The Transformation and Diversity Imperative in South African Independent Schools

| July 12, 2011 | 0 Comments

By Professor Crain Soudien

In the first week of September 2010, our newspapers brought an interesting slate of issues on to the table. I would like to share with you what the Weekend Argus of Saturday 4 September looked like.

On the front page, not quite the headline article, was the question “Zuma to become dad once again?” The Weekend Argus took the news from the Durban newspaper Ilanga: “which yesterday reported that Zuma’s fiancée, Bongiwe Gloria Ngema, is pregnant…. The couple have one son, Sinqumo. The new baby will be Zuma’s 21st” (Dladla, Warner and Mhlanga, 2010:1). Inside the newspaper the Cape Town based TSiBA (the Tertiary School in Business Administration) has a prominent advertisement for a free public seminar in its series “What is Social Change?” The title of the seminar, to be given by Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela of UCT, is “The Face of the Other: Moral Imagination in a Time of Uncertainty and Change” (Weekend Argus, 4 September, 2010:4). On the same page a photograph appears with the heading “Arrest After Teenager Killed for No Reason”. The reporter Neo Maditla (2010:5) explains that “Riyaad, 17, a pupil at the Ned Doman High School was stabbed to death by three people about 100 metres from his house on Thursday night…. A 14 year-old boy has been arrested in connection with the murder.” In the middle of page 8 one has the heading “Expo Highlights Innovative” to describe what is taking place at Cape Town’s premier lifestyle show, the Homemakers’ Expo (Weekend Argus Reporter, 2010:8). The reporter describes a new product to be launched at the Expo: “Liquid Glass, an environmentally-friendly surface coating solution that mimics protective coatings already present in nature. It is over 500 times thinner than a human hair but is able to provide an all-in-one protection solution…. This (nanotechnology) product eliminates the need for harmful chemical detergents and disinfectants, reduces water use and promotes excellent hygiene” (ibid). In the more considered pages of the newspaper, the newspaper carries an extract from the book of celebrated South African journalist, David Beresford, (2010:17) Truth is a Strange. The focus of the extract is about an award-winning photograph, come to be known as the ‘Budgie Picture’. The point of Beresford’s writing is to ask the question about journalistic morality. He says: “Cameramen talk of the ‘decisive moment’ when the elements of a picture come together and are snatched, frozen by the great photographers. But decisive to what, one is tempted to ask…” (ibid). He then goes on say that the photographer, Kevin Carter, became famous for the photograph, but that from the moment he took the photograph his life slid into self-destruction. As he was taking congratulatory calls from the New York Times about the photograph Beresford says, “he was too doped with marijuana and mandrax to understand what they were talking about… he committed suicide, with a pipe up his car’s exhaust.” He then makes his big argument

In terms of human tragedy, Carter’s story is far more deserving of a prize than the simplistic juxtaposition of a vulture and a baby.… For a start it moves beyond symbolism into the realm of storytelling with the presentation of a sublime paradox: that what would have been one of the great images of our time, in its appeal to our humanity, was snatched with such apparent inhumanity by a photographer who seemingly did not bother to see what happened to the baby, much less tried to help it. (ibid)

On page 21 of the newspaper Tony Jackman (2010:21) writes about Reuben Riffel, a young man who worked in the kitchens of others who has become “South Africa’s first home-grown celebrity chef in the mould of the Marco Pierre Whites, Jean Christoffe Novalis, Jamie Olivers and Gordon Ramsays. On page 25 Fr. Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest who lost his hand during an apartheid parcel bomb attack in Zimbabwe is featured. Lapsley writes about “Healing Hurts of an Ugly Past Will Help Make Future Brighter” (Lapsley, 2010) in connection with a conference that his institute is having. The approach of his institute is to help forge a new future for ourselves and subsequent generations through “acknowledging the pain of the past – and in the process re cognising and exorcising ‘intergenerational trauma’…. We say that all people share responsibility for the past. Equally all people have a role in creating the future” ((ibid).

This is the week that was for South Africa in early September. It is a fairly typical week. What would one make of it? What could one make of it? What kind of country does it speak of?

In thinking of this selection of stories, or indeed of any other week in our lives, there are, of course other dimensions to South Africa that this selection has not picked up on. Our young people, I know, have lives only partially reflected here. But this is the complexity of what the country is.

South Africa is one of the world’s major social laboratories. It is a country in which the marks of conquest and subjugation, immigration and emigration, settlement and upheaval, occupation and dispossession, domination and oppression, integration and segregation and conflict and reconciliation, immense joy and profound sadness, hope and despair sit everywhere on its social and geographical landscape. We are a country marked by the extreme. We have extremes in virtually every domain of life.

But how do we make sense of these extremes? ‘Race’, predictably, is our default move in making sense and providing explanations of this complexity. But, as important commentaries have attempted to show (see No Sizwe, 1979 and Lekgoathi, 2004), the motor forces behind the divisions, alliances, conflicts and solidarities in the country, which often have been presented as manifestations of ‘race’, are much more diverse in their nature. Towards a process of telling the history of South Africa in terms which acknowledge the pervasiveness of race but not its sovereignty, a more complex historiography of South Africa is emerging (see Hall, 1990; Readers’ Digest, 1989 and Davenport and Saunders, 2000). Important about this new historiography are new ‘tellings’ of the South African story, new ways of bringing ourselves to an awareness of what it is about. What are these new tellings referring to? They refer, obviously, to the:

  1. the social, reflecting issues such as language, ‘race’, ethnicity, social class, income levels, religion, educational status, political orientation, gender and sexual preference (see Seekings and Nattrass, 2006; Hoad, Martin & Reid, 2005),
  2. the historical or temporal, drawing attention to the ways in which differences between ‘traditional’ and modern and that which is of ‘apartheid’ and ‘post-apartheid’ (see Comaroff & Comaroff, 1991, and 1993) continue to influence people’s perceptions of the world,
  3. the spatial, referring in particular to the ways in which regional and global differences, one’s urban or rural status, mark people as being either insiders or outsiders (Mamdani, 2000), and, somewhat controversially,
  4. the epidemiological, referring to one’s age, disability, one’s health status in relation to diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV-AIDs (see Watermeyer, et al, 2006) and which determine one’s degree of social acceptability.

They point to a country, a context in which the issues are intense. There are, of course, many countries in the world where these issues, in one combination or another, have and continue to exist and have consequences for everyday life. There are few, however, where they have come together in the synchronous, recursive and compounding way in which they do in South Africa. Obvious countries which offer themselves as comparisons include the United States of America, and to a lesser extent Brazil. Neither, however, has had to contend with, for example, or at least to the same degree, the perplexing phenomena of the mind such as ‘tradition’ and modernity, both for the subjects themselves and social analysts (see Joubert, 2008:3), or those of the body such as HIV-AIDs (see Baxen, 2006).

What does it mean to be living in such a place? The most critical is that many of us South Africans anguish deeply over how we fit into this place, who we are and how we manage our relationships with each other. At the level of the everyday, central is the question of whether and indeed how we might live together, accepting each others’ differences, treating each other with respect, understanding and engaging with the histories and myths about themselves that individuals and groups bring to their relationships with one another, and, critically, how this diversity can be crafted into a resource.

In one of the issues of ISASA’s magazine, I saw the title of an article or paper which was “Nothing is as it seems”. The purpose of that article, it seemed, was to remind us that there always lay behind the immediate picture that we have in front of us great deal more to understand. It really is important to understand what this seemingly ‘clever’ aphorism means, because this is the puzzle that confronts us as human beings: How to make sense of that which seems obvious but which is actually quite different. Our great gift as human beings is to be able to see beyond the obvious. It is also, however, our great weakness. We see only that which we wish to see. It is for us in education a special responsibility to be exemplary models of the former. We are entrusted with the task of cultivating that skill of seeing beyond the obvious. It is education’s great task, and it is this that I essentially come to talk of here today. How do we play this exemplary role in this time and space in which we find ourselves? How do we come to be agents in service of humanity – of that larger project – instead of the custodians of one or other sectional interest? How do we in our schools embrace this complexity and make it an intrinsic part of how we educate our children?

Now, going back to the selection of articles I referred you to in the newspaper, what skills, what capacities, what insights would our children, actually we ourselves, require to make good sense of the world in which we find ourselves?

About Mr Zuma, what education would one provide our children that would NOT approach the matter in that instinctive and distinctly uneducated way which accounts for Mr Zuma in the racist terms of black people’s lack of control, in the disparaging terms of African primitiveness? What education would one provide our children for them to understand the phrase in in Gobodo-Madikizela’s lecture, “The Face of the Other: Moral Imagination in a Time of Uncertainty and Change” that would help them to look forward with excitement to an intellectual grappling with questions of uncertainty and change? What education would one provide our children to help them understand how a 14 year old boy could kill another which does not conclude that all the Cape Flats is awash with gangsters? About the Liquid Glass article, what education would one provide our children to help them understood the sheer beauty of physics? What education would we need to provide our children about David Beresford’s book which would make them think about images in ways which are not simply titillating. About Reuben Riffel, what education would we provide our children that doesn’t start with the reflexive South African predilection to see the story primarily as a racial-made-good story but to more properly wonder at his talent? And finally, what education do we provide our children that when they come across Fr Lapsley’s Healing of Memories Institute that doesn’t simply say, that all that stuff is in the past and has nothing to do with me?

What do we have in our repertoire of resources to deal with this context? More pertinently, is our educational capacity in the country equal to this complexity? Are we doing enough at the right kinds of levels to bring our children to the point where they can handle and grow out of this complexity?

Looking around this context, as I have in the last twenty-five years, my answer is no. Our schools, our education system is patently unable to prepare young people for what they are confronting in their adult lives. Our schools are not preparing young people sufficiently for the world of employment and the labour market, but, critically, also, and we are not making this the great tragedy that confronts them, they are not preparing them for citizenship. Many are able, and yes this we must fight to preserve, to teach the narrow elements of education well and to bring our children to perform well in examinations. These schools are great incubators of a particular kind of leadership. But they, by and large, don’t take that next step of providing them with the kind of leadership education that will make them confront, without embarrassment, the ingrained legacies of race, class and gender, of superiority and inferiority. The schools of the poor, by and large, are preparing our children for lives of submission and inferiority. I say by and large because there are teachers in both of those contexts who have much greater aspirations for their children. And it is true, unfortunately, that our children in more wealthy schools have a much better chance of encountering teachers who will do this for them.

So what should we be asking of our context? Our knee-jerk reaction is to go for that which is now fashionable in education. The way we deal with the problem many say is to introduce multiculturalism into our schools. A colleague of mine, Wally Morrow, who passed on recently wrote passionately about the irrelevance of multiculturalism for education. He made the point that education, when it is done properly, when it is not being yoked behind a nationalist cause or is instrumentally tethered to the needs of the economy, will always be able to deal with any kind of social difference, including the differences of this country’s legacy. Broadly, I agree with him.

The point does need explanation though. I would like to suggest to you that education in its best form owes no allegiance to title, tribe or time. It does not belong to anybody. It is not the special preserve or prerogative of any group or individual. Of course it manifests itself in many forms. Irrespective of its form, however, it is always characterised by a deeply special quality. What is that quality? That quality is transcendence. Transcendence is the capacity an individual has to overcome his or her history. It can be religious, but it is the intellectual form of it that interests me. Emerging from it, because it is always a deliberate experience – it is never something that happens to one by accident – one is transformed from that position to which one is brought by or arrives at through upbringing, socialisation to a point where one can see one’s upbringing, one’s socialisation for what it is, for the kind of person it wanted one to be and for one, thus, to be able to say that I can see now what is good and what is bad about these practices, these traditions and these values that my history, my upbringing has developed for me. I can see the small-mindedness in this idea, the largeness of spirit and imagination in that practice. This quality is described in different ways by different scholars. It is sometimes described as the capacity to question, to doubt everything. It is decidedly not a negative quality. What doubt does is open one to the infinitely capacious possibility of always seeing that which is new. I want to quote for you two quite remarkable insights developed by extremely wise people. The first comes from Hugo of St Victor (Said,1994:407) in the 14th century which goes as follows:

It is therefore, a source of great virtue for the practised mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change … in visible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be able to leave them behind altogether. The person who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong person has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his (Newman, 1947)

The second comes from the great Cardinal John Newman. Cardinal Newman had been shunned by his colleagues at Oxford University because he disagreed with them. He left and went to study in Rome for a while. When he returned to England, he wrote the great text, The Idea of the University. In this text he talks about what he believes proper education to be:

If I were asked to describe as briefly and popularly as I could, what a University was, I should draw my answer from its ancient designation of a Studium Generale, or “School of Universal Learning.” This description implies the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot; – from all parts; else, how will you find professors and students for every department of knowledge? and in one spot; else, how can there be any school at all? Accordingly, in its simple and rudimental form, it is a school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from every quarter. (ibid)

This is education at its best. It isn’t based on the idea of socialisation, of what is thought to suit a society, which is what most forms of education are. Education is not socialisation. Education which is deep is open to all forms of knowledge and can deal with ideas, values, practices that come from every quarter, as Newman would have said. It can take an idea from anywhere and deal with it. No idea has priority over another simply because of its provenance. It is what it is about that is the important thing.

What does this mean for us here in South Africa, indeed for any part of the world? It means that we have to be thoroughly open-minded about the different kinds of knowledges that surround us in the present, what we might think of as European knowledge, African knowledge, Buddhist knowledge, Confucianism. But we mustn’t come at this in the deeply problematic way which multiculturalism does. Multiculturalism’s problem is its superficiality, its banality. It presents culture in fixed and essentialised stereotypes. It thinks that cultures attach to time and place and people in completely stable and coherent ways. It present Europe as a proposition that has no history. It cannot see how much Europe and what we think of Europe as having been preceded by a thousand different influences from all over the world. It presents Germanness, Zuluness as if these are timeless, forever realities and doesn’t confront the reality that the terms German and Zulu and the meanings which we attach to them are now no more than 200 years old. It cannot see how much constant movement there is in all life. And so its great failure is to attribute, often meaningless attributes, to people which are then used to explain behaviour, decisions that are made in these spaces completely inappropriately. You can’t, therefore understand Mr Zuma if you don’t understand this Zulu culture. But we know that culture is not something in one’s genes, one learns it. One learns it. Instead we are taught about culture as if it property. Once the title-deeds for it have been signed, there is no more need for discussion. That is dead culture.

That is not what education is for. This is what my colleague Wally Morrow was against. Education, proper education, is more than that. It is about transformation. It is about human flourishing, the flight of the human spirit.. And it matters not where inspiration comes from. To make this possible we have to help young people see beyond the obvious, to help them recognise power in any context in which they find themselves and to transcend the boundaries which this power seeks to impose on them, on the sense of who they are and what they could do with their lives.

How much of this can we do? Obviously we have major limitations confronting us. Where do we find the time to do all of this? How, moreover, some will say, how can you expect me to teach about Zulu culture? But we need to acknowledge that we don’t know. This simple act of acknowledgement is almost entirely absent in how we approach the challenge of teaching. We, on the contrary, proceed from a basis of certainty, from the standpoint that what I have been taught and what I know is good enough. See how far it has brought me. But, the sad truth is that it has not brought each of us far enough. We have not arrived. Where we are in our schools, anywhere in the world today, is not good enough. We too often have become the relay mechanisms for whatever ideology of domination is hegemonic wherever we find ourselves. Under apartheid that was race. Today in China it is the Han culture. In the US it is a future-orientated Americanism that models American identity around a middle-class materialism and a right of the individual above else. In South Africa today we have to teach our children to be more than this. We have to ask them to recognise the beauty and the wonder of the endless vistas of learning and understanding in front of them. We have to reassure them that they have the capacity to be absorbing, endlessly so, until the day they die. any amount of information. This is what makes them human. It is their humanity that we must cultivate and build. The whole world is theirs. Everything in it is theirs. All that is known and knowable is theirs to have.

Critically, however, this does not mean that they should, like Sartre’s subject in his seminal book Nausea, think that education is simply the endless collection of facts. Facts are useless in themselves. What we have to teach our children in processing this information, and this is old-fashioned Rousseau, is to be able to form opinions in relation to these facts. They have to be able to form judgements. They must come to an opinion about Mr Zuma and his four wives and 21 children on the basis of an understanding, an argument, which is not based on racial prejudice. If they are to criticise him it would have to proceed from a much deeper and better argument, and there are many ways in which such an argument can be made. If they are to come to terms with Fr Michael Lapsley’s Healing of Memories Institute in Cape Town it has to be on the basis of understanding themselves and their relationship to history. They must have a sense of how history has brought them to the particular place they now stand in. This capacity for discernment can be taught. We do not have to teach our children everything there is to know, but we can teach them the critical skills of how you come to make decisions, how you come to make judgements. We have to teach them the critical skills of looking for evidence and the different ways in which one processes evidence and information. They need, then, to recognise, always, how they themselves come to construct arguments and how, on what basis, others are constructing arguments around them. This is the kind of literacy that will help them to read most things that come their way, to get to a point where we have thoroughly raised their levels of instinct, where if they encounter new things they will have in the schemas of their brains the resources to be able to first and always to pause and to say to themselves is what I am seeing here, really and actually what I am seeing? What is happening here and am I sufficiently self-aware to realise what meaning-making mechanisms I am calling on to help me decode what I am seeing.

Ultimately, our education has to help us bring our children to a sense of intense self-awareness. This self-awareness means that they must come to recognise themselves in their full ecological complexity and not to think of themselves, as we currently do, through the racialised labels and stereotypes which supposedly tell who I am. I certainly do not want to be understood as that label, whatever, it might be, that you think helps you to make sense of me. And young people must be brought to that moment. This is the great moment of education. It is that fully self-conscious moment when I come to clearly understand what meaning-making resources I have that I can draw on. It is a moment of intense humility, of one’s complete nakedness. It is from this that I, you, we can begin to see how important values are. A humanistic value orientation will say, I don’t know enough to judge. How do I bring myself to take real and genuine responsibility in this moment? I need to consciously and deliberately make an argument and come to a standpoint. It is ultimately the values they hold which is the most important thing in their lives. It is this that education is all about. It is about teaching young people how to get to the point where their judgement is informed by values.

I speak to young people a lot. I tell them that they are the most important generation we have had in modern times. The world is so complex. It is filled with so much danger. The threat of climate change, water and energy sustainability, food security, disease such as HIV-AIDs, mean that they have the responsibility to be leading the world through these crises. It is in their hands whether we will be able to flourish as a country and as a world. If the crass materialism which we see persisting now continues, then, unfortunately, they would have failed. The self-awareness of which I speak requires that they come to a full understanding of what is required of themselves to live amongst each other in a world of intense difference. That is their responsibility. It is ours to help them get there. It is particularly ours, we who are teaching them in schools such as yours and universities such as mine. We work with the most privileged children and young people. The responsibility of their privilege, and ours, is to deepen our self-consciousness so that we can bring all of us, them and us, to realise the full scale of this responsibility and to see, actually, how great a gift having this responsibility is. At no time in history have we had such extra-ordinary opportunity to be acting in all of our best interests.


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Beresford, D. (2010). Truth is Strange. Weekend Argus Saturday 4 September 2010

Dladla, Warner and Mhlanga (2010). Zuma to Become Dad Again. Weekend Argus Saturday 4 September 2010

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Hoad, N., Martin, K. & Reid, G. (Eds) (2005). Sex and politics in South Africa. Cape Town: Double Storey Books.

Jackman, T. (2010). South Africa’s First Home-Grown Celebrity Chef. Weekend Argus Saturday 4 September 2010.

Joubert, P. (2008). Back to the dark days. Mail and Guardian, 24 (20), May 16-222, 2008.

Lapsley, M. (2010). Healing Hurts of an Ugly Past Will Help Make Future Brighter. Weekend Argus Saturday 4 September 2010

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Maditla, N. (2010). Arrest After Teenager Killed for No Reason. Weekend Argus Saturday 4 September 2010. Weekend Argus Saturday 4 September 2010

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Said, E. (1994). Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage.

Seekings, J. & Nattrass, N. (2005). Race, class and inequality in South Africa. Scottsville, South Africa; University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

Watermeyer, B., Swartz, L., Lorenzo, T. Schneider, M. and Priestly, M. (Eds) Disability and Social Change. A South African Agenda. Pretoria: HSRC Press.

Weekend Argus Reporter (2010). Expo Highlights Innovative. Weekend Argus Saturday 4 September 2010

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