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Hearing voices

| November 26, 2018 | 0 Comments


As Donald Trump rides his magical ‘covfefe’1 onwards and upwards to the mystical land of ‘Nambia’,2 it seems as though Africa’s PR has never looked this bad.

In reality, Africa (and its fiction) has suffered through what writer Ainehi Edoro calls “100 years of branding disaster”.3 Recently, in an interview with international award-winning author Chimamande Ngozi Adichie, French journalist Caroline Broué asked Adichie whether “there were bookstores in Nigeria”.4 The ludicrous question sparked an uproar on Twitter, particularly from Nigerians, who were quick to remind Broué about Nigeria’s rich literary history: from Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe to poets Philip Begho and Nana Asma’u – none of whom rode to work on the back of a dassie (African rock hyrax) or assimilated language from a mandrill with a penchant for painting foreheads with pomegranates.5

Shapers of our emotions

As I was paging through my six-year-old daughter’s edition of Find Freddie,6 I was mortified to discover that despite many African countries breaking free from their colonial fetters up to a good 30 years prior to its publication in 1989, the ‘Africa’ page was very much bound by colonial naivety. Our diverse, polyphonic, multicultural continent was represented as a singular state: wild, homogenous and with no technological advancements. More worrying, perhaps, was the ‘secret education’ and the insidious socialisation of my child: this was akin to a children’s adaptation of Heart of Darkness,7 replete with stereotypes, abuse of power and Eurocentrism. It led me to ask myself: how do we contribute to our children’s perception of themselves and the world they live in through the unmediated literature that they read? In his book entitled The Empire’s Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds,8 Ariel Dorfman states:

Industry-produced fiction has become one of the primary shapers of our emotions and our intellect in the 20th century. Although these stories are supposed to entertain us, they constantly give us a secret education. We are not only taught certain styles of violence, the latest fashions, and sex roles by TV, movies, magazines and comic strips, we are also taught how to succeed, how to love, how to buy, how to conquer, how to forget the past and suppress the future. We are taught more than anything else, how not to rebel.9

Let us rebel against singular representations

The global regard for South Africa swings between binaries of oversimplification. International perception of our southern tip oscillates between revering the country as a site of allegorical peace, harmony and democracy, but also the location for “large scale killing”.10 Trump’s tweet about farm killings, while valid in its alarm, is inaccurate in the detail. According to AgriSA, in 2018, farm murders have dropped to a “Twenty year low”.11While both rainbow rhetoric and Afrophobic crime reporting may have roots in truth, they are problematically concrete, static in their binaries. Besides the foolishness of tweeting foreign policy (or lack thereof ) in fewer characters than the writing on a sugar packet, Trump’s tweet and Broué’s faux pas illustrated how much we need to ‘rebel’ against singular representations of our continent and country – particularly in the literature we read. I would like to forward the question asked by Leon de Kock:12 “Who speaks for South Africa?” Perhaps educators have a further responsibility in answering: who decides the legitimacy of what these narratives are saying?

The inherent dilemma

Before I continue, I would like to acknowledge the inherent dilemma with the term ‘South African writing’ because it goes no way to describe the vast heterogeneity within origins, languages, cultures, identities, histories and disparate feelings of nationalism within South Africa. The concern is even more pronounced because, as De Kock states, South African literary culture is largely a site of “unresolved difference”,13 and as I intend to prove, a space of marginalised voices. Andrew van der Vlies wrote a fantastic introduction to his book, cheekily entitled South African Textual Cultures: White, Black, Read All Over.14 The preface examined the historical reasons behind the prioritisation of British literature within the South African market. Because of the pervasive colonial imprint on the nation, it was noted as early as 1925 that “Books produced in Britain ‘have always had a large and authoritative circulation in South Africa’, while ‘the indigenous author has had to struggle in the teeth of a constant prejudice against the local article’”. Books that were produced in Britain were intended for a British audience, both in England and in the colonial satellite states, such as India and South Africa. This set in a motion a burgeoning commercial and literary relationship between Britain and South Africa that created an unquestioned hegemonic prioritisation of the English canon over diverse and local cultural production.

Pandering to European cultural production

Moreover, even up to the 1950s, much of Anglophone writing from within South Africa (by white, English speakers) was considered an extension of the ‘Motherland’ rather than as writing from a “Separate country [that has]… grown in nationhood”.15 Ultimately, Van der Vlies remarks that “[B]ecause so many South African writers in English have sought to publish abroad, the ‘character and identity of South African literature’… has been largely determined somewhere else, by people outside of the community in whose name the writer claims to be speaking”.16 In his essay in Curriculum Studies Within South Africa,17Wayne Hugo admits that education within South Africa is still irrevocably constrained by what has been, stating that “[W]e live under the existential whip of historical consciousness”. And so, it is in this context of stunted nationalism and pandering to European cultural production that South African education finds itself.

Curriculum at the core

In an ongoing attempt to liberate education from the ‘whip of historical consciousness’, member of the executive (MEC) for education within Gauteng, Panyaza Lasufi, argues that “…diversity in schools and in education – in whatever form, whether whites teach in black schools and blacks teach in white schools – provides powerful examples of how minds and hearts are opened by virtue of engaging meaningfully with diverse peers both inside and outside the classroom”.18 Ultimately, desegregation needs to go beyond the physical relocation of races within the classroom, but the curriculum, particularly the set work selection, should mimic the diverse, polyphonic nature of South African society. How often do students in our classrooms get to see a glimpse of their South Africa in the literature they read? Their household? Their own reflection? Desegregation needs to go beyond race, but must also acknowledge differences in ability, sexuality and class, among others. Desegregation needs to filter into the nuances of our language, so that empathy and historical and social sensitivity punctuates our interactions with our students.

Curriculum change should not be a product, but a fluid process

Over the last 10 years, there has been an increasingly loud call to democratise the curriculum. While it is unclear who this task should fall to, who determines the extent of the decolonisation or if it would even benefit our learners to remove all imprint of European texts from our curriculum, it may perhaps be better to speak not about removing voices, but rather to start hearing more of them. In a useful article about building the educational experience in a more equitable way, Emmanuel Mgqwashu believes that curriculum design should move beyond an exchange of information where the curriculum becomes a “a product: certain skills to master and facts to know”,19 but rather it should become an ongoing interrogation of context and praxis. Mgqwashu elaborates that a curriculum which is designed within the South African context (and, naturally, with the South African student in mind) will allow for greater room to critique how “Education reproduces unequal social relations after graduation” and, presumably, will allow more equitable social relations once our students (and ourselves as educators) get used to hearing alternate contexts and voices. It is in this willingness to hear alternate voices that the curriculum as praxis thrives. According to Mgqwashu: Praxis creates conditions to democratise learning spaces. It makes room for both individual and group identities within the teaching and learning context. This creates shared and negotiated understandings and practices while knowledge is being generated and disseminated.20 Curriculum as praxis, therefore, must be achieved through conversations with students, colleagues, institutions and educational boards. It is, fittingly, an educational experience that only functions as a collaborative, fluid process. How often do we interact with our students about what they love to read? How often do we offer suggestions to the examinations board regarding alternate setwork choices that are more reflective of South African students?

“There is a growing rumbling, like distant thunder, coming from our students, denoting their need to see more of themselves in their education. Let us meet them.”

Asking the tough questions

One of the best articles that I have read all year is by writer Tricia Ebarvia, who founded the anti-bias, anti-racist pedagogy effort #DisruptTexts.21 In her blog, Ebarvia asks some tough questions. She asks educators to consider the setworks studied in our literary classrooms: How many are written by marginalised voices and people of colour? Moreover, are we ready to replace beloved canonical texts for points of view that have been historically or socially neglected? Are we allowing for open discussions, to “Apply a critical lens to the texts we do teach”?22 Is the media we consume inclusive, or does it echo our own views, beliefs and bias? In what ways do we actively ensure that all members of staff (administrative, cleaning and teaching) are heard and respected? It is an uncomfortably good article that should be on the wall of every classroom.

Can you hear the thunder?

South African education is on the precipice of something wonderful. There is a growing rumbling, like distant thunder, coming from our students, denoting their need to see more of themselves in their education. Let us meet them, armed with empathy, humility and willingness to have conversations that challenge traditions. Importantly, let us rebel against the singular narratives about our country and continent by creating palimpsestic education: layered with authentic voices without a ‘covfefe’ in sight.

Chelsea van Lieshout teaches English to grades 9, 11 and 12 students at St Stithians Boys’ College in Johannesburg, Gauteng.

1. See: and
2. See:
3. See:
4. See:
5. See:
6. Tallarico, T. (1990) Find Freddie (Where are They?). New York: Kidsbooks.
7. Conrad, J. (2010 unstated edition) Heart of Darkness. New York: Tribeca Books.
8. Dorfman, A. (1983) The Empire’s Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds. New York: Penguin Books.
9. Ibid.
10. See:
11. See:
12. De Kock, L, Bethlehem, L. and Laden, S. (2004) South Africa in the Global Imaginary. South Africa: UNISA Publishers.
13. Ibid.
14. Van der Vlies, A. (2007) South African Textual Cultures: White, Black, Read all Over. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. Hugo, W. (2009) Drawing the Line in Post-apartheid Curriculum Studies. In Pinar, W. Curriculum Studies in South Africa. New York: Palgrave McMillan.
18. See:
19. See:
20. Ibid.
21. See:
22. Ibid.

Category: Summer 2018

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