SA Matric Rates Released

January 8, 2010

News of the week. The matric rates for SA were released this week. After much anticipation…much disappointment.

Matric rates have fallen for the sixth year in a row to 60.6%. The DA pointed out that the national pass rate has actually dropped by over 10% since 2004.

Here is a report from The Witness leading up to the matric results entitled “South Africa Damned By Its Schools.” It should be noted that KwaZulu Natal was the only province where the matric rate increased by 3.5%.

Even more troubling for the sciences, “The number of pupils that received a 30 percent mark or higher for physical science plunged to 36.8 percent last year from 54.9 percent in 2008, the ministry said in a report. The figure for mathematics was little changed at 46 percent.” (from Business Week article). Here are the results for university bound students from the same article, “Of the 551,940 final-year secondary school students who wrote exams last year, 19.8 percent achieved a mark high enough to enter university or college, the ministry said today. That’s only a slight improvement from 19.4 percent in 2008.”

A “national disgrace.

Here are the comments of President Jacob Zuma and here are those of the Minister of Education, Mrs. Angie Motshekga, MP. Most unhappy, indeed.

To put this further in context. The pass rate is actually a 33% on the matric exams.


Opportunity to Fail

July 2, 2009

I have begun writing about education in South Africa (here and here). It is a system caught between two worlds, as is much of the rest of South Africa.

In the one world, it is a system designed to compete on an international level with the rules of the game set elsewhere—publish or perish. University faculty in SA have the same expectations of research excellence that are found everywhere in developed countries. In chemistry, this means that there are laboratories filled with expensive and specialized equipment, graduate and post-doctoral researchers, and lots of long hours in order to publish novel scientific work in top-tier journals based in Europe or North America. The best researchers are given a rating from South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF). This coveted ranking is highly competitive and based on past performance and future potential. The NRF rating influences everything from salary increases to research funding. The top research universities in South Africa largely expect all of their faculty members to achieve an NRF rating—which puts research active faculty into direct conflict with the other world of South African tertiary education.

In the other world, there are many, many students who struggle to understand basic concepts in science and math. They have passed their matric exams and have thus been given a green light into tertiary education. Passing the matric is supposed to be a passport to future success, but for many South African students, it is just the beginning of more struggles—an opportunity to fail. When I say “many students”, it is difficult to quantify the exact number without adequate standardized testing, but the number of students who struggle severely with university-level work approaches 50% in the sciences. When I say “struggle severely”, I am talking about many students receiving between 2 – 4 out of 30 on their first test—a basic chemistry literacy test. This is the type of exam that the majority of college-bound students in the US could pass out of high school. Subsequent tests get progressively more difficult until the final exam is of a caliber similar to what students in universities around the US would face at the end of their first term in general chemistry. In other words, the expectations on the final exam are commensurate with chemistry courses in other parts of the world—the type of training that one would need to become a professional chemist or continue on to graduate work in chemistry. And this is exactly the charge given to faculty by the university and the NRF—produce chemists who can compete at an international level. In fact, if you look at UKZN’s mission statement, it neatly summarizes the charge to the faculty: “to be the premier university of African scholarship”.

But the faculty have been given another charge, and it goes something like this. “You cannot blame poor student performance on weak secondary school training. These are the students that are at your university—now it is your responsibility to turn them into university caliber students.”

Did I mention that an undergraduate degree in South Africa is three years? Basically, university professors are supposed to write research proposals, mentor honors, graduate and post-doctoral researchers, write papers, participate in the peer review process, lecture up to four courses per term while simultaneously providing remedial work to nearly half of the undergraduates who enroll at the university. In short, let the tertiary system fix the problems of the prior 18 years of education.

The tragedy of this system can be seen through the eyes of the students. They are the most direct recipients of this opportunity to fail. I got to know one of my students, Siyabonga, during the course of this past term. He is a polite young man with outstanding English skills. He is well dressed, always attending lectures and courteous when addressing his professors. He calls me “Prof”. He came to my office on several occasions asking for additional help with careful notes taken outside of class and lots of questions. He is the kind of student that makes teaching a rewarding career. After working through his nanoscience questions, I asked him where he was from and asked him why he had already failed this course once. I could not understand how someone with his desire to learn, command of English and willingness to ask questions could be failing courses. I will spare the details, but there are many opportunities to pass a course and the bar is pretty low—a student needs to receive better than a 50% in the course with a final exam and a supplementary exam to help get over that bar.

Siyabonga’s answer was revealing. He said the following, “If the students in my matric (high school) could see me now they would be shocked. I was one of the top students in the school and one of the best in maths and science. Once I got to UKZN I got used to getting low grades on papers and tests. After a while you begin to think that you deserve such grades and then begin to expect them. To be honest, I gave up trying a while ago because no matter how hard I tried I could not seem to pass my courses.”

I was stunned. Here is an articulate young man trying hard to succeed on a first world playing field. I pictured his umama and gogo scraping together every rand that they had to send the first member of their family to university. I could hear them telling their friends about how proud they were of their boy going off to study chemistry at the varsity. I could imagine the pride in the voices of his teachers from matric that one of their all-star students had gone off to UKZN. He was probably the kind of student that helped them to maintain their sanity and carry on with the difficult work of teaching in an under-resourced and often discouraging environment, and he certainly was respected and probably envied by his peers. Passing the matric was supposed to be a passport to success instead it turned out to be an opportunity to fail. He was set up with an unrealistic expectation of what passing the matric really means.

What is to be done about this unfortunate situation which plays itself out with tens of thousands of university students all across South Africa every year? They have all been given this passport telling them that they have an adequate foundation and are prepared for university-level work, yet nearly half of the students are not ready for the rigors of university work at a world-class level.

There are two possible solutions, neither of which are particularly attractive. The first, lower the standard and expectation of their coursework so that the students who have entered the university with weak math and science backgrounds can pass. This is only a solution if the level is then dropped for expectations in the second and third year as well because chemistry, like most disciplines, is a subject that builds, brick upon brick from course to course and year to year. Lower the standards in the introductory course and you must lower the standard in each subsequent course. The result, of course, is the production of a cadre of students who have managed to pass this newly defined chemistry degree but who are now no longer competitive in the world of chemistry and in the world of publish or perish. Maybe South Africa does not really need chemistry graduates with international standards, but I would guess that the scientists and engineers at SASOL, Mintek and other global companies based in South Africa would beg to differ. I know that top Ph.D. schools around the globe not be interested in students with a sub-standard degree, and this proposed degree program would not provide a supply of high quality honors students in South Africa as well. The future pipeline of science leaders would rapidly dry up in a country with a severe skills shortage.

The second option is to continue to push the responsibility of bringing students up to university standards onto the universities and thus conceding that the secondary schools have largely failed. This has been the implied stance, but it is politically difficult to admit that an entire segment of the infrastructure of the country is a failure. This also puts the faculty in the research university into the impossible task of being both world-class researchers for a small group of students and high school teachers for the majority of students. This system is currently not working well either.

In my third year class, there were perhaps 30 – 40% of the students who had serious deficiencies in basic chemistry, physics and math concepts, but showed flashes of potential. Ironically, several of them had already failed once. There were another 30% who did not demonstrate even a basic understanding of general chemistry, physics and math and have almost no chance of success as professional chemists even though many of them will eventually pass with a BSc. degree in chemistry. Most of them would never have gotten to their third year in the States.

If the faculty could focus on that first 30 – 40%, perhaps they could be encouraged and challenged to rise up to a new level—from barely passing their courses to honors caliber students with the potential to be future science leaders in South Africa. As it stands, the goal is to pass as many as possible; to give as many people as possible an opportunity. Quantity trumps quality.

There is a third option which might be gaining political traction. Add a year or two of introductory material converting the three year degree into four or five years which many students would be required to take depending on their incoming preparation. There are few details in this bridging program, but if I was inventing the program it would have the following requirements: basic numerical literacy (interpreting graphs, percentages, fractions, basic statistics), general laboratory techniques (taking measurements, errors and significant figures, using instrumentation, experimental limits), general chemistry, physics and biology concepts including bonding, forces, periodic trends, modern biology, genetics, electromagnetic theory, etc., basic algebra skills and a required English reading and writing course each term. This will require a serious commitment from the government and the universities. This type of program will require many dedicated university faculty members with no research expectations who can dedicate their career to helping nurture the Siyabonga’s of South Africa to be the next generation of scientists. Maybe this type of program could become an opportunity to succeed.

For all of the challenges facing tertiary educators, the grim reality is that excellence in the public secondary school system has largely collapsed in South Africa. We have seen just a small cross-section of high schools, but one has to look hard for encouraging trends in township schools—a situation that is surely multiplied by the thousands across this nation. Yes, there are some excellent schools in South Africa. They are almost all private, expensive, mostly white in leafy suburbs with expansive campuses, well-equipped libraries and computer labs, and excellent sports facilities. Epworth School in the Scottsville suburb of Pietermaritzburg would be a good example of this type of school.

These schools are not exclusively the domain of white students. There are many Indian and black students at schools like Epworth as well. The rapidly growing Indian and black middle class who can afford private schools like Epworth now represent a significant future enrollment for such schools.

Less than 10 km away from Epworth lies the townships of Mpumalelo and Edendale. I have already written about the student strike at the high school in Mpumalelo. Kristin had an opportunity to visit the school recently and the sights, sounds and smells of the school are beyond description. A third of the school was put to the torch by the students and nearly every textbook was burned in the process.mpumalelo fire What is left can only be described as a shambles. Broken windows and desks,mpumalelo window garbage, no electricity and running water (except for one continually running tap), drop toilets that have never been emptied,mpumalelo toilet rooms without doors, no sports field and the list goes on. (To see more pictures, visit our Picassa slideshow.) This is the justification given by the student leaders as to why they burned down the building. Would the ministers of education send their children to such a school?

Down the road a few kilometers away in Edendale are several high schools. Nyonithwele High School is across the street from Bonginkosi.nyonithweleNyonithwele was built in 1995, so it is a relatively new school. It is built on a large tract of land, but most of the land is unused because it cannot be adequately patrolled, so there is not a sports field on the grounds of the school. There is no electricity in the buildings because the light fixtures and receptacles were stolen when the building was under construction. Many of the windows are broken. There is no heat or air conditioning. There is not a piece of science lab equipment to be found. There are almost 1000 students at the school.

Further down the road is Edendale Technical School. It is considered the best public school in Edendale. There are 1400 students enrolled, and there are many learners that are turned away each year due to lack of space. They have sports facilities and electricity. They have a hard-working and strict principal and a team of dedicated teachers. They have a librarian who has scraped together the necessary funds to have a building renovated to create a library at ETS. Now the challenge is getting some books.edendale library1 They have worked with the U.S. Consulate in Durban to set up an “American Corner” which had books donated by the embassy. I was honored to be part of these donations and wished that I had one hundred more boxes.edendale library4 There are four computers for 1400 students,edendale library2 but they have a man with a vision for a future. He has started a book club and has been encouraging students to read a common book together, write their own plays based on the book, and discuss the book together. They need fiction books.edendale library5 They need life science books.edendale library3 They need any kind of book. They have a dedicated staff who are trying to make lemonade out of lemons. The math teacher meekly notes that the matric pass rate in math is about 65%. Each year he has several students pass with distinction.

Not good enough, he says. He is working on improving it. The pass rate of the other three high schools in Edendale are 6, 8 and 11%. While 65% may not be ideal, his school is an order of magnitude higher than the other local schools. Still no lab equipment, no computers, students with a 50 – 70% HIV infection rate, no library books, yet here is a story of hope that hard working folks with the right administration can make a difference—a model of possibility.


There are no easy solutions. Township high schools range from very challenging to dreadful. Admittedly, this is a small cross-section, but I have a suspicion that these are typical of black township schools across South Africa. This is a subject not discussed. In fact it is not even allowed to be discussed. Teachers and administrators are threatened with being fired by the Department of Education if they go to the press to publicize the plight of their schools. No one wants to lose their job in a country with over 30% unemployment. No one wants to lose their government post when their next post will be decided by the same officials. No one will risk it. That is why there are no names to be found in this story. An investigative news show like Sixty Minutes or 48 Hours could have a field day on the secondary education system in South Africa.

The question that begs to be asked is “Why?” Why in a country that is ranked # 32 in GDP are there thousands of schools like these? Why do public high schools still not have running water and electricity when the entire surrounding community has both? It could not cost more than R100,000 ($12,000) to replace the electrical receptacles and lights that were stolen in 1995 at Nyonithwele. 1995! What percentage of students who are educated in these schools have any chance at success later in life?

The human capital that is being wasted in South Africa is astounding. There could be hundreds or thousands of the next writers, musicians, artists, scientists, lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, politicians, and athletes. What is being produced is another generation of people without hope–aimlessly wandering the streets of townships across South Africa in search of something, anything. Hoping to find a job or at least get enough rands for taxi, food and a beer at the local sheebeen. The return on investment is dismal. Even the “successful” students leaving the secondary school system have been set up—given an opportunity to fail. Supposedly there is an 18% matric exemption rate. Thus, 80% of the students are currently fated to a future without hope for a tertiary education. It is estimated that 40% of the 18 – 24 year olds have no job and are not enrolled in school–a national tragedy. The solution proposed is to continue to pass these students through the system—kick the can further down the road, but eventually hope and opportunity will run firmly into reality.

This is a bottomless pit. It is going to take some real political courage to admit what any even moderately observant person who is willing to be honest can see—the secondary school system is not working and the current trends in education are not positive. Change is not going to come rapidly and will be painful. There are a lot of school administrators who do not have the right personality or vision for the difficult days ahead. There are too many underqualified and underperforming teachers who need to be replaced. The tertiary education system needs to develop a cadre of outstanding future teachers with a passion for teaching. Administrators need to be given the green light to expel problem students which they currently do not have the authority to do, and the list goes on.

Does this iron resolve and focus exist in South Africa to address these problems? The country’s future hangs on the answer to this question.

Sports is a national obsession in South Africa. Fans discuss, argue and fret over rugby, cricket, soccer, hockey (the field version), netball, running, tennis, golf and the list goes on, but the first three hold the hearts of a majority of South Africans. Interestingly, the terms football and soccer are used interchangeably. Not surprisingly, even in the realm of sports, the passions and loyalties of South Africans are often divided along racial lines. Rugby and cricket are the “white sports” and soccer is the “black sport”. In speaking with many white folks, they were not even introduced to soccer during their childhood because white children played rugby and cricket in their schools growing up. Generally, only white children who grew up in a rural area on a farm where there were black workers learned soccer during apartheid. That of course has changed in the last fifteen years, but the strong fan support remains largely divided along racial lines.

It is with considerable national pride that 2010 will mark the year in which the FIFA World Cup will be held in South Africa—the first time that a World Cup has been held on the African continent. All of the major cities are busy building or renovating stadiums, improving infrastructure projects all over the country, linking the world with high speed internet, etc. The World Cup is the largest sporting event in the world, and South Africa wants to show that it is ready to put on a great show worthy of the name. Whether it will be without problems will remain to be seen. There are considerable issues related to transportation, crime, stadium security, ticketing, etc. that need to be addressed, but they have been given a chance to have a test run of the World Cup in the FIFA Confederations Cup which ran June 14th – June 28th.

The Confederations Cup is an event with a relatively recent history, and receives only modest attention from the soccer world. In it’s current format, there are eight participants-six coming from the champions of each region in the world plus the winner of the prior World Cup and the host nation. It is called the “Championship of Champions”. Others call it a marketing gimmick. But whatever the opinion of the worthiness of the Confederations Cup from the majority of the nations who could potentially participate, it has evolved into an event held every four years in the year prior to the World Cup and in the same country of the host country and is considered the second most prestigious FIFA-sponsored event. The idea is that the host country can use the Confed Cup as an opportunity to work out the logistics of the World Cup on a much smaller scale and with less scrutiny. Thus, South Africa was the host of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. The champions participating this year were Brazil (South America), Egypt (Africa), Iraq (Asia), New Zealand (Oceania), Spain (Europe), the USA (North / Central America), Italy (2006 World Cup champ), and South Africa (host nation).

I grew up playing soccer from the age of eight. I started on the Beekman Arms U-10 soccer team coached by Frank Luzzi. I was fortunate to have had a coach who actually understood the game as many American kids who played soccer in the late 1970s would have been coached by well intentioned, but definitely ill-informed parents. Mr. Luzzi was right off the boat—the real Italian deal. He understood the game and did not care much for laziness. One of my most memorable moments as a member of the Beekman Arms side was a long range goal scored from mid-field in a game. Since I played defense, I can count on two hands the total number of goals that I scored in my entire soccer career. This one started innocently enough—a volley from the center arc that was intended mostly as a clear out of our area. The ball took a high bounce inside of the 18 yard line. The keeper came out to catch the ball, and then at the last minute decided to catch it after the bounce. As 9 year olds are wont to do, he underestimated the bounce which sailed over his head and into the goal. At that point I was christened “Bigfoot” for my half-field volley—a name which actually stuck for a good part of the next decade.

Unlike many American kids who lose interest in soccer sometime before the age of 14, I continued to play in high school eventually becoming the co-captain of our league champion team, played through college intramurals, and in a competitive adult league in Chapel Hill. My soccer career ended abruptly when I broke a rib playing in an adult league in Virginia several years ago, but suffice to say I have been a player and a student of the game for the better part of my life. I seldom watch soccer on TV, but that is mainly because I am too cheap to get cable and not due to disinterest. That said, I have only been to one professional soccer game in my life—and I am not sure if you can even count a New York Cosmos indoor game in 1984. There could not have been more than 500 fans at the game. The most entertaining memory from that trip was the Greek diner in Mahwah, New Jersey in which Frank Luzzi was ordering a “cheeseburga, aah French afries and a choka shake” to a Greek waiter who could not understand Italian-inspired English. The order took about five iterations each getting louder than the one before. When the waiter left, there were a few Italian words uttered under Frank’s breath. He then shook his head said, “what isa wrong with thata dumb guy. Whya can’t he understanda English?” He did have a point.

When I head that the FIFA Confederations Cup was being held in South Africa this year, I wanted to see if we could get some tickets…it would be a good father/child bonding experience. The only problem is that the games are hours from Pietermaritzburg. The four venues were Johannesburg, Pretoria, Bloemfontain and Rustenburg. Bloemfontain is the closest at five hours and Rustenburg is the farthest at seven. The pairings put he US in the proverbial “Group of Death”—Group B along with Brazil, Italy and Egypt collectively ranked 5, 4 and 40 respectively according to FIFA, while Group A had Spain (#1), South Africa (#72), Iraq (#77) and New Zealand (#82). Top two teams advance from each group into the knock out stage. Thus the US had to play three top 40 teams with any hopes to advance. Games against Italy and Brazil were in Pretoria and Egypt was in Rustenburg. We went for the 8:30 game in Rustenburg because Paul had friends who lived there and thus a place to stay. So the date was set, 21 June (Father’s Day) in Rustenburg with the two eldest children and fathers of the Augustine’s and Passaro’s, Jeremiah von Kuhn, and the UNC interns—Robert, Elizabeth and Andrea—ten American’s on a mission with flags waving and faces painted.confed cup game day

Heading into the game, our thoughts were united…I hope we at least put on a respectable show. USA had already lost 1 – 3 to Italy and 0 – 3 to Brazil. The Italy game was closer than the score suggested, but the Brazil game was worse. Sitting 0-2-0 with a -5 goal differential is not what one would draw up in the strategy for advancing in the Confed Cup preliminary program. Egypt was 1-1-0 having shocked Italy two days earlier and Brazil was 2-0-0 and playing Italy who was also 1-1-0. So the stage was set, the USA needed to win, Italy needed to lose, and the US had to make up the 5 goal differential.

We heard a lot of commentary before leaving. “Why are you driving fourteen hours to see the US lose?” was the most common theme. To be honest, there was not a great reason except that there is a major international competition in South Africa, and the USA is in it, so we should go. Little did we know what was to happen next.

We discovered that while Egypt is on the completely opposite side of the continent and has almost nothing in common with South Africa, South African fans were rooting for Egypt to carry the mantle for Africa. We arrived in a largely empty stadium, faces painted, waving American flags to be struck with the overwhelming support for Egypt and the nearly nonexistent support for the USA. By gametime (and later when the officials opened the gates allowing people to stream into the stadium to get a better appearing attendance), there could not have been more than 50 Americans in the stands, and there could not have been more than 1000 total fans cheering for the USA out of an announced attendance of 23,000. We counted no more than five or six American flags in the entire stadium, so we decided to strategically drape our flag over the balcony of the second level with us sitting right behind the flag.

First Half: Vuvuzelas blowing incessantly. When in Rome, so we were blasting our vuvuzelas as best we could and cheering U-S-A, U-S-A at every opportunity. The US side came out pressing and had several early opportunities that they were unable to capitalize on. This looked promising although opportunities do not come often in international football—one needs to finish when the opportunity arises. Then in the 21st minute the US found the back of the net on a broken play between the Egyptian keeper, his defenseman and Charlie Davies. The goal was on the other side of the stadium, so it was hard to tell what happened, but we were leading 1-0. The goal seemed to awaken Egypt who were challenging throughout the remainder of the first half, but the half time score remained 1-0.

After the break, the US came out pressing and had a sure goal stopped by a handball that was not called in the 50th minute. The tension built in the stadium as the vuvuzelas got louder and louder and each possession seemed to carry extra weight. The Italians were losing 0-3 at halftime, so the US needed to score at least three goals and the Egyptians only needed to hold the US to two goals in order to advance. The US midfielder Michael Bradley scored a brilliant goal in the 63rd minute. The US finished the scoring in the 71st minute with a diving header by Clint Dempsey into the back of the net. It was shortly after this point that we realized that the US might be able to advance through a series of SMS messages that we were receiving. Then we started the “D-fense”, “D-fense” cheer for the last ten minutes.

Our fifteen seconds of fame occurred when we were the featured fans by the panning camera looking for the few American fans. We got emails from friends watching on ESPN2 and we were the high-fiving Americans featured on the SABC sports highlights on Monday morning. At that point, we were starting our seven hour drive back from Rustenburg.

Some places in this world are famous for many things and other places for just a few, or perhaps only one, but every place is famous for something. One of the somethings that Pietermartizburg is famous for is the Comrades Marathon; what some call “The Worlds Greatest Race”. It is an ultramarathon run annually between Durban and Pietermaritzburg and is widely considered the most famous race in the ultramaraton genre. The race annually switches direction so that one year is the “up run” from Durban to PMB and the alternating year is the “down run” from PMB back to Durban. These are so named because the terrain from the ocean in Durban to the midlands in Pietermartizburg is definitely…predominantly…punishingly…up hill.

What is an ultramarathon? Think ridiculous endurance race of 26.2 miles (42.2 km) that legend has it started in ancient Greece with a messenger running between the towns of Marathon and Athens announcing that the Persians had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon. That is a standard Olympic distance marathon. Now double this distance, and then add a little extra just for good measure. Make it 89 km (55.3 miles) just for the sake of argument, and you have the Comrades Marathon. Technically an ultramarathon is any distance longer than a standard marathon, but the Comrades is known as the mother of ultramarathons. It has been staged every year since 1921.

You might ask, who would sign up to run in a 55 mile race on extremely hilly terrain in Africa? I certainly don’t know most of the names, but actually 13,000 hardy souls were part of the race this year.  Here is one of them:comrades

That’s me at 5 am in downtown Pietermartizburg shortly before the starting gun at 5:30 am. Actually it is a starting cock crowing which is actually a starting man pretending that he is a cock crowing. Sounds strange and it is. Thirteen thousand people eagerly waiting to run 55 miles. At least it was mostly downhill this year although some say that the down run is more grueling than the up run. Amazingly, 12,999 of these runners qualified for the Comrades by first posting a qualifying time of less than 5 hours in a standard marathon in the prior year.


Many would be surprised to know that I had made a qualifying marathon time as my usual running distance is somewhat less than 26 miles. It is actually closer to 4 miles, but I did mention that 12,999 qualified? There was at least one that did not, and I write that with full knowledge of the one who did not. Call me Ferris Bueller…the guy who seems to get into things that he has no business being in.

The story begins with a friend who will remain nameless who did indeed qualify for the Comrades. I sent him an SMS the night before the race wishing him well. He called me shortly thereafter and asked me if I wanted to run. I laughed and then hesitated. He was serious. Did I mention that I usually run up to 4 miles…on a really good day I will push 5. He said not to worry, the race actually goes right past our house and I could bail out there. He had injured himself several weeks earlier and would not be able to participate, but he did have the needed race number. He assured me that the start is the most exciting part. After the first 5K of excitement, the remaining 84 km is basically hell, and I would be in on the best part.

And he was right. The atmosphere was incredible. Music blaring, people chatting, pacing nervously awaiting who knows what. I say that because the first 5K’s were very pleasant. Actually the first 5K was a very leisurly pace. I usually run 5K in about 22 min, this one took over 40 minutes. It actually took 6 minutes just to cross the start line there were so many entrants. My stopping point was just before the legendary Polly Shortts hill–a brutal series of two climbs that occur 8 km from the end of the up run. The first “hill” is nearly a half a mile long, the second is 1.25 miles long and steep. I asked a runner who has done the up run to tell me about Pollys; her adjective–“impossible”. Only a few runners can actually ascend the climb without walking. Getting ready to bail here:first 6k comrades

Here are some amazing statistics from the race:

The 2009 winning mens time: 5:23:26 by Stephen Muzhingi (2nd fastest down time)
The 2009 winning womens time: 6:12:11 by Olesya Nurgalieva (she and her twin sister have won several)

Silver medals are given for finishing in less than 7.5 hrs, and a bronze in less than 9 hrs. After a greuling 9 hrs., only 10% of the runners have finished! In order to be considered as someone who “completed” the race, you need to finish in less than 12 hours. Cross the line at 12:01 and your name is not even recorded as having raced.

I have to confess that “being part” of the race piqued all of our curiosity. After picking me up, we all drove about 20 km down the road to Camperdown at 6:30 am to watch part of the race. We missed the leaders by about 30 sec., and saw the womens leaders pass several minutes later. You can see “the twins” behind the motorcycle in the middle of the pack. What you can’t see are the two helicopters overhead and the huge pack of men running with the twins to get their five minutes of fame as one of the men running with the twins on national television.

twins comrades

After the race was over, I had several people ask me if I was going to try to finish next year. Didn’t the excitement and the challenge make me wish that I was part of the actual finish? To be honest, in a word, NO. I can appreciate the sacrifice and the dedication of every other runner there. It really is incredible. And the judge who fires the gun after each significant milestone including the heart-rending 12 hour mark is very powerful. But at no point did I wish that I was one of the people running for 11 to 12 hours. I’ll stick with sprint triathlons. But if someone has an extra jersey next year, I could be tempted to turn the Comrades into my own personal 25 km race.

I have been asked several times to write about my observations of the education system in South Africa now that I have had a personal exposure to the system.  I have to admit, that I have been trying to avoid the topic. Having spent a few months teaching in one tertiary institution hardly makes me an expert on the education system in South Africa. I also fear ruffling some feathers of folks whom I admire and respect.

It is a delicate balance writing hard things about hard issues, but it is not a great exaggeration to say that the failure of the education system is one of the greatest risks facing this nation as it struggles to move forward post-apartheid. While many of the overwhelming issues facing the nation–poverty, racism, crime, sexism, HIV-AIDS, economic inequality, unemployment–may not necessarily be solved with better education, lack of education is a root cause of many of these issues.

The saying “the elephant in the room” is not part of the vernacular here as I have used it a few times to mostly quizzical looks. This is probably indicative of the fact that there is an elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, and that elephant is an extremely substandard education system particularly at the primary and secondary levels. I’ll save my thoughts on tertiary education for another day, and begin with a story from a local township school.


I have a friend. Amy Murray is her name. She is a graduate student at UKZN in psychology. Child of an American missionary who started Masikane Baptist Church in Mpumelelo outside of Pietermartizburg. Born and raised in South Africa, but has been back to the States enough to know that Wal-Mart has a ridiculous amount of stuff on the shelves. She is also quite a photographer and was in fact present for one of the Tar Heel celebrations even though my artistic license left her out of the story. She is definitely getting her props here.

As part of her graduate program, the students are required to do field work. Amy petitioned her professors to see if it was possible for the graduate students to “adopt” a township school and see if there were ways that they could offer their services to the teachers and administrators. An obvious school was the high school in Mpumelelo across the street from Masikane. While this had never been done before, the faculty and students were excited about the opportunity, and after a series of meetings between the UKZN faculty, grad students and the administration of the high school it was decided that they would be glad to have the grad students help with the school. No one had ever volunteered to work at the school, and they were grateful to have willing co-laborers.

Things soon went south. The students decided to strike over conditions in the school. No textbooks, dreadful facilities, and a few teachers who were too demanding. They demanded the ouster of the principal and a half dozen or so teachers. The demands were actually threats upon their lives and the principal and teachers decided that their own personal safety was more important.

The students returned for a brief period and then went on strike again over ostensibly the same issues minus the “problem” teachers. Then the student leaders feared that a strike was not really meeting their goals of “the struggle”, so they decided to burn down the school. They succeeded in destroying about a third of the school before the fire was contained. Suffice to say, the UKZN students have not had much of an internship this past term, but they have had an eye-opening look into the dynamics of poor black schools. Interestingly, this story did not even make the local newspaper which generally has extensive coverage of local events. This school is one of hundreds (thousands?) that are so far off the radar screen that neither striking students nor arson by same protesting students is even worth a mention in the newspaper.

I have not yet been in a township school, but by all accounts the conditions are apalling for the majority of poor government schools. There is almost no technology equipment, often no library or textbooks, the teachers are underpaid, working in dangerous conditions and often are underqualified. There is a fascinating documentary put together by another Fulbright Scholar, Molly Blank, called Testing Hope: Grade 12 in the New South Africa, in which the challenges facing poor students preparing for the university entrance exam (the Matric) is exposed.


This is an issue that is not going away and stands to cripple South Africa moving forward. This is the definition of an elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. Behind closed doors in hushed tones, everyone will admit the problem. In public, no one will. It is no use pointing fingers, but it is of great use recognizing that there are major problems in the education system that need to be admitted and addressed.

The majority of students entering the universities–the elite who have passed the matric–are simply not prepared to do university-level work on a world-class level. In the sciences, they do not have an adequate math or science foundation from their primary and secondary schooling to enable them to succeed in university-level work. For their part, the universities are trying to maintain international standards in their curriculum and expectations for their students, but I was stunned to personally grade MANY test scripts in which students received a 7% on their first exam in general chemistry–on a test that was relatively easy by international standards.  Seven Percent!?!

Tales of university work will need to wait for another day, but students demanding the removal of challenging teachers and burning down the secondary schools is certainly not sustainable.

To quote poet, David Byrne, “Watch out…you might get what you’re after.

Catch and Release

April 25, 2009

I love fly-fishing. No news to those who know me. I only started two years ago, but the pastime is somewhere between covetousness and obsession. I still have a lot to learn, but it is one topic that I enjoy studying.

Fishing of all sorts is very popular here in KwaZulu-Natal. At St. Lucia/Cape Vidal we watched a bunch of “sportsmen” who were surf casting. They were using something like telephone poles with 30 pound test to catch a few fish in the 4 – 6″ range.  They were using bait–and fishing within a few meters of people swimming including us. I wasn’t impressed. I also saw a guy with monofilament line casting some sort of bait out and catching what can only be described as aquarium tropical fish along the coral reef–and keeping them. Why he wasn’t just using a net was beyond me. The barbed hook was likely to do a lot of damage to a 1″ “keeper”.

Those who know a little about fishing may be getting the sense that I practice what has become known as “catch and release” fishing. This is an ethos that evolved in the fishing community in the early 1980’s and particularly amongst trout fishermen, and particularly trout fly fishermen. The idea is relatively simply. Anything that you catch, you release without injuring. The logic is also sound. In the 1970’s, many of the famed trout streams across the United States were becoming fished out. There were many stories that began with, “back when I was younger, the average trout caught was 18″, now we are lucky to get a 12″ trout…” That was heard all around the land. If the story was tiresome, it was also true. Trout grow to 10″ by the end of the second year, and in rivers where fish were caught and cooked, very few trout survived past two years without gettting caught.

Thus the catch and release ethic was born. If you want to enjoy sportfishing, you need to return the fish to preserve the breeding stock. The logic and ethic has taken over in the fly fishing community to the point that by the time I started the sport, it is almost unheard of to kill the fish that you catch.


I went Natal Yellow fishing today with a graduate student at UKZN. His name is Matt. A local. He grew up in Pietermartizburg, and is an avid fly fisherman. He wanted to introduce me to the Yellow Fish. It is a bottom feeder in the carp family. Not the type of fish that one would typically think of as a sportfish and definitely not an eating fish. But they are indigenous to Natal, they can grow quite large–the record Natal Yellow Fish was over 9 pounds caught about 40 minutes north of Pietermaritzburg, and they can be caught on a fly rod. Those are more than enough reasons for me to go Natal Yellow fishing.

Matt took me to a private stretch of water below the dam at Albert Falls Nature Reserve. The water comes over a waterfall and into a pool, and it is here that there are some large yellow fish enjoying the highly oxygenated and food rich water coming over the waterfall. The fact that it is private means that only those who have permission from the owner can fish here, and it is under a strict agreement that all fishing will be catch and release. That is not a stipulation that I would find difficult to abide by.

We arrived early on a beautiful morning. After Matt gave me the run through of the type of flies that I would use (San Juan Worm with a nymph dropper for those interested in the technical details), we started fishing. I’ll spare you the suspense. I never caught my first Natal Yellow Fish, and I still have yet to catch a fish using a nymph. That is not really the main story here.

About forty minutes after we arrived, a group of four young Zulu boys arrived with cans of worms and various and sundry fishing gear. Technically they were poaching–illegally fishing on private property. Practically they were hungry. Frankly they did not have a very good chance of catching much. Three of the boys had sticks with about five feet of fishing line. The fourth had a well-worn spinning reel. They seemed a little in awe of the rhythmic spectacle of two men fly casting 15 meters of line toward the water falls. I don’t know whether they had seen fly fishing before, but it was far different from what they were doing. They moved out of sight to poach a different hole.

About forty five minutes later they returned empty handed. As it happened, Matt had just hooked up with his second big yellow fish. His rod was doubled over and was quivering under the tension of a large fish. The boys came to a stand still about three meters behind him watching in rapt attention. I was about 10 meters away, and likewise stopped to enjoy the show. I never tire watching someone play a large fish. This fish was no exception. He worked the fish for probably close to four minutes and finally carefully landed a 26″ yellow fish in his catch and release net. As he disengaged the hook, I could see the anticipation in the boys faces. And then four jaws dropped incredulously and the Zulu furiously started as a flick of the tail sent the fish into the murky water below. The boys chattered to each other and walked away dispondently. About five minutes later I saw the boy with the spinning rod catch a 4″ yellow fish and then smack it against the rock and put it in his can.

The catch and release ethic makes perfect logical sense, unless it smacks up against the reality of a pervasive poverty in South Africa. This was not an ethical decision that I had to make today due to my incompetence yellow fishing, but I began thinking what would I have done if I did catch a fish. We were fishing on private water with the permission of the owner on the agreement that we could fish as long as we released anything that we caught. And yet, here are four hungry young boys who in several hours caught one 4″ fish…hardly enough for two bites of food when cooked.

Matt must have had the same thoughts swirling through his mind, because in the car home he brought it up. I asked him if he saw the looks on their faces when he let the fish go. He said that he didn’t have the heart to look at the boys.

What should we have done? What would you have done?