Living in a Parallel Universe

February 19, 2009

The details are not that important (names, dates, etc.), but let me set the stage. We had dinner with some South African folks last week–honest, caring, decent folk. Ages between 30 and 40. White. They grew up on the tail end of apartheid as the system was beginning to come unravelled crushing under the weight of the domestic strife and the international outcry that it created. Somehow we got to talking about their childhood, and all four people said that they did not know what apartheid was growing up. Not only did they choose not to think about it, they had no idea what the concept was and how it played itself out. My jaw almost hit the floor.

My teenage and early college years were often spent reading and hearing about the injustice of the apartheid regime on almost a daily basis. News reports about violence in the townships, multinational corporations divesting themselves and sanctions were regular news stories. At the Amnesty International “A Conspiracy of Hope” Concert in Giants Stadium that I attended, the show ended with the crowd chanting “Biko” along with Peter Gabriel. How could someone who grew up in South Africa during that same time not even know anything about it?

Here are the two quotes that really stuck with me. One of the guys was describing his working a job with a Zulu guy, and they used to drive together to their job site. One day, the Zulu guy asked him what he thought about apartheid. He replied that he had no idea what the guy was talking about.

The other guy in the group said, “why did we not ask more questions when we were growing up”?

Why not indeed.

The question that this raises with me is, what blindspots do American’s have about their own world that are obvious to everyone else around that we don’t see. Might be a good topic for discussion.


Cry The Beloved Country

February 4, 2009

Sounds like a brilliant title for a book.

I recently had the privilege of reading (actually listening…two hour daily commutes tend to change reading patterns) this book by Alan Paton. For those who do not know, Cry the Beloved Country was written in 1948 almost concurrent with the institution of apartheid. It is set in a rural valley in KwaZulu-Natal (which was then called, Natal). The actual location is less than a half hour drive from Pietermartizburg. Paton is probably the most famous professor from the University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal).

He begins the book thus:

“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa.”


I will not spoil the plot, but will simply summarize by saying that a rural black pastor, the Reverend Kumalo, from Ixopo  goes in search for his long lost son to Johannesburg–the city where all young black men and women go to seek  their fortune and leave the rural Zulu life. Here the siren song of the city destroys the lives of countless black youths, and his son, Absalom, is no exception. The story takes a much deeper and more tragic turn while in Johannesburg. In the end, mercy triumphs over judgment. I commend the reading to you.

I’m sure that this has all been written before, but what struck me upon hearing this story (the book version and not the movie–which is also very well done), is that the issues of race, privilege, power, education, and crime that confront South Africa today did not seem terribly different sixty years ago. In fact, many of Paton’s words were prophetic. I would like to see through the eyes of Paton the effect on an inferior education designed for blacks. The following is set in a speech in Parliament:

“I say we shall always have native crime to fear until the native people of this country have worthy purposes to inspire them and worthy goals to work for. For it is only because they see neither purpose nor goal that they turn to drink and crime and prostitution. Which do we prefer, a law-abiding, industrious and purposeful native people, or a lawless, idle and purposeless people? The truth is that we do not know, because we fear them both. And so long as we vacillate, so long will we pay dearly for the dubious pleasure of not having to make up our minds. And the answer does not lie, except temporarily, in more police and more protection.”

In retrospect, the government did vacillate for a while, but in 1953, the Bantu Education Act was enacted officially separating all schools according to race. The head of the Ministry of Education at the time and future Prime Minister of South Africa, Hendrik Verwoerd, said the following about black (Bantu) education:

“There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour…What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.”

Paton predicted the results as the Parliamentary hearing continued:

“And do you think, Mr. de Villiers, that increased schooling facilities would cause a decrease in juvenile deliquency amongst native children?

I am sure of it Mr. Chairman.

Have you the figures for the percentage of children at school, Mr. de Villiers?

In Johannesburg, Mr. Chairman, not more than four out of ten are at school. But of those four not even one will reach his sixth standard (sixth grade). Six are being educated in the streets…

Who do you think should pay for this schooling, Mr. de Villiers?

We should pay for it. If we wait till native parents can pay for it, we will pay more heavily in other ways.” (empahisis mine)

Fast forward sixty years, and you have a nation where this educational philosophy only began being dismantled in the early 1990s. One can begin to see the magnitude of the problem in which the vast majority of the population older than about twenty five years old scarcely received an education. After the New South Africa began with democratic elections in 1994, there has been a massive shortage of skilled laborers at all levels of society directly reaped from the Bantu Education Act.

The elephant in the room remains the problems with primary and secondary schooling. Unprepared and unqualified teachers, poor facilities, high absentee rate of teachers, lack of adequate textbooks and the list goes on. As in daily life, there are two South African education systems: high quality private schools, and vastly substandard public primary and secondary schools.

These are the schools producing the majority of university-bound students. These are the schools producing students with inadequate math and science literacy to compete in a global economy. These are the school producing the students I will begin teaching next Monday.

Paton reflects:

“Who knows how to fashion a land of peace where black outnumbers white so greatly?…We shall live from day to day, and put more locks on the doors, and get a fine fierce dog when the fine fierce bitch next door has pups, and hold onto our handbags more tenaciously; and the beauty of the trees by night, and the raptures of lovers under the stars, these things we shall forgo…We shall be careful, and knock this off our lives, and knock that off our lives, and hedge ourselves about with safety and precaution. And our lives will shrink, but they shall be the lives of superior beings; and we shall live with fear, but at least it will be a fear of the unknown. And the conscience shall be thrust down; the light of life shall not be extinguished, but be put under a bushel, to be preserved for a generation that will live by it again, in some day not yet come; and how it will come, and when it will come, we shall not think about at all.”