Matric Results: No, hard work is not the key to success

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.

Twenty Sixteen in 5 personally significant books

Twenty Sixteen in 5 personally significant books

I ended up reading the following 26 books in 2016 (not counting textbooks, legislation and other academic reading):

[From Goodreads – Danielle’s Year in Books]

Twenty Sixteen has been my year of reading, so to speak. I wanted to read one book a month, but I ended up finding some beautiful feminist and cultural novels and biographies which I could not put down. Most of these books have changed my way of thinking in some or other way, but in the interest of time and space, I have chosen 5 books which have truly, TRULY spoken to me.

  1. Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

I don’t even know where to start when it comes to Chimamanda. A friend recommended this novel, her first one, to me and I could not put it down. I think in hindsight I prefer Half of a Yellow Sun to this one, but Purple Hibiscus definitely is a very very close second.

Having grown up in a severely restrictive and sexist religion myself for a number of years, this story really resonated with me. The overly religious father and his ideologies, the church’s treatment of women and children (especially girls), the abuse of women by their husbands, these are all things which made this novel very difficult to deal with.

My favourite books have always been the ones that made me so angry that I could hardly breathe and this was definitely one of those. It is perfect for any teenager – male or female – because ‘we should all be feminists’ (10 points to the person who knows why that quote is significant!)

2. 1984 – George Orwell:

I know that many people struggle to read the classics, but if I were to recommend one (and I have read quite a few), it would be this one.

Orwell was years ahead of his time when he wrote this dystopian novel about a world in which Big Brother is always watching. Where one’s every move, every facial expression, every action is watched and analysed, where free thought is not permitted and any dissenting views are immediately squashed. This novel reminded me of religion, the CIA and The Taliban all in one.

Again, I was both infuriated and fascinated by this novel. If I were to choose a favourite classic, it would definitely be this one, with To Kill a Mockingbird in second place.

3. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe:

I have been trying to read more writers whose stories show different perspectives, with a specific focus on African writers. Chinua Achebe, being the master of African writing, thus had to be read.

This was a significant read because it shows the many different facets of colonisation. Most stories either depict colonists as savages or as saints, with no in between. Regardless of what one’s views on colonisation are, this novel shows more than one side to it. Where colonists brought war and racism, they also brought with them the knowledge to know that twins are not cursed and therefore should not be murdered upon birth and that girls and boys should both be allowed to go to school.

This was indeed a thought-provoking read, with my allegiances shifting often between the protagonist (or antagonist, I still cannot decide) and the other people in the village. Every African should read this. If you can read Shakespeare, you can make the effort to read Achebe.

4. A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini:

I genuinely believed that Khaled Hosseini would never be able to top The Kite Runner, but he did. (By the way, The Kite Runner is another must-read, or at least watch the movie).

Set in Afghanistan across two different generations, two women face their own battles until they are eventually thrust into a situation together by a cruel twist of fate. Facing sexism, abuse, grief and the loss of dreams and hope, these women show the strength of women who have had to endure such pain for years and sometimes even lifetimes.

At times I was angry enough to put the book down and take a walk to chill out. It upset me that many women are still oppressed in this way because of extreme religious ideologies. It also gave me hope. It gave me hope that there are open-minded people in the world, it gave me hope that I have freedoms which my mother and her mother before her did not have (just being able to write a blog post is one of those freedoms), it gave me hope for the future of women around the world.

5. Dreams From My Father – Barack Obama:

I thoroughly enjoyed this autobiography. It chronicles the life of Barack Obama up until his entry into Law School. The writing is beautiful! I found the imagery and the symbolism fascinating and what made it even more amazing is the fact that it was written by a lawyer, not a poet.

Obama chronicles his early childhood, teenage years, young adult years and finally his visit to Nigeria like a novelist would write a novel. I tend to struggle to read biographies (although I still love them) because they aren’t as riveting as novels, but this one was different. It reads like a novel and the beauty of its prose had me hooked from the word ‘go’. Of the books I managed to read this year, this was the best written one in terms of language, punctuation and prose.

I found Obama’s identity struggles as a black man somewhat disconcerting – I think I had always just known that he is a remarkable black man without really realising that as a child and a young adult he too struggled with his identity, with belonging. I found this odd, but also very comforting. For anyone who has struggled with their identity, this is definitely worth reading.

I am looking forward to more reading during 2017. I am especially excited to read the following five books:

  • And the Mountains Echoed – Khaled Hosseini (in progress)
  • The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo – Amy Schumer (it is supposed to be very funny)
  • The Princess Diarist – Carrie Fisher
  • Hard Choices – Hillary Rodham Clinton
  • The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service – Laura Kaplan

Here’s to another year of books and expanded horizons in 2017!

Why you have no right to judge students for protesting

Why you have no right to judge students for protesting

Yesterday, while waiting at the till in the Rondebosch Pick and Pay, this middle aged man turns to someone in the queue and says: “You know, for people who supposedly don’t have money, there sure are a lot of students in this shop right now.” Some really nice guy made the effort of explaining to the man that students have meal vouchers with which to purchase food because the dining halls are not operating at the moment, which is why the shop was so full.

This got me thinking about the misconceptions which exist regarding the student uprisings, so I am going to try and explain some of the issues simply because I am tired of being called lazy, stupid and a vandal.

I want you to think about the issues which currently face students. It is easy to sit at home and judge us for being fed up with a system which we do not deserve to be a part of. The people who are most affected by high university fees are the people who are in this situation not because they deserve to be in it, but because their parents were systematically oppressed and prevented from being anything more than a teacher or police officer (if they were lucky). In most cases, however, these are the children of farmers, gardeners and domestic workers. These parents did not choose to wake up at 04:30 every morning to take two taxis and a bus so that they can go and look after someone else’s children, they were forced into those positions because their skin colour differed from those who decided that black people were less than white people simply because. But these parents soldier on and they do their best because they believe that by sending their children to university, they can finally break out of the cycle of poverty.

So the children work hard at an underfunded government school with no textbooks and ill-qualified teachers, all whilst looking after younger siblings and family members because mommy and daddy work fourteen hour days in order to provide food, clothing and to pay the school fees in a country where transport prices increase on an almost monthly basis, not to mention electricity prices, if they are lucky enough to have electricity. Eventually this child manages to get into university, but now the real problem starts because how is she going to afford to study? Mommy and daddy obviously cannot pay because they earn less in a year than what tuition at a university costs (which is R35000 per annum on average), not to mention textbooks, food, transport and accommodation.

So the children apply for loans, scholarships and bursaries. Loans are a no-go because the parents have no assets to put down as security, so they try for scholarships and bursaries. Of course, coming from a school in Khayelitsha or in rural Eastern Cape, it is almost impossible to achieve the same matric marks as those coming from a Bishops, Hilton College or SACS. Besides that, employers want students who are likely to pass and excel at university and based on historical empirical evidence, black students are more likely to fail at least one course at university level for a number of different reasons, one being the change in culture, so employers overlook the black student and rather give the scholarship to a white, coloured or Indian student. So once again, the black student is left to fall through the cracks.

So students protest peacefully, they go through the correct channels, they ask the universities and government to think about the lasting effects of Apartheid on a generation that should not be affected by Apartheid in this manner anymore, but still is. No one listens. Students realise that the only way management listens is when they shut the universities down and burn libraries, so that’s what they do.

Whenever you read about a building being burnt down or drastic measures of protest being taken, I want you to stop and think about how frustrated someone must be to resort to such measures before you judge. No one WANTS to burn down a library, but often it is years and years of frustration which leads to such actions. Of course I am not condoning burning down a library, but I want you to understand that it is not done out of malice or stupidity, but out of pure frustration. I was one of the first people to condemn the faeces being chucked at the Rhodes statue in 2015 until someone explained to me that protestors went through all of the correct channels and hit dead end upon dead end. As soon as faeces was chucked at the statue, though, management listened and the statue was removed within two weeks. Instead of blaming students, blame the government and management who for years have silenced students and not taken their concerns seriously.

One other thing that crops up again and again is this idea that black people and especially black students are lazy and want handouts. (Because let’s face it: the people protesting are mostly black students because they are the ones who need funding the most). Stop telling us about how you had to work two jobs to put yourself through university. That is admirable and many of us do that, but the whole point of these protests is that no one should have to go to such extreme lengths just to get an education. The fact that we don’t want to work two jobs while studying surely doesn’t make us lazy and entitled? It makes us normal human beings who want the same ‘privileges’ as those students who do not have to work two jobs whilst studying. How can you call a black person entitled and lazy when all he/she wants is to be educated without the crippling burden of student debt in his/her own country? How can you judge someone for wanting to be more than a gardener in the country of their forefathers; for wanting to improve the lives of their parents and grandparents who did not have the opportunities which they as students now have because of an unfair system?

We are the most intelligent group of people in our age group. We are not stupid. If you listened to us every once in a while and understood our frustrations before shooting us down or labeling us as lazy and entitled, you would see that we have a lot more to offer than you think. You might even learn something.

On Deciding Who To Vote For

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It is the evening before Election Day and I still don’t know who to vote for. I know that I will definitely vote, though. I have the privilege and responsibility of influencing the governance of my city in some small way and I cannot refrain from exercising that option (Accounting joke!). I don’t think that I would be able to forgive myself if I didn’t play a role in how this election turns out.

Living in Cape Town, it is pretty much a given that the Democratic Alliance (DA) will win, so it doesn’t really matter who I vote for, but it is still important to think through the issues and to think about who is best equipped to solve those issues.

I am an ANC (African National Congress) baby, like so many other people of colour. When I say ANC, I mean the heroic ANC. The ANC that fought for freedom from the Apartheid government, the ANC with the underground movements, the ANC of Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela and The Freedom Charter. The ANC that had millions of people of colour lining up to vote for the first time on 27 April 1994 and had those same people proudly accept and adore Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president. That ANC.

I am too young to know exactly what things were like in South Africa just before 1994 and during the ten or so years thereafter, but I do know that the ANC I read about from those years is the not the same ANC that I see now. The one I read about fought for the people; the middle class lady from Eldorado Park or Bo-Kaap could be assured that the president would not use her hard earned taxpayer money to build a homestead for himself and if he did, that the rest of the party would stand up for her, the electorate, instead of defending the president. The ANC I read about is one who would not allow its ministers to be offered ministerial appointments by an influential family and definitely would not allow its main broadcaster to be censored.

Don’t get me wrong: the ANC will always have a special place in my heart because I know how much it means to the uncles and aunties who lived through Apartheid, but I simply cannot reconcile the current ANC with the one I fell in love with.

Then there are two other options: The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the DA. It is ironic that the EFF has the word ‘economic’ in its name, because most of its ideas appear to be economically unfeasible. In principle it sounds lovely: the socialist ideals of sharing equally in the wealth of the nation and of the wealthy minority giving back to the poor majority is an ideal situation, but it is an unfeasible situation to say the least and therefore the EFF is an unfeasible voting choice.

That leaves the DA, then. I personally have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the DA. Fundamentally, I appreciate the fact that the DA is there to call the ANC out on its shortcomings and mistakes. That is what the opposition is for. However, the DA’s stance (or lack thereof) on Affirmative Action is worrisome because it is an indicator that the party either does not understand the economic disparities which still exist because of Apartheid, or that it chooses to ignore the issue and hope that it will go away. To me, the Affirmative Action issue is a major issue because it affects the majority of the population. From the student uprisings of 2015 one can clearly see that this issue will not go away, but that it will continue to fester until something gives and usually that is not a pretty sight.

However, I am also a strong believer in “If it doesn’t work, change it” and right now the ANC is not working for anyone but a select few. The DA has also been relatively successful in Cape Town –  keeping in mind that Cape Town is not entirely a reflection of the rest of South Africa as it is generally richer and more politically stable than other major cities in the country.

Of course, one has to keep in mind that it is a local election and that these are national issues, but I think that how a party intends to govern nationally is a reflection of how it will run a local municipality.

I think I know who I want to vote for tomorrow, but don’t even try to guess because I am not divulging that information. My vote is between myself and the ballot.

 

Race from the perspective of a young coloured woman

A friend of mine recently asked a group of our white friends what they thought about race. His question was “Do you feel like we have to tolerate one another? Or is it just harmonious and effortless being around the diverse group?” This question was asked in the aftermath of two more black people (Alton Sterling and Philando Castile) being killed by the police in America, which again brought attention to the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, even here in South Africa.

I am neither black nor white and therefore have never experienced the oppression and fear which I can only imagine black people experience every day, nor the inherent privilege which comes with being white. I am pretty much somewhere in the middle: formerly disadvantaged, but still allowed to speak my mind because my relatively light skin tone and ‘white’ accent means that people listen to me before they shoot down my ideas and opinions, or dismiss me as being bitter about Apartheid.

I have often heard my dad say that we were too black to be white during Apartheid and that we are now too white to be black. It was funny to me when I was younger, but I realised eventually that it wasn’t a joke, but that instead, the words masked a deep-rooted anger and bitterness towards the system which led to an identity crisis for many coloured people like myself who still do not quite know where we fit in.

Nevertheless, as a coloured person, I can do my best to answer my friend’s question from my perspective:

As an extremely outspoken person (often with little to no regard for the consequences), I never felt any different to any other race until an incident in grade 8. A white boy in my class said that he would never marry a person of colour because of cultural differences. Coming from a Christian household like him, I honestly did not see how my culture was any different to his, but he insisted that he could never engage in any sort of romantic relationship, let alone marry, a person of colour for that reason. It was only then that I realised how different I actually was.

A few years later, when I was at university, I wanted to take my mom out for some cake. As we entered this little coffee shop, one of the ladies who worked there told us that they were closed. It seemed peculiar because the sign said “OPEN” and everything seemed to be in order in the shop, but because there were no customers in the little establishment, I brushed it aside and we left. My mom, however, angrily said that we were turned away because of our skin tone. That was a major moment in my life because it really dawned on me then that even my mother, who is the kindest, most long-suffering and sweetest human being on earth, had been so badly affected by racial discrimination in the past that even the slightest hint thereof now angered her (she never gets visibly angry).

These two experiences stand out because they truly opened my eyes to the more entrenched forms of racism which are considered to be acceptable (in the case of my classmate) and the more long-lasting effects of Apartheid on the people who experienced it (in the case of my mother).

To answer my friend’s question: There have been moments at the University of Cape Town when I felt uncomfortable and ‘less than’ my peers, especially my white peers, not because they treated me differently, but because I always felt that my white peers had this confidence which I just did not have. It is not that I am an unconfident person in general, I just always felt a bit dumber compared to the people around me who knew what a corporate bond was without having to Google it, or who had a favourite Woolies salad when I would not dare to enter a Woolworths for fear of spending my entire bank account in one go (student life was tough). However, I have never felt the need to tolerate anyone. Being around a diverse group of people has never been a problem for me because although I cannot claim to be colourblind (I definitely am not), I have never thought that anyone was any less or more deserving of anything than me simply because of the colour of their skin.

Of course, it is different for me. I am part of a newer generation where those of us who were privileged enough were able to attend schools where we were exposed to a number of different cultures from a very young age. Although I bear the secondhand scars of Apartheid, I have personally not experienced the horrors and pain of Apartheid firsthand like my parents did.

However, even for my generation, race is an issue. Institutional racism and inherent biases shape the world at large, especially the opinions and ideas of the generations before mine that lived through Apartheid, which are then transferred from generation to generation. This can be seen in debates about affirmative action, selection of sports teams and often on social media (the Penny Sparrows of the world).

These forms of racism are extremely hurtful and can easily cause disillusionment and bitterness in young people like myself. As a member of the first born-free generation, I have dreams of an equal and fair society where respect and success is earned on merit, where affirmative action is no longer necessary, where all young men and women are able to trust the police to protect them and where racial stereotypes are no longer perpetuated. Unfortunately, this is not yet my or anyone else’s reality.

To answer my friend’s question: for me, it is effortless to be part of a diverse group, but I am not blind to the fact that it is more difficult for others. As a coloured person, the most difficult issue is identity: where I actually fit in in this rainbow nation of ours, but that is a topic for another day.

Until next time

The Coherent Rambler