Our education system is continuing to fail students

 

Last week, when it was announced that the pass mark for maths would be lowered to 20% for pupils in Grades 7-9, there was collective outrage across the country. Already South Africans routinely complain about the matric pass mark of 30% (although it has been refuted) and so the potential lowering of the maths pass mark below any reasonable standard has many horrified.

The department of Basic Education has already come out to refute the claims that you can pass maths with just 20%. It has stated that it is merely amending the previous policy which states that if a pupil fails maths, yet passes every other subject with distinction, they still fail the year. They go on to explain that the 20% pass for maths is only granted to students who have passed every other subject, yet failed maths, and plan to do drop pure maths for maths lit once they enter Grade 10.

In a country with a functional education system, such a policy could theoretically make sense. The reasoning behind it is that an otherwise competent student shouldn’t be held back by a subject they don’t even intend on doing until matric. After all, not everyone has an aptitude for maths and it doesn’t seem fair to hold a student back from continuing in subjects they excel in just because they are unable to do a subject they have no desire to continue with anyway.

The unfortunate reality is that South Africa’s educational system is dismal. Our education system is ranked as being one of the worst in the world and is ranked last in quality of maths and science. When looking at our schools, it’s easy to see why. There is a massive disparity between private and former model C schools and schools in townships and rural areas. The majority of schools that pupils, particularly black working class pupils, are attending have overcrowded classrooms, a lack of adequate resources such as textbooks, libraries, science labs, computer labs, and a lack of qualified teachers. The teachers at these schools are often too exhausted and overwhelmed to provide children with the kind of attention many need to succeed.

I recently had a discussion with a relative of mine who had been teaching for a few years. One of the things that he told me that alarmed me the most was that there is often pressure on teachers to push through students who are failing. This is for a number of reasons. One is due to overcrowding. Parents will do whatever they can to make sure their children get the best possible education, which means that if a school has a reputation for having good teachers or a good headmaster, parents will try to get their children into that school. This can quickly lead to the school becoming overcrowded. Because of this overcrowding, there simply isn’t space for children who fail to stay a grade behind, and so they often get pushed to the next grade. The second is a numbers game. Higher pass numbers mean that the school is doing well and so the school may pressure teachers to find marks where there are none, particularly in cases of students who fail, in order to boost the number of students who pass.

I’ve witnessed the effects of this first hand. When I was still in high school I tutored boys who lived in a shelter for street children. While helping a boy with his homework, I quickly realised that he the main reason he could not do his work was because he could not read the questions in front of him. It turned out he could not read or write anything besides his name and so far he had been surviving in class by copying down (badly) the words that the teacher wrote on the board. This boy was in Grade 6. He was promoted to Grade 7 at the end of the year despite little improvement to his literacy levels. This was particularly worrying when one considers that when calculating the literacy rate, those with an education level equal to or higher than Grade 7 are assumed to be literate.

What this means is that while the proposal put forward by the Department of Basic Education may appear to make sense on paper, in the context of what is happening in our schools it is formally legislating the system of pushing through pupils that already exists. Those who have failed maths can now be justifiably pushed through without even the need to bolster their marks, which allows schools to look good on paper as more students “pass” but in reality means that students pass through school without actually acquiring a substantial education.

Even with the Department’s explanation, the decision to allow students who obtain 20% in maths to pass is incredibly concerning. It also puts a poor bandage on the state of our country’s education system. Students are falling behind for a number of reasons including poor resources and infrastructure among other issues, and pushing them through fails to address any of the reasons students are failing so often in the first place.

Ultimately, our education system is still failing students, particularly those who are poor and black, both literally and figuratively. Given the Department’s explanation behind the policy, it is entirely conceivable that not even they understand how.

 

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Trevor Noah’s Vanilla Politics Were There From The Start

This article was originally published on Huffington Post SA

I must admit, the first time I saw Trevor Noah’s revisionism of South African history, in which he claimed that one of the main reasons that Apartheid ended was because of shame, I was dumbfounded. I felt incredibly confused that a man who spent most of his life in South Africa, was there to witness the democratic transition, and had an awareness of our country’s history and current context, could still honestly buy into the misguided idea that it was white shame that ended Apartheid. Based on this comment alone, it was consequently slightly less surprising when he later penned an article for the New YorkTimes in which he used South Africa’s transition to democracy in order to encourage Americans to resolve the wave of police brutality and racial profiling through “compromise and moderation”.

Firstly, it is bizarre that in 2016, Noah would use South Africa as a how-to guide for resolving racial conflict when the recent wave of activism across university campuses, calls for land redistribution, increasing criticism of former president Nelson Mandela, and exposure of racists such as Penny Sparrow among others on social media have shattered the Rainbow Nation fallacy. Noah’s Op-Ed would have been understandable 10 or 15 years ago when optimism about South Africa’s transition to democracy still ran high. Today, it reads more like it was written by a severely out-of-touch white liberal American who watched Miracle Rising once than by a biracial man who was born and raised in South Africa.

Then again, the more I thought about Noah’s Op-Ed piece, the more I began to question exactly how out of character it really is that he would hold such views. I have been a fan of Noah’s since he first began his career. My friends and I used to sit at our computer screens and laugh at Daywalker until we knew the jokes by heart. Every time he had a new stand-up show, we would eagerly wait for it to be made available on DVD and laugh until we cried while watching it. When the announcement was made that he would move to America, we were happy for him. When he became the new host for the Daily Show,we swelled with the pride that comes with seeing one of our own make it overseas.

However, the more one examines Noah’s comedy, the more one realises that while his jokes have been funny, he has never once offered the kind of sharp criticism and political insight one has seen from the Jon Stewart’s of the world. The warning signs were there from the beginning. Noah’s entire brand of comedy was built off of perpetuating racial stereotypes and being allowed to get away with it because he occupied the in-between space of being both black and white. While Noah did mock politicians relentlessly, his criticism was relegated to shallow jokes about Zuma’s inappropriate use of pauses and imitations of a drunken Mandela at his 90th birthday party rather than insightful or sharp political commentary.

The immediate response to this would be that Noah is a comedian, not a political analyst, and that at the end of the day his job is to make jokes. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this but it does become a problem when one considers the kind of space Noah is now operating in. The Daily Show has never just been a comedy show. It has operated as both comedy and sharp political commentary. The successful marriage of the two by its predecessor, which was so successful it turned him into a news source, is what made the show as popular and relevant as it became. While Noah is a comedian, Stewart was a political satirist, and the difference is evident on the show.

To be fair to Noah, he has made it clear that he is not like Stewart and that he does not wish to be compared to him. He has also flexed his political muscles on the show by criticising politicians such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson, among others, as well as strongly speaking in support of gun control. However, Noah’s vanilla politics have translated into jokes that lack a punch. This was most evident during his interview with the controversial conservative firebrand Tomi Lahren. While he did offer criticisms, he failed to adequately address some of her most outrageous statements. The few jokes he did make, such as asking her what she did at stop lights in response to her saying that she “doesn’t see colour”, largely fell flat. The interview came across less as the biting critique of Lahren’s views that so many have been quick to brand it as, and more like a polite discussion in which he skipped around the worst of Lahren’s views as opposed to critically engaging with them.

As South Africans, I feel that we ignored the early warning signs. His suggestion in one of his earlier shows that we normalize the k-word and turn it into a term of endearment in order to address racial tensions should have been the first sign that his analysis of racial dynamics in South Africa, least of all the US, is relatively shallow. From the beginning strong and nuanced political insight has never been Noah’s strong suit and while there were signs of it in South Africa it has become blatantly clear on the Daily Show.

One can only hope that Noah will take the latest criticisms his interview and Op-Ed piece have received as well as the mediocre reviews the Daily Show continues to receive, will prompt him to revisit his political views and his comedic approach. Given the tanking ratings of the Daily Show, the future of his career may depend on it.

Minimum wage and the cycle of desperation + exploitation

minimum-wage

This was republished on Huffington Post SA

When Cyril Ramaphosa announced that there was a proposal to raise the minimum wage to R3500 per month, there was a very mixed reaction. The proposed minimum wage has drawn criticism from a wide number of sources, ranging from those who argue that R3500 p/m is too low to survive on with others arguing that it is too high and will lead to job losses as many employers won’t be able to afford the new wages.

The debate around minimum wage is a complex issue for a number of reasons. Firstly, I have to agree with critics such as the EFF who argue that R3500 p/m is simply too low. According to some experts, the average South African would need to earn R12000 to sustain a basic household, and this is believable. Once costs such as transport, housing, food, child related expenses, among other factors have been taken into account, a salary of just R3500 p/m seems less and less realistic. It is also impossible to divorce the low minimum wage from the fact that South Africa has one of the highest income gaps in the world. We are currently living in a country in which cashiers at Checkers earn a pittance while their CEO collected a bonus of R100 million.

What makes this more distressing is the fact that an estimated 47% of South Africans earn less than R3000 p/m. In fact, when scrolling through the minimum wage hashtag on Twitter, I was alarmed by the amount of people complaining that the minimum wage being so high meant they wouldn’t be able to afford their domestic workers, and more still vehemently defending paying their domestic workers as little as R1500 p/m. The amount of entitlement that I witnessed towards domestic help, as well as the fact that suggesting that those who cannot pay their full time domestic help a livable wage should perhaps consider not having full time domestic help being seen as a radical statement, made me realise the extent that exploitation of poor black people is normalised in South Africa.

However, the claim that raising the minimum wage could lead to job losses is not an incorrect one. According to the National Treasury, increasing the minimum wage to R3500 p/m could lead to an estimated 715 000 jobs being lost. This indicated two key issues: that there are thousands of employers across the country who are not only happy to pay their employees slave wages but whose business models may depend on it, and that there  are thousands of poor South Africans who are willing to work for wages that are too low to actually live on. This is where the deeply vicious cycle of exploitation within a country with high levels of poverty, inequality, and unemployment sets in.

Far too many people are so desperately poor that they will take extremely low wages just so they can have something to live off of, and as long as there are people desperate enough to take ridiculously low wages, there will be employers out there who will pay them. After all, why would you pay a living wage or the proposed minimum wage to a worker when you can simply find another worker who will take your low wage of R1500 p/m without complaint because they would rather have R1500 than nothing at all? And so the cycle continues.

There are those who even argue that there are employers who employ undocumented migrants precisely because they do not legally have to pay them minimum wage. Undocumented migrants are far less likely to report labour law abuses, which include low wages and terrible working conditions, because they are too scared of being deported and  because they are unlikely to belong to trade unions. This exploitative practice then arguably feeds into the already existing xenophobic sentiments towards migrants, particularly undocumented migrants from other African countries. The refusal to hire South Africans is justified using generalised excuses such as “South Africans are lazy/bad workers” when the real reason is far more insidious.

This leads to us being stuck between a rock and a hard place. I personally believe that every person should be able to work a full time job, regardless of what that job is, and be able to earn a livable wage from it. On those grounds, of course I believe a minimum wage of R3500 p/m is simply too low. Attaining a job should allow oneself to take the first steps to being lifted out of poverty and a low wage does the exact opposite by keeping one in poverty.

At the same time, a minimum wage of R3500 may still be unattainable for thousands of South Africans. The reality is that those most affected by the desperation + exploitation cycle will be the first ones to lose their jobs and find themselves out in the cold with no job at all and no prospects.

While I do disagree with those who use this reasoning to justify not raising the minimum wage, I do think that this cycle is one that cannot be readily dismissed. The low minimum wage, and the fact that so many still make less than that, is an indication that alleviating the high levels of poverty in South Africa will take more than simply raising wages.

Don’t get me wrong, we must aim for a South Africa in which all people earn a livable wage, and paying your employees wages that are unacceptably low must stop being normalized and must come with serious consequences. At the same time, if we are to be serious about alleviating poverty, while the minimum wage is a good start, we must be looking at more radical ways to shrink the gap between the rich and the poor and to create more job opportunities so that people aren’t forced to put up with exploitative practices in order to put food on their families tables.

For example, there’s been a proposal to have a maximum wage to better equalize the salaries paid throughout the country. Any seconders?

Why #ScienceMustFall critics are missing the point

 

Earlier this week, a video taken at a meeting between staff members of the UCT Science Faculty and student activists, known as Fallists, went viral. In the now infamous video, a student states that “science must fall” as she argues that science is a product of western modernity. She argues that science as we know it today must be done away with and “reimagined from an African perspective”.

The knee jerk response of most people to this video has been to laugh and dismiss the students as “stupid”. One can find multiple videos and memes on the internet mocking the students and using the video to attempt to discredit the Fallist movement and the idea of decolonization as a whole. Certainly, we can agree that a number of claims made by the student in the video are outlandish and inaccurate but the one thing that those who are laughing at the video are missing is that when you wade really think about it, there is a point to be made here.

Firstly, her statement that “science as whole is a product of western modernity” is both incorrect and indicative of why decolonizing education is so necessary. Her statement rests on the assumption that the scientific knowledge that we now have and that is taught in schools and university is a product of the west. It’s not entirely surprising that she would make this assumption; this is an assumption that people (even, ironically, many of the very people who are mocking her) often make. It could be argued that a large part of the reason this is the case is because at a school level many of us are taught often of the scientific achievements and discoveries of old white men in Europe and rarely of the scientific achievements made outside of Europe.

For example, in school, I was not taught that the origins for many scientific disciplines such as astronomy, maths, engineering, and medicine can be found in Africa. We weren’t told that some of the greatest contributions to maths and science such as the origins for surgery, algebra, optics, as well as the beginnings of the first flying machine were in the Middle East. There is a long list of scientific achievements that have been made by scientists and civilizations outside of Europe which my school’s curriculum never once mentioned, and I am certain that my school is not an anomaly. Not being taught of the scientific feats that occurred outside of Europe, especially the ones that happened in Africa, creates the impression that there were none. This I believe is a large part of the reason you will find many adults who will proudly and ignorantly state that Europeans were the ones who brought maths, science, medicine, and engineering to Africa when this could be further from the truth.

This then speaks to the necessity of decolonization in our schools and universities. It could be argued that the idea that science is a product of the west is an idea that is perpetuated by an education system that is still rooted in colonial thought. One of the aims of decolonization then should be to rethink our curriculums to meet these two goals: prioritizing Africa, particularly teaching African epistemologies and equipping students to provide solutions to African problems, and including the contributions of those who have historically been excluded. This would most certainly include the many scientific achievements made in pre-colonial African societies.

When talking about decolonization, one of the questions that is immediately asked is “well, how would you decolonize maths and science?” This is usually posed as a trick question to prove how infeasible decolonization is. Those who pose this question often make the mistake of thinking that decolonization means getting rid of all western knowledge and therefore “scratching out” all western scientific knowledge (as the student in the video stated). That’s not necessarily the case. Decolonizing science could mean teaching students about ancient African scientific advancements alongside teaching Newton’s laws. It could mean focusing on changing not the content of mathematics but the way that it is taught.

It should be noted that debates around decolonizing South African universities are not new. The now infamous “Mamdani Affair”, a scandal in which the western-centric nature of UCT and its unwillingness to Africanize its curriculum was challenged by Ugandan academic Professor Mahmood Mamdani, occured back in 1998, just 4 years after democracy. Even before then, efforts to decolonize universities were made in several other African countries shortly after they reached independence. This means that universities have bodies of work and experience from other African countries to see how decolonization at our universities could be achieved and, most importantly what a decolonized university looks like and the kinds of graduates it produces.

Rather than relentlessly mocking the students in the video, we should be asking why it is that firstly, those scientists employed in the UCT Science Faculty need a group of students to perform the creative intellectual labour that they should have been doing for the past 22 years and secondly, how can science be taught in a way that doesn’t reinforce the racist, and incorrect worldview that science is a product of the west?

Perhaps instead of jumping at the opportunity to mock and delegitimize student protesters, there needs to be a further engagement on what is being said as well as its implications.

Skhumba and what satire isn’t

A whole lot of people have had a whole lot to say about the Wits students who staged a topless protest on Tuesday as part of the ongoing #FeesMustFall protests. Now, there’s nothing new about topless protests. Students at Rhodes University earlier on this year went topless in order to protest about rape culture, and while the causes may differ, the purposes had similarities including showcasing the vulnerability of the protesters in sharp contrast to the armed police who had been violent towards them.

In predictable fashion, misogynists and pearl-clutching conservatives alike took turns bashing the protesters. The criticism mostly ranged from hysterical “these girls have no respect for themselves” slut-shaming to body shaming the protesting women for having the audacity to be topless while not looking like airbrushed supermodels. One such detractor was themostly irrelevant comedian Skhumba who released a video in which he body-shamed the protesters by comparing their breasts to “wet sneakers without shoelaces”.

Twitter responded accordingly. Within hours, the social justice organisation Amandla.mobi launched a petition to have Skhumba removed from Kaya FM until he apologized for his offensive comments. Although he did give a (half hearted and defensive) apology, that didn’t stop many of his fans from complaining about how the evil feminists are incapable of taking a joke with even some of his fans bringing up the excuse that consistently manages to make my skin crawl out of pure irritation.

It’s just satire!

I struggle to think of a term that is more misused and misunderstood than the term “satire”. Over the years, I have witnessed the term satire being used as a lazy, politically correct way to allow comedians, both professional and self proclaimed, to say the most offensive thing they possibly can without taking any responsibility. Its extensive misuse has aided the rise of the Schrodinger’s Douchebag, the person who makes an offensive statement and then decides based on the reaction of those around them whether or not they were joking.

Comedian Skhumbo, who is in hot water after making offensive comments about protesting students’ breasts

Those who misuse the term satire in this manner show that they have absolutely no understanding of what satire is. When one simply looks up the term satire on Dictionary.com, it’s easy to see one. Satire is defined there as, “the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing,or deriding vice, folly, etc.”. Well this is true on a shallow level, this definition misses the primary function of satire.

What satire is:

The purpose of satire is to effectively “punch up”. Satire is used as a tool to challenge powerful/privileged individuals and institutions, bring them to account, and to challenge the status quo. It often uses sarcasm, ridicule, and exaggeration to expose and denounce the worst aspects of powerful individuals and institutions as well as provide social commentary on topical issues.

One can see this happening in the most famous examples of satire we have. This includes one of the earliest examples of literary satire, A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. In his pamphlet, he proposes that in order to convert the starving children of Ireland into “sound and useful members of the Commonwealth” they should be fattened up and fed to Ireland’s wealthy landowners. In reality, Swift was making a scathing social commentary on the debilitating and dehumanising conditions of the Irish under the English and the wealthy Irish landowners of the time. Although Swift does criticise the common Irish citizens for not doing anything to rise up against their oppressors, the wealthy and powerful remain the primary targets of his critique.

Other more temporary famous examples of satire include the highly controversial Monty Python film The Life of Brian which ridicules the Christian church and organized religion, among other things. An example of satire that is not necessarily funny is Animal Farm by George Orwell, which uses animals to on one level criticize the Russian Revolution and communism yet on another criticizes the circulatory nature of revolutions. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of South African satire is “In detention” by Chris van Wyk which ridicules the Apartheid police force’s official explanation for the death of Steve Biko, who died in police custody.

Still from “The Life of Brian” by Monty Python

And what satire is not:

Although successful satire takes many forms, it is by definition concerned with holding the powerful to account. Comedians such as Skhumba are not doing this by joking about the perkiness of protesting students’ breasts. Neither are comedians who make jokes relying on tired, centuries old stereotypes related to race, gender, disability, sexuality, or any other marginalized group in order to tell jokes. I’m looking now at Fox News, who decided to air a blatantly racist segment on Asian people earlier this week and then defended themselves saying it was “all in good fun”. In fact, what they are doing is continuing to uphold long standing beliefs about marginalized people. Ironically, so-called satire in these examples is being used to do the exact opposite of its purpose: maintain the status quo rather than challenge it.

Satire is not an excuse to through out whatever bigoted statement one might have been thinking and then shout “ha, I was just kidding” when that statement is challenged. When done properly, it can be an incredible tool to challenge the powerful, the privileged, and the status quo. I truly believe that continuing to associate satire with the kind of lazy Family Guy type offensive humour displayed by comedians like Skhumbo undermines satires entire purpose and cheapens its value.

Carvelas, classism, and appropriation

carvelas

I don’t consider myself a fashionista, but I’ve always been a fan of fashion. I grew up watching Project Runway, have often ogled over fashion magazines and fashion blogs, and window shop on a fairly regular basis. Over the years I’ve developed a healthy interest in trends and incorporating those trends into my style (within reason of course).

One of the trends I remember during my high school years was the Carvela trend. I remember there came a stage when I saw the Italian shoes, often worn with floral shirts and pants that came just above the ankle, everywhere. They were a shoe of choice among Kasi boys and became a hallmark symbol of the izikhothane subculture. They, and the people who wore them, were subjected to serious mockery by my friends and me. We viewed the shoes as “ugly” and most importantly as “ghetto”. We were not alone. Across the board, both on and off social media middle to upper middle class black kids, among others, relentlessly mocked the shoes. We decried them as shoes we would never be caught dead wearing, and if you cared at all about your image you made sure you weren’t.

Fast forward to 2016 and fashion brand Spits in collaboration with Carvela has launched their South African #LoveMyCarvelas campaign using popular twelebs and young fashion influencers as their models. Over the past few days,  photos of them wearing the once derided shoes have hit Twitter by storm portraying the shoes, and their wearers in a Pinterest/Tumblr-esque high fashion aesthetic.

The campaign has received a mixed reaction. On the one hand, there are those praising it for “broadening the target market” of Carvelas and portraying the brand in a fashion forward, “classy” way. On the other hand, there are a number of uncomfortable truths one is confronted with by the campaign. The first is that, contrary to what we believed and insisted in high school, the shoes are not in any way ugly. In fact, even back then we were wearing these exact same shoes but we weren’t calling them Carvelas nor were we buying the actual brand. We were buying other brands of the exact design and calling them “moccasins” or “loafers” or by whatever other official fashion term existed for them.

The design itself was fine, the brand was not. This then leads us to the second uncomfortable truth: there’s nothing actually wrong with the brand. What was wrong in our minds was the people who were associated with it. Without even realising it the deep seated classist attitudes we held manifested itself in a hatred and derision of anything associated with the “Kasi” lifestyle. A lifestyle that we, who were growing up and attending school in the cushy suburbs, wished to distance ourselves from at all costs. I can almost guarantee that had this campaign surfaced while I was in high school, there is a very good chance my friends and I would have marched to the nearest mall to purchase our very own pair of Carvelas. That is where the problem lies.

What makes this campaign particularly uncomfortable is the manner in which (as many on Twitter have rightfully pointed out) it completely erases its core market. For years, Kasi kids have been dedicated patrons of the brand and have made a significant contribution to the brand’s success in South Africa. Yet this campaign focuses firmly on the so-called “Cool Kids”, the  black fashionistas who are native to hipster havens such as Braamfontein, Maboneng, among others. The aesthetic of the black “Cool Kid” is one firmly rooted in the middle and upper middle class, making it highly marketable for brands such as Carvelas and exclusionary to those who have in many ways popularized it within South Africa in the first place. I, and many others, may never have even heard of the brand had it not been for the izikhothane subculture.

The uncomfortable truths behind the campaign bear some similarities to the fashion industry in the US and its endless appropriating of African American culture. Over the decades, African Americans have been derided for the manner in which they dress, style their hair, dance, speak and the music they produce and listen to. Yet at the same time, this exact culture has been reproduced in pop culture from the rise of white musicians with a notably black sound such as Eminem, Justin Timberlake, Adele, and Sam Smith, to the Kardashians who are praised for having the very same black features often insulted when they are on black bodies, to the fashion industry labelling African American inspired clothing as “urban”, placing it on models who are not black and then selling it as high fashion.

cultural-appropriation-1

Micah Gianneli modelling African American inspired “Hip Hop” fashion for a high fashion label

In other words, the Carvela campaign is reproducing the tendency of the fashion industry to sell a “look” that was either created or popularized by a specific, often marginalised, group of people while simultaneously excluding them in the process. Sure, Carvela could perhaps argue that this is their brand and they had never intended to be associated with the izikhothane subculture in the first place. But this would miss the point entirely.The brand has ignored its most faithful core market to pander to a far more fickle one which may wear its shoes today and move on to the next hottest trend tomorrow all as it often does. In an attempt to distance itself from its association with the izikhothane subculture, the brand has reproduced the same latent classism that we did in back in high school.

To go forward, we must go back

This piece in its edited form was published on the website OkayAfrica under a different title. This is the original piece.

On Sunday night, I was casually scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw the picture that has since reverberated across the country. The picture was of 13 year old Zulaikha Patel with her arms in a defiant cross in the air, framed by her massive, beautiful afro. From the moment I saw that picture, and heard of the protests happening at Pretoria Girl’s High, I knew it was not just about the black students’ right to wear their hair the way it naturally grows out of their heads. It was about the institutional racism that permeates Model C schools and suffocates the black children caught in those spaces every day. It was about a battle that I only knew too well as I had spent 12 years of my life fighting it.

I had spent the first 5 years of my life at a model C school in Sandton, Johannesburg and then spent the rest of my schooling at an elite private girls’ school in Parktown. I too had been subjected to rules which forbade wearing my natural hair, watched my fellow black classmates get detention for speaking to one another in their home languages, and in many ways both big and small felt my blackness being undermined constantly. The effect that these schools had on me was a deep sense of insecurity both in my blackness and in my sense of self. I was constantly in a space where blackness was degraded often through insidious throw away phrases like “this is not Soweto” when us black girls made too much noise or through my white classmates putting on a “blaccent” whenever they were pretending to be poor or ignorant for a humorous effect. It was degraded in bigger ways too, such as a teacher defending colonialism and saying those who were against it were “absurd”. Or a group of black pupils using the library the same way other students did everyday being kicked out for making it look “untidy”.

So, when Patel’s picture came out, I felt two things. The first was a deep sense of understanding of the situation she finds herself in. The second was a deep sense of shame. Over the past few days many have already commented that we should not be romanticising the protest action. Instead we should be outraged that little girls, and just how small Patel is was one of the very first things that struck me, are having to fight a battle that should have been fought 22 years ago, and if not 22 years ago then it should have been fought by us.

As a student there is very little power that one has in a model C or private school. However, as alumni we have a little more say, especially since our schools are always asking us for donations. Not only do we as alumni have more political power within the actual schools, we have an amount of institutional knowledge and memory of the institution that current pupils may not have. As adults, we are in a better position to deal with the backlash such a campaign would garner than a group of 13 to 14 year old girls still dealing with the emotional turmoil and self-discovery that comes with puberty. Already, the girls involved in the protests have been accused of being disruptive, undisciplined, caring more about fashion than schooling, among other accusations from the very vocal naysayers of the protest action. What the backlash both from their peers and from critics around the country could be doing to these girls’ self-esteems is something we have yet to discover.

Rather than focusing on the extraordinary bravery of the young girls, bearing in mind that this does deserve to be commended as it did take an incredible amount of courage many of us did not have in school to do this, we should be asking ourselves how much we have failed for a group of 13 year old girls to get to the point where they had to take matters into their own hands. Or perhaps, as the black alumni of model C and private schools, we should be asking ourselves if we could do more. Should we heading back to our schools and challenge rules such as the Codes of Conduct which not only forbid natural hairstyles, but any cultural or religious ornament, garment, or hairstyle that does not fit neatly into the colonial often Christian culture of these schools? Should we be going back and demanding that blackness not just be treated as an aesthetic to be whipped out for the annual cultural evening but as a lived reality that demands to be given the same respect both in the school’s culture and in the curriculum?

These conversations are already starting to be had by black alumni, and I’m hoping these protests will encourage more of us to look back at our highs chools and seriously consider changing the environment there. Recently, I was rereading the book series that spawned the hit television series Game of Thrones and one of the lines that a priestess said in a prophecy was “to go forward you must go back”. I truly believe that as black alumni in particular, if we wish to see an end to institutional racism in our country and move forward from the injustices of the past then we must go back and start at our former high schools.

 

Making lemons out of ‘Lemonade’: the hypocrisy of hooks’ critique

Many think pieces have already been written on Beyonce’s latest album Lemonade, and so I’ve been debating what value yet another think piece written by me could add to the discussion. The album itself is a masterful artistic work that demands attention. Its unapologetic examination of the pain and struggles that black woman often experience at the hands of black men, and our patriarchal society as a whole, is expertly explored through beautiful symbolic imagery, raw lyrics ,and the heart wrenching spoken word poetry of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. It’s a brave album by Beyonce and it is amazing for a diehard member of the Beyhive such as myself to see the phenomenal artistic growth that Beyonce has undergone since her ‘Bootylicious’ days. She has gone from slut shaming her fellow women through songs like ‘Nasty Girl’, to celebrating black womanhood and black female sexuality, and it’s a transition that we as black women are only too happy to celebrate.

Well, not all of us.

In typical fashion, the Beyonce critics of the world have come out for her in full force. Beyonce has been accused of exploiting black pain, feminism and the current political climate for her own monetary gain, as it has “become fashionable” to do. And then of course, there are those who have picked up from where they left off after her self-titled album was released and have criticised her for her expression of her sexuality, of herself, and have bashed her feminism as watered down and not truly progressive.

One of those critics is former feminist icon of mine, bell hooks. In her recent piece, hooks criticises Beyonce for a number of reasons, including not adding anything new to the table, her use of violence displayed in “Hold Up”, her presentation of herself and other black women, and of course the way Beyonce has supposedly exploited the black female body in order to capitalise off of it. This is far from the first time hooks has criticised Beyonce. A few years ago, she criticised the singer for her expression of her sexuality, stating that it pandered to the male gaze, and even went as far as calling Beyonce a terrorist because of the enormous influence she has over young girls.

Now it must be said that I have a lot of respect for hooks in terms of the work she has done on misogynoir and dismantling patriarchy. However, I have a lot of issues with her, and the majority of my issues are exemplified by her criticisms of Beyonce.

The first issue I take with hooks, is her long standing femmephobia  that has permeated her work. Hooks has made it clear through her past work that she finds traditional presentations of femininity, such as wearing makeup and dresses, fundamentally oppressive towards women as such presentations are rooted in patriarchal standards of beauty and gender norms. While we most certainly should be criticizing patriarchal standards of beauty, I find it problematic for hooks to dismiss feminine presentations as fundamentally oppressive. Firstly, it is exclusionary, particularly of queer women, such as trans women, who depend on those presentations for safety and survival. It is also exclusionary of the many women who actively identify and choose to express themselves in a traditionally feminine manner. Such a view attempts to police the ways that woman can or should express themselves, and this attempt to remove women’s agency from the way that they present themselves is fundamentally problematic.

In other words, hooks has a very narrow idea of how feminist women should express themselves. If feminist women do not conform to her idea of feminism they are discarded, as not real feminists at best and “terrorists” at worst.

The second issue I take with not only hooks but with everyone who holds this position, is the idea that Beyonce is “exploiting” black women’s pain and struggles through capitalist gain. In the first place, this idea completely attempts to strip Beyonce’s blackness and womanhood from her. Yes, Beyonce is extremely privileged. She benefits enormously from her class privilege, her cishet privilege, and especially from the fact that with her light skin, thin nose, and long straight blonde weave, she fits Eurocentric standards of beauty far more than the average black woman. While this must be taken into account, and interrogated, the fact remains that as a black woman Beyonce is still not immune to misogynoir. She may be Beyonce, but she still operates as a black woman in a white supremacist patriarchal world and that has certain implications for her.

In Lemonade, Beyonce draws on the pain and experiences that she as a black woman has had in order to make wider social commentary about the pain and experiences of black women as a whole. Beyonce’s decision to draw on her own experiences is nothing new. This is something that artists, particularly male artists have been doing for years. For much of the 80s and 90s, black male artists would rap about issues affecting the black community, particularly issues relating to their own personal experiences and would receive praise for it. Even today, when Kendrick Lamar released a song like “Alright”, no one is questioning his motives for doing so. And while Beyonce’s work has not always been overtly feminist, artistic growth is so common as to be expected, and one wonders if her artistic growth would be questioned had she been a man.

One also needs to wonder if Beyonce’s work would be bashed as “capitalist” exploitation had she been a man either. This is criticism that I find particularly violent for a number of reasons. As mentioned before, a great many male artists use their music to speak on societal issues and not once are they accused of exploiting anyone’s pain, let alone their own pain and the pain of their people, for capitalist gain. I have never once heard of Kendrick Lamar or the late Tupac being criticised for the way they profited monetarily from their activism. In fact, the entire idea that one should not profit monetarily from activism seems to only present itself when a black female activist is doing it.

I find it particularly hypocritical for hooks to make this criticism. Hooks has been writing feminist literature since the late 80s and she profits from the sales of those books. She is paid to do talks and panel discussions on feminist issues. She is also paid to lecture on feminism. In other words, hooks has been profiting off of her activism since she first began publishing, but in her mind, and the minds of many, this does not seem to be a problem.

I don’t personally think that it is a problem. I think that black women in activism spaces are performing labour and, as they exist in a capitalist system in which compensation for ones labour is essential for survival, they should certainly be paid for it.

In “Feminism is for Everybody”, hooks highlights the need to make feminism as accessible as possible. She criticizes feminism in academia for being too elitist, too insular, and therefore failing to serve its revolutionary purpose, especially in a world where patriarchal ideology permeates every facet of pop culture from music, to TV shows, to books. She then makes the case that feminist ideology must become more accessible through books, music, movies, etc so that it can reach a wider audience and effectively counteract patriarchal thought. She even goes as far as to write her books in a casual style far removed from the stiff, verbose, and overly complicated style of academia in order to make her work accessible.

I would argue that what Beyonce is doing is exactly what hooks has argued needs to be done. Beyonce is using her powerful position and enormous platform to spread black feminist ideology. Through her work, millions, who may not otherwise have, have been exposed to black female writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Warsan Shire as well as black female works such as “Daughter of the Soil”. Lemonade also showcased black women of different ages and backgrounds, including the mothers of black men who have died at the hands of police brutality, who may not otherwise have been showcased. While Lemonade may not have been the perfect representation of black women, it is a step in the direction hooks wanted us to move in. Instead of acknowledging this, hooks dismisses it completely and argues “well, there’s nothing new here”.

Hooks’ complete dismissal of Beyonce’s feminism is particularly contradictory when one examines the way she has previously praised women such as  Emma Watson. Emma Watson is an especially important case, because Watson is also presents her self in a traditionally feminine manner and while she may not express herself sexually in the same way Beyonce does, she embodies the very type of feminism hooks claims to hate. Hooks’ has openly spoken out against feminism which focuses on making women equal to men as opposed to calling for an entire overhaul of the patriarchal capitalist society we live in. Yet, this is exactly the kind of feminism embodied by Watson’s “He for She” campaign.

There are a number of other contradictions within hooks’ criticism of Beyonce, including her equation of violence against property and the anger that is expressed by someone who has been a victim of violence, with the patriarchal violence men have enacted on women’s bodies. But what disappointed me the most about hooks’ criticism is that it feeds into the very same hypocritical at best and misogynoirist at worst approaches that so many others have taken towards Beyonce’s work.

A case can certainly be made that Beyonce’s work and feminism could use some improvement. But the current criticisms of her lack the nuance to look at her work in a fair and honest manner.

 

“Why didn’t you report”

This article was originally published in the Oppidan Press in February 

There’s a very specific set of reasons I decided not to tell anyone outside a small group of people in what was supposed to be a safe space about my sexual assault. One of the reasons is that I had decided not to report, and I did not want to have to answer the above question. Simply put, there are very specific and personal reasons why I decided not to report. These reasons, as well as the incident itself, were something I was perfectly content to forget about. Until one day, the Student Representative Council found itself embroiled in controversy and I found myself having this incident used in a personal attack against me by a student.

The personal attack was a shock to my system. It forced me to once again think about exactly what I had been trying to forget. I started remembering the sexual assault. And once again, I was asked by others, and ultimately asked myself, why I had not reported the incident. Perhaps, most importantly, I once again began to radically question the notion that survivors should need to report at all.

It is a narrative that we often hear. We are often told that over half of all sexual assault victims do not report their assault and that over 90% of all perpetrators do not spend even one day in jail. We are often fed the idea that if we are assaulted we should report it, and if we report it the perpetrator will go to jail.

We are not often told of the second hand victimization that we are likely to experience while reporting. The second hand victimization that leads to survivors being treated carelessly by the authorities they report to, and that leads to being questioned on every decision made that led up to the incident itself including the survivor’s choice of clothing, company, and sexual history. We are not told of just how often it is that the perpetrator gets off, despite being reported, while the survivor is left with new scars.

This is not to scare off any survivors who do want to report their assaults. A survivor who wishes to report should of course be given all the support they need. Rather, this is to say that the decision to not report is one that many survivors make for a variety of reasons. And all of these reasons are valid.

There are a number of societal factors that make reporting difficult. The one is the pervasive idea that there is a “perfect victim”, a morally upright woman who is assaulted while doing something as innocuous as walking down a street. Survivors who don’t fit this mold are often subjected to victim blaming. Another is the fact that the majority of perpetrators are known to their victims and this may deter a survivor from reporting them. Another is the fact that many survivors are assumed to be lying because of the myth that women lie about being raped out of revenge because they feel guilty about having sex.

The belief that a survivor needs to report in order to prevent the perpetrator from assaulting again is one that is rooted in rape culture, as it places responsibility for the perpetrator’s actions on the survivor. Regardless of the reasons, a survivor’s choice to report or not report is a decision that should be respected by all parties. And perhaps, before one questions the validity of not reporting, one should first question how our society treats those who do.

 

“Black First”

So…yeah

I realise that I’ve taken a perhaps longer than intended and strictly necessary break from my blogging. When thinking of how I would get back into the swing of things, I kept pondering on exactly which angle I would take. These four months into 2016 have offered no shortage of political headliners, including the recent ComCourt ruling that is finally holding our president accountable for Nkandla. And of course, there’s the issue that hits closer to home for me.

But I don’t want to talk about Zuma. What I want to talk about is an issue that hits me on a far more personal note. And this is one that is linked to the recent protests at Wits. The one thing that these protests have done is reveal the underlying patriarchy and homophobia that has existed within Fallist movements since their inception last year. Long before the protests began, I had started thinking of our country’s student movements and at exactly what point they began to disintegrate on an ideological level and then on a physical level into the fractured shells categorized by infighting and break away movements that they have now become. And while there are many issues that one can point to, I personally believe that one of the biggest issues within #FeesMustFall dates back far before the movement began. Far before the members of #FeesMustFall were even born.

I am talking of the idea that one is black first. This is an idea that one sees cropping up time and time again in works written by those revered by hoteps such as Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon. The idea is simple: that the black struggle is the quintessential struggle that must be tackled first before one can hope to tackle other “lesser” struggles such as patriarchy, homophobia, ableism, etc. In fact, according to those who subscribe to this belief, the black struggle is characterized solely by racism and classism. All other systems of oppression are not only seen as less important, if one attempts to tackle them in any meaningful way one is automatically seen as “divisive”.

This is a critique that black feminists have faced, and that we are constantly facing even now. We are told that our feminism is dividing the black community or even (and this is my personal favourite attack) that feminism is a concept invented by white women to destroy the black community. For what purpose? Racism mostly. In some versions, white women have set out to make us black women as unloveable as possible so that they can have black men to themselves. Because according to hoteps, there is no more powerful tool in the world than a black penis, which capable even of curing us hateful feminists of our beliefs.

The entire idea that one can be “black first” ignores the ways that different forms of oppression intersect with one another. For a black woman, there is no such thing as “black first” or “female first” and the idea that there is has historically forced women to ignore the one side of their oppression for the benefit of the most privileged group. During the suffrage movement, influential black women like Sojourner Truth were marginalized by their white feminist counterparts while back home in South Africa, black women were told to prioritize racism, which would ensure the the freedom of “all” black people before tackling patriarchy.

The truth is, the only people who benefit from “black first” ideology are the most privileged members. Specifically, cisgender, able bodied, heterosexual, black men. Failing to take into account the multiple oppressions that queer, disabled, and female black people face allows cishet able bodied black men to maintain their level of privilege over other groups of black people. You see this time and time again when more privileged black people actively participate in the oppression of other blacks, like when black men are patriarchal towards black women or black heterosexual people are homophobic towards queer black people. In other words, black men who push for a “black first” ideology are not truly fighting for the emancipation of all black people. They are merely fighting, to use that quote from a black revolutionary whose name I cannot remember, for a “seat at the master’s table”.

Sure, it may be overly simplistic to believe that the black first ideology is the major factor in the collapse of our student movements. I believe that the collapse is rooted in a number of causes, including the leaderless nature of the movements which leads to a lack of a clear voice, a clear direction, and accountability. Such a recipe will inevitably lead to a lack of stability, infighting, voices that seek to co-opt the movement for their own political gain, and eventually fracturing. This is exactly what we are seeing today in movements like #FeesMustFall and the Black Student Movement at Rhodes University.

But what it does show, is a fundamental fault that lies at the heart of many social justice movements. Social justice movements almost inevitably fall into a pattern where the most privileged members at best ignore the struggles of those facing intersecting oppression and at worst continue to exert their privilege over others. We’ve seen this with middle class white cisgender women in the feminist movement and white cisgender gay men in the LGBT movement.

So this begs us to ask what the solution is. As black women, our solution to white feminism was womanism, and for queer black people their solution to the overwhelming whiteness in queer spaces has been to create new black queer spaces such as Soweto Pride. So when it comes to our student movements, the question that we are left with is whether we as female and/or queer black people should start our own student movements, bearing in mind that we have not only performed tireless labour and played instrumental roles in the existing ones but we deliberately set up existing student movements with the intention of making them as intersectional as possible. Or, do we go the route of the UCT: Trans Collective and radically challenge and reclaim our position in these spaces? And of course, what do we do about the violent patriarchy that we face in our movements now, especially when this patriarchy has made it very clear that it is completely unwilling to listen to queer or feminist voices?

It’s tricky. And it’s one of the main reasons so many black women no longer identify with the current student movements.

A popular saying in intersectional circles is, “you can’t be pro black if you’re not here for all of us”. And until Black First proponents learn that, I don’t think I’ll be able to see myself in the current student movements anymore.