Tag Archives: apartheid

Creativity can make South Africa great

What kind country would you like to call home? I think I know what kind I want to live in: one in which the rule of law is respected, people have access to quality education and health; a country in which citizens have the opportunity to make the most of their inherent potential – and do so. A nation which is at peace with its diversity and tolerant of difference.

South Africa’s histories – its many jangling narratives, each contradicting and conflicting – have led to a bewildering present. The longer I live here, the more complex and inscrutable it appears. But perhaps that is a good thing. Searching for solutions to our problems cannot be predicated on the assumption that we fully understand this country. Those solutions, if you can call them that, are likely to fail because they are too tightly bound to our own perceptions, which do not necessarily match reality.

We need to take a more humble position, one based on curiosity and empathy. One based on the understanding that our own mindsets have been shaped (although not rigidly so) by our own education, history, class and culture and these can lead to fundamental differences in perspective. While we should never let our identities constrain our opinions and beliefs, we need to be aware of their influence over both ourselves and over others.

But acknowledging South Africa’s complexity, and that we do not have a monopoly either on understanding it or on knowing how to solve its challenges, does not absolve us from the responsibility we have to contribute to solving these challenges.

Given what South Africa faces – widening inequality, rampant malfeasance and maladministration, high crime, a stagnant economy – each citizen has an obligation, I believe, to do their bit.

But let us set responsibilities aside for a moment and look briefly at the past, a past in which the vast majority of South Africans were marginalised and oppressed. Bantu Education was designed to perpetuate a system of white supremacy, and to inhibit the realisation of the cultural, intellectual and economic value locked inside each citizen. Democracy arrived in 1994 but almost two decades later, the education delivered to South Africa’s children remains horrendously poor because the government has failed to effectively address apartheid’s educational legacy.

According to a recent article in The Economist:

In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, South Africa ranks 132nd out of 144 countries for its primary education and 143rd for the quality of its science and maths. In the Department of Basic Education’s national literacy and numeracy tests last year, only 15% of 12-year-olds scored at or above the minimum proficiency on the language test. In maths just 12% did.

The Economist also points out that only 20% of schools have libraries. But, even worse, only 8% of schools have ones that are actually functioning. These failures do not be appear to be the result of insufficient spending – a sixth of the government budget goes to education and since 1995 between 5 and 7% of our GDP has been spent on education each year.

I’m sometimes asked whether the government is deliberately perpetuating a failing education system – much in the same way the apartheid state engineered one. Some wonder if the system is designed to keep citizens ignorant of alternatives and unable to grasp the basics of democracy and democratic change. These cynics wonder if there is a strategy in place to increase dependency on a state that is being artfully conveyed by party spin-doctors as representing a benevolent ANC dishing out grants.

It’s might be tempting to believe this, but I don’t buy it. For one thing, I do not believe poor education has led South Africans into a state of subservience to ANC hegemony – while the party’s electoral support remains high for a number of reasons, the opposition to its governance is evident every time you open a paper – in the spate of so-called delivery protests that have been occurring across the country.

Instead of being something wilful, I believe education failures are rather a consequence of distraction. Most people in government are not there to serve the people. They are there to amass power and money. That is the priority. The ANC’s cadre deployment strategy is designed to put loyal members of the party in positions where they are expected to deliver – and that includes education. In this patronage system, kickbacks and tenders are the reward – the sweeteners to ensure fealty to the reigning faction in Luthuli House. But of course the pitfall of deploying someone on the basis of loyalty and affiliation as opposed to merit is that often people who do not have adequate skills or experience are placed in positions where those two elements are essential for delivery to succeed.

According to Business Day, the results of the 2011 census show that:

There are 10.9-million under-fives, 9.3-million children aged 5-9, 8.8-million aged 10-14, and 9.6-million aged 15-19. The second-largest sector of the population is between the ages of 20 and 24, accounting for 10.4-million people.

Clearly we are a nation of youngsters – people who need skills to gain employment and compete in the global economy against their international brothers and sisters who are invariably receiving a far better education than they are.

But education is more than simply about skills and jobs.  I recently interviewed Tamar Garb, a South African art historian based at University College London and she told me:

Education is not just about vocational training… visual literacy, verbal skills, powers of argument and reason, critical thinking, independent judgment – all the things that an education in the humanities and in art give are also absolutely vital for the running of a society.

Tamar Garb warned against creating a society of “philistines and technocrats”, arguing that:

The imagination is crucial to imagine what a future might be: you can only build and imagine what a future might be if you can think of what a future might have been and that negotiation of the future and the past in creative dialogue is a survival; it’s not just like wellbeing and the froth on the top: it’s absolutely central to a culture’s survival – especially a culture recovering from trauma which has to reinvent itself. This is a society which has to imagine new ways of being, new ways of identifying itself, new ways of delivering to all its people the dignity, the prosperity, the identities that make for a productive way of life.

So how do we create a society that converses with itself? The answer lies in the humanities. It lies in the excavation and interrogation of our past and present, using words, imagery, action and even music.

For this to flourish, it is essential that the humanities be nurtured at a school level in subject areas such as English, history, drama and art. Our appalling maths and science rankings deservedly garner headlines. But we also need to recognise how reading, writing and art help children to escape the realities of their own situation, and dream up new ones for themselves. Books connect children with other worlds, other lives, new ideas. Drama encourages empathy. Collectively, creativity fosters aspiration and inspiration, promoting curiosity, understanding and tolerance.

Creativity and critical thinking help the healing of a divided country. We need a nation of scientists, engineers and accountants. But we also need a nation of dreamers, thinkers and storytellers – people who can help us first make peace with ourselves, and then with others, so that instead of being threatened by diversity and difference, we are rather nourished by it.

On some metrics, particularly in housing, water and sanitation, government has achieved some positive changes. But is run, however, by an increasingly undemocratic and self-enriching elite who are steadily tearing at the fabric of our hard-won constitutional order.

Education is not going to improve overnight. If anything, it may continue to deteriorate. But there is no use in despairing. I received some comfort from the Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer who told me in an interview in last year, that “we mustn’t fall easily into despair” about the things that have not been achieved since 1994.

In her most recent novel, No Time Like the Present, she writes: “Brought down the crowned centuries of colonialism, smashed apartheid. If our people could do that? Isn’t it possible, real, that the same will must be found, is here somewhere — to take up and get on with the job, freedom. Some must have the — crazy —faith to Struggle on.”

So South Africans must ask themselves – how do they plan to struggle on? What is the contribution they can make to building South Africa up into the kind of country they want to live in?

It is easy to be a passive grumbler. But we should rather recognise the power in each one of us to contribute to positive, lasting change. This is a recognition which powered revolutions, which revved up social movements, pulling down the walls of apartheid, and building up our constitutional democracy.

We need to be inspired again – inspired by those who refuse to accept that the vicious cocktail of corruption, incompetence and mediocrity is to be our country’s destiny. There are plenty of examples. The NGO Equal Education is campaigning for a library in every school. Dance for All teaches dance to kids from Khayelitsha and other Cape townships. The Light from Africa Foundation uses ceramics to provide art therapy for orphaned children.  Rock Girl SA teamed up with Plascon and the Cecile and Boyd Foundation to create a beautiful art room at a Manenberg school. The Boundless Heart Foundation brought together corporates, non-profits and local government to install a container library in Blikkiesdorp – providing a safe learning space for the community’s kids. Both help2read and the Shine Centre have armies of volunteers sharing a love of reading with children across the country.

Forging a nation of critical thinkers and creative dreamers will not happen overnight. But if we are serious about becoming a nation that is truly united in its diversity, then it is something we must aspire to.  While there is much being done, there is still much to do.

Each South African should consider what their contribution can be; they must realise their power, value their experience, skills and time. What can we do? Is it campaigning for better education? Is it reading to children? Is it fundraising for new libraries? Is it helping to set up grants for writers and poets? Or collecting art supplies for kids who don’t have?

It is up to each one of us to decide.

A modified container library for the Blikkiesdorp community donated by the Boundless Heart Foundation.

A modified container library for the Blikkiesdorp community donated by the Boundless Heart Foundation.


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Why this pale male is shutting up (for a little while anyway)

Six weeks ago I touched down in London: a born-and-bred Cape Town boy about to start a new job in another country.

While the online smorgasbord of Politicsweb, the Mail & Guardian and Business Day still form a daily news staple, an inevitable sense of detachment from the roiling intrigue of South African politics has crept in. And not merely detachment: perhaps it’s because I’m living in a country, far, far away, that I feel less able – or qualified – to comment about day-to-day political issues.

But I’ve also succumbed to ennui. I’m tired of participating in a debate riddled by crass racial accusations – a discourse where identity prevails instead of ideas, rash insults instead of reason. South African debate is lively – thankfully so – but arguments are too often drowned out by the din of racial politicking. It’s become reflexive – a lazy tic employed by so many commentators. It’s easier to resort to racial stereotypes, or accuse people of being racist, or place blame on our racialised history, than it is to grapple seriously, thoughtfully, considerately with the mammoth challenges South Africa – and Africa – faces.

At the back of my mind every time I consider piping up, is the thought of my own impotence – condemned to irrelevance, almost, thanks to my perceived identity. I can’t avoid those thoughts: what’s the use in saying anything, when whatever I’ll say will be dismissed by a cursory “But he’s just another middle-class, white male”? It would seem my love for South Africa, my desire to see positive, long-lasting change in this country, counts for nothing in the eyes of many. I dream of a nation where all South Africans – black and white, and every shade in between – are prosperous; where children receive a good education; where families receive the support they need; where men and women are able to chart their own lives and shape their own destinies through their own efforts.

That counts for nothing in a media environment palsied by identity politics. Apartheid’s scars were often physical – and certainly social. Glance through the pages of our newspapers or tune into our talk shows, and you will witness that the wicked system’s lingering effects are psychological too. Sadly, the obsession with race, and with what race supposedly says about a person, has only deepened.

After more than 16 years of democracy, an implicit racial bias underpins much of South Africa’s media’s ouput – both in its commentary and reportage. Many journalists, it seems, are tempted to reinforce a narrative in which the legitimacy of people’s motives or actions are based purely on their skin colour.

I find this particularly evident in coverage of the DA’s governance in the Western Cape – the Makhaza toilet saga being a perfect example. Coverage on the issue laid bare the media’s inherent hostility towards a party perceived as “white”, as well as journalists’ reluctance to obtain facts on the ground that might contradict their sly suggestion that the DA was hell-bent on humiliating township residents.

Now that I’m living in London, a new label – that of expatriate – will of course be slapped onto me, further undermining the “legitimacy” of my contribution to political debate. South Africans can easily misinterpret moving countries as a sign of indifference about the migrant’s homeland: he’s run away; he’s given up; he doesn’t believe in our future. Staying is equated as a vote of confidence in the new South Africa, leaving merely shows contempt for it. Those who believe this forget, of course, that our world is an increasingly globalised one – and that leaving often has very little to do with the faith (or the lack thereof) in the country of one’s birth.

A part of me says this all shouldn’t matter, and that I should be writing about South Africa regardless, in the hope that my views won’t always be completely discarded as self-indulgent musings from an ivory tower. But, for the moment, that argument doesn’t hold sway and, wearied and wary, I’ll be letting my typing fingers rest for a little while yet.

Rest assured: I won’t remain silent forever. That would simply allow victory for the bigots who say political debate is a territory that can only be occupied by those who claim victimhood. For South Africa to move forward, we cannot allow that belief to prevail.

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Apartheid Museum campaign will fail to lure youngsters

Apparently the Apartheid Museum is struggling to attract young visitors. To increase awareness of the tragic history that it commemorates, its ad agency, TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris has launched a campaign centred around the notion of “a history forgotten is a future lost”.

The agency made some viral videos of interviews that expose the ignorance amongst young people about apartheid. But while the videos show that the young people interviewed haven’t got a clue about apartheid history, they fail to present the ultimate message — that the consequence of this ignorance is “a future lost”. It is therefore highly unlikely that this campaign will encourage youngsters to brush up on their history or make a visit to the museum.

If the Apartheid Museum wants to attract young people it will need to find a conceptual approach that can effectively portray its contemporary relevance to young people. These videos, sadly, do not.

Below are some of the videos:


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