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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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