South Africa’s Quest for Mediocrity
June 11, 2012 § 13 Comments
This is from a talk I gave on the 7th of June.
I am natural optimist. However I am here to depress you today. I strongly believe that you have got to understand the miserable state that the world is in in order to get to a place of optimism. Insanity is averting your eyes from the realities and calling that optimism. An optimist looks at the world as is but knows that no problem is insurmountable and takes practical steps to defeat the problem. It is in this vain then that I intend to depress you.
I would like to start off with a quote I quote as often as I can. These are the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect.”
I want to call the first part of my talk South Africa’s quest for mediocrity.
About three months ago I went to the department of Home Affairs to get a new ID. I noticed two boys, both about 16. One was from the suburbs and the other from a township.
You could tell that the boy from the township had a swagger about him, that was always on full display when roaming the streets. Then he had an encounter with a document that swagger could not fill in. He seemed bewildered, too intimidated to even ask the Home Affairs officials what to do. A simple piece of paper had transformed him into a scared little boy. I helped him, he didn’t understand basic questions. I was broken because he was just two or so year away from matric, yet he didn’t know how to read a form.
This child was ill-equipped to understand basic English. Ill equipped to write. He had been handicapped by the very system that was meant to equip him. If we continue this way, we are preparing a vast number of South African youth for mediocrity. The fact that one can be in high school and struggle to write and read is a fallacy. To find 33% acceptable is unacceptable. We are telling our young people that it is fine to be an under-achiever, and that we will applaud them for doing less than is required. Steadily, but surely we march towards mediocrity. We have a choice to make, to be mediocre or extra ordinary. What we do with our young people will determine the course we take.
The second boy was obviously from the suburbs, he was there with his father. He was confident, also black. He asked confidently where he could find the document he had to fill out, didn’t ask for assistance, filled in his form and left with his waiting father. You could tell that he had all the educational requirements and all it took was the money and options his parents had.
The other child had limited options and opportunities. And as life goes on, those opportunities and options narrow even further. Yet, and yet we will punish him as soon as he gets out of school for meeting those low expectations by denying him a higher education. We will deny him a good paying job even though he met the low standard that we set for him. Basically we have trapped him into a cycle of poverty he might never get out of by not equipping him. If you set someone low standards, they will meet them. But on the flip side of the coin, if you set someone high standards, they will meet them.
On May 17 2012, Professor Jonathan Jansen posted the following tweet and I quote, “What does the Minister of Basic Education and Verwoerd have in common? They both believe that 30 percent is acceptable for black learners.” Professor Jansen’s point is harsh, but I know what was trying to say. Before I get to my interpretation of the professor’s point, allow me to talk to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Index, which measures a set of institutions, policies. It is based on12 pillars, which include: institutions, infrastructure, macro economic environment, health and primary education, higher education and more. The report was based on 137 countries in the world in 2010.
One of the key impediments to growth and international competitiveness according to the report is our poor education record. In university enrolments we were placed 99th out of 135 countries. Our education system is ranked 130th, whilst the quality of our science and maths educations comes in at the bottom, 137th. And now back to the point that professor Jansen made. Allow me to quote Verwoerd on the matter of education and the “Bantu”.
“There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour … What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.” End quote.
The quality of education that we are giving our children at this point is not vastly different from that which Verwoerd intended. This means that we are not preparing ourselves for the future. They are not even being trained for jobs of the present. This is also means that companies won’t want to invest in South Africa because we don’t the necessary skills for those companies to thrive here.
In an opinion piece pinned by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote the following piece after the London protests “How can the world avoid an explosion of youth protests in the coming years when we are already experiencing an epidemic of youth unemployment today? And how can our generation—who fared better than our parents—begin to understand what it feels like for the coming generation who already fear they will do worse?”
We have to start asking ourselves question: what will happen if the inequalities persist? Inequality is not just a South African trend. Inequality is actually on the rise in the United States. In an article published by Vanity Fair Magazine, Nobel Prize wining Economist, Joseph E. Stiglitz, “The six Walmart heirs wealth equals that of the entire bottom 30%” of the United States.
The youth is not a homogenous group that can be defined into one heap. There is no sameness in South Africa. However, some are more the same than others. Even those who want to be the same as someone else cannot achieve sameness because they are, by virtue of their birth and station in life are already different. Even identical twins are different.
I will end off this section with the following:
We have to start equipping them. We have to close the door on mediocrity. We must not accept it from government, our schools nor should we expect it from ourselves. We should expect big things of one another. Greatness starts small. It doesn’t start big. It starts in the corner at home. At the office, not cutting corners. It starts with trying to achieve more than what is expected of us. Good enough is not good enough anymore.
The second part of my talk is about the Fame Monster.
We live in an era that makes things look easy. Especially fame. We can blame Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton for that.
We see the Fame Monster in the long lines one get sees when the Idols, Live and other such auditions open up and people who clearly know that they have no talent show up, the chance and allure to be on television is too great to resist. It is a chance to set oneself apart. But some do it because they really want to do it, because they love it – and it shows.
Not everybody can be famous. If everybody is famous then nobody is famous.
They look for fame for fame’s sake and nothing else. They do not know why and to what end they want to be famous for. It is a means perhaps to find meaning and value for their existence. Maybe it is really because we are still struggling with what we need to fight for as the youth. If I can’t change the world and be in history books, let me at least be famous seems to be the motto.
The social networks have of course created the illusion of fame. Once someone gets a couple of thousand of followers, they begin to think that the whole country knows who they are. Twitter especially seems like cheap and easy access to this pseudo fame. It is, to paraphrase my favourite show on TV at the moment, Game of Thrones, “Internet fame is an illusion, a shadow on the wall.” They are not as influential as they think, nor as powerful or as popular as they believe.
There is the perception that appearance is everything. If I appear to be, then I am. It is not true. And now, to quote myself, “We have departed from “love thy neighbour,” that our parents taught us to “impress thy neighbour””
It is also demonstrated by people spending what they do not have in order to be respected for buying things they cannot afford. The surface becomes more important than inherent value. We have seen the display of materialism being glorified on our TVs. The more inaccessible an item is to the masses, the more value is placed on those individuals who display what they have. There was a program shown on TV recently showing kids in the townships who call themselves Izikhothane. Their hereos are Khanyi Mbau and Kenny Kunene.
In his Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture in 2006, then president Thabo Mbeki said, “I am arguing that the new order, born of the victory in 1994, inherited a well-entrenched value system that placed individual acquisition of wealth at the very centre of the value system of our society as a whole.
Thus, everyday, and during every hour of our time beyond sleep, the demons embedded in our society, that stalk us at every minute, seem always to beckon each one of us towards a realizable dream and nightmare. With every passing second, they advise, with rhythmic and hypnotic regularity – get rich! get rich! get rich!” You could also add there, “Get famous! Get famous!” It is something that started a long time ago.
We have to create a vision in order for the youth to feel that they have history to make. We need to do this with a fierce urgency. We have to give their existence meaning – that there is hope beyond just mere existence. That they can make history. And that starts with educating them in order to give them a fair chance.