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.

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?

I confess. I am a political junkie. I have absolutely no stake in the outcome of the South African election. I gain or lose nothing personally in whatever the eventual outcome (except for a possible move in the exchange rate), but I have been drawn into many conversations with South Africans over the last several months about the election and find myself fascinated. I love democracy, and it has been great to find out how South Africans view the privilege of voting. It is especially interesting to talk with black South Africans who still remember their first chance to vote fifteen years ago.

It has been a remarkably quiet election day across South Africa. There have been isolated incidents of violence, some voting irregularties and political grandstanding from the parties, but nothing like the violence that had been seen in the past.

Analysts have been calling this the most closely watched and anticipated election since the first true democratic election in 1994. The main reason is that this year the outcome of the election is not entirely a forgone conclusion. The African National Congress has held an overwhelming majority in the country since 1994. In the past election they received nearly 70% of the vote. The constitution can be changed with a vote of over 66%, so there is a significant push by the dozens of competing parties to capture that elusive 33%. As of this writing, the few polls that have been conducted suggest that the ANC will probably receive somewhere between 60 – 66% which is a real reduction of their past performance, but nonetheless a significant majority. The ANC will remain that way for the forseeable future, or in the words of the soon to be president, Jacob Zuma, “until Jesus  Christ returns”. News of the ANC’s demise is, no doubt, exaggerated.

Whether Zuma is a prophet remains to be seen, but hearing and reading the stories of one of the world’s newest democracies celebrating another election is exciting. Long lines were recorded all over the nation and it is expected that up to 80% of the registered voters will have participated today.

I am reminded of a Peggy Noonan piece written in 2000 entitled, The Meaning of the Vote. It is somewhat dated in the details of the election itself (Bush/Gore before the Supreme Court settled it), but I love how she closes her essay. I think about this every time I go to vote myself. Democracy is an incredible blessing not to be taken for granted.

A final word for those who will vote, and who even look forward to it and, corny as it is, feel a spring in their step as they go to the polls.

The other night I was dining with another family and I turned to a mother and said, “I actually get choked up when I vote. Do you?” I said it because it’s true but also because kids were there and I wanted us to do a little spontaneous commercial for democracy.

And she said, “Oh yes,” and I was surprised. She told me she takes her kids to vote with her, so they’ll remember.

I do that too, I told her, I take my son. I let him press the lever with his finger over my finger.

When I vote I get kissing sickness, and have to stop myself from embarrassing my son. But I want to kiss the curtains of the voting machine, I want to put my lips to them quickly in gratitude. I would like to kiss the metal knobs and paper with the candidate’s names.

My heart beats quickly when I’m in the booth, and my hands tremble a little. I get choked up as I wait on line. I go and sign in at the big registration desk and I am so proud to write my name, it gives me satisfaction, and I make a joke with the ladies who hold the book, and I look at the people on line and smile and I notice a lot of people are kind of–there’s a heightened feeling.

I know I should be thinking things like, “Good men died so I could do this,” and “God bless the Founders,” and in a way I guess I do, but really I’m thinking, Thank you God that I’m so lucky I can vote, isn’t it wonderful this country has been voting for more than two centuries, aren’t we the luckiest people on earth that we have this gift. And we all do it together and we’re all equal and Bill Gates has a bigger boat and a bigger house and a bigger pool than the girl at the counter at the deli next door but his vote is no bigger and has no more weight.

She is his equal.

We are all equal. In the eyes of God, in the eyes of the law, and in the voting booth. It’s really wonderful. It leaves me choked up. Maybe it does you, too…

Freedom Isn’t Free

April 22, 2009

Folks have asked me over the past few months what it is that I miss the most about the United States, and I usually respond with “pizza”. This usually raises some eyebrows and causes a general sense of defensiveness concerning the doughy substance covered in some approximation of tomato sauce, mozeralla cheese, etc. that is served up here in the malls. You need to keep in perspective that I say that I miss pizza in rural Virginia as well. I’m from New York, and we New Yorkers take our pizza very seriously and, sorry, but South African pizza is not the real deal.

I usually wink and tell them that after pizza what I really miss is my freedom. This usually raises the eyebrows even further. “What are you talking about”? is the most common response.

I miss not having to always be looking over my shoulder nervously, checking and double-checking to see if the car is locked, if we have hidden the cameras/computer/wallets every night, if we have armed the alarm properly, if my office door is locked every time that I leave, wondering whether I should drive with windows down, wondering whether a street that the GPS is suggesting that we should turn onto is safe, quickly and seldom using the ATM, nervously watching and admonishing the children constantly when we are out, and the list goes on and on. There is a degree of low level anxiety every day while living in South Africa. The US Consulate lists the safely threat rating in South Africa as “critical” for embassy employees…the highest rating possible.

That said, nothing has actually happened to us individually or as a family, although there seemed to have been a close call a few months ago. This pervasive feeling is a constant reality of life. There are certainly days when we let our  guard down and wonder whether it is all overblown, but then we drive through Pietermartizburg and see all manner of dodgy things happening and hear the stories. Everyone has a story of a friend or a family member or themselves that were victims of a crime.

We have felt freedom on a few occasions, and that is when the homesickness really sets in. At Hluhluwe we could walk out onto the back porch and leave the doors open. In Swaziland, the crime did not nearly feel as palpable, and in Shakaland, it felt like we were safe. However, even in these places of relative security, we felt more like we might feel in a larger US city…cautious but not threatened.


I don’t go running at night any more. That may not seem like a big deal, but I have still not been able to figure out how to make running work with my schedule. The “safest” time is to run early in the morning-5:30 am. I’m not really a morning person, and the times that I have tried to get up that early and run have usually resulted in me waking the entire house up by the time I disarm the alarm, and unlock the two gates and the front door to get out of the house. Running at night is out of the question. When I tell people that my usual running time in Virginia is 9:30 pm after the children have gone to bed, they immediately respond with “you musn’t do that!”

I have stopped riding a bike. The first reason is that I don’t have one, but that problem could have been overcome as I was offered one when I first arrived and told the person that I have been training for a triathlon. I don’t want to ride his bike. The drivers are dreadful, the roads are narrow, and I don’t want the responsibility of the relatively high likelihood that the bike will be stolen.

There are so many things to love about this country. The people are wonderful, the scenery is magnificent and there is so much potential here.

But on this election day, I miss my freedom. And a slice of meatball pizza.

The Land Over the Hills

April 10, 2009

There was a strange dynamic in the “urban planning” used during apartheid. Don’t begin to ask me how decisions were made about the location of “white” versus “native” settlements. The end result today, however, is clear. Wherever the major national and regional roads connect were the European communities, and just over the hills out of sight of the roads were the Bantu communities. Close enough to provide workers, far enough away to be out of mind. While the absolute barriers to locations have changed, the vestiges still remain and are quite obvious if you happen to stray just a short distance from the main roads over the hills.

Such is the appropriately named “Valley of 1000 Hills” located north and west of Durban. 1000-hills

The marketers have cleverly created a driving route (meander in the local vernacular) through the region with carefully chosen quaint stops for coffee and curios–Zulu art, beadwork, carvings, etc. We have not been on the route, but it sounds like it is a couple hour meander through the rural Zulu villages between Durban and Pietermartizburg. We followed David Alcock around this valley last week to learn about his work in Zulu villages delivering water for irrigation and drinking to dozens of communities in rural KwaZulu-Natal. His communities are not along the meander-no coffee and curio shops here.

A beginning to this story might be with the strange calculus that went into apartheid township planning. Here is a picture from atop a hill overlooking a man-made lake (called a dam) in the Valley of 1000 Hills.

valley-1000-hillsThis is located less than 20 minutes from the north part of Durban (University of KwaZulu-Natal at Westville, major shopping center, etc.) A view like this 20 minutes from the third largest city in the US would be premium real estate, even in a down real estate market. Here are the Zulu houses (called rondevals) located on the property where this was taken.valley-1000-hills-rondavelsHere is the view from inside the same rondavel:

rondavel-insideWhy was pristine real estate given to a so-called inferior race? Who knows. The road is too twisty and narrow getting back to Durban? That did not stop multimillion dollar homes from springing up in Santa Barbara, CA, and the more remote the home, the more expensive it is. I don’t understand the logic in either case.

These homes did not have toilets and electricity until recently. In fact, the majority of these black settlements did not have water, electricity, sewer, etc., and only in the last several years has this been changing. Electricity is an interesting story. The neighborhoods controlled by the ANC (African National Congress–South Africa’s ruling party since 1994) were all equipped with electricity several years ago. Those controlled by the IFP (Inkhata Freedom Party–opposition party in KwaZulu-Natal), are only now getting electricity even though these might only be several hundred meters from ANC communities.

The Alcock’s have been working side by side with Zulu’s for the last 130 years, and have made as much inroads into the Zulu community as almost any white family in South Africa. David’s father and step mother were featured in the intriguing book, My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan. David grew up a farmer working and living with Zulu’s in rural KwaZulu-Natal. Zulu is in his blood as it is perfectly on this tongue.zulu-women-workers

David is a tinkerer. He likes to design and build things. Not exactly an engineer, but someone with an engineer’s heart and mind. He has designed a ram pump for delivering water to rural communities. It took fifteen years to perfect. It works on the pressure differential created by drawing water from a higher elevation than the pump. This produces the ability to gain a 10:1 mechanical advantage which can be used to pump water any distance from the pump. The genius of his ram pump is that it is designed and built from off the shelf parts, and the diaphragm in the pump is the only part that needs replacing–it can be made by cutting out a section of a used tire.ram-pumpThis pump is not flashy. It is not something that you will be reading about in an airline in-flight magazine. He has had several taken out by international aid agencies looking for something with a little more glamour. He has also returned the next year after the photo ops were over to replace them when they were too complicated to operate by the locals, or parts broke and they could not afford to replace them. The Alcock Ram Pump does what it was designed to do…pump water, 24/7 with no external power source and with almost no maintenance required. A complete system generally costs less than $3000 to install providing enough water to irrigate (by hand so as not to waste water and irrigate weeds) a three acre farm. The cooperative farm for this particular pump is now supporting over 30 families with their own food and enough to sell to the neighboring grocery stores at a profit.zulu-rondavelHe has partnered with the Johns Hopkins University (Maryland) Engineers Without Borders chapter who has been sending students for the last several years to help install these systems during their summer break and learn about sustainable design in impoverished communities. What he cannot find are South African engineering students, black or white, to volunteer their time and expertise during the other ten months of the year.

Unfortunately, David is growing tired. Tired of the late nights building ram pumps because he is spending his days cutting through government red tape. Negotiating with the local politicians has been endlessly frustrating. He points out that they all sit in comfortable chairs in air conditioned offices twenty minutes away in Durban. They have water and electricity and food whether they deliver the services that they have promised in a timely fashion or not. It does not matter to them whether a deadline is met that means getting the crop in on time or not. The indifference is maddening.

I asked him whether it got discouraging to see so much need and so many challenges facing the rural Zulu communities that he serves. He said that seeing his pumps working day in and day out, knowing that the precious water that he has helped to deliver is literally changing peoples lives keeps him going.

One final observation. There is always beautiful and somewhat haunting Zulu singing to be heard from the dusty rondavels dotting the hillsides. In a people empty of most of the “creature comforts” of modern life, there is an inner peace and beauty to be found in the lands just over the hills.rural-kzn-hills