Saturday, January 29, 2011

work and hope...

For 12 years of my life I went to a school that had the motto “Work and Hope”. For better or for ill I am a product of those values that emerged from a Eurocentric, middle-class Christian consciousness. In spite of the complexities of going to a former white school that was a product of a system that oppressed black people, the ideas of work and hope in my education have led me to much of the interests and concerns I have in education and as a human being.

The idea of work meant that we were socialised into a very strong work ethic. We were in an environment that was performance-driven with accolades for those who excelled in the system. If a learner was a good reader, writer, and thinker they were privileged from a young age. Whether it was legal or not, our classes were streamlined so that each learner could be intellectually stimulated at the level that was appropriate for them. Leaving this environment after 12 years I entered a university that was also concerned about not only the intellectual stimulation of the students, but the results at the end of the day through assessments. I thrived in both school and university because I learned from a young age that performance was important, but equally, it needed me to apply all of myself to the process. My ego has been invested in the fact that I am a reader, writer and thinker and it’s been challenging seeing myself other than a reader, writer, thinker and do-er (especially after being in varsity for the 6th year).

The idea of hope has often been a difficult one to appreciate. Being the product of modernity has allowed me to question ideas such as faith and hope. They are difficult concepts to simply accept because they have always been couched in religious sentiments that I often find difficult to reconcile with as an adult. In spite of that I do accept that hope is a value that is important to pursue. It recognises the need to see a better future. It is about believing that the world can be different and that things can change in the future. It is a difficult virtue to pursue when the world surrounding us shows evidence of society spiralling out of control and everyday the most horrendous crimes are part of our reality.

Part of actualising the idea of hope at school meant that we were concientised into a culture of being aware of “those less fortunate than us”. The question of how many people were less fortunate was never discussed, but charity became important. So in prep school we would donate money generated from cake sales and civvies day to various organisations; in primary school we carried on with this culture and we were able to engage a little more directly with organisations through Junior Interact and in high school we had Interact club. The slow progression into this consciousness meant that at every stage of my life I was aware of the world around me. I was also aware of this world because I also lived as one who was less fortunate surrounded by peers who came from affluent families. Being less fortunate was not simply an abstract term I knew but it was lived as well. The flip side of the coin also meant that the school initiatives were also paternalistic as we were the providers to the downtrodden as opposed to understanding that the downtrodden have a consciousness about their lives too and instead of simply handing out and donating, interacting and engaging was crucial to changing the circumstances of the less fortunate. There was never a sense of being able to learn from the downtrodden because they were in a place of need and I was part of the group that symbolised what it meant to have.

Coming to varsity and volunteering in my first year was the next phase of my consciousness about the world. But being a young adult I realised something was different. I was angry to discover that the less fortunate was the norm in South Africa. It was not a matter of bad individual choices but structural, political and cultural issues that curbed the less fortunate people from taking action and changing their lives. It was no longer a matter of an extra activity after school, but it was about understanding life in South Africa. Being in Grahamstown made me realise that it was not simply a volunteering experience when I met a learner in Grade 10 who could not read and write, it was a life experience of what it means to be educated in many of South Africa’s schools.

What started off as an extra-curricular activity in my early days at school has become what my life is about, working towards a better world and hoping that it is not in vain. The difference however is that when I see the less-fortunate and my fortunate is made glaringly obvious by the clothes I can afford and the cellphone I can buy, I realise more and more that hoping has to be coupled with work. And part of that work is about asking difficult questions about how we came to be here and what a better South Africa, Africa and world looks like. The gap between the rich and the poor is unsustainable and those who are rich and benefitting ought to realise that the mark of success is not comfort alone but extending opportunities to others as well so they can live their lives with dignity. Because without recognising another human being, hope is in vain. Umntu ngumntu ngabantu, ithemba alibulali.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

wathinta abafazi wathinta imbokodo...really?

“Wathinta umfazi wathinta imbokodo!” are the famous words that are often bandied about in South Africa's media during women's month every August without fail. The fuss around women's day leaves me and many other women wondering what every other day is for, celebrating men?

Given a past that has been dominated by white supremist patriarchy and apartheid, one of the obvious signs of our country's development is the level of participation women have in society at large, particularly black women. Looking at South Africa, we have a progressive Constitution, an emerging group of empowered young women(from all racial groups), a benevolent ministry dedicated to "the vulnerable groups" but on the other side of the coin, forced marriages of young girls in the Eastern Cape are becoming more prevalent, rape statistics are frightening, young women also bear the brunt of being oomakhwapheni, prey to older, wealthier men in order to help support their poor families and one cannot forget the heinous crime of corrective rape meted on lesbian women.

Such ironies of the existence of women in our country suggests a disconnection when it comes to understanding women empowerment in a developing country. The widening gap between the rich and the poor, rural and urban and the pace of urbanisation further complicates the question of, whose responsibilty is women empowerment? If we focus on the area of education; access to education increased (in numbers) at the advent of democracy, but this has often jeopardized quality education especially in marginal areas where large classes, insufficient resources and lack of management are the norm. Again, the question of access becomes complex for young girls who often have to stay home and away from school to look after younger siblings in child-headed households or work extra hours in the fields. Where a quality education has been made a priority in other developing countries and where the right to equality has been protected, women have been able to take control of their lives and effect change in their communities and the lives of their families.

Having a ministry for rural development and “the vulnerable group” has been government’s recognition at the importance of development in complex communities. However what has not been clear is the agenda of these ministries. What is worrying is the often paternalistic view of government about “helping the masses” and imposing development through once off events of food parcels as opposed to sustainable programmes that face what rural development and empowerment mean for women in these areas. What is often also worrying is the sense of treating people in these communities as guinea pigs for research and project initiatives where academics and researchers go in and out of communities without fulfilling a moral requirement of not simply exploiting individuals for research and leaving the communities as they were. One cannot help but wonder as well what the resuscitation of community courts and chieftainships in rural areas means for women as these are most likely to uphold patriarchy in conservative communities.

The danger of writing about this issue is that as an educated, young woman from the city, I am speaking on behalf of the people in marginal communities. Perhaps this where the problem is: everyone knows what’s best for women in rural areas as though the women in these communities do not have what it takes to take control of their lives and effect change in their lives. But are they given enough space and an opportunity to make their voices heard? What will it really take for us to realise that it takes more than benevolent and well-meaning projects to effect change in poor and marginal communities?

Friday, January 7, 2011

The burden of choice and my education

Part of the journey of starting my Masters in education last year meant confronting myself about doubting my capabilities. Most of the doubt was a result of feeling as though I should have teaching experience before I attempt a Masters. I have always been a firm believer that postgrad education is for adults and not 23 year olds who are often faced with existential crises for most of their early twenties. In spite of the doubt and turmoil I did attempt the first year of a masters and the year ended with no proposal, more doubt and frustration at not being able to do something that seems as simple as a proposal (in retrospect, I was warned that a research proposal is the most critical and challenging part about research).

Ending the year without a tangible marker of what I had achieved academically in 2010was enough evidence to convince myself that the masters is a bad idea and certainly not for this moment in my life. I decided I would opt for a PGCE (postgraduate certificate in education) in 2011 and risk the scholarship from the Mandela-Rhodes Foundation. It seemed like a plausible plan and an indication that I would still be pursuing a qualification towards teaching which was always the primary goal of coming to varsity. The glaring question that I had to confront was the idea of “doing/reading” for a Masters: what is it about academic research and theoretical knowledge that makes us question society (in my case classroom practice) as opposed to acquiring knowledge through everyday experiences (where I could simply be a teacher)? And why was everyone convinced at the importance of a Masters except me?
Part of the decision meant consulting with people in my life who had another perspective on my education and the luxuary of pursuing a Masters without the financial costs that are often involved. I learned from my mother that she was denied a further education because there was pressure from home to help support her single mother with the 5 siblings who were younger than her and a government that limited her options when it came to studying. The eldest sister had dropped out of university because of finances, my elder sister opted for correspondence courses and many of my aunts and cousins have never been able to pursue higher education for various (and often complex) reasons. Knowing this made me realise that given the family I come from, the Masters may not be expected, but it’s valued because the opportunities and often lack of, meant that higher education has not been accessible to the women in my family.

In chatting with more friends ("izihlobo zezinyo") I realised that I am in a unique position that a Masters degree has been made available to me through a scholarship. I am in a privileged position whether I like it or not. If I could do a survey of the number of postgraduate students on campus I would probably realise that there are few South Africans doing so. In the bigger picture a Masters is not the be all and the end all, many people have been successful without one and many have been unsuccessful with a Masters. However I have realised that in having one and being in the process of doing research proposals my character has been under pressure. Being in an academic institution where the staff members do not resemble me at all (mostly white women and white men) I have had to do more work in convincing myself that I deserve to be in the institution in spite of my age, race, gender and social class-most of the young black women who are in the institution are the maintenance staff and administrators.

So I’m going to pursue the Masters because it’s part of my journey. The process thus far has already challenged me and running away from a challenge has never been who I am or want to be.