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.