Paved with Good Intentions

I know that I promised something on Zulu culture. And I’ll get to that. But I have something else on my mind right now.

I went to a science workshop today. There is a science fair in two weeks. Every school sends their representative students, who will present posters and answer questions. The winning students will get scholarships to go to prestigious high schools. And everyone gets improved science materials, instruction, and funding.

Aw, how sweet. Schools that don’t send students will have funding cut, but that’s just a push to make schools take this seriously, right?

And what useful information we learned! Everyone can make a pretty border on their poster now; because that will offset the fact that the posters have both vapid and inaccurate information (beyond the mistakes in the workshop handout).

And isn’t this a great way to let students shine! Think of the possibilities: one of these poor, impoverished students might get the chance for a better education and life! Except that, you know, only the students at the already adequately managed schools even have the slightest shot at the prize.

My students? We’ll pick the brightest science students we have. They barely understand English, they have rarely seen a science experiment in their lives, and they have never been taught to think either creatively or logically for themselves. Our brightest students go to be humiliated, for science to be made an instrument of torture.

The generation before them was educated under Bantu education, where black people were taught the bare minimum to be good servants. This still has effects. I heard an adult this morning – an intelligent adult with many leading roles in the community – who could not do basic arithmetic. I mean, arithmetic like “5,315 + 0,1” (or “5.315 + 0.1” for my American readers). I have talked to teachers – teachers! – who thought that Australia and London are in the United States. (And the teachers are continuing to take courses and work for certifications, by the way – so I’m pointing out the system’s failures, rather than necessarily those of the individuals.)

Who, then, has been around to help my students? And it is worse than you might think. They don’t just have misinformation. They have never been taught to retain information or to process it themselves. I taught a basic lesson for an entire week – a lesson that should have already been review – and it was completely lost from their minds after another week. That’s the entire class, not just the layabouts. I wrote an example flashcard on the board, and 15 minutes later almost a third of the class had failed to copy it down. I could keep going on.

Oh, and then there’s the fact that the government won’t finish paying for a building sitting half-built in the yard. (They don’t mind paying large sums to change the name of the district, however.) The school needed to have pit latrines completely rebuilt, because the learners were getting diseases and rashes from the old ones. And then there’s the E. coli problem with the water source. Or the 4th-5th grade classroom which has no glass in the windows and poor lighting (all natural) together with dirty chalkboards.

And how about the 10 km walk for some students? Or their chores at home, which might include bringing herds of cows home several km more? And there are verified HIV positive students, some of whom don’t even know their status – their parents just give them their meds without explanation.

These kids have been set up for failure. It’s nice to say that maybe I will be the turning point for some of them. But honestly? They have years more of poor schooling ahead of them, enough to undo what I bring. And will the small amount that they retain be enough to get them to a better tertiary school (if any at all) or a better job? When I train the teachers at my school, will this make any difference whatsoever compared to the NGOs already there, which seem to accomplish little more than decorative reforms?

So why am I here? I started this tirade with the group of well-wishing philanthropists who don’t seem to have a clue about my school or the problems my learners have. There needs to be a change, but good intentions are not sufficient. Good intentions are never sufficient, whether coupled with charitable donations, dances around a campfire while singing “kumbahyah”, or with some feeling of “identification” with the locals. I am here to understand just what the problems are, to try to find something, anything, that might be done to change the world and right these hideously twisted systems.



I’ve been thinking about diversity since I’ve been here. South Africa has 11 different official languages. The United States has none. Both countries are highly diverse, and I feel that this sums up their different takes on diversity. (Warning: the following consists of my own subjective take on matters, and I welcome any alternative opinions on the subject.)

In the USA, diversity seems to be largely concerned with where one came from, possibly generations ago. I define myself as being Scottish, Irish, and Swedish, with colonial ancestors as well. Oh, yeah, and I’m a Midwesterner too. Others might identify as Asian-American, or Polish-American, or African- or Mexican- or Cuban-American. (Of course, there are Native Americans, too, but we sweep them under the rug usually. Seriously, South Africa eventually got rid of its “homelands” for ethnic groups – we still have sub-par reservations.).

So a good deal of American diveristy is exocentric – based on where one came from outside of the country. The metaphor used is that of a melting pot, or more recently a salad bowl, but still a hodge-podge of different sorts. We are a “nation of immigrants.”. I went to a university in Indiana, where I learned the Japanese art of origami from a Brazilian, and I still remember the Air Band performance there to the Bollywood song “Mahi Ve.” When asked about my favourite foods, I answer “Thai” or “Korean.”

South Africa contains its diversity internally, by constrast. As I pointed out in the last post, most people here stake some claim to the land (though there are also the Brits, and a huge Indian population – Mahatma Gandhi started his Satyagraha movement here, and his son was an importpant figure in anti-apartheid struggle. This is to leave out the Chinese and Malays, and the recent African immigrants – I am reporting general impressions, not necessarily accurate in the details). There are the amaZulu, the amaXhosa, Basotho, Vatsonga, and so on, just amongst the African peoples. (And the amaXhosa seems to be a confederacy of different tribes, at that.) Then the Afrikaans-speaking people, which include both those of European descent as well as those of mixed racial background.

This is the “rainbow nation.” Every colour is represented here, in theory. Most people seem to locate their identity inside South Africa. Different languages come from inside the country. People in general seem to trace their roots back hundreds of years here. The government is trying to incorporate this diversity in the country; unlike in the US, there actually are blacks in the government here in a proportion somewhat resembling the population. (Though if they actually put into effect the official language policies, my Zulu students wouldn’t so desperately need to know English.)

What does one make of this? I don’t know – I plan on trying to find out more while I am here. I feel like the US is starting the change, to be a little more similar to SA. More and more, we seem to have populations that are Spanish speaking (or Arabic, if you are around the Dearborn area, where I’m from), and they are no longer recent immigrants. They’ve been around a couple generations and are just as much a part of the population as anyone else. The white population will soon be less than a majority – and the sooner that happens in Congress too, the better. So what lessons can we take from a country that is already dealing with some of the issues that arise?

But what does this diversity here in SA entail? What do you think of when you think “Zulu”? Tune in next time, same bat-channel, some random bat-time.

What is “Indigenous”?

South Africa raises the question of “Who really belongs here, anyway?” It is tempting to say, the Africans, of course. But it is not quite so simple. Which Africans? There was a group called the Khoi-San. The San people used to live in my area. These would be the oldest inhabitants; but they are mostly gone now, with some small pockets remaining over in the Kalahari Desert. (And I’ve heard that they were killed off both by Europeans and by Africans, so it’s not like only one side gets the blame.)

The Bantu peoples from up North migrated in some time ago; I’ve heard about a thousand years ago as well as 400 years. I think those dates refer to different events, so I’ll go do a little more research. But many of these tribes broke off and formed their current identities only within the past 200-300 years.

The Europeans of course came in and colonized as they were wont to do, with the destruction as was wont to occur. So it would seem like they have the least title to the land. But what does one do with the Afrikaners? Their ancestors were mainly Dutch, as was their historical language, but they have a differenty identity now, one forged on African soil. To call them Dutch would be like calling an American British.

And on top of these groups, there are the Coloureds, who are the descendents of mixed unions. They form yet another social grouping in South Africa. Since they come from the specific cultures that met here in South Africa, this population would seem to be at least as indigenous as thos who migrated in.

Basically, there are many claimants to the land, and the most rightful ones are mostly dead. So who is genuinely South African?


I’ve been at site for a little more than a week now. People who have been following my FB pics will know how beautiful this place is – the view right outside my window is like a painting. Such a nice change from the barren, flat desert of northwest Mpumalanga.

Also striking is the contrast between the developed and developing worlds here. I’m in a mountain village, without running water or even wells. I’m a distance from the tar road. Most people here don’t speak much English. The nearest shop to buy anything at all from is probably a 45 minute walk, at the opposite end of the village, up and down mountain roads. Students have to walk as much as 10 km every day to get to a school with very limited resources.

But most people seem to have cell phones – land lines skipped over places like this. There is electricity. Teachers come from big cities – the principal even has a house in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of KZN. I’m only 30-45 minutes (depending on who is driving) from a town with coffee shops and a grocery store that would fit into a well-to-do American suburb. And a KFC as well, though that is hardly uncommon here.

South Africa really can’t decide what sort of country to be. It’s an interesting blend of just about anything you can think of.

President Zuma and Group Identity

There’s been some controversy over a painting (“The Spear”) of the current SA President, Jacob Zuma. Zuma, amongst other things, has been known for his philandering ways. This modern polygamist has also been charged with rape. So, some rather irreverent soul depicted Zuma in a Leninesque pose, but with his genitals hanging out. What I’ve been finding interesting, and frustrating, has been the furor over the painting.

As an American, I might find the painting crude and roll my eyes at it. I might raise the question of whether it is an appropriate way of representing the office of President. But I would grant to the artist freedom of expression and consider the painting as critical of the individual himself.

That’s not how it’s been taken by many groups in SA. Here’s an opinion article I came across today: The article is well-written, but I find myself frustrated by how the criticism of an individual automatically becomes ridicule of a group. I’ve seen other pieces take the same tack. The painting is seen as not just demeaning to Zuma, but to his party (the African National Congress, ANC) and to blacks in general.

This is a difficult issue for me to work through. As an American individualist (and a white male who has never had to worry about being an oppressed group), I find the controversy ridiculous. Zuma is worthy of ridicule on this point. Nothing more is meant. The artist is not making a statement about black people, and to see it as such is simply being hypersensitive. To play the “racial stereotype” card is not to encourage appropriate sensitivity in the issue; it is to silence the opposition, to shut down discourse (not to mention focusing attentions on manufactured racial problems; isn’t doing something about jobs and education in black communities a better use of time?). Such censorship is its own sort of power play. And from what I’ve seen in other articles and comments, much criticism of any leader in SA gets met with the same charges of racism or disloyalty (and to be fair, the disloyalty claim goes as much for the previous Nationalist Afrikaner government as the present ANC one). How can leaders be be held accountable when one can’t speak out against them?

However, that is only one side of the issue. As much as I find the emphasis on group loyalty frustrating, I also lament the fact that there is little sense of the public good in discussions of American politics. Might that not be the flip side of the individualism I espouse? Loyalty to a group beyond immediate problems enables a group to carry out long-term goals; something lost in our soundbyte society which always wants the economy fixed now, within a single presidential term. And whether or not I sense any sort of racial statement being made in the painting, a large group of people do, who have had experiences that I have never had nor ever will have. Also, it’s not like Americans are any less group-oriented; we just don’t like to admit it as much. We come up with all sorts of nice reasons for “our” view, but this often seems to be after choosing our side rather than before.

Kuzwayo and Everyday Life

(Continued from here.)

Ellen Kuzwayo writes about the status of South African black women in her book Call Me Woman through her autobiography. She was born into a farm which had been in her family for a hundred years and which was taken away through apartheid laws. She got a divorce due to horrible spousal abuse when divorce was still highly uncommon. She was a social worker in Soweto, which is where the blacks of Johannesburg were shoved off to. It’s an interesting counterpoint to Mandela’s autobiography – not just because it is the memoir of a woman, but because it presents a more everyday sort of courage.

You see, when Mandela talks about going to prison, or getting banned (in which one would be limited to seeing one guest at a time and would have to apply for permission to travel), it sounds so glamorous. Here is the great freedom fighter struggling for his cause! But Kuzwayo talks about her son getting banned for the sin of helping improve literacy among black students. Her son was not doing anything groundbreaking, and did not go on to be a “great person.” He did not break his banning orders to run an underground organization, but out of psychological stress and loneliness.

The people she helps are the average people living in the slums. When she travels, she is not seeking military assistance, but is helping set up business opportunities for village women to sell the clothing they make. She goes to jail herself as part of a local group trying to deal with the aftermath of the 1976 student uprising (in brief: students were required to be taught in Afrikaans, a language most of them did not know; the students protested; police shot students; there was a riot since people don’t like being shot at.). The humbleness of the jail environment comes through more clearly as she is not using elaborate communication systems to work out strikes and impromptu classes amongst the prisoners. Not that Mandela overstates his prison conditions, but it’s hard to imagine how dreary and dirty they were when he talks about what he was doing in the midst of them.

So Ellen Kuzwayo’s book may not be quite as well-written as Mandela’s smoothly flowing autobiography, and it doesn’t have the satisfaction of a happily ever after ending (it was written in the 80s, before apartheid was over, and indeed before some of the most violent struggles had begun). But it provides a nice look at what life was like on the ground in South Africa during the apartheid era while also praising the often overlooked courage and intelligence of South African women during her time.


What exactly was apartheid? It’s tempting to think of it as just like American segregation, except that those darn Afrikaners were bigger jerks who held out longer. But it runs much deeper than that. It’s closer to Palestine and Israel, or Northern Ireland. (This analysis is basically taken from Beyond the Miracle, which has been a great read on the complexities of the post-apartheid era of South African history.)

Imagine that the Native Americans were much more numerous, actually forming the majority of modern inhabitants of the US. And that, while the original English settlers and company didn’t look too kindly on them, these newcomers did not actually mandate segregation until the twentieth century. Nor did they start setting up tribal lands until then, for the purpose of letting the tribes keep some of their own government, even while stripping them of rights and control over that land (I guess some of this doesn’t need too much imagination).

By the twentieth century, keep in mind, the descendant of these settlers would have been around 300 years. They would no longer be Johnny-come-latelys, but could trace back their claim on the land for generations. Their identities would almost completely tied to the land. It would no be longer white colonists versus indigenous peoples; it is two groups of now-indigenous peoples, even if one is a bit more indigenous than the other. For example, what am I? I have some ancestors who somewhat recently off the boat from Sweden or Ireland. But I also have some who have been around for a while, to the point where it would seem more appropriate to call them “American” than “Dutch” or “British” or whatnot.

That’s South Africa. The Afrikaners have seen and do see themselves as South Africans, not as Dutch. They saw apartheid as a means of protecting what now was their homeland. After all, the settlers had one mode of government, the original natives another. Languages and customs differed. It might make sense to let the different cultures progress on their own, and that was a large part of the official rationale behind apartheid. The word itself simply means “apart-ness”; “-heid” means “-ness”, and is relating to the German “-heit” and the English “-hood” (like in “neighborhood” and “brotherhood”), while “apart” means, well, “apart”. So the Xhosa want chieftains? Fine, let them have traditional hierarchies. They can have their own “homeland” and do whatever they want with it. In return, the whites get their own areas as well.

Of course, I don’t mean to justify apartheid. If it really had been about letting cultures run their own courses, black groups would have received proportionate amounts of land, and whites would have had to give away their ancestral homes to blacks as much as vice versa. And that’s just to start enumerating problems.

But we have to get into the reasoning behind such legislation if we want to stop oppression in our own day. Yeah, apartheid seems to be obviously backwards and ignorant to us. But if we had been Afrikaners growing up in the twentieth century, would that be so obvious to us? Even Nelson Mandela talks about his shock at seeing black pilots when he visited other African countries; he, despite being an able, intelligent black person who opened up the first black law firm in Jo’burg, had a split second of doubt that a black person could fly a plane. How much more so would the spirit of the age work its way into, say, middle-class Afrikaners who never really dealt with blacks other than as servants?

But of course, if we are doing anything similarly ignorant, our views will appear just as obvious to us. People who are oppressed can’t ignore how society is bent and broken. But those of us who have privilege (such as, for example, a white middle-class American male who can take a romp through Africa for a couple years) have to search and analyze for how we might be falling into the same mistakes, how we might be making the same leaps in reasoning.