Celebrating Mediocrity and the Extinction of Innocence…

I have nostalgic memories of my childhood.  From my pre-school graduation ceremony as I faced my first year of school, to when I sang in front of a rainbow of faces at a hall in Lichtenburg when I was ten years old. I see the face of my father seated among the audience. I remember the lashes our teachers gave when we were out of line and the equal pat on the back when we did well. I remember a friend’s mother who whipped us for going around house to house asking for vetkoek money in her name and the embarrassment I carried home with me. I remember the immense support and mentoring I received from my middle school teachers and their sheer appreciation for excellence.

I remember my childhood; my innocence…and it was wholesome! That was MY childhood. As a mother, I’m faced with the constant worry about the current education climate and whether it will be ideal for my offspring-whether it will ever be ideal for any child. I was moulded and groomed in a public schooling system in a dusty township called Itsoseng, a system that I was (and still am) proud of having gone through.

This is because the dedication of the men and women who taught this woman was second to none. I do wonder, however, whether our future generations will be able to experience innocence in its entirety. There seems to be something sinister at play, a systematic dismantling of the essence of childhood-of the things that define a child. The state, school and society (family) constitute the three most important institutions that are supposed to shape children into individuals who are socially and morally responsible.

Yet it appears, in this era, the child is constantly under threat from all three. When Jacob Zuma began his tenure as president of the country in 2008 many took pride in the fact that though he only had formal schooling up to fifth grade (or Standard three) he climbed his ladder up to the highest position in the land. Without focusing on the obvious role of the ruling party and popular support for him, it was befitting to applaud the man since sans education one would have had to have an extra ounce of resilience, courage, wit and diligence to defeat the odds.

My mother, an endearing educator, has often told of stories of her pupils who aspire to be just like the president. Their humble circumstances make them look to Zuma as a beacon of hope (most are children of miners working in platinum mines) but she often warns that education is key. What will happen if they are not lucky enough to move through the ranks of the ruling party? What will happen if they don’t have meaningful mentors in their lives?

…which way…

It has been extremely disappointing to witness the manner in which education, especially in the public sector, has been reduced to a joke. If anything, we should be weeping for our future generations. According to the 2011/2012 World Competitiveness Report* South Africa ranked at 127th in terms of its quality of primary education, 133rd for the quality of its education system, and 138th for the quality of Maths and Science education. In 2011, Basic Education minister Angie Motshekga and the class of 2010 matriculants celebrated 67.8% national pass rate** after reducing the pass percentage mark significantly. As a consequence we witnessed unusually long queues for admission snaking along corridors and gates of institutions of higher learning two years in a row.

Then there is the deepening crisis in the state of education in the Eastern Cape where the laying off of a crucial workforce of teachers and mud schools are only a tip of the iceberg. Recently the textbook saga in Limpopo took centre stage; interestingly the only individual vindicated of incompetence by the president was the minister of Basic Education. Needless to say, rights group Section 27 discovered that the department was in contravention of a court order as many more children are still without essential textbooks.

***In Northern Cape, a reported forty schools were forced shut by civilians (including parents) demanding service delivery.**** In recent months there have been proposed amendments to the Child Act (no. 38 of 2005) to allow children as young as twelve to have termination of pregnancy and access to contraception without parental consent. The amendments will apparently make provision for sexually abused children and those involved in inter-generational relationships, but nonetheless inclusive of those who aren’t.

To aggravate matters there is a push by child rights organisations and government to have spanking (read: corporal punishment) banned from homes. Campaigners supporting this bid “believe this will have major bearing on the rights of children and how they are raised.”***** Respect for education as a vital tool for the emancipation and empowerment of the majority of our people has completely waned. It has been replaced by concealed dissuasion for excellence as a standard, by denialism and indifference. Which tool can be better than education to a tween involved with a sugar daddy?

Which tool can a parent equip a child with in the face of irresponsible leadership and socio-economic challenges? We are failing our country’s children by denying them quality education in a system that is affordable and accommodating. We are failing our future generations by denying them challenges in life, by making them complacent and lazy thinkers (and by implementing fucked up policy, yes I’m angry!). We are failing children by stripping them of their moral core and innocence. Most importantly, we are failing them by not allowing them to just be… children.

 

*http://www.stanlib.com/EconomicFocus/Pages/SouthAfricaranked50thinthe20112012WorldCompetitivenessReport.aspx ** http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/2010-matric-pass-rate-678-20110106 *** http://mg.co.za/2012-09-06-section-27-take-angie-to-court-again **** (Govender, S. “New bid to have spanking banned”, 12 Jan 2012. Times Live) ***** (Dlodlo, C. “Parents refuse to end protests”, 09 Sept 2012, City Press)

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Marikana, What About Patriarchy?

I have watched, like millions of other South Africans as Marikana, a small area on the outskirts of my hometown was turned into yet another battle zone. See, we have come to expect a spectacle every year: Those events that force our country to take notice; events that form a large part of our braai conversations, our commutes to work, and unfortunately one of those events that we eventually forget.

 

That is how it is. That is how terribly desensitized we have become to brutality and senseless violence from civilians and law enforcement agencies alike. I prefer not to delve too much neither on the sequence of the events that led to the tragic demise of 34 striking miners nor on the opportunistic elements that have been hovering over emotionally volatile miners like vultures. I would much rather look at one aspect that came to mind as I was busy perusing this past Sunday’s copy of City Press.

 

This issue gave an in-depth view into the victims of the so-called Marikana massacre-no more just body count and faceless corpses scattered across a dusty plein but as brothers, husbands, sons and friends of those who remain behind. Lest we forget, miners downed tools to demand a wage increase from R 4 000 to R12 500 monthly.

 

By any standard their current wages is pathetic, nothing but small change especially in the face of rising fuel and commodity costs. So, it was startling to read of men who are responsible for more than one household. Even more startling was the fact that in this day and age some men are fathers to more than seven children, (and their names aren’t Jacob Zuma) and have unemployed wives while living off this measly salary.

 

On a monthly intern’s stipend I can attest the difficulty with which I personally manage my existence as well as that of my daughter’s. However, I manage if only barely because she is my only dependant. It was therefore disturbing to read of one deceased miner’s who was his family’s (wife and eleven children aged between four and twenty-eight) only breadwinner. Many of them are sole breadwinners.

 

This is by no means news to yours truly; it’s a lot like looking at the mirror and noticing something that has always been there but viewing it with a different outlook and renewed intensity. These are the faces of migrants who work in our mines-men from disadvantaged, rural and underdeveloped backgrounds.

 

The greed of the mines is something to be expected- the Malthusian Population theory argues that “if wages continued to rise with capital accumulation, the level of profits would fall” In real terms Lonmin and other mining companies aren’t in the business of making people feels secure or comfortable, hence labour is replaceable and a lot of communities around mines remain poor.

 

In reality they don’t care how many dependants a miner’s salary supports. But should we really blame mining companies for the patriarchal order that so many men carry on their shoulders? Should we blame external entities for the men and women who continue to over-burden themselves with more responsibility than they can handle?

On average the take home salary of the Swazi national, if divided equally among himself, his wife and children means that they lived on just R307, 69 a month. Note that this is not inclusive of his own living expenses and the occasional travel between his home country and South Africa. This amounts to just $ 37, 56 per person per month. It is obvious that miners were not only buckling under economic pressure but to structural and patriarchal pressure as well: The pressure of being ‘real’ men, measured through the number of children or the number of women in one’s life.

Please don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe in men playing their role as providers and protectors and I support the role of women as nurturers. However, in a modern society both men and women can interchange and share these roles for the welfare of their families.

Re-thinking Families

The president recently discussed what he terms the “Green Paper on Families” and though I felt the discussions around it are important, I also feel that this is one area where the state has to lay off from. It is something that society has to figure out on its own given the many contradictions that we see from the government itself. The truth is that family structures of miners remain largely traditional and organic thus they are not in sync with the current demand for ‘rational’ families, that is, families that are sustainable and don’t contribute towards the growing number of the poor.

While applauding these men for taking care of their own, the consequences of large, unsustainable families aren’t only visible when one has died. They are visible in the quality of education and quality of health care children get.  Most importantly they are visible in the quality of life a child has, in their upbringing and nurture. These are hardly possible in poor, large families and that in itself is a form of deprivation.

In the aftermath of the Marikana tragedy the glaring reality is that the families of the 34 miners will swell the ranks of those living in abject poverty and both men and women are to blame for these consequences. The women for bowing to patriarchy by not taking control of their sexual and reproductive health, and the men for thinking they could carry the world on their shoulders. Isn’t it about time we became agents of change, isn’t it time we stopped perpetuating poverty? Isn’t it time we stopped giving Lonmin and co. too much credit for the circumstances we may have helped create? Isn’t it time we took responsibility?

Keeping the Faith

There is nothing as conflicting as being at a crossroads. That point in one’s life when you are not sure whether to go right, left, backwards or forwards-or to simply remain grounded. A few months ago I criticized religion and Christianity in particular for holding many Africans to ransom. I’m not planning to write a retraction because I still have reservations.

After sitting down with my colleague who is a staunch Christian, she left me with ample food for thought and a stern reminder-if not warning, that sitting on the fence for too long has its consequences. I pride myself on being a fair person who neither favours nor fears but I reckon a lot of the time I have simply sat on the fence, appeasing others from the sidelines. In reality, it is a very thin line to tread.

Our conversation opened my eyes up to a myriad of things like the meaning of faith, of standing firm for one’s values, morals, beliefs, ideals, etc. What am I really about? What do I stand for? For a long time I have comfortably settled under the label of “liberal”-arguing that people should live their lives the best way they know how, as long as it makes sense to them. I still stand by that though I now realise, in more ways than one, that I was somewhat a…drifter: Neither here nor there.

 

It has been an extremely testing, if not frightening couple of days. Having to choose the unknown always elicits great fear and doubt. There really is no sense in standing for two things that completely contradict and repel one another, like Christianity and the practice of African culture. According to wikianswers.com the term Secular Christian refers to people who “believe that Jesus was the son of God, but are [the] opposite of the spectrum when compared to fundamentalists and extreme conservative Christians. Furthermore, “they tend to believe in equal rights…”

Having observed the negative perceptions towards cultural practices from some black Christians one wonders whether those that practice both are bigger hypocrites. Are they nothing more than fence-sitters? Are they commitment phobes? Is there really a conflict of interest, seeing that one is religion and the other culture? What about insinuations that that those who believe in ancestors are ultimately without God? Does it matter what the perceptions are? Yet more questions.

Religion and politics are two things that individuals are constantly advised to avoid when conversing in social circles. Both are especially volatile because of the level of emotion that people attach when referring to them. Perhaps therein lies the lesson that people who have strong beliefs aren’t afraid to fight for whatever it is that they believe in.

I don’t know much, but I know that there have been numerous times when I flirted with danger and I came out unscathed. I do know that I have some foresight that is encrypted in my dreams and countless moments of dé jàvu. I do know that I feel some energy around me sometimes. I do know that there are things beyond my control, beyond my reach…and frankly, it scares the shit out of me! Of course it might just be a superstitious mind in overdrive-or a sign that I’m deeply connected to my roots, my ancestry. Yet I still don’t know how acknowledging all of this equates to some kind of distance between myself and the Creator in one way or the other because I still believe in Him.

I was raised to be a kind, giving, thoughtful and respectful individual. If they deviate from religious teachings for the mere reason that I have a lineage of ancestors that communicate with me once in a while, then I don’t have a clue. While they are a way of life for me, I have realised that Faith is a far more complex thing-it is a work in progress. Perhaps one day I will be able to decipher the meaning of all my experiences, perhaps I won’t. Maybe the easiest way is to remember Rex Rouis’ words- “Seeing is not believing. Faith comes by hearing, and seeing comes by believing and acting what you heard.”

 

 

Walking Tall: Impromptu Life Lessons

I have come to realise that most profound things happen while one is waiting. They happen when one has an opportune moment to absorb them in their entirety, when one is…ready. I have to admit that I am very impatient and as a result spent a number of days badgering myself for being unable to find the ‘right’ angle for my next blog post. I concluded that I had another onset of writer’s block. See, it’s far too easy to make rash conclusions and decisions than to let patience reign in when you suffer from an impatient streak.
When my colleague and I took a short stroll to the store across from our building one morning, we had no idea we would have something intriguing on our arrival. I bemoaned my increasing waistline and how I needed to lose some weight since spring has set in. Needless to say, it is going to be an uphill battle because I lack the discipline to combat my sweet tooth. We were about fifteen minutes early and had to wait until the store opened. Nothing major, we did a bit of window shopping at a shoe boutique nearby.

Quite the shoeshinista’s dream, we both marvelled at the sight before us. She is quite tall and slim; and her eyes were particularly set on pairs of pumps. Me? Well, I’m short and thick (in fact, my colleague and I are quite the textbook example of body types!) and I’m a heels kind of girl, it only makes sense. However, I was quite perplexed at how colour blocking has taken over everything and it didn’t help that some shoes are ridiculously high. I really think there is a conspiracy here!

We were joined by an older woman who was also waiting for the store to open. She quipped about how fabulous the shoes were and naturally, we couldn’t have agreed more. I then mentioned that though I was sold on a pair of stilettos, platform heels were really a bad idea for me. Boy, I had another thing coming! She gracefully threw my comments out of the window and prepared to give us what would be, personally, one of the most interesting lessons yet.

Lesson One: The Power of Shoes

My colleague and I both had flat or almost flat shoes on. We were told that shoes maketh a woman. Neo-feminist protests that men didn’t have to put up with ridiculous shoes simply fell on deaf ears as the woman told us that shoes have the power to not only transform posture, but they can give one an air of confidence and sophistication. She said flat shoes are capable of making one sloppy and complacent because they require so little effort. Shoes, are what sets us apart from men: They are one other thing that makes a woman sexy.
Lesson Two: Grooming

Though the woman indicated that she had put on some relaxer on her hair, I felt she could have done a better job. It didn’t matter though because she had confidence second to none; it didn’t matter what I thought because she revelled in her own skin and listening to her speak with such conviction made her all the more awe inspiring. A little make-up, a nice pair of earrings and some accessories are some of the things that can help liven up one’s mood.
Lesson Three: Always be ready
One of the most interesting aspects of that conversation was that women need to look the part –like learning to take ourselves more seriously, for instance. That means paying attention to things we deem to be miniscule or unimportant. More attention should be paid to work attire, etc. She also emphasized that falling into a comfortable space is one of women’s greatest setbacks.

Lesson Four: Letting Yourself Go

A definite no-no! We chuckled as the lady indicated that African women are significantly different from their Caucasian counterparts. African women have a bad habit of letting themselves go, and inviting early onset of old age. Once in their forties, she said, jeans and other sensible pieces of clothing are sent packing in exchange for frumpy frocks. Though it isn’t entirely about men, it isn’t fair on them either. Simply put, women need to keep those visual stimuli on.

A male friend once posted on Facebook that some women should put a “Learner” sign on the back of their stilettos so others won’t particularly mind when they fall over themselves. Let’s face it we see more of those embarrassing incidents than we’d like to recall, and more often than not men are embarrassed for us. There is no doubt that a great deal of skill is required to pull off that SEXY look. Alas, I don’t claim to speak for all women.

The woman I now know as Ma-Nkadimeng gave me ample food for thought. She reminded me that some of the greatest lessons aren’t always formal ones; that familiarity can come from strangers even. Like she said, “Some things will resonate with you, and some won’t…” and with that I confess that I’m still sceptical about those colour block platforms…sorry!
So, what impact did you have on somebody’s life today?