Monday, March 21, 2011

another form of disempowerment

[this was first published in the Daily Dispatch on March 19 2011 with the title "Pregnant girls have faces, names and aspirations"]

MUCH to my surprise, I have become a Facebook and an Internet fanatic, I thrive on instant messaging, occasionally I use Mxit with my sister and I have a blog which all means I have access to the modern world through words, sharing and understanding my experiences through reading and writing.
However, I have a friend I cannot send an SMS to, she’s not on Facebook or Mxit let alone reading my blog. Not because she’s not keen on social networks or technology, but because she can’t read and write.

I met “Zandile” when she was in Grade 9 and she told me she couldn’t read and write.
She had a baby the following year when she was 18.
She considered an abortion so she could carry on with school, but she changed her mind. At age 19, registered at the time as a Grade 10 pupil, she dropped out of school at the insistence of her grandmother because “she was bringing shame to the family”. “Zandile” now lives with her unemployed boyfriend and her threeyear-old daughter whom she supports through a social grant and by doing odd pieces of domestic work. She declined going to adult classes to improve her literacy, saying the classes were inconvenient and boring.

I also know “Xoliswa”, who is 18 and currently in Grade 7.
She dropped out of school upon discovering she was pregnant and a year later she had a baby – she was then 16. She comes from a poor family where her mother is an alcoholic and they survive on the social grant she receives to support her siblings and baby. Xoliswa decided to go back to school in spite of the five-year gap that she has to endure and because she has a child to consider – she hopes to study further to become a social worker.

These are not my imaginary friends but young women I have met since I have been in Grahamstown’s Rhini township. And there are many others who are in similar situations. They helped me realise that the 8 427 girls who were reported to have fallen pregnant in Eastern Cape schools last year have faces, names and aspirations for their lives.

Whenever I chat to Zandile, we struggle when talking about her future. Her main priority is raising her daughter but there is little she can see ahead for her own life. She unfortunately has limited options as someone who cannot read and write.
There’s a level of regret about many of the decisions she made, the biggest being that she has curbed her freedom to live a life of opportunity in a fast changing world.

One would never believe that she and I form part of the same generation – one that was supposed to experience the joys of living in a free country that guaranteed equal opportunities and a better standard of living. Central to the hopes of both these young women is an education: Zandile recognises she’s doomed without one and Xoliswa realises that she should pursue hers again and hopefully study further.
Education was meant to liberate them, but instead it has played a role in their disempowerment as youth in South Africa. Both their experiences are shaped largely by the lack of quality education and support they received from teachers and family.

I have always been befuddled and angry that I live in a society that is still okay with the disempowerment of young women who in the process of mothering the next generation are already aware of their lack of opportunity. The cosy life I live as a student seems self-indulgent and incongruous when I realise what some young people have to live with in the “new” South Africa.

At some point the blame needs to stop being apportioned to the young women and even pity needs to be examined as they should not be disempowered further as victims.
Listening to Zandile and Xoliswa, their experiences make me realise that I am not part of the “born-free” generation.

Freedom is a nebulous concept and the lived experience of it is even more complex because of the choices that are available when expressing that freedom.
Is there any choice, for example, between dropping out of school or staying in a system that does not add value to your life? Or choosing to have sex without a condom or risk losing a boyfriend?
Is there any freedom of choice between a rock and a hard place?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

black women's work

If you live on the right side of town and have the right kind of employment or are fortunate enough to be a student, living in Rhini-Grahamstown has its perks in spite of the scorn it suffers because it’s so small: everything is in walking distance, there’s endless access to the internet and I personally enjoy being able to sit under a tree at the Bot gardens reading and feeling like I’m adding value to the world because being a Masters student means reading endlessly!



But if you’re not in a privileged position in Rhini and you’re a black woman, life does not seem so blissful. With an unemployment rate over 80%, the inequalities are tangible in Rhini, it’s not something I read in a book. I am often declining offers from women who are offering to come clean my flat as domestic workers for a pittance so they can support their families. These women spent their days moving from digs to digs cleaning for students who can afford to pay them what they spend on airtime on a daily basis perhaps. I have been approached countless times by women offering to accept any items of clothing or household things that I no longer use so they can sell or re-use in their own homes. I am often asked to assist at the ATM because many women cannot read and operate the machines themselves. And on a daily basis I have to ward off sexual harassment from men who whistle at my “sexiness” the same way they whistle at a dog.


The idea of work for many women in places like Grahamstown means settling for pittance in order to support a family. Whenever I’m in town around 5pm I cannot help but notice the streams of women pouring down New Street and High Street going home after working in the suburban homes. I have no stats on this but the majority of women who work in Rhini are domestic workers and service staff at Rhodes University. The point is though, they are working right? But the truth is what kind of choice did they have in landing up with this kind of occupation? A friend I met while she was in high school dropped out of school because she could no longer feign that she could not read and write and is now domestic worker; she’s younger than me and already has a daughter. And I’m sure she is not the only one.

My attempt is not to be emotional about this, but we often hear talk about getting more women to become CEOs and engineers and I do not doubt that is important, but some black women in obscure places like Paterson and Rhini do not have the opportunity to get a matric (in spite of Rhini being dubbed an education town). Those who do get a matric often cannot make it to university or an FET college, but if there is money, they will go to GADRA education and improve their marks in order to be able to consider an FET college, university is often out of the question. I have racialised this issue purposefully because we can’t talk about women’s rights without talking about race, class and sexuality. And talking about women’s work in South Africa almost 20 years after a democracy means accepting that many women have been let down by a government whose education system engineers a working class further exacerbating the inequalities for women in this country. I don’t have all the answers, this is just an observation at the resilience many women have in the face of disappointment and dashed dreams.


first published for the blog: feministssa.com

Friday, March 11, 2011

Tertiary institutions are not islands of goodwill

THERE are unwritten rules in all institutions. Some can be as simple and non-threatening as “don’t park in the boss’s parking bay” or “don’t sit in so-and-so’s chair in the staff-room”, but others can be malevolent and damaging as “don’t talk about sexual harassment, it’s your personal issue”.

The reports on the Walter Sisulu University “sex-for-marks” scandal[about 2 weeks ago] have received much attention as some students dared to break the rules about keeping quiet on this issue. But I can’t help but wonder, why are we so surprised?
Are we surprised that there are people who possibly abuse power in tertiary institutions or are we surprised that someone spoke up in spite of the potential complexities of the cases?

The reports have zoned in on various issues: the claims and demands made by the students involved as well as the student body, the defence from the lecturers, the university’s response to the scandal and more students coming forward with their stories after a period of time. As is the norm in any sexual harassment or sexual violence case, there is always the inner conflict between believing the vulnerable “victim” and scorning the abuser, while at the same time at the back of our minds asking “is she really telling the truth?” The burden of proof is placed on the woman to prove that her claim is in fact the truth.

That said, we cannot ignore the grey areas, the cases of “girls who cry wolf” and possibility of demonising men. The cloud of doubt that surrounds these cases is one of the factors that hinder genuinely victimised students from coming forward with their stories. In a society rife with the abuse of women on various levels, and the constant discourse (from both men and women) of doubt and blame attached to women, I am not surprised that only a few students at WSU have come forward with their stories and that only three lecturers are facing hearings.

But the reality is that tertiary institutions are not islands of goodwill where those in power always use their positions with integrity. They exist within a patriarchal society that is slowly recognising that women are not simply sex objects.

The university’s response within a few days has also been interesting to note. All institutions have a zero tolerance approach to the harassment of students and staff alike, but the tension of policy and institutional culture makes the issue more complex. The student who reported the case had to seek external assistance from the Public Protector. Why were the internal processes of supporting the student insufficient? Again, the question of doubt and silence attached to these cases is relevant here. Policy may recognise the injustice of the situation on paper but institutions have to recognise that the unwritten rules and everyday banter are often the most powerful rules that prevent people from speaking up.

In 2008 the following extract was part of the Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institution:
“Given both the subtle and insidious forms of gender discrimination and harassment being experienced by female students on several campuses, it is recommended that institutions take serious steps to both protect and promote the interests of women. These could include gender sensitisation campaigns, aimed at everybody, and confidence-building training programmes, aimed at women in particular”.
Not only is this evidence that the “sex-for-marks” scandal is a pervasive culture in our tertiary institutions, this is also a challenge to changing institutional culture rather than keeping quiet about the issues.

However, changing institutional culture within a broader context where the abuse of women is still the norm is no easy task. It may take the lone voice of a single student or mass campaigns where people rally around this issue to stop condoning the culture of silence. The scandal is yet another reminder that the dignity of all parties involved is at stake. In spite of the complexities highlighted in an opinion article in the Daily Dispatch earlier this week, these stories cannot be taken lightly. Access to higher education does not simply mean enrolment numbers, it should also mean that all students, men and women, become part of institutions that will ensure they thrive as scholars, where they will not be discriminated against because they happen to have taken their vagina to campus that morning.

(This first appeared in Saturday Dispatch,5 March 2011 in response to reports about harassment cases in WSU,a university in the Eastern Cape)

Friday, March 4, 2011

the poor little rich girl

I am an urban kid who has been raised on tarred roads, electricity and running water and the occasional use of a public transport system that works in spite of rude taxi drivers (I mastered the art of being able to walk everywhere for much of my time of growing up in East London CBD). I have no conception of what it is like to grow up in a village and we moved from the township when I was very young. I do not know what it means to arrive at school with no teachers to teach and no-one to account this to. I have no idea what it means to go to school where there is no water or basic infrastructure. I have never had to share one textbook amongst a classroom or peers or have no textbook at all. And I definitely do not know what it means to ward off any sexual advances from male teachers for special favours in the classroom.

But for a period in my life I was exposed to the worst of urban poverty after my family was evicted from our home in the suburbs in 1994. For complex reasons, my parents didn’t go back to the township and didn’t remove us from the school in town. So I know what it’s like to walk for an hour before I get to school (in rain and in winter and sit at school wet and cold throughout the day) or miss school because busfare is an expense that cannot be afforded. I know what it’s like to leave home with no food and come back to no food with only a meal at school in the form of a chelsea bun and niknaks a friend bought for me or a packed lunch from a teacher. I know what it’s like to do my homework by candlelight or paraffin lamp. I know what it’s like to live in a shack in an informal settlement, sharing a communal toilet that is cleaned out once a week where the only running water is from a single tap in a street of many families. I know what it’s like to move from place to place hoping for people’s kindness where we can stay without paying rent. I know the best of both worlds: urban poverty and a great education(in spite of the complexities of a black child in a former white school)—the poor little rich girl.

Because of the education I had, many of the woes of the new South Africa have been buffered. I was able to consider higher education because I went to a school that made a priority of producing students who would be able to go to university. I knew I had what it takes to be at university (the question of passing was never the problem, it was always about how well I passed). However tertiary education funding was no easy task. I applied for NSFAS (National Student Financial Aid Scheme) and endured an arduous process with endless forms and affidavits proving that I qualified for the funding which covered my tuition and residence for three years. Even though the loan repayment awaits me, I am now doing a postgraduate degree that would not have been possible without the foundations of a good education with supportive structures in place(and an awesome sister and mother who were encouraging throughout the crazy times).

I am not simply exposing the misfortunes of my family but trying to show the link between a good education for someone who comes from a poor family. I am not one who advocates that education is the panacea to our social problems, but a quality education has given me options and choices that have led to much of the success thus far in my life. In the midst of the struggle of being poor and trying to make sense of the world I decided that the life I lived outside of school should not be the norm. But how to effect change on a larger scale is proving to be simply a dream considering the state of education in South Africa. My fear is that learners from poor family backgrounds and no buffer of a system that encourages them to do better by offering a safe space to learn in a formal education system, have two worlds to fight against. And what is to become of them? Resilience is an understatement for what it means to emerge from poverty and neglect (whether in a family context or a social context).

Somehow the social contract has been broken. Many young people are becoming adults in a world that doesn’t believe that it takes a village to raise a child, where many teachers are willing role models for young people. It’s the survival of the fittest. The true test will be the kind of adults that will emerge in a few years time and what upward mobility and success will mean for them in relation to the kind of homes they have been raised in and the kind of communities they emerge from and the values they learned along the way.

For now, I am trying to finish the masters and maybe thereafter I can think more clearly of the role I can play in the education system as well as society in general. I am tempted to hide away in a foreign country because I have the social capital needed to survive in any country in the world and escape the woes of the Eastern Cape for a few years. I am, after all, only a small part of the world and I can’t help but wonder what my role is in making things better in South Africa after what will eventually be 3 degrees and 18 years in the privileged section of the education system.