Toxic Language, SA DNA and Hope


I think there are three things that we South Africans do to ourselves, that deprive us of hope. We overestimate what other people are getting right, we underestimate what we are getting right, and we forget where we have come from.

Forgetting where you have come from is like trying to complete a journey, using a map on which you can only see how far you still have to go, never how far you have come already. A confusing, dispiriting map, which presents only part of the truth.

One of my daughters, who is doing historical research in the National Archives, came across an interesting old newspaper article,reporting 1968 matric results. In that year Muriel Horrell of the Institute of Race Relations calculated that for every 100 000 of the white population, there were 886 matriculants. For every 100 000 of the black population, there were 13 in matric.

1968 is less than 50 years ago, and this cohort, where almost no-one got matric or even went to high school, is still in the workforce today. Some are teachers in black schools. Teachers without a matric, teachers with very little English, trying to teach learners who also have very little English, to write exams in English. All this according to a curriculum which is very demanding. Which requires critical thinking, and a high standard of analytical writing.

When I wrote Transvaal matric – remember the days when each province had it’s own matric exam, and each thought theirs was the best and the others were rubbish? – a lot of the history paper was short questions with one word answers. Rote learning in other words. Today, learners settling down to write a history paper must absorb new source material they have never seen before, analyse it, and synthesise it into a critically worded essay.

Perhaps, remembering where we have come from, looking honestly at what we are trying to do now, we should be less surprised when people fail, and celebrate more when people pass.

We have very many more black matriculants nowadays – close to half a million every year. About 100 000 passed at bachelor’s level, the old university exemption, in 2012. So we have made progress, but the past is still with us. Even for the youngsters who make it to university.

A friend at the Wits School of Education tpld me about a student she called in because his marks were going down and down. When student marks go down, one thinks immediately of riotous living as an explanation. As this student sat opposite my friend in her office, she noticed that his hands were shaking. “Have you eaten today?” she asked. “Well” he said, “I had a potato yesterday. And I do have another potato, but I’m saving it for tomorrow” And the point of this story is not the potatoes. The point is that that student passed. Despite.

This same friend told me about a young woman who had come to cry on her shoulder about how hard her first practical teaching experience had been. Wits School of Education makes a great effort to get students to do their practical experience in some of the better schools in Johannesburg. There’s a scheme to provide taxi money, lunch money, even clothes to wear so that the students don’t feel conspicuous. All of that is just laying down the paving stones. The students still have to walk the road. And this student came to say how scared she had been standing in front of a class in a good model C school, where every single person in the class spoke English better than she did. But she did it. She taught the lesson. And she taught it well. She’s a hero, that lass. And I don’t even know her name.

Nameless as she is, we need to celebrate her achievements, not just because she taught her class, and passed her year. We need to celebrate her because she will be a different kind of teacher. She will incorporate her life experience and her good university education into a teaching which is both excellent and inclusive. We need to celebrate the hope she embodies for herself, and for the learners she will teach. Hope for her generation, and the generation after.

The good news is that this young lass, who has overcome many difficulties, with courage and perseverance, is not alone.

Professor Servaas van der Berg is an economist in Stellenbosch who does education research. His latest study (soon to be published in Focus, the journal of the Helen Suzman Foundation) shows that the NSFAS students, the students on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, are doing a lot better than anyone thought. These are the students with the least resources in the higher education system. Least resources in terms of finance, which is why they got the bursary, but also in terms of books in the home, computer access, in terms of language confidence. Many of them are probably first generation students.

First generation students are students who are the first in their nuclear family, often the first in their extended family, their neighbourhood, their school, to attend university. In the United States they count first generation students carefully. After all these students embody mobility, they are the American Dream. So we know that 30% of all US college students are first generation, and only 11% of them actually graduate.

Professor Van der Berg looked at graduation rates of NSFAS students, the closest approximation we have to first generation students, and he found that if you do a proper longitudinal study, if you measure according to a longer time scale, NSFAS students persevere longer than other students, and ultimately they do better. Over a period of 5 – 9 years 55% of them graduate. And in case you think that’s a low graduation rate, overall in the United States, over a period of 6 years, 55% of students graduate.

The Van der Berg figures are important for several reasons. They remind us that sometimes you need to measure differently, to find out what’s going on.

When we weigh our country’s achievements in a particular scale, and always find them wanting, maybe at least part of the problem is with the scale, and not with the country.

Once we stop imagining that elsewhere 100% of people pass 100% of everything 100% of the time, we see that our gaps, our lapses, our failures, are shared by other people all around the world. This holds for school, as well as for university. Again looking at the US, only 75% of the children who attend high school, complete high school. In England, 48% of 16 year olds got ‘decent’ GCSEs, that is an A to a C in 5 subjects in 2009, and 21% of 16 year olds left school, and this figure covers both state and independent schools, without a single C grade GCSE.

I don’t give you these figures with schadenfreude, to say – oh, look how bad they are. I offer you these figures because we need to understand that it is really hard to get education right, and almost no-one does it. Except maybe the Finns and the Koreans. And Singapore. But almost no-one who is working with a very big, very diverse, multilingual group in their education system gets it right. Education is hard, and what is particularly hard is educating poor children. The majority of children in the South African school system are poor. So getting education right here, is going to be a long slow process. We need to measure and celebrate the successes that are there, to hearten us along the way.

When we start looking at success, not instead of, but as well as, alongside, failure, we find some very interesting things. It becomes possible to recognize a particularly exciting kind of South African success that is not just excellent, not just globally competitive, it is inclusively excellent.

I found an example of this inclusive excellence a few years ago when I interviewed Bernie Fanaroff, the South African director of SKA, the Square Kilometre Array. This was a couple of years before we finally wrested the project from the Australians. Bernie was originally an astro-physicist, quite a renowned one, there’s a Fanaroff theorem floating round there somewhere. Then he chucked all that in and started a trade union, NUMSA. And unwittingly developed the skills set, the combination of high science and negotiation skills, that would allow him to shape SKA not just into excellence, but into an inclusive South African excellence.

There are 9 African countries involved in SKA. There’s a chair of Astrophysics in Nairobi, because of SKA. And this inclusive excellence is local as well as global. The closest town to the SKA project is Carnarvon. Carnarvon High School, when SKA started, was not wonderful. And this mattered to the international astronomers and engineers and physicists involved in SKA. They wanted the kids at that school to be part of this exciting story. So they found a good maths and science teacher for Carnarvon High. Because if those youngsters have good maths and science, they can be trained as the technicians who will maintain and repair those big telescopes. And maybe one day one of them will be an astrophysicist.

I asked Bernie what gave SA the edge, in what then looked like an unwinnable contest with the Australians.  Well, he said, there are no blueprints for those big telescopes. Engineers just have to build them. And South African engineers – it’s not just that they can work with no blueprint. It’s that they prefer it. Making a plan, solving a problem met bloudraad en ‘n tang is in our DNA. What a wonderful DNA to have, going into the 21st century, with all of its unknowns.

The other competitive edge that the South African team had over the Australian SKA team was work ethic. Staying on site until the project was done. So any time at all the international inspectors pitched up, they found the SA team on site, working hard, and, just as an extra bonus, lead by a woman engineer.

Why is it so hard for us to believe this kind of good news about ourselves?

I think the answer has to do with language. Hope is a language. It is our choice whether or not we use it. But it’s not a take it or leave it choice. If we choose not to use the language of hope, we choose, maybe unconsciously, to use the language of something else. We may choose the language of affront, outrage, even despair. Powerful stuff, that. Extremely addictive.

We may choose the disengaged language of ‘whatever’  ‘I don’t care’ ‘just don’t involve me’ or we may retreat into language which is clever, mocking, cynical.

The language we choose to live in, to tell our story in, shapes a lot of things.

There is no-one who understands the power of language better than a woman called Deborah Tannen.  She’s an American academic, a linguist, and she has written interesting books on how men and women communicate and why men won’t ask for directions when they’re lost, on how mothers and daughters communicate or not. One of her books, called The Argument Culture, is different. In this book she doesn’t just observe and describe, she pleads with leaders in the UK and US to use language differently, to back away from the divisive, polarizing, warlike and vitriolic language, which she believes is destroying the social fabric in the English-speaking part of the Western world.

Tannen’s book was written in 1998. The current paralyzing political polarization in the US is more or less what she predicted 15 years ago.

Why does this divisive language matter? Because it narrows reality and in the process, it distorts. When we use too much of this language, we see the world as a place where there are only winners and losers. Where your gain must inevitably be my loss. Where we consider only two sides of a story, instead of the 3 or 9 or 27 that exist in real life. Where we are constantly pitted against one another, instead of being provided with the space, and the language, for co-operation and for inclusion.

We don’t have to be trapped in this language, or this way of seeing the world. We can choose the language of inclusion, the language of hope. We can choose the markers we want to measure our progress by.

We can even decide that we are not going to put our country in the dock any more. Because when South Africa is not The Accused, and we are not spending our time and energy collecting evidence for the prosecution, there’s time and space to see complexity and change. Not just to see this as well as seeing the pain and violence and anger, but to see them all as part of the same pattern.

If we can get beyond the narrowing language and the distorting measures, perhaps we’ll be able to see that we’re just another developing country, getting some things right and some things wrong. And then we can turn our Lent question around. Instead of asking why we would have hope in South Africa, we can ask “Why wouldn’t we?”

Gillian Godsell

This is a talk given at St Paul’s church, Parkhurst, Johannesburg, as part of their Lent series on Hope in South Africa