly the significance of the 1994 elections and the contested Truth and Reconciliation Commission which marked the importance of people telling their stories in order to make meaning of our collective and individual past, but something is amiss.
There is no common theme to agree upon when looking at South Africa’s narrative but mostly complex interpretations.
The complexities and interpretations of South Africa’s past have implications for my generation: ranging from those who were toddlers or just born in 1990 and those starting school in 1994.
We oscillate between the luckiest generation where there is a fluid movement between the races for some where experiences and ideas can be exchanged.
But for others who are still trying to overcome the barriers of social class and the rural/urban divide, the new South Africa has not yielded much hope.
Education has become the central focus in this transition.
This became clearer to me recently in a conversation with a young woman who is struggling to find a job.
She has the qualifications to be a security guard and she has a matric certificate. In order to get a job as a security guard she often has to pay money out before she is hired.She lost her previous job working in a restaurant because she did not have money to cover her transport to work every day.
While listening to her experience I reflected on how education had positioned us in two different worlds: my privileged education gave me the option of university and further studies and opportunities while she was not guaranteed this due to the intersectionality of class, race and gender which are compounded by one’s quality of education.
I fear that I potentially come across as someone rehashing the issues that have become the norm in South Africa, but the truth is, coming to grips with the new South Africa means unpacking the complexities.
I emerged from high school expecting neat answers and solutions as maths theorems had taught me to do, only to be ushered into a world where there are no neat lines and solutions.
Understanding a new order as many have to do when an entire government is overturned, as was the case in South Africa, means more than policy and legislation is needed to do the trick.
A new order meant an entire nation had to undo their psyches when South Africa became a democratic country, but little has changed.
Why is it that the same mistakes keep happening such as teacher strikes when Grade 12pupils are weeks away from exams?
If education is central to transforming society, when are we going to seriously realise that the system is failing dismally?
Through my interactions with young people still in high school I have noticed that there is a level of cynicism and anger festering over the disruptions around their education.
The strike might mean no school (which is usually a good thing when one is in school) for some, but it also means insecure futures for others.
Many people have rallied around schools, offering their services at teaching and tutoring to buffer the situation, but this seems to be like placing a plaster on a wound that ought to have stitches or reconstructive surgery.
A systemic overhaul is an option that needs to be taken seriously. It is not sufficient to keep patching up the issues at the response of a strike or major failures.
When district offices are clearly identified as corrupt and lacking in efficiency, why do they continue to operate as though everything were normal?
When schools have the capacity for 100 Grade 12 students, but fewer than 10 are enrolled, what does this say about the efficacy of the school management?
South Africa is not the first country to emerge from a complex past. Educational reform needs to be a priority in this transitional state.
We need to learn from other countries that made a serious commitment to education beyond the rhetoric we see from our leaders.
If mass education is to be beneficial then difficult decisions need to be taken before we reach a point of utter chaos with more pupils being disadvantaged.

This article was published in today's Daily Dispatch

Thursday, September 2, 2010

What's in a name...?

About a month ago I witnessed my sister's traditional wedding where she emerged not only as Mrs so-and-so but with a brand new name, Nokhwezi* as opposed to Zimasa* as she is commonly known. The practice of a new bride changing both name and surname is an age-old practice across many cultures to some extent or another. The new bride(makoti) is supposed to identify with her new family hence a whole new identity is created for her, including a new identity document. It is important to note that the groom's name and surname have remained intact. The wedding day also included a wardrobe change where umakoti had to wear new clothes that symbolize her status as the new bride. Again, the groom didn’t change anything. The day ended with my sister sitting on a grass mat(ikhukho) and her husband on a chair listening to older women telling them about the new adventure ahead.

Such practices surrounding women and their status in relationships in relation to men have been under much scrutiny over the years because of the question of equality. These practices are usually central to the coming of age rituals and the most obvious being marriage where the women "takes" her husband's surname and in my sister’s case and many Xhosa women a new name as well. I was shocked to find out that Home Affairs does the surname change automatically once the papers are signed without giving women the choice of keeping their own surnames (prior arrangements have to be done for this). Some women have challenged this practice by double-barreling their surname thus having two surnames and for the few who choose to keep their surnames, it’s an administrative nightmare in various contexts, especially when children are born. I have heard of few men who double barrel their surnames.

Many will argue that the naming practice is an indication of the married woman being accepted into her husband’s family, but if this is the case, why doesn’t the groom get a new name for being accepted into the bride’s family? If men and women are equal in South Africa, why do they not have equal status even at the Home Affairs office? Surely if the woman's surname changes, the husband’s surname should change as well? I understand there are complex issues in marriage, especially where people seem to be in limbo between traditional practices and recognising women as individuals who do not need to be owned or handed over from their fathers to their husbands. The structure of marriage runs deeper than the rituals as families and society get involved. The practice of lobola is central to the idea that marriage is about bringing two families together (and the negotiations are performed by the patriarchs in the respective families), but is this really the case; when the relationship is tough and ends in divorce, how many people consider that there was an exchange that was binding families and not just individuals? And lobola opens another can of worms as debates have been raging about why women do not pay lobola as men do seeing as we want equal status with men on all levels. Customary marriages are also another quandary. If a man can have more than one wife, can a wife have more than one husband?

It may seem that I’m being flippant about these issues but I recognise there’s a historical element to the question of these rituals and their meanings in society and people place value on the heritage, a particularly patriarchal heritage. I’m not anti-matrimony, but the inequalities in the name of culture and what is “normal” need to be looked at closely. Some may argue “what’s in a name”? The names and the labels we ascribe to ourselves as men and women are central to how we make meaning of ourselves and experiences in the world. I respect the decision for people who enter into marriage and the practices that abound, out of choice, not simply what is expected of them which is often the case with many rituals that are still practiced.

*Names have been changed