Friday, December 23, 2011

why do i blog?

I have been blogging for almost two years. When I started the blog I thought it was going to be a distraction from the arduous (and often painful) process of researching and writing up my Masters thesis. Much to my surprise I have been a keen and consistent blogger with regular readers who have encouraged me to keep writing. In spite of the limited readership of friends, family and facebook friends, I have enjoyed the process of thinking, “what shall I blog about this week?”.

A few months ago someone asked me why I blog. My response referenced bell hooks and how her writing had inspired me to give myself the opportunity to write, even though I wasn’t certain that my writing caused waves or whether there would be any faithful readers to entertain my thoughts. I discovered bell hooks in my third year and fell in love with her voice that made complex and heavy issues accessible and worth consideration. She gave me the words to understand some of the angst I was feeling at the time but was not able to express because I had not found the words to describe my frustrations with how I often view the world.

However, the real reason I carried on with writing regularly (which led to my first article in the Daily Dispatch and a little later this blog) was my encounter with Nontsizi Mgqwetho’s writing. Her voice has been my secret muse since my Honours year while doing isiXhosa literature. The thought of studying literature in an insignificant language (spoken by less than 30% of the people in South Africa) was a battle considering that I had majored in English literature during my undergrad and people had never questioned this. In spite of the scorn of studying literature in an African language I persisted and discovered a wealth of knowledge from books I may have never read if I had not taken isiXhosa as a course in my 3rd year at Rhodes.

I encountered Nontsizi’s writing through a friend who was reading for her Masters in English literature at the time. Nontsizi wrote poetry in newspapers in the 1920s. There hasn’t been enough research into her work apart from Jeff Opland’s collection of her work A Nation’s Bounty: the poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho. Her provocative voice in a male dominated era and medium captured my attention as a young woman in the 21st century. And I wondered: if she had the opportunities I have (access to the web and other forms of social media), her voice and writing may have charged many other minds into action. I don't know if she would accept the accusation of being a trailblazer as I see her, but she had a way of saying what she wanted to say unapologetically.

Her words resonate within me everyday: Asinakuthula umhlaba ubolile (we cannot keep quiet while the world is in shambles). This simple and profound sentiment makes sense to me now more than ever. There is still more that needs to be said about the leadership in this country, the same way Nontsizi addressed the fraught politics of her time. There is even more to be said about the position of women in our society the same way Nontsizi praised women like Charlotte Maxeke for their successes in the 1920s.

So I’ll keep blogging in the new year in the hope that my writing voice will add to the need for women to find spaces to express themselves as my blog has allowed me to do since 2010. Next year I will be in the real world as a teacher and I anticipate there will be endless stories to share from my wonderful school and the learners I will encounter...the best is yet to come, Woza 2012!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

being my mother's daughter

I will not be spending Christmas at home with my mother this year. I had the conversation with Mama explaining my change of heart and she sent me an sms which began with the sentence “I want you to carry on with your life...”.Being designated the baby in the family, I finally felt like I was being given permission to grow up (this is significant now that I’m finally moving to anoher province). Granted, this process began when I left home and moved into hostel and later to varsity. However the apron strings had never been fully severed. And spending Christmas away from Mama means some confirmation that it is possible for the apron strings to be cut.

Amongst the strange conversations I have had with Mama, the most vivid in my memory was about gratitude; where she was expressing how grateful she is that I chose her to be my mother. Amongst Mama’s ideas about the world, she believes that before we are born our souls are always alive and view the world from a celestial or spiritual realm of the unborn (I never asked if this is where the ancestors are as well). While watching the world, our souls are looking for wombs to be born through and the kind of woman we would like to raise and mother us. I chose my mother. It’s quite unsettling to think that I could make such a choice before I was physically born. And that amongst all the women in the world I would choose someone like Mama. Perhaps she is the only woman who would have been able to show me what compassion, empathy, resilience, fragility and vulnerability really mean.

Mother-daughter relationships are possibly the most complex relationships especially when they are fraught with an intimacy that leads to both pain and joy. Much of who I am has been shaped by what Mama has taught me and the values she raised me with. These have made me umntu, a person. However, my darkest moments where the carpet has been ripped from beneath my feet have also been a result of being raised by someone like my mother. The shattered pieces and insecurities still remain but being my mother’s daughter has taught me the importance of forgiveness.

I have never walked in Mama's shoes, yet I have been her golden child and her worst critic, which makes me wonder if I really want to be a mother. There are no guarantees when a mother (like mine) gives birth to a daughter (like me) into a world she does not trust nor feel can be a place for her to claim, but she is expected to teach a child how to “be” in the world. In spite of the unwritten loyalty between parents and children, there are no guarantees that the rules will not be broken by both the mother and the child; shifting the expectations where the mother should be the caregiver and the child being cared for.

Ukuthwala umntwana, ukuba nzima (to carry a child, to be heavy with child) is both biological and sacred; a moment and journey that is fraught with the legacy and shadows of grandmothers, great-grandmothers, ookhokho (ancestors), the living dead who raised children in difficult times. Before my grandmother passed away I listened to Bhele (my grandmother) tell me about her step-mother (Ma’Radebe,my great-grandmother’s clan name. It is common practice for people to be referred to by their clan names rather than their first names amongst Xhosa people ).Bhele and Ma'Radebe had a fraught relationship as some step-mothers and daughters do. I couldn’t believe that Ma’Radebe was the same woman who had raised my mother as both Mama and Bhele had contradicting memories about what my great-grandmother meant to both of them. According to Mama she was wonder-woman and according to Bhele she was the villan. This has always intrigued me while watching the relationship Mama had with Bhele, and the relationship Mama has with my sisters and I.

Being my mother’s daughter, I sometimes wonder if there’s a wretched soul hoping to be born and whether I will be their chosen one. My eldest sister seems to think that there’s a child-shaped space in the psyche of all women, that we all have to have children otherwise we will spend the rest of our lives feeling like something is missing. I don’t think this is a compelling argument for me to have a child, but the truth is, into zangomso asizazi (we don’t know what the future holds). I might be as lucky as Zeus, and Athena could pop out from my head any day!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

a room of one's own

The first time I had my own bed was in high school. I moved into hostel when I was 16 and shared a dorm room with 3 other friends. The only possessions I had were in a single bag my mother bought from PEP. Prior to moving into hostel I’d always shared a bed or mattress with my sister. We learned the economy of space and the importance of sharing when we moved around during our childhood, often into one-roomed flats. My parents shared a single bed and my sister and I slept on the floor.

Sharing space and having no privacy was part of my childhood and early teens. Having no space to be and think was the norm. It was only in Grade 12, where in hostel it was a matric privilege to have a room of one's own that I began to relish the endless joy of having my own room with a key and a lock. My own private space to think. It was by leaving the one-roomed flat (that I called home) that I was able to have a room of my own.

I have bitter-sweet memories of sharing space with my family in cramped rooms. No-one had to tell me but I knew that having space in the world where the outside can't come in is a privilege for many young women who grow up in poor families and can't afford the middle class idea of home and space: where everyone has their own room and cupboard to store, control and protect the possessions they have. Having a room means privacy and a space to be alone and even to be naked unashamedly. To be quiet with one’s thoughts or be allowed to sleep with no disturbances and even a place to hide. I have learned to love being alone and it often feels as though it's a privilege that someone can take away from me.

Yesterday I handed back my keys to my landlord for the flat I've been renting for the past year. Seeing the empty room I wondered about the stuff and things I’ve accumulated since my arrival in Grahamstown. Now that I have to move to another city I wonder why I feel the need to own stuff and things. Instead of one bag as I did when I moved into hostel almost 10 years ago, now I have boxes with books and handbags and odds and ends I’ve convinced myself I need. I can’t take any of them home (where my family is) because I live out of a suitcase and share a room with my sister and nephew. I grew up living with the bare necessities: school uniform and clothes that I could share with my sister, but now my bare necessities seem to include books, handbags and jewelry and scarves that I still haven’t been able to give away in spite of moving to another province.

As I look for a place to stay in Cape Town for next year, I am reminded of my restless childhood where we always seemed to be in between places. Each time we moved was a negotiation of what was necessary and what possessions were a luxury because we always seemed to be moving to smaller and smaller spaces (until our most recent move 5 years ago where we moved into a house with 2 bedrooms and proper cupboards). One would think after all the moving experiences I have had; I would have learned not cling to anything because things are just things and can be easily destroyed or taken away from me. However, I still like to think of myself as having enough. And somehow I will find another room of my own which will have enough space for the stuff and things I have accumulated. This shouldn’t be a luxury, but a part of growing up and finding somewhere to hide when it is necessary and be allowed to negotiate entrance into the world as I wish.

[*title from Virginia Woolf’s work]

Monday, November 21, 2011

the monster in my head...academic writing

I don’t have an image of monsters except for the ones in cartoons and the story books I’ve read. And in spite of my active imagination, as a child I was never indulged to “believe in” monsters even though I read about them a lot. So the monster I have in mind is a different kind. It’s the intangible mental block that writers don’t talk about. In academic circles, writing is assumed as something students will learn in university and become better with over the years. Almost 6 years later and the monster of academic writing has become strongly established in my mind...a month before I am supposed to hand in the Masters thesis.

I have never been taught how to write academically. I first became aware of academic writing in my second year while doing Philosophy 2 and English 2. Initially I thought I was stupid and would never make it to third year and my whole life would unravel before my eyes. What was worse, I seemed to be the only person carrying this shadow and monster with me into every tut where I was required to hand in written work. All the students in my undergrad classes had mastered the “smart swag” where everyone except me, knew how to speak and write Philosophy. After conversations with a trusted friend about my angst and bursting into tears in a lecturer’s office because in my mind I heard “you can’t write”, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

I told my Philosophy tutor and she tried to allay my fears. The action plan we put together required me to hand in any writing I had to do a week before the deadline and she would check it and talk me through my thoughts and “tighten the wording”. I would then go back to her comments and rework the writing afresh for handing in. Throughout the process, I missed the memo that writing is a process that requires work. Instead I convinced myself I was stupid. The process was repeated again while doing English 3 when a friend’s mom assisted me (she had known me since Grade 1 and had an understanding of some of the struggles of aspiring writers).

What I didn’t realise was that even though I was planting seeds for the hard work that is academic writing, there are still many assumptions in the process of becoming a writer. And now I am sitting with the process of doing the process again, but something is amiss. The problem with academic writing is that it is one of those assumed practices in university where everyone always tells me “it will come together, you’ll see”. The other assumption is that if one is the model student who does the necessary reading and can articulate their ideas verbally, they will eventually find the rhythm of the expected kind of writing. And this is a dangerous assumption. There’s nothing normal about building an argument. It is mental work that requires some kind of apprenticeship or guidance, beyond the reading that students are expected to do.

Then there is the conundrum of adding my voice to academic writing. I want my writing to sound like me and I have learned that every time I do this, I am told I’m too wordy or the writing is woolly and difficult to other words, verbosity. And perhaps that’s how my voice is—too much. I am invested in the process of writing not purely as an academic exercise but writing has always helped me make sense of my ideas and place in the world, but somehow when it comes to formal academic writing, I fall short.

The irony is that I have written many articles for newspapers and people who read my work have warned me of my errors but have worked through them with me and I have been able to develop as a writer. Those who read the final product are always excited about what I’ve written and perhaps this adds to the confusion of what it means to be a writer: because this suggests that when I write for myself, I write with a different tone, when I write for people, it’s another tone and when I write essays, it’s another voice. I am aware that writing pithy opinion pieces is different from writing a thesis and that’s okay. But something’s got to give...why is academic writing made to seem like it is a mountain that needs perseverance? And once one has been to the top of that mountain, they may decide to stay up there with their smugness of smartness or discover there’s another mountain to climb, Mount PhD!

The added anxiety has been through listening to friends who have sailed through doing Masters in a year, others have managed to do 2 Masters back to back, others have swiftly moved from writing a Masters into their PhD in record time. And I consider that almost two years later, I still struggle with the writing.
Yes, this is a pity party blog post because I need some enlightenment about what the problem is. Is it the Englishness coupled with learning to structure my thoughts in a language that is my primary language but still doesn’t come easy?

I know I am not the first person to have this angst, but I get the feeling there’s shame in not being able to write academically so those who have struggled with this keep quiet about it because no-one wants to look like they can’t make it in academia, with all the pressures of deadlines while trying to construct an argument and choosing the correct words. The truth is though, I can’t decide if academic writing is a myth in academia or the monster and shadow I have carried with me while trying to master the university code of understanding the process of knowledge production, or simply trying to show that I know what I’m writing about.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Ndisihloniphile aha moment with my education!

Ndisihloniphile isikolo...After yet another long meeting with my supervisor, analysing and pouring over the curriculum documents relevant to teaching reading in the Foundation Phase, it finally dawned on me: education reform is a process. I have always taken this for granted...or this has never been important to understand as I have always sailed through school and achieved accordingly with no conception of the hardships that some peers may have had with understanding their learning. I have never had to contemplate what gradual progress and growth really mean in the context of education. It’s only been through the Masters that my personal experience of learning as well as looking at the process of change in the curriculum reform in South Africa that it has begun to sink in: change is a process. And meaningful change is an arduous and even painful process.

On the level of the curriculum analysis: I have analysed the Revised Curriculum Statement from 2002 tracking the level of focus on reading relevant to teaching reading where isiXhosa is the LoLT. After looking at documents from the Foundations for Learning Campaign (2008), I realised that there has been a gradual recognition in the curriculum for the errors in Curriculum 2000 when curriculum reform was first introduced. In 2000 there was a need to recognise the change that needed to happen in education, a process that began in the 1990s when the new South Africa was about to be born. We amalgamated over 10 departments of education into 1 education system. And whether critics like it or not, in the context of South Africa’s history, this was a milestone.But there were glaring omissiona about the reality of many schools in marginal areas in South Africa.

This led to problems with interpretation. The basics of teaching reading were jettisoned in many schools leaving us with the OBE curriculum that was misunderstood by teachers in the 2000s. The introduction of OBE assumed that teachers would embrace the new curriculum, the wonderful values it espoused and great results would be guaranteed for all. What was forgotten though, was that education reform happens within a social context where individuals such as teachers, parents and learners who have a vested interest in education are part of a society in transition. With a vision of where education can be in this country-where it can be about social justice and equality-we didn’t have a sense of the process it might take to get there. The birth of South Africa meant that growth had begun, not that we had arrived and the same applies with the curriculum: having a new curriculum from a divided system of education was only the beginning. So OBE had the learning outcomes and the assessment standards, but without the recognition that starting with the outcomes in mind also means having a vision of how to get there. And without the recognition of this transition that we are still making in South Africa, the curriculum has not been a tool for liberation because siye saphanga ubude (we bit more than we could chew), in isiXhosa we say “we gulped down growth/expectations”.

And so we sit with an education system that appears to be at a standstill because the assumption is that another curriculum shift is underway. But the new curriculum known as CAPS is an attempt to address the process of achieving the outcomes and supporting teachers further. I’m anticipating this shift to have it’s own costly mistakes, but it is part of the process of learning and getting things right in this country’s education.

On a personal level: I have taken my own growth for granted and have been learning through the Masters “it takes a lifetime to know who you are” (from Stimela’s song, Go on). Somewhere while growing up I missed the memo that I am on a journey (and I’m still not sure about the destination) and journeys have detours. I have agonised with life and trying to “find my feet” in the midst of trying to understand the topic I chose for my Masters project to the point where I convinced myself I would not finish and not finishing would mean I am a failure.

So I persevered and I am still not finished with the thesis and the deadlines I set seem to be going awry, and that’s okay. Life happens and it’s allowed to happen. My education for the past 2 years became fused with my own growth that I’ve never given myself the chance to do because I have been too concerned about keeping things together. And when things fell apart it took me a while to be okay with things falling apart, but somehow, they’ll come back together again, and fall apart again and the journey will keep unfolding.

I once told someone I was trying to find my feet and his response seemed so trite, but in retrospect it was true. He told me that while trying to “find my feet” I’ll realise that I’ve always had them and they’ve been firmly planted to the ground. Clich├ęs are often viewed with derision and taken for granted, but somehow, this is where some truth lies in understanding what life might be about: Life is a journey...enjoy the ride!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

hewers of wood, drawers of water

"We shall reject the whole system of Bantu Education whose aim is to reduce us, mentally and physically, into 'hewers of wood and drawers of water'."
Soweto Sudents Representative Council, 1976.

I moved into my current flat almost a year ago. Since I've moved in there's been a construction of yet another block of flats in Grahamstown-Rhini. It's been the constant background noise with trucks humming and bricks being laid forming the latest addition to the property boom in the small town.

Part of the construction site has been the builders, black and coloured men of various ages. I walk by them every single day. I walk by them when I go swimming in the morning and when I’m on my way back, when I go to campus and when I walk back and any other time I leave my flat during the day, they are there. As the building gets taller and forms shape they are now the first people I see when I open my curtains.

I don't know the names nor the faces of these men. If they greet me, I might nod or smile back depending on whether they say “sexy…baby or sisi”. But like most men who are construction workers they always stare when I walk by and every now and then there'll be a whistle or a comment about “ndifun'uhamba nawe baby” (take me with you baby) or something about my thighs. I never respond because at this point in my life, what's the use, seeing as men have been oogling me since I was 12.

When I do catch a glance at some of these men standing along the wall waiting for their day to begin, I can't help but wonder "who are these people?" Fathers, brothers, sons, boyfriends, lovers, friends...they are people. And then I wonder what their stories might be, especially the ones with scrawny arms throwing and catching bricks with bravado and ease, but look like they ought to be in school

As I watch the building form a frame and soon to be finished, I wonder where their next job will come from. I also wonder what it's like to build an apartment block with rent the builder could never afford nor even enjoy the comfort of a freshly built sturdy building. More importantly I wonder what it's like to build something you know can never be yours.

These men are the working class men in this country who disappear once the job is done. Perhaps they didn't want to be hewers of bricks and drawers of water, but that's what they've become...

They've built the apartments with such precision and care, but have they been able to construct their own lives with that much precision and care? Have they ever had the opportunity to consider being the builders of their own lives or are these just my middle class concerns as a student at the cusp of the adult world? Because the truth is, the new South Africa needs the working class to assist the project of creating spaces for the burgeoning middle class. Is there enough room in this country for all our dreams to flourish the same way new constructions flourish everywhere around us?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The great divide: policy and practice in our classrooms

Between 1994 and 2007, 160 policy texts were written related to changes in the Department of Education (now known as Basic Education). This has been dubbed as “policy-mania” and one of the symptoms of the “education crises” in this country. This “policy-mania” is ironic given that many of these policies have proven to be ineffective and resulted in a mismatch between practice and policy. This chasm further exacerbates the inequalities we see in our education system where there are flourishing schools for people who can pay fees and poor performing schools for working class parents.

An example of a policy text is the Foundations for Learning , a clear response to the low literacy levels amongst learners in the Foundation Phase (FP). In spite of this policy (released in 2008), further assessments have shown that learners are still failing dismally and the results can be mapped out along socio-economic lines where provinces such as Gauteng and the Western Cape perform better than Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. The Foundations for Learning Campaign was an attempt to support teachers with lesson plans and clear standards and expectations that could be used to pace their teaching in order to ensure that learners reach the necessary literacy levels at the end of the year.

As part of my masters research I interviewed teachers about their experiences of teaching reading in the FP and how policy has affected their practice. The teachers (from Quintile 3 schools teaching Grade 1) shared the challenges they have faced especially in applying this policy. They shared how the haphazard implementation of the policy has been and ineffective in changing their practices thus they remain using their own methods of teaching(which often conflict with curriculum standards).

One of the major challenges is the fraught relationship between district officials and teachers, where monitoring only happens for moderation once or twice a year without consistent support in light of new policies that teachers are expected to make sense of. I site this example as it has been revealing of how a policy that is meant to empower teachers and change practice has widened the gap between performance in schools for the rich and schools for the poor.

The challenge with any policy document is making it meaningful for the context that it should be applied within. Part of this challenge is that policy is written by people who sit in offices with little or no understanding of the complexities in classrooms and schools. International standards from countries such as the United States of America or the United Kingdom are used to set expectations for schools in South Africa. This assumes that practices in more affluent countries will be relevant for the majority of the schools in South Africa that serve the poor. These international standards are assumed to be universal and transferrable from one country to another, but this is not the case. It is crucial to learn from other countries but not at the cost of being context-blind at the reality in many of South Africa’s schools.

The top-down approach to policy making in many of the documents related to education widens the gap between officials on all levels (national, provincial and district levels), which has implications for the relationship between teachers and officials, teachers and parents and learners. Where policy has been ineffective, more policy documents have been written to solve the problem. The complexities of understanding who communicates policy to teachers and how teachers interpret policies for themselves could be where the problem lies. It is assumed that a good policy will be well-received because it is pedagogically and politically sound, but if the reader of the document cannot relate or understand it, then the policy remains ineffective. So if the problem in many of our schools is not the lack of policy (as the numbers above show), what is the real problem?

My experience of working in schools through research and volunteering has shown me that the complex relationship between school cultures and policy-making has been taken for granted. Given the nature of education in a country like South Africa, schools are complex spaces with values and practices that are governed by written and unwritten rules. Practices and expectations are reproduced by teachers and learners and are taken for granted to the point where changing them is unthinkable. Teachers and learners embody some practices that they become unconscious habits. Policies may condemn a practice but if it is a core part of the school’s culture there is often little change.Change is a complex process as it relies on the opportunity for change to take place, often beyond a policy imperative, but a change in mindset where the culture of thinking is challenged.

The unwritten rule that seems to be more pervasive in schools and communities is that it is acceptable to offer working class children an inferior quality of education because of the overwhelming effects of poverty on a child’s education. This is further complicated by the fact that many teachers send their own children to better performing schools (predominantly former Model C schools) where they have different expectations of these schools than the schools they teach in. The focus on political banter and power struggles in the Eastern Cape alone is another example of the complexities of what it means to solve the crises in education. The debacle between the National and Provincial government not only takes away attention from solving the real problems in the education system in this province, but it highlights that the culture of chaos exists not only at provincial level but at district and school level.

The education system is an example of the complexities of social practices that have been entrenched and reproduced over the years. To what extent can policy change the way people think and wish to live in this country? Transformation in education was supposed to ensure transformation in society as the values that underpinned the discourse in the 1990s was one of equality, human rights and social justice, but our education system has become an example of how these values are not being achieved.

The kind of citizenship envisaged based on democratic principles where people can be involved in creating better opportunities for themselves is being compromised if the majority of the young people are poor and unemployable and often marginalised.
Thus, the question still begs, what are the solutions? What will it take for education to be a transformative force in South Africa?

Underpinning the challenges in education are the social inequalities where poverty is a marker for how a learner’s educational experience can be hampered. Without eliminating the gap between the rich and the poor, we will continue having two school systems working independently of each other and reproducing the gap between the rich and the poor. Education should be everyone’s problem because the implications of the current failures in the system will affect all South Africans. Without accountability in government and civic involvement in education we are all complicit in the reproduction of practices that undermine the transformation in South Africa.

Friday, October 14, 2011

body politics: my m-cup and my vagina

I first heard about the m-cup (menstrual/moon cups) last year over dinner conversation. I was enthralled by the idea of environmentally friendly and safer methods of menstrual health and I seriously started wondering about all the waste products such as tampons and pads...where do they all go? It also made me wonder about women’s menstrual health and how warped it is considering the adverts on tv (especially for women who cannot afford the expense of tampons and pads).

So I went and bought a moon cup soon after the conversation. I googled more information and read anything and everything. Like most women growing up in conservative families with a mother who taught me “cleanliness is next to Godliness” and all things about sexuality were makings of the devil, my vagina was mostly invisible. The biology lessons at school (with male teachers) showed me cross-sections of tubes and balls that made little sense to me except when I had to label the image during a test. Apart from the monthly bleed and gevoevelling with curious boys in my teens, I knew little about my vagina. And I decided to abstain from sex when I was 15 which meant the vagina was officially silenced.

Watching the Vagina Monologues is where it all began. I hate to be so typical but until that point, I couldn’t really say the word vagina aloud. And to say it in isiXhosa was close to blasphemy. Friends and I tried to find Xhosa words for vagina: usisi, igusha, isinene/inenene, ikuku (sister, sheep, no translation, cookie respectively). But I still couldn’t say much about the vagina. Watching the monologues I realised I related with “My vagina is angry...pissed off!” and much to my dismay, I also related with the old woman who spoke about “down there”.

So when I finally heard about the moon cup and decided to buy it, my mind and heart had to make peace with the fact that my vagina is a real part of my body. When talking about menstrual health and vaginas the conversation mostly becomes about sexuality. I have no regrets about abstaining from sex, but this has meant that I have experienced my vagina as purely a biological process and a no go zone at any other time thus far in my life (and this experience may need a blog post of its own). And yes, conversations with girlfriends who are comfortable with their sex lives are becoming a tad awkward because as a growing woman of 24 I’m an anomaly.

And so the day of reckoning arrived when I was going to trial the m-cup. My body balked. Nothing seemed to work and I didn’t seem to know what I was trying to do. Instead I ended up in pain and exasperated. The websites I read seemed to assume that every woman wanting to use the cup has a sense of what the vagina was REALLY like. And I realised I didn’t and I wasn’t keen to have a conversation with my vagina at the time. So I put the cup away and much to my chagrin, returned to the hard, bleached cotton wool:tampons.

Fast foward: a year later and I decided to revisit the idea of using my m-cup. Part of the motivation has been watching the price of tampons and pads escalate every time I buy them. Not only has this been denting my budget, but again, the thought about the environment surfaced (I have similar questions about disposable nappies, where do they go?). Conversations with more friends who have been evangelising the gospel of the m-cup also helped so the process didn’t seem so daunting anymore. And this time I had a conversation with my vagina every time I had a bath before my cycle began.

It wasn’t dirty or disgusting, but a simple feeling for what it really means to have a vagina. I’m not surprised people who KNOW vaginas love them. They’re soft, warm, welcoming and great muscles. So when I used the cup a few days ago, it was a simple process and my instant reaction was “WOW!”. When I told a friend, her response included the word “intense”. It doesn’t have to be. Vaginas and women’s sexuality are a beautiful thing and I wish we allowed ourselves more time to appreciate our bodies for what they are not purely as a means to an end for sex, but for the pleasure of what they are...beautiful and blossoming.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

body politics: my (african) tongue

“Speak if you can...what are you?” (Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 3)
These are Macbeth’s words when he first encounters the witches. These words have always interested me because Macbeth asks the witches to speak in order to know who they are. Macbeth assumes that they have the ability to speak and that they will speak a language he will understand and thus the mystery of who they are will unfold. Throughout the play, Macbeth’s interaction with the witches is through a meaning making process where he is desperate to understand their mysterious proclamations about his destiny. It is through speaking, language, communication, that Macbeth and the witches come to understand each other or not...hence the tragedy that befalls Macbeth?

When we speak, we inevitably convey meaning about who we are and what we believe, hence language and who we are—our identity (a portmanteau word)—cannot be separated. What is even more fascinating is that people will use the discourse we use, the jokes we make, whether we use slang or expletives or not, as clues for understanding who we are.

I have always been fascinated by the word “mother-tongue” (see blog post April 20 2011). My mother-tongue is isiXhosa and English is my primary language. The interplay of these languages in my life and how they have formed my reality adds to the value of being bilingual. Language has always been a tool for expressing myself and thoughts within contexts with people who attempt to understand who I am based on the language I speak or the words I use. A pertinent example are the comments people make when I speak isiXhosa. My own mother often comments that ndikhumsha isiXhosa, I speak isiXhosa with an English accent and this often leaves people wondering about whether or not I am Xhosa (culturally). When I speak English, many people also feel compelled to tell me “You speak English so beautifully...where did you learn to speak such beautiful English?”(I often never know what to make of this hence I haven’t even blogged about it yet.)

Something as small as the tongue allows the opportunity for communication to be more than functional but can also lend itself to existential questioning about who we are in the world and how we experience the world through language. The complexity of the physical body, how we learn to speak and use language, is both a biological and cultural process we possibly take for granted. Learning language also means learning the social rules about the language and the people who speak it. My tongue means language and language means perceptions and communicating what I know about the world and who I am; a risky process of exposing myself and my thoughts.

I recently attended a language practioner’s conference in East London. People were sharing views about the work they do encouraging literacy and language policy for the development of African languages. This was an opportunity for people who are also working with projects related to mother-tongue-based-bilingual education to share their research. I presented research on my Masters research looking at the teaching of reading in classes where children are learning in their mother-tongue, isiXhosa. The two days ended in reflections about what the future of African languages is in educational institutions and how this frames the multicultural and multilingual project in South Africa. What will it take to shift the dominance of English in the education system? And what will it take for the use of African languages in the education system to be seen as something beneficial for all people who consider themselves South Africans? Surely the development of African languages through the education system, should be everybody’s concern, not only speakers of the African languages?

The irony of this blog post is that I am writing about the use and marginalisation of African languages, in English and not isiXhosa...a further complexity of choice and language use. It’s a complexity I am making peace with because the people who have access to this blog probably read English and not isiXhosa.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


"Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that a son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another."
Nelson Mandela

One of the emerging themes in my Masters research has been the idea of the “opportunity-to-learn” in a classroom setting. This relates to how time is used in the classroom and how learning happens in the reading lessons I’ve been observing. It is also about how to assess the extent of learning in any given lesson: how do teachers know when learners have sufficiently learned something?

The question of the expectations teachers may have of learners is also pertinent: if a teacher has an hour to teach something every single day for a week, how will they be satisfied that learning has taken place? I’ve watched and replayed lessons where teachers spend hours teaching children about reading and writing but the children fail to meet the competencies that are expected of grade 1 learners in this country(and generally everywhere in the world). The irony here is that, the opportunity-to-learn has been created because a teacher comes to school, teaches within a given time and may even provide homework, but learners still battle with learning. If learners do not achieve anything in a given time, does that mean that the teacher has failed? Does that nullify the opportunity that has been created for learning to take place? Obviously, I’m writing this within a context where the teaching of reading and writing has become a very complex process in poor classrooms in this country. Teaching in South Africa has become very complex (and this would require a blog post for further explorations).

While ploughing through the data and trying to make sense of the hours of observations I have done in the past two years, I have also spent some time reflecting on my education in relation to the word opportunity. I went to a school that was pedantic about time (and thanks to my Grade 1 teacher I still keep a diary and wear a watch religiously). I have always been conscious of the opportunity of being at school and took for granted the importance of being in a productive school where there were results for all the time we spent in class. The experiences of being in a school like mine (which would also require another blog post of its own), I have realised that the opportunity-to-learn that was created in class for 12 years without fail has been a project that has ensured that my education allows me further opportunities in the world.

The simple “opportunity-to-learn” created in my education has allowed me choices...Because I can read, write and think, I have many options of who I can be in this single lifetime...I could change my career path when I’m 30 and do something completely unrelated to my current interests because I know I can and I have the capabilities to do so. I have opportunities beyond my own imagination. And that’s mindboggling given that the opportunity-to-learn in the classroom is something some learners can only imagine. When I think of opportunity, I think of change and how education is a tool for creating a space where learning is meaningful after the many years of learning...that education can and should be a tool for personal development, but sadly in many classrooms, this is not the case. What a travesty!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

body politics:my skin

I am fascinated by my skin. I think it’s my favourite part of my body.

My fascination began when I was very young and someone told me I was black. It had never been a problem that I was black (in fact I saw myself as umXhosa and not black, but that was not the most important thought when I woke up in the morning). What became a problem was when someone attached a value judgement to the pigment of my skin. We had just moved to the suburbs (an area with more white families than black families at the time) and my sister and I were looking for friends. We approached girls who were our age and applied the same rules we used on the school playground when you wanted to spark conversation with someone, “can we play with you?”. The little girls were startled by the request. One of them ran inside her house and emerged quite soon after with a response “my mother says we cannot play with black children”. Crestfallen, I began to understand that there was something wrong with being black, if it meant people didn’t want to play with you.

I’ve carried my race with me the same way I have carried my skin; it’s not the most important part of who I am but it has helped form the perceptions people have of me. Being in my skin has meant that I’ve been labelled as black and female. Both seem to be a matter of biology but because of the world I live in, being black and female are not innocent labels. They are loaded with bitter-sweet stories.

One of the mantras I have used trying to describe my short journey of becoming has been “I am growing into my own skin”. This has helped me understand the importance of owning my body and the person within this body. This has been a tender balance between narcissism or self-indulgence and appreciating that I am not my skin, there’s more to me than the tangible attributes that people see with the naked eye.
Part of growing into my skin has been appreciating my growing body. A friend and I were recently commiserating about the struggle of finding magazines that speak to our experience as women (for her, a career women-mother-wife in her 40s and for me, a student in her 20s). One of the reasons I battle with magazines is the front cover: both the written and the graphic text of a magazine speaks to who the target market is. Yet even when the “cover girl” is black, there’s always something that says “this is not for you” because after the make up and photoshop, the woman looks like plastic. I think I would have related to “cover girls” like Dolly Ratebe on DRUM magazines in the 60s! The body of women in magazines is always reduced to weight and how to control that weight or how to make our skin lighter, rather than simply appreciating our health. A prime example-adverts about getting rid of stretch marks: surely I can’t be expected to have the body of a 12 year old as some who is 24, it’s just not practical for someone with my genes!

Another fascination with my body has been watching the scars from childhood wounds disappear. Every scar on my body has a story. The stories I have made up in my head have been confirmed by what I see on my skin, but growing older the skin changes, but what of the memories in my head? I recently noticed that a scar I had when I was 12 has completely disappeared but the memory of the burn and the healing process is still in my mind. There are also other scars I can’t explain, mostly because I don’t wish to replay the memory in my mind.

The healing process of the skin became more pertinent when I cut myself while playing chef and cooking dinner for friends recently. The small cut on my finger seemed to bleed endlessly and watching it heal could be a metaphor for something...perhaps life. The skin started healing itself without much of an effort (the plaster I put on obviously helped). Perhaps that’s part of what growth and healing are, simply letting things fall into place and watching them grow rather than being flustered by the blood and the pain that are always a part of the process.

Friday, September 9, 2011

the real diva

I woke up missing Bhele today, my granny. In spite of having a few memories of her, those I have are profound. The last time I saw her was last year, two weeks before she passed away. We had a date, which really means I just spent the afternoon in her room with her as she was already bed-ridden. A date with my gran usually meant chatting with her while people came in and out of her house. She would often boast about her granddaughter from Rhodes coming to visit her. Many people would be stunned as they last saw me as a toddler.

The visit also included digging around for pictures and memories in my gran's room. Above her bed there was always a picture of her in her 20s,looking beautiful and still, as well as pictures of her son and her grandchildren wearing their school uniforms. A picture of me in grade 1 was placed above her mirror opposite her bed. It always made me feel special knowing my picture was in a position where she could see it every morning when she awoke.

We had a great conversation about her experience of raising 6 children in the 1960s and being uprooted from her community to a new place eMdanstane(a township in East London). She was financially independent as a seamstress in town; she never married and became part of a growing and struggling community. She admitted that she was not politically active nor was she religious. Being the daughter of a strict Baptist minister, she was a peg in a round hole. She never conformed to what was expected of her as a woman of her time.She was educated and was later able to open a small business where she sewed clothes for many churches and people in her community.

She has always been a symbol of what is possible for women in spite of the limited choices and oppression we often face. I am always suprised when people say that men are the head of households and women submit to their husbands. In my granny's case, she was her own head. She has always been fondly called Bhele (her clan name) instead of Bhelekazi(which is the female version of the clan name). This has always interested me given the obsession Xhosa people have with the names and titles for the purpose of differentating gender roles.My gran broke many rules and she survived in spite of what society does to women who break the rules and upset social norms of what it means to be a man or a woman.

Some friends often refer to me as a diva. I always laugh at this because I can't help but think of my gran,the real diva in my life. I haven't broken many rules as a growing woman and I often think I should, I think it would make Bhele smile,wherever she is.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

To be or not to be [a teacher]... that is the question...

Last week I had an interview for a teaching post at a private school. I applied because I could and I didn’t think I would get an interview because I don’t have experience teaching in high school. When I was informed I was selected for an interview I had a pseudo-melt down...why had I applied to a private school in the first place?

I decided I wanted to be a teacher when I was 18, in 2005. The decision was based on the belief that being a teacher was a guaranteed opportunity to add value to someone’s life (assuming the job is done correctly). It was also part of a reflection I had been going through at the time seeing as I had been at the same school for 12 years and had great teachers throughout that period(not to deny the fights and tensions with some of the teachers). What I didn’t appreciate fully at the time was the fact that the education I had received was not the norm in South Africa.

Moving to Grahamstown and volunteering at a school in Joza meant coming face to face with the ugly reality of education in South Africa. I never knew that school could close down because toilets had not been fixed. Learners would miss school because of SADTU meetings during school time. Learners were expected to learn in classrooms that had no windows. Resources didn’t arrive on time in order for learning to take place at the beginning of the year and teachers could decided willy nilly whether they were going to arrive at school and teach or not. I met learners who could not read and write in high school because they had floated through a system that didn’t ensure they had the basics to move onto the next grade. This was anomalous with the education I had received and I was infuriated. I began exploring the idea of being a teacher in a school unlike the one I was raised within. I decided I would become a teacher in a township school and be the change I wanted to see in the world. I was not going to reproduce the system by going back to my alma mater and I definitely wasn’t going to teach at a private school and be complicit in the social inequalities as they are played out in education.

The decision to teach has always been coloured with ethics because I see teaching as a tool to be part of transforming South Africa. But being an aspiring teacher and witnessing the level of dysfunction in some schools I have had to consider making a selfish decision: whether to teach at a good school where I can gain experience and knowledge in an environment where teaching is valued as a profession or to be a martyr in a school where the government treats teachers as though they were doing society a favour by being teachers. The schools I have observed in led me to wonder about what change a new eager teacher like me could make in a culture that reproduces and entrenches the lack of opportunities for working class children. It has become the norm to give working class children a bad education in spite of the expectations in the curriculum and the constitution about social justice and equality through education. I still wonder whether a new teacher like me would survive in an environment of chaos, where teaching and learning are compromised daily, not only at a school level but at district, provincial and national level.

Should I be unselfish and enter the second tier of education because it needs good teachers in spite of the reality of the challenges that teachers are facing? I have had numerous conversations with teachers asking me what I want to do after the Masters is complete. They have all been dumbfounded by my consistent reply that I want to be a teacher. The obvious irony is that unlike them, I have options and made the personal choice to consider a career in education that may not necessarily limit me to one classroom for more than 20 years.

In contemplating what teaching and education have come to mean to me, I find that I’m in a rock and a hard place: to take a risk in a school where there are no guarantees for supporting new teachers or a school with a historic and present privilege in a society with a widening gap between the rich and the poor. And whether I decide to teach at a private school or not, I might need to consider the bigger picture rather than the immediate decision of where to teach next year. I don’t have to worry about the outcome from the private school just yet, but simply keep my heart open to any opportunity that will add value to my journey as an aspiring teacher.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The woes of the Eastern Cape...again

THE Eastern Cape is a national disaster. This was the revelation from a joint research report by the Human Sciences Research Council, Department of Social Development and the Africa Strategic Research Corporation (with the ironic title, “The People Matter”). Along with many other people, the only response I could muster was, “ke ngoku?” (and then what?), because this is not much of a revelation, but another report to confirm what anyone in a taxi could have said.

In an effort to guard cynicism or sounding jaded, I listened to the news, and read discussions and summaries of the report. The response by the social development MEC on national radio, stunned me. His consistent response suggested the report was going to help form a strategy that would address the emerging issues. Seventeen years after democracy, and government is still trying to find a strategy to address the province’s challenges; an issue that is “not new”! How is this report different from previous research, in that it will galvanise government into action, which has been lacking since the advent of democracy?

The province’s colonial history, as well as the two Bantustans that existed during apartheid were used as the contextual backdrop for the report. After centuries of oppression and conflicts, it seems the province has a long journey ahead in trying to eradicate structural and (dare I say) psychological poverty. The discourse used in the report, in contextualising the status quo of the province (in relation to SA), could be mirrored against the discourse used to describe Africa in relation to the world; which results in a hopeless blame game of the colonial history, the West’s exploitation of Africa’s resources, and questionable leadership. I make this comparison deliberately because the constant referral to history has been cautioned, as it often absolves us of responsibility for present actions. Is it enough to use history as a justification for the current problems we see daily in the EC?

In reading further sections of the report, my eyes were drawn to the recurring words and phrases relevant to women: “the burden of childrearing falls on older women . . . absent fatherhood . . . women being paid less than men for the same work”. In a province where women are in the demographic majority, poverty is still a gendered narrative where women bear the brunt of social inequalities, often compounded by cultural norms disempowering women further. Gender equity is often a complex issue and the giant white elephant in conservative communities. This is further exacerbated by the discourse about women from prominent SA leaders and the obsession with raising questions of “the advancement of women” during August, in the form of rhetoric and conferences. The quality of life of a poor girl in the EC should make us shudder and wonder about what’s meant by “a better life for all”.

The issue of young people, especially young men, leaving the province for better employment opportunities was also prominent, further highlighting that the province has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country. This speaks to the challenge of the education system, where young people are not equipped to explore other avenues of employment, where entrepreneurship could be a possibility. In spite of boasting four universities with graduates every year, employment opportunities are not being created and graduates from SA are dwindling or disappearing from the province. A friend recently expressed his move to Durban from eQonce as being an issue of capital; he was not able to generate capital to maintain his client base, because of the lack of infrastructural support to maintain a business. This is a travesty, where individuals who are willing to make a contribution by being in the province, and hopefully creating employment for others, find this option impossible.

One of the positive aspects highlighted in the report was the number of people eligible to receive social grants, resulting in the province having the “widest coverage of social assistance in the country”. Whether the number of people receiving the grant is decreasing or increasing is not clear, because this kind of state security is a constitutional right. What is never clear and has been questioned by other writers elsewhere is: though government does guarantee state security in the form of the social welfare grant, why is the right to employment not guaranteed? Where people will be able to judge the state on whether people are getting opportunities for employment instead of relying on what is negatively perceived as a handout (especially where the dominant grant in all districts is the child support grant). Granted, SA is a state in transition, but does this transition allow for employment opportunities, as opposed to more people becoming dependent on the social security system?

It is not my intention to be alarmist, but there can never be enough noise about the flagrant disregard of human rights and the constant loss of dignity for more than 80% of the EC’s people. And we ought to make more noise until we get things right. Men and women need to make a noise addressing the issue of gender inequality. This should not only happen during “Women’s month”, as if this is a minor, auxiliary problem in SA. In spite of the massification of our education system, young people in classrooms need to make a noise about the quality of their education and the implications this has on their present and future livelihoods.

My final response to this report was withdrawing into my imagination and trying to visualise a different reality for the Eastern Cape. It is easy to imagine a prosperous province, but can we equally imagine the active process of achieving that change? Where government has failed, our only recourse is to begin to imagine different leaders in our communities and custodians in public office, and perhaps vote accordingly. Leaders who will not be afraid of making difficult and ethical decisions about where and how state resources should be spent. And once we have imagined the change we need, perhaps we could find other solutions that don’t rely on government rescuing us from our woes, because that has left this province “trapped in structural poverty”.

first appeared in the Daily Dispatch,8 August

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

my imagination

While trying not to “throw the baby out with the bath water” I finally responded to the questions I had about Christianity when I was in my third year. They had always been boiling beneath the surface of the appearance I had put together as the good Christian girl. The first question I managed to voice was “why does God have to be father, a man?”; if gender is a social construct then why does God have a gender and being subjected to our petty obsessions about what it means to be a man or a woman? If, as God’s subjects/minions, we could project our issues onto “him” then clearly “he” wasn’t such a great God.

A friend attempted to give an answer that I was not convinced with hence the torrent of questions continued focusing on the Christian family and religion. I decided I wouldn’t run into the arms of any other religion or worldview and I attempted to let go of church and see what image of God I would be left with(I recently discovered Julia Sweeney who helped me laugh at this). Initially I was plagued by the obvious guilt of not having men in cloaks and dresses telling me how to live my life. I also discovered I didn’t need to feign super-spirituality that often involved miracles and healing with people laughing or falling on the floor or bouncing off walls, giddy with the Holy Spirit as I had witnessed in some charismatic churches.

Instead I decided to withdraw and start with the basics: why did I need God in the first place? Could I not handle doubt and the anxieties of being in an ever changing world that I needed a crutch to convince me that everything was going to be alright? And what to make of church? Was it really spiritual family or another sub-culture trying to make sense of the world and convincing people of hope amidst the pretence of changing the world for better in the name of spite of what history had shown us about the church (we need only look at the confusion in Africa alone)?

I haven’t had many answers, instead I have more questions about how to makes sense of my history and the beliefs I once held onto very strongly. But when I realised God wasn’t going to smite me and guilt was a useless emotion, I decided to play with my imagination instead. So what if God was my imagination because I needed to be grateful for the events and grace I couldn’t make sense of in my life? I recognise that in many of the events that have led to where I am, I made some decisions-simply cause and effect-no booming voice from the sky or burning bush while on my way to school. But sometimes I can’t help wonder where the genius of realising that I have choices came from because I’ve witnessed people living most of their lives believing that life can simply happen to them without their permission (be it in the form of an oppressive government or relationship or conservative community), where they are subjects and perpetually warding off angry spirits they know nothing of.

I then re-discovered and began to trust my imagination that beckoned to me as a child to see how charmed life really is whether or not I accept it. The point isn’t the answers or the reasons to explain the wickedness or heinous crimes I sometimes see either, but to simply accept that, that’s what it is, life. I like spirituality, a personal and private kind where I don’t have to proselytise but be me as much as I can. That’s my first and only commandment: be you. And perhaps my tattoo, luthando eyona nto because I discovered there are few arguments against love.

All I am left with is my imagination...and fortunately, if I have children one day, I won’t have to teach them about imagination, because my nephews have taught me that’s something kids respond to intuitively. I may however have to advise them about protecting that imagination and allowing it to be unlimited in the quest of finding answers for everything.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

a question of belonging...human solidarity

I’ve just witnessed a very disturbing incident: while walking through Peppergrove Mall, I noticed a young man approach a woman driving a Mercedes Benz with his hands cupped as though he were asking for something. The woman was already in her car and she rolled down her window and shouted: “Listen here, go away, you’re not allowed to be here!” As you can guess the guy is a black and the woman is white. This is not a new scene in our daily lives, where black youngsters are out in the street begging from anybody who looks like they could have any extra cash to spare.

What was disturbing about this incident was what the woman said to the young man: you’re not allowed to be here! What does this mean? Clearly the presence of a beggar makes anyone conscious of their privilege and comfort, uncomfortable in a country like South Africa. Everyday we all encounter people who have to go to bins for any hope of something that even resembles food. What makes a difference is how we respond. Do we ignore someone asking for food or simply shrug and say I’m sorry, while driving away in a fancy car or on the way to Pick ‘n Pay to buy junk food because we have “the munchies”? How do we respond to the reality of poverty that accosts us every single day without fail? Do we become desensitized to it, or simply accept it as status quo?

I deliberately carry no money on me these days because I got tired of lying to someone asking for 50c while I have loose change in my purse. The danger of course is being on a moral high ground about how best to live everyday with people who simply, and often honestly, are asking for food. The obvious response: we don’t want to encourage laziness by simply giving something to someone who hasn’t worked for it. I’ve often convinced myself that food insecurity happens out there in Africa (like a typical South African who forgets that South Africa is part of this continent and refers to any place beyond Gauteng as “up North…Africa”) and not in the daily lives of many South Africans. But then every Tuesday, as I’m walking to campus I am bound to see women and children rummaging through rubbish bags ready to be picked up by the Municipality, and I realise that poverty and hunger are right on my doorstep and it is dehumanising.

Back to the incident that disturbed me: it doesn’t shock me that yet another black person is begging from another white person. What disturbs me is the response: you are not allowed here. Who is allowed here? And where is here? Obviously the young man was just another trespasser and an inconvenience to the woman’s shopping experience, a tiny complex that should be cleared of any riff raff who make us uncomfortable about the reality of this country. How did that woman come to the conclusion that she can tell someone where they do or do not belong?

The question of belonging raises existential questions about who we are as people. The adage umntu ngumntu ngabantu suggests a sense of belonging as people, perhaps a sense of human solidarity; that we are because we have the ability to recognise each others’ humanity. But in the incidence I describe, someone lost their humanity: both people lost their humanity. The white women lost her humanity by denying another person his humanity by telling him he doesn’t belong here and humiliating him and the young black man lost his humanity because he is out begging in a country that strips him of his humanity everyday. And I lost out on an opportunity to become a better human being because I simply walked by without offering the young man anything or questioning the white woman about her response…and I all I could do is write about the incident.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Working class issues and middle class concerns

The obsession with race and class in South Africa always leaves me with questions, usually on the brink of an existential crises. I identify with being a poor South African mostly because of the family history and schizophrenic childhood I had and I identify with the privilege few South Africans have mostly because of the education I’ve received in former “white” institutions such as Rhodes and a 12 year education at Clarendon (a school for girls in East London).

What does this really mean though and why does it matter?
Coming from a poor family (both in terms of income and education) means my family has always aspired to move up the echelons of success which has mostly meant benefiting from a good education and quiet suburbs. So we moved to a school in the suburbs and soon realised that we couldn’t afford to be there. Because the school was a public school, my sister and I were never “kicked out” of the school and so we benefited from the better half of South Africa’s education system premised on a history of privilege for white people in South Africa. Like many peers across South Africa, I was that kid who never seemed to fit in; with white parents always commenting about how I speak so well…that I’m not like other black people.
Going back home, I was aware of our lack where my mother didn’t work and my dad brought home about R500 a week working in a factory on the outskirts of the suburb we had moved to. At school I mastered the middle-class code because I had access to a library at school and in walking distance to where we stayed (note: not “home” but a place we simply stayed). This exposed me to reading and books that allowed my English pronunciation to get better while I was in a school that privileged learners who were articulate. Part of mastering the middle-class code at school meant being exposed to friends’ homes when I went to sleepovers (no-one ever came to sleep over at my “house”). When I went to Lauren’s house I slept in the spare bedroom, but when I went home, I slept on a single bed mattress with my sister on the floor(the first time I had my own room was in Grade 12 when I was in the hostel where it was a matric privilege to have a single room). When I walked into Katy’s house, her bathroom was bigger than the room I shared with my family. I always knew the new South Africa was very problematic.

Come high school, the question was never about whether I was going to varsity or not. I was streamlined into classes where the conversations were about “which varsity are you going to? Wits, UCT, Rhodes or UJ?”. I applied for NSFAS and came to Rhodes, not because I could afford to, but because that was the expected step given that my family had supported me through an education at a school where an exemption was a given.

Throughout this process, I had the best of both worlds; an understanding of the consequences of apartheid. When I looked at the options my family had and some cousins who had remained in township schools, I knew what it meant to be privileged in South Africa. Privilege was always about speaking like a white person. People still acknowledge me based on the accent that I have. Sometimes it’s empowering and sometimes it isn’t. Just last week, I had someone tell me I don’t “sound” like a Xhosa-speaking person. She interrogated me about my family and the person would have been shocked that I know my clan names, maternal and paternal. I’m still asked if I’m black and often told that I look Coloured (I’m never sure if that’s a compliment or not). Last week I was in a panel at Fort Hare University listening to research proposals. In a room of 15 people, a friend and I were the only 2 Black people, this is a university in the new South Africa.

And why does this matter? At face value I am Black and angered by the past, but I know my future is different because I’m in a position of privilege not only because of my education but because the agency I have as someone socialised in a confusing country where privilege is about class and race. I have middle class concerns about low GI bread and whether I should sign up to the gym or not, but at the same time, I am financially insecure: I can’t call my parents and ask for a loan if my scholarship money runs out and my rent is due because my parents are still poor; I am my parents’ pension fund. We don’t own property or even a bond; we’ve been renting other people’s houses for as long as I can remember. So everyday it feels like I’m caught in the crossfire trying to figure out the questions of how best to live in South Africa amidst all the questions of white guilt and black anger or amnesia.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Revisiting black consciousness

While trying to make sense of the “new” South Africa, the born-free generation is constantly being accused of being ignorant of South Africa’s history. My mother always laments “Anazi nto nina...kudala kwasokolwa ngumntu omnyama” (You kids know people have suffered for many years”). In spite of my ambivalence about being part of the born-free generation, I acutely relate to this accusation. So in trying to educate myself I recently revisited Steve Biko’s writing, I write what I like, which I came across in my 2nd year at university along with Franz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks, Du Bois and Satre, thanks to a course in African Philosophy. Before this, my knowledge of “Black” politics and the liberation struggle was what I had watched in Sarafina, read in The Long Walk to Freedom, heard in Letta Mbulu’s lyrics to Not yet uhuru and what I was taught at school (neutral history considering the gaps I discovered when I started reading outside the curriculum) and various documentaries on television.

I had been warned against reading Steve Biko as his writing was dubbed as “too angry”, but in reading it again I have been at odds with his writing as someone living and interacting with a diverse group of people on a daily basis. I do however relate to experiences of averse racism, but in seeking to understand non-racialism in the new South Africa I can’t help but wonder if Black consciousness should be revisited. In spite of the wording, Black Consciousness, by definition has little to do with one’s race but everything to do with a “mental attitude” that seeks to understand emancipation from inferiority and superiority complexes on any grounds and because of the context of apartheid, race was the focus. In my mind this simply suggests a new consciousness pursuing the fundamental freedoms and human rights that every person deserves. Looking at the context in South Africa today, this is very worrying given that there are many people in our country who did not vote last month; not because they did not wish to, but because 5 million people have become invisible as they are without an identity document and live within contexts where access to getting one renders them invisible. These are mostly poor women living in remote areas where service delivery is a myth. This is also happening in the same country where some people are amassing obscene wealth before the ripe age of 30, especially if one is affiliated to the correct political party.

Where black consciousness was central to mobilising against racial oppression, I suspect a class consciousness needs to be considered in addressing the grave inequalities amongst rich and poor people in South Africa. Where black consciousness allowed people to identify with being ‘black’ as a state of mind and denounce the privileges of white superiority by joining in the struggle against racial discrimination, could the same be possible with the class struggle we face? Would people be willing to denounce their privilege and middle class concerns in order to stand in solidarity with poor people where service delivery is not something that people in townships rally over, but South Africans as whole are enraged by—the same way people rallied against racism in spite of the colour of their skin? In trying to move away from the limitations of racial identities, we cannot run away from the class stratification and the consequences of the great divide in the standards of living amongst South Africans.

This requires a little more imagination: can we imagine a South Africa without the class divisions we see? At the moment, civic organisations are building strength in communities across South Africa and attempting to mobilise civic action against the social injustice in our communities. Often the debate about finding African solutions to African problems, fingers are pointed to either big business or the corrupt government or apathy and entitlement people have because of the social welfare system. Whether we understand what causes the inequalities or not, the social injustice in South Africa should offend us all and galvanise us into action. But what does this mean though?

The social movements are critical to this transformation, but those in privileged and influential positions need to start asking questions about their involvement in social injustice and becoming part of a consciousness that seeks to eradicate the challenges we face in the not-so-new South Africa. Where racial markers are still being flippantly or aggressively evoked by leaders such as Julius Malema, attention really ought to be focusing on the underlying issues in the obsession with race, which is the question of poverty. I’m not making light of the racial tensions that still exist in South Africa, but while we worry that white South Africans are becoming alienated because of songs such as “kill the boer”, have we considered millions of South Africans who are alienated without access to basic amenities and basic services that will ensure that they can have the opportunity of becoming citizens rather than subjects in South Africa 17 years after democracy?

(i think this appeared in the Daily Dispatch as my last column...)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

growing up in a cul-de-sac

One of my favourite childhood memories is living in a house in a cul-de-sac. The cul-de-sac allowed my friends and I a different kind of interaction because it became our playground. We knew who lived where and we convinced our selves that we owned that corner of the world: our safe space where the rest of the world never came in. Our weekends were centered around a list of adventures that completed our childhood adventures—cricket matches, roller blades, flying kites, bike rides, climbing rocks and trees and this was all done without leaving our block.

What was significant about my friends and I was how we lived with our differences; a conglomeration of children with various experiences: some were Greek, Italian, South African (Xhosa, English and Afrikaans speaking) rich and poor, boys and girls, teenagers and toddlers. We didn't tolerate each other, we lived and played together. Being kids, it was easier because children are always assumed to be colour-blind. But we were aware of our differences because the games we played often relied on teams so you had to choose wisely between Matthew, who was 3 years old and eager to play, or Stefano who was 12 and convinced he was the best batsman and a girl like me, a keen cricketer with terrible eye-hand coordination.

The obvious tension were the parents who hardly interacted with one another. And they always made us aware that we were an anomaly in the new South Africa but a representation of what non-racialism could possibly mean. We were children first who happened to possess certain attributes such as our different skin colours, languages, experiences and beliefs from home. This multicultural experience was also an extention of our schools that were becoming more racially diverse in the 1990s.

This is obviously a description of the suburban experience in the new South Africa which has become the example of black people moving into the suburbs (often for an array of reasons). Of course the social movement has always been a one-way aspiration in South Africa: black people moving to the suburbs from the townships and not the other way around. These movements reveal that segregation still exists in South Africa: where the previous rules were mandated by law based on racial discrimination, the current rules for movement are unwritten and based on social class-who has money and who does not.

The class conundrum has become clearer as I have grown older, without the shelter of the cul-de-sac where I had friends whose aim in life was to simply have fun and play. The stakes are higher as I grow up in South Africa because I realize that I cannot take anything for granted. Visiting schools in the Grahamstown township makes me value my skill for reading and writing everyday. I do not take it for granted because I realise it is not the norm. The ironies of the new South Africa are so complex that my views of literacy morph everyday when I consider how “reading the world” is so intricately linked with the way we view ourselves as people and what we aspire to become-a way of “being in the world”. The land of milk and honey that democracy promised has made some people’s dreams come to naught because of the limitations of the bad quality education they receive; not because they do not have the abilities to achieve, but because being working class is so damning in South Africa.

Class stratification is nothing new when we consider how humanity functions, but the widening gap and the limited opportunities many have because they are in poor working class communities and schools makes me shudder when I think of the implications this has on the future of an entire generation.

I’m not pining for the cul-de-sac experience where I can hide like I did as a child growing up, but I feel like I’m back at one when I consider the long road ahead when we talk of a quality education in South Africa and how this can really be achieved given the divisions that still exist amongst those who have and those who do not have.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

why i voted...

AFTER casting my vote on Wednesday I chatted to a few people about the
elections. One non-voter said he did not believe in the current system, but
in a plutocracy where educated people should be running the government.

Being a bit ignorant about this I decided to look up plutocracy and discovered it is actually a government system by the wealthy by virtue of their wealth. Given the current phenomenon of many people getting wealthier because of their political affiliations, the notion of a plutocracy isn't too much of a stretch for South Africa.

My housemate and her friend also confessed to exercising their right not to vote. I am never sure how far my judgment should extend on this decision, given that people have the right to choose to vote or not. But the history of the franchise in South Africa, especially for black women, has always led me to take my voting rights seriously. So when people choose not to vote I'm never certain what that means-given that a democracy rests on the mantra "for the people, by the people".

Another friend said she did not vote because there was nobody she wanted to vote for in her constituency in Port Elizabeth. So she decided to stay in Grahamstown. Actually she was disappointed she hadn't registered here because she had finally found a candidate she could support and felt strongly about.

Then a friend who did vote and who was in line at the polling station told
me she was only voting because she had someone to vote for. "Chris
McMichael," she announced. I was surprised by her open confession. Since 1994 I have believed what my mother taught me: "Your vote is your secret".

But my friend had no problem being loud and proud about voting for the
Rhodes campus ward candidate Chris McMichael, a student at Rhodes who is
part of the organisation Students for Social Justice. This small group of students has embraced the notion of young people getting involved in social change and social justice, and one way to do this is to have a candidate in the local election.

Then there are also those I know who voted and left the voting stations
elated. "I'm proud to be able to do this," a second year student commented
as we walked out of the polling station together. I didn't delve into people's thoughts about voting for the ANC or the DA - the lesser evil. Given that the media's attention is centred on this rivalry, it always seems, when we talk about voting, we only have these two political parties as options.

But this is a travesty, given the dissatisfaction people have with the ANC and their uncertainty about the DA, a political party spearheaded by women, with a white woman as the leader nogal. The gender and racial tensions and discourse that still pervade often cloud the real issues about why people should or should not vote. To my mind the local elections are critical and should not be bogged down by ideological
debates. Rather, the conversation should focus on who has evidence of service delivery and who does not, who is able to ensure bucket systems are done away with and how housing improves for those who do not have decent homes.

Given the varied reasons for people casting their vote or not, I contemplated why I had voted. This is my second election. My first was in 2009 in the national elections. Then I voted because I wanted to feel like a citizen who could stake a claim in the decision making processes afforded to me.

On Wednesday I voted because I want to add my voice to the change that needs
to happen in one of the poorest municipalities in the Eastern Cape. I recognise that many often feel that casting a vote makes little difference.

But given that there is now a bigger need than ever to seeing meaningful
social change in a democratic country with a progressive Constitution, I
hope every South African will in future consider carefully why they vote or

[first appeared in Friday's Daily Dispatch]

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

a delayed thought...sexual violence in south africa

BY THE time I was in matric, I had three friends who were rape survivors. All three had been raped by people they knew and I never pressed them about whether they had pressed charges or not.
The reality is that many women are not raped by strangers waiting in dark alleyways ready to pounce on their vulnerability. Women are sexually assaulted and raped by people they know: partners, cousins, colleagues. This is not surprising considering the rape statistics in South Africa claim that a woman is raped every 17 seconds.
There are certain places I know I should not go to after dark; I have to be even more careful if I am out drinking with friends because I am aware that in South Africa, a woman’s body is not her own. Not only is my movement curtailed as a woman, but my body can be used as provocation for a violent crime.
As a student at a relatively safe university campus, one is still not 100 percent secure. There have been instances of rape and sexual violence. Some have been reported and many probably not.
Trying to raise concern about the silence around sexual violence, I recently participated in the “1 in 9 Campaign” which seeks to raise awareness not only about the shocking rape statistics, but about the State’s silence in dealing with many cases.
Research conducted by the Medical Research Council in 2005 focused on the reporting and non-reporting of rape survivors, revealing that only one in nine survivors reported the crime to the police.
The 1 in 9 campaign (based on this one in nine statistic) encourages women and men to speak up against this physical violation and stand in solidarity with women who have been silenced by sexual violence for any reason.
This year over 1000 students took part in the campaign, wearing purple T-shirts and taping their mouths shut to symbolise the silence that prevails, because sadly, South Africa is still one of the most violent societies for women to live in.
Despite this the national discourse and political agenda around issues affecting women remains very worrying.
Who can forget ANC Youth League leader, Julius Malema, publicly stating that the woman who accused President Jacob Zuma of rape had a “nice time” with him.
Recently in KwaThema township (Gauteng) a 24 year old lesbian, Noxolo Nogwaza, was raped and brutally murdered; another statistic of the corrective rape scourge that takes place in South Africa, prominently since 2006, when the case of corrective rape against a lesbian, Zoliswa Nkonyana, was reported.
When there is no outcry about such actions or comments from our country’s leaders, violence against women is not condemned, but entrenched. Chauvinism is held aloft and the national crisis of violence against women is not even seen to be an issue of national importance.
The judicial system too, has also failed women as many cases are delayed in court for various reasons. A rape case can be postponed up to 32 times without any explanation in our courts.
The responsibility needs to shift from rape and any kind of sexual violence being a woman’s issue, one in which we are expected to bare sole responsibility for what we wear and what time we are in public in certain areas.
Rape and sexual abuse need’s to be everybody’s issue.
We need to all agree that men should no longer be demonised as violent people who cannot control their urges and women should not be treated as second class citizens where violence against them in any form is treated with indifference.

If women in this country are never able to fully claim their freedom of movement, our reality is that we are not yet free – a shame given our Constitution that recognises the dignity of every person. It is a shame that several years after I matriculated, I no longer have three friends who are rape survivors — but many more.
[first appeared in the Daily Dispatch, 7 May 2011]

Sunday, May 1, 2011

my infatuation with Cape Town

I’ve spent the past week in Cape Town and Stellenbosch. I have picked up the habit of going to the bigger cities when I’m tired of being in Grahamstown. I always think that’s an irony considering people in the big cities go to smaller towns for some respite from traffic, the blinding lights and massive billboards.

In Stellenbosch I was hiding and working on a farmhouse just outside town. I was surrounded by mountains and acres of land with vineyards. It was surreal considering that my view in Grahamstown is usually of the surrounding block of flats or when I stand at the Monument the entire town, with all its inequalities made visible in the very architecture of the housing. The inequalities were well hidden from me while staying in Stellenbosch. I don’t remember seeing any shacks or dilapidated RDP houses. When I did venture into town I ended up on the tourist side with endless coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques. If i didn’t know any better I would have convinced myself I’m in another world. A very white world as well. Fortunately my hosts were far more colourful than the world outside our yard. A cosmopolitan group of young people from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Norway and South Africa offered me much comfort with copious amounts of tea and comfort food.

After Stellenbosh, I headed for Cape Town...I never know what to make of this city. Coming to Cape Town has always been an encounter with the crude reality in South Africa. I chose a first class carriage which was quiet, with less people. I didn’t have to see the blind woman who always sings on the train asking for money while being led by another woman equally haggard-looking. I didn’t have to be accosted by the man selling odds and ends in economy class. I was able to watch Cape Town unfold as I drew nearer to the city centre. Passing through the stations I realised that like many places in South Africa, the Group Areas Act still exists in Cape Town and people always seem quite happy with that as they still live in areas according to their race demarcated by the apartheid government decades ago.

On Freedom Day I escaped a protest about the appalling toilet infrastructure in some of Cape Town’s areas (and there was finally a victory from the courts as well) and spent most of the day in Kalk Bay enjoying pancakes and waffles with new friends. We played a game that left us in stitches with laughter enjoying our freedom of association with friends from diverse backgrounds.

Staying with a friend in town meant that I woke up to the view of Table Mountain everyday. Seeing the mountain at such close range and not a picture made me think I could grab it or even climb it. Every morning I contemplated my day by looking out the window with the Slave Lodge, Houses of Parliament, The Company’s Gardens and the St George’s Cathedral as my view. Watching people from a bird’s eye view, I contemplated my perspective on life and of course, ended up thinking too much. Fortunately when I did this often, a friend was always around to ask me “where are you Atha?”. Being in Cape Town, I always prefer hiding in my mind. I don’t have too many memories in this city but I have enough to remind me that living in two worlds of privilege and disadvantage is easy if one chooses to make peace with the inequalities.

This time around, I did not end up on taxis trying to find my way to Khayelitsha. I did not have to encounter rude taxi drivers or deal with to much cacophony at taxi ranks. I was neatly tucked away in a friend’s car or the Jammies to UCT. Or I walked in clean streets like Long, Wale, Adderley, the Sea Point Promenade instead of sandy pathways filled with debris. I could appreciate a walk in the Newlands forest in the late afternoon.

While chatting to my aunt who enjoys living in Pretoria, she protested that my infatuation with Cape Town is false, “This is not the real South Africa”. I don’t mind dabbling with infatuation from time to time because I know the real South Africa all too well and I’m happy to embrace any respite from all the images that remind me that South Africa has a long way to go; the road to Freedom, Equality and Dignity for the majority of the South Africans has begun, but seems to get longer every time I turn on the radio, read the newspaper because of yet another scandal of morally bankrupt leaders squandering resources that should be meant in giving people better opportunities in this country.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

my mother mother's tongue

For most of my life Mama and I have been two peas in a pod. However, being the youngest of her three daughters has not been without its tensions. From a young age I understood that Mama and I lived in different worlds; hers a world of oppression and resistance and mine freedom and choices . Thanks to my formal education and socialisation, language became the obvious marker that we were always growing apart. I was educated in a former Model C, public girls school where English was the only language of instruction. The shallow isiXhosa lessons once a week did not recognise the language that came naturally to me. Attending a new school also meant moving to the leafy suburbs where white children asked their parents for permission to play with black children. The obvious danger of a complete immersion into English meant that by being proficient in the language and code at school, my mother tongue was in jeopardy.

The alarm bells went off for Mama while I was reading a paperback cartoon version of The long walk to freedom. I stumbled on Tat’uMadiba’s name and I asked Mama for help. She asked me to sound out the word and I responded “Roli-hala-hala” but she demanded to read it herself where she corrected me “Rolihlahla mnta’am!...sisiXhosa esi!” (Rolihlahla my child! This is a Xhosa name). Mama recalls with a bitter-sweet expression that I was an avid reader and writer but I wasn’t reading isiXhosa because no children’s literature was available in the school or the local library which meant that isiXhosa was slowly replaced by English and I was labelled the quintessential coconut. By the time I was 11 I was a monolingual English speaker with no idea of the estrangement I was yet to encounter.

Growing up in predominantly English speaking environments Mama never stopped speaking isiXhosa at home. She never made it explicit, but she was concerned about losing her child who was immersed in her second language. This meant that I lost the nuances of Mama’s language with the proverbs and nursery rhymes that carried a history I would never know. I interpreted Mama’s insistence on speaking isiXhosa as a sign of her backwardness. The modern world in television, internet and magazines didn’t acknowledge the language she used to get our attention. There was no place for my mother tongue in the world I was growing up in which meant no place for my mother in my world. My school teachers became the benchmark for aspiration in spite of the fact that Mama was the first teacher I encountered when I learned to be a fluent reader, giving me skills to reading for meaning that I still use to this day.

A transition began near the end of primary school when I began to understand the importance of language diversity in the Rainbow nation that South Africa was becoming. Our lives in the leafy suburbs was disturbed which meant we had to leave the predominantly white neighbourhood to experience another reality, living “down town” and later an informal settlement. For the first time I learned that you couldn’t ask a taxi driver for directions if you spoke to him in English, it was important to say “uxolo bhuti” . The women who sold fruit and veg at the taxi rank would ignore my sister and I unless we addressed them by saying “Molo mama”. I learned that the proverb “Ukuza kukaNxele” meant more than waiting in vain but its meaning was couched in a historical narrative. I began to realise that the world was a different place and the language I had regarded as irrelevant was the language I needed for survival. The smatterings of isiXhosa I knew (thanks to Mama) meant that as a bilingual speaker I was able to straddle two different worlds and make meaning of the South African reality that often appears as disjointed.

My current research into literacy in isiXhosa in Grade 1 classes has given me further understanding into the complexity of language learning in education and making meaning of the world. No one doubts the importance of English and the opportunities it allows, but the value of speaking and understanding the world in ones mother tongue has been underestimated. As an aspiring teacherI have interacted with children and they have taught me that their inquisitive minds can handle more than one language and they understand the relationship of social capital and languages even when they are in Grade 1.

I have re-educated myself and I now speak, read and write isiXhosa and Mama speaks English more often than she would like to admit. My knowledge of my mother tongue has not limited me in any way, it has broadened my world with stories and interactions with people English monoligualism would have limited me from.