This is the time of the year when we hear lots of feel-good stories: Matric results are out and Angie Motshekga tells us about the increased pass rate, the high schools brag with their A-candidates and 100% pass rates and of course the newspapers show pictures of smiling matriculants and do exclusive stories about that one black kid from rural Eastern Cape who studied by candlelight every evening to get his matric certificate, or the girl whose mother passed away a day before she wrote her Maths paper, but amazingly she still excelled.
These against-all-odds stories are what our Facebook friends share and what we discuss around the dinner table, those of us who are fortunate enough to have dinner tables.
We talk about the black kid from the Eastern Cape who worked hard, persevered and passed, we talk about the girl from the Cape Flats who is going to study medicine because she worked hard, we talk about that child whose mom passed away and still managed to get a distinction for Maths. It makes us feel good; it helps to absolve us of the blame. Who needs Fees Must Fall when you can work hard and get a bursary? Why isn’t every matriculant as diligent and committed to being ‘constructive instead of destructive’?
It’s all good and well to celebrate exceptional students, it must be done, but what about the above average person from the same rural Eastern Cape school who also studied by candlelight but did not pass? What about the person whose mother passed away and who was unable to write that Maths paper, or the person from the Cape Flats who did not get the marks or the funding to study medicine?
Hard work doesn’t always work. Yes, hard work is important. In order to be successful one has to be willing to sacrifice and to work hard, but it isn’t the answer. Claiming that success is down to hard work is invalidating to those who worked hard, but are just not good enough to obtain a bursary, but who would have been able to study at a university like Wits or UCT if they were rich enough to pay for themselves. It sets the bar much, much higher for Poor Black Kid from rural Eastern Cape than it does for Rich White Kid from Constantia.
By pretending that hard work and dedication is the answer, we also pretend that we were all born equally, and that is definitely not the case. It makes us feel better, it causes us to retreat into our little shells of privilege instead of forcing us to confront the inherent disadvantages faced by students in South Africa. Instead of trying to set up a scholarship fund for our own babies or the babies of our domestic workers, we believe that Baby will be exceptional, will get a bursary and all will be well. It makes us blind and not proactive at all. What if Baby ends up getting into university, but doesn’t get a bursary? Of course then we blame the Department of Education and we blame NSFAS, but never ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong, there are major issues with the Department of Basic Education. Why can Maritzburg College achieve a 100% pass rate year after year, but Diazville High School in Saldanha Bay doesn’t? Why do students from Maritzburg College go on to excel at university while students from Diazville drop out or take more than the minimum amount of time to complete their degrees? It is definitely not because less exceptional students go to Diazville. Somehow, two schools that follow the exact same curriculum and write the same exams produce very different results. It shows that there is a correlation between privilege and success (barring those exceptional students, again). It also shows that mainly government-funded and -run schools do not prepare students well enough for university. This is not all government’s fault because government only has so much money available (ja, ja, we know about corruption and whatnot), but it does show that where one starts has a big impact on where one ends up in the end.
So we think about these issues and we don’t see answers and instead we focus on the exceptional students who worked hard. We discount those who failed because “How can you not get 30%?” like we were such amazingly bright people in high school. I am pretty sure that some of you dropped Maths as soon as you could and yet you are the ones judging the ‘20% pass mark’ without reading and understanding the stringent conditions which must be met before that pass mark can be applied.
But hey, “Maybe if students stopped burning buses and worked hard instead they’d be graduating too.” Maybe they’d even be lucky enough to snag a bursary and not have to start out their careers with Black Tax and crippling amounts of debt strangling them.
There is nothing wrong with not being exceptional (I know very few people who are) and we must stop pretending that being exceptional has to be the norm. Instead, we must celebrate exceptional achievements, but also realise that most students are above average at best and that these students deserve a fair chance too, that being poor and/or black is something that cannot be wished away by working hard and by admitting that poor and/or black people start off much, much lower on the ladder than privileged and/or white people do.
Instead of saying “Maybe they should work harder”, we should donate to less fortunate schools (why are you donating to Wynberg Boys’ High anyway – they have an entire estate to themselves), we should set up trust funds for the children of our domestic workers, we should contribute towards the medical aids of our domestic workers or buy the school uniform of a poorer child.
Ah, this school uniform thing reminds me of something that happened to me when I was younger. At the end of my grade 11 year, I was announced as the head girl of my high school. Myself and the new head boy were the first non-white head students in the school’s existence (at the time). When we went to buy our new blazers (with accompanying jerseys, pull-overs and ties) I realised that there was no way that I could afford even the blazer, let alone the whole entire ensemble. Of course I was pretty devastated because anyone who knows me knows that I like nice things, but the lovely owners of Van Zyl’s Mans Uitrustings in Vredenburg were so excited about this Coloured and Indian head girl and boy that they donated two brand new blazers and jerseys to us. I will never forget that.
No, hard work isn’t always the answer. Sometimes it is the kindness of strangers that makes all the difference.