EDUCATION: A PRICELESS GIFT FOR SOUTH AFRICA AND ITS CHILDREN
1. I am extremely honored and privileged to have been asked to deliver the inaugural Tsietsi Mashinini lecture.
2. I am still a little bit puzzled as to why I was asked to give the lecture when I know that within the group of 1976 student leaders there are many who knew Tsietsi much better and could probably have more personal exciting stories and experiences to tell. What are some of his remarkable attributes? His energy was boundless, his mind sharp, and his spirit uncontainable. These words do not do justice or give a vivid picture of his tragic short life, and I hope that others may help to fill the gaps. In honor of Tsietsi’s untiring urge to question, protest injustice and to fight for change, I hope to take this time not only to look back, but more importantly to look forward and raise the issues that still face us, and show in no uncertain terms that our struggle for education is not over. To think or act otherwise is to fail to understand the essence of the life and tasks that confronted the generation of the likes of Tsietsi Mashinini, Hector Pieterson, Khotso Seathlolo, or Ongkopotse Tiro.
3. Tsietsi, is the young man who ably chaired the anger-charged meeting convened by the South African Student Movement (SASM) on the afternoon of June the 13th which set forth the transformative events that followed the morning of 16 June 1976. He led and inspired students that rose in protest of inferior system of education. These they did despite their fears and doubts. The students were supported by every parent that opened his/her door and offered protection from the police and the army, at a huge risk to own safety. When I think back to that day I remember the courageous lady who stood before the police and refused them entry to her home where my friend and I had sought refuge while pretending to be her own daughters.
4. As I stand before you today the resoluteness of that day is clear in my mind, so is the determination with which students resolved to fight for the right of every child to quality and equal education.
5. Forty years after 1976 I would like to appeal to South Africa to tell the story of June 16 with the measure of truth it deserves if it were to be relevant and helpful for the young generations. We left the Uncle Tom’s hall in Soweto on June the 13th resolved to be heard and to assertively speak for the first time to power. We were determined to make the dreams and aspirations of the African child recognized by those who ruled over us. We were, despite the opposing counsel freely given, idealistic or naive young people who thought the state was open to frank talk and that it would be able to hear us. We left our homes as the valued sons and daughters of families, but did not fully realize that to the inhumane Apartheid government we were hardly human. The events of June the 16th started with school children walking hand in hand in orderly tidy groups hoping to present a legitimate petition of grievances to the government. We did not anticipate or believe that the government was capable to inflict upon us the atrocities that were follow. The police shot at us, the police first shot at children, and from that moment a fight arose from which some would become radicals, “criminals”, “sellouts”, heroes and others prisoners or martyrs. Tsietsi’s hard and cruel life journey continues to be told and thus needs no special attention in the lecture.
6. The true story of Tsietsi’s life presents us the golden chance to pass on to the next generations the truth about our own exodus, our belief and pride in ourselves as a people, the value we attached to education, and our strength and power in solidarity. We need not, however, be ashamed to tell the story of the betrayal, setbacks, death and fear that accompanied our struggles for freedom, emancipation and development. We owe the progress we have achieved to the idealism and adventure that was a result of both informed calculated risks or pure youth naivety, courage, and boldness that come from the keen desire of students and young people to explore and experiment as well as expand their social and political horizon.
7. Over the years the veterans of the liberation movement have tended to exclusively tell their heroic stories leading to victory and deliberately underplayed our setbacks, division as well as ideological factional conflicts, confrontation, or constant fear that often dogged our collective efforts. WE have experienced all these and Tsietsi’s brief life bore full testimony of the price paid in our individual or collective pursuit for our people’s ideals. We are consoled in the knowledge that our course was right and just as well as truthful. We knew who we were and what we wanted. The grim picture of our past fight for equal quality education is being redrawn in our country today. Recently I have watched helplessly at the militarized response of the government to the needs and demands of our own students. This reminds me of my own fear and our resoluteness in the face of an unjust desperate state that relied on the use of brutal force and intimidation against the people.
8. Though there are similarities between the current student upheavals and those of 1976, there are also sharp differences. I do understand why libraries and schools are burnt but I also hang my head in shame because the unthinkable is committed. This is alienating and distancing society from the real issues. The facilities and institutions are our common possessions and need to be preserved. Why severe the ties among young people, communities and institutions of our democracy that must serve to advance our societal well being including achievement of training, education and learning?
It might be understandable why schools were not the “target” and they were not burnt in 1976. I believe that schools did not burn because of what they represented among our people. They were certainly not what the government wanted black schools to be, but what black people made of the under-resourced schools and community institutions. A school was the safe place you went to, it was the space that gave you self-confidence that strived to find and nurture in you whatever talent, passion and skill that you might have. It was the one place that started off with an assumption that ‘you can’. So what you could or could not do was only proved on the grounds and classrooms when opportunity to try was given and often forced on you. That you can or cannot sing was determined by a choir master or mistress who did all to find that talent in you; that you could or could not be a public speaker was proved only at many debating sessions. The school was safe and meaningful not because the government of the day cared, but because the men and women who took to teaching believed in us.
9. The average school today is not that safe and secure place. It is the one place where your child is most likely to be molested, abused, not recognized or listened to. The one place, similar to a prison, guaranteed to undermine his/her self-confidence, and a place where it is assumed you cannot until you prove that you can. Societal institutions such as churches, schools and libraries cannot be defended by police or military force, their primary protection comes from our emotional attachment to these institutions and this is borne out of the experience of being, through them, cared for, nurtured and loved. Why should learners care about institutions where they experience physical and institutional violence and are regularly on the receiving end of abuse and alienation?
10. Our education system relies far too much on tailor made formal education structures and processes and has been, therefore, removed from the people it is meant to serve. This is not dissimilar to other parts of our lives where community values and organs of civil society have been replaced by cold, brash and uncaring bureaucracy. It is a dominant culture inspired by a political approach that creates an environment of patronage where the state seems to own our public life. This essentially marginalises many stakeholders and interest groups, and corrodes the social capital and connection among people, national symbols and objects as well as institutions of their country.
11.We seem not to have fully appreciated the social environment or ‘villages’ that were created to produce thinking, motivated, innovative, courageous and caring leaders as well as members. As a child I did not have an appreciation of the system that supported and encouraged me. It is on reflection as an adult that I realise how secure and protected I was. The school choirs, debating committees, athletics competitions, community youth clubs, reading clubs, Christian youth clubs, prayer services, churches and many other institutions, formed a huge part of ‘the village’ that I grew up in, ‘the village’ that Tsietsi knew so well. In this environment I was encouraged to take risks, explore talent and more importantly have a voice, often in defiance of the status quo. The teachers, parents and community structures were determined to produce thinkers and persons guided by common sense despite a rigid system that was intended to undermine who we are.
12. According to Africa’s continental education strategy, a new African citizen can only be an effective change agent for the continent’s sustainable development when we have set up a “qualitative system of education and training to provide the African continent with efficient human resources”. Our schools have drawn up policy and constructed world-class buildings to produce such efficient Africans. My emphasis, however, is on nurturing dynamic conscientious humane thought leaders as opposed to efficient human resources or soulless beings. But forming environments capable of promoting able life affirming and brave thinkers is the responsibility not only of the state, but the whole society working with responsible stakeholders and role players that value education.
13. Education must be a full social enterprise. Disengaged powerless communities we live in, patronising and all-knowing governments of the day, their ineffective inefficient policies and political instruments that govern social and public life have conspired to create and cause the dreadful and desperate state of education in South Africa, if not in the entire African continent.
We must revisit and discover the fundamental meaning of ‘education’ as a holistic process that embraces the actual lived societal knowledge systems as well as the available rich practices and notions of education and training. We must also accept the limitation of formal education and training. Where is wisdom taught?
14. One of the insurmountable hindrances and barriers to education today is not the classroom but is in the alienation of large tracts of the population from the education process and undermining communities as centres and contributors for creative action and knowledge production.
15. The continued labelling of our people as “the poor” creates identities that are dehumanising, emotionally draining and spiritually undermining our collective sense of self and our critical sense of agency or personhood, the foundation and vitality of healthy societies.
16. I grew up in the ‘Wild West’ of Soweto, the township of Zola. We did live in poverty but we were not spiritually, intellectually or emotionally poor. Our families did not have much, but we did not identify ourselves as ‘the poor’, a description for those that are marginalised and impoverished by the powers that determine one’s class, privilege and position in society. The political labelling of the social group commonly known as “the poor” has, over time, become a way of describing a person’s whole being, identity and place in our society. We learned early in our life that the marginalised, deprived, excluded, exploited or oppressed must fight and not trust the system to voluntarily open doors and promote access to opportunities, facilities, and affirm our human dignity. This is the unfinished struggle for which Tsietsi and Khotso Seatlholo lived and died for. This is also the core of the struggle of 2016.
17. I recall my brother Khehla Mthembu and I teaching our mother how to hold a pencil and write her name with a shaky hand. She was an uneducated migrant from Maputo with six children, yet this woman grew food in the garden that ensured we were never short of nutrition, she imported and adapted her Mozambican tastes and knowledge to every meal we shared. She baked for every one of her children a birthday cake. That is pride and responsibility in adversity as well as sheer determination to achieve one’s potential.
18. Mothers in our lives had too many mouths to feed on meagre salaries. My family could easily qualify as “the wretched of the earth”. However, my mother would have been insulted by the idea of being called “the poor”. I learnt a lot from a migrant woman with no formal education. Small township gardens did feed and sustain families! We lived and grew in poverty yet surely we were not “the poor” – this was not our defining identity.
19. Being poor is a question of your economic situation but it should not be a people’s entire identity or describe their role, responsibility or place in society. The label, “the poor”, has become a useful tool for politicians. It serves the ends of patronage and dependency. It describes a massive group beholden to the state and what the government can give to alleviate and not change their position and plight. Political opportunists claim to be the real and true voice of “the poor” and voiceless and expropriating their voice and claim the moral high ground while offering short term resources or solutions while simultaneously undermining people’s agency, dignity and the rightful opportunity to express their own demands and desires as well as creating and forging their own destiny. Working with and for the people was the driving force that drove Tsietsi Mashinini and, hopefully, will find full expression among the 2016 students and those that will follow.
20. It is time we believed that people often know what they need or want and that they are capable, where there is a will, to find out how to and what needs to be done to get there. We hold scientific and indigenous knowledge systems and capacities to think and find solutions to address even the most complex intractable problems and issues. As the shackles of an uncaring Apartheid state were shed, a socio-political system took its place that privileges a symbiotic relationship between the state and “the poor”, and makes mere subjects of citizens who give up their power as a way of gaining access to resources. Education in its full sense cannot happen when agency at all levels and sectors of society or community is removed. People and communities must imagine the society they want to live in. All people must be held accountable and responsible for the vision and the required processes and hard work it will take to achieve it. Our people have something to offer or contribute. We have the opportunity in time of crisis to foster a population that recognises their power not only to imagine or live in fantasy, demand and protest, but also as a proud responsible people able to contribute and act as agents of society’s movement to our shared glorious future.
21. The United Nations and governments regularly set shifting goal posts. Therefore, I do not usually, celebrate the language of the International Community. It is often vague, patronizing and seems to ensure that governments escape responsibility and accountability. For example, UN “Poverty Eradication’’ could soon became “Poverty Alleviation” on the realization that “the poor will always be amongst us”. I am however hopeful that Africa can use increasingly popular ideas around the relevance of grassroots knowledge hubs and community level drivers of ideas now titled “knowledge communities” in international development rhetoric. The work ahead for all sectors of civil society and people demanding change is to embrace and restore the various levels at which knowledge and action may occur and force the International Community and our governments to elevate the role and contribution of the “knowledge communities” in the development of policies and implementation of programmes as well as in the practices of restoring and reconstructing our people’s dignity and agency.
22. We have already noted that the issue of education, re-educating and building a critical thinking society may include the classroom, but expends to entire communities and the informed and conscious interaction between the person and world around them. It is fair to confess and reiterate that we are the black children who grew up and developed our critical awareness of society within the vibrant, rebellious and broad Black Consciousness Movement and its guiding philosophy. Our sense of being and my inalienable identity is what I do offer to the world. I must remind all who care to know that my formative years were spent among young and elderly women’s Manyano of the Methodist Church tradition, in the ranks of the Young Women Christian Association I cut my political teeth and sharpened by political and social consciousness. I learnt the meaning of gender and feminism first at home from my mothers. I was taught all these through practice as I was encouraged to be active within my family and I was totally engaged in the affairs of community. More importantly I experienced and exercised living in equality and enjoyed this among my siblings.
23. Though the government wanted us to be permanent white servants, at school we discovered and appreciated Kwame Nkrumah who offered me an understanding of African identity which skilfully shifted my African identify from a geographic location to a state of being and an appreciation for my own place in the world. I carried in my mind the idea: ‘I’m an African not because I was born in Africa, but because Africa was born in me”. Sunday school teachings were later to sustain me during my prison days. King Solomon would in hard times remind me that I am black and beautiful. In this way education, social protest, politics, and identity interacted with work, religion, family, community and school.
24. But am I arguing for the return to 1976 or championing an idealized idea of growing up in a repressive state? Of course not. I only recall these social connections to highlight the fact that the relationship between people and their community institutions, especially educational institutions and others that represent the government is very important in their development. But all begins in how people relate and understand themselves and their societies. The context and events related to 1976 might serve and help us as we continue to search for our true selves and seek to find talent and potential in each of our children and people. Our children are able and capable. I am however very aware of the fact that we are still far behind others, we have lost and are likely to lose more children in the unresponsive system, but more importantly catching up is going to require a great deal of critical imagination, commitment and investment in the creation and operating of alternative forms of education resulting from the student struggles and other primary stakeholders and role players. In all these we must ensure that we continue to strive as we restore and strengthen our human solidarity and social connections.
25. There is more to life than the demands and the workings of the markets. To meet the needs of the market and address poverty and unemployment we increasingly push young people to learn so that they can hopefully get jobs. They must acquire the skills that are needed by the market. What skills are required by society and South Africa going forward? In my view that will not depend only on what the market needs but more importantly on the values of the society we are trying to create. We need to hone our ability to accordingly teach, train and educate our children to think creatively and critically as fully equipped beings. Maya Angelou said: “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for her/him.” The simple act of learning as a deep and socially embedded process needs to be valued. The ‘technical’ skills approach is fast becoming irrelevant. We must smash and destroy Verwoerd’s vision of African children as drawers of water and hewers of wood in a world dominated by money or commercial interests. Ironically I believe that is what society is doing today, and doing it even better than what Verwoerd had envisaged. The general approach of education and training, we are told, must be exclusively and primarily aligned to market demands. The notion that you learn a skill so you are useful to be a worker, cheap or not, is the idea of education as utilitarian and takes Verwoerd’s concept and blows it up to a global project of creating soulless zombie workers and not fully developed thoughtful human beings. What we have today, I am afraid, is Bantu education and Verwoerd on steroids.
26. I will be remiss in my remarks if I do not deal with the issue of free Higher Education that has driven the student protests. It is an ironic indictment that in over 20 years we have not prioritised the education of South Africans. We have in two decades moved from people who sought education because it made and broadened a person’s potential, developed and exposed talents and created the capacity for a person to expand his or her limitations, but instead allowed the market to lead as well as dominate our cultural life and determine priorities and societal values
28. The anger and angst of the 2016 students testify to the fact that Tsietsi and Khotso did not die. They live and find a voice in the legitimate struggles of 2016. I share and honour their cause and support their daunting tasks that lie ahead. They are not odd or different from who I am or was as a serious student. The adult in me fears for them and might be tempted to caution them against their chosen strategy or tactics. Yet our young people are firm in their fight to reclaim education. They are fighting against being turned into efficient workhorses for the market. They want and demand to be made whole and to be heard.
29. What saddens me is that in 2016, the primary government response to this call is brutal force and once again in South Africa we are silencing and maiming our children. The march has not ended; Tsietsi and the young people that marched with him have securely passed the baton to the next generation. Alan Paton’s words “cry the beloved country, for the unborn child, the inheritor of our fears” echoes in my mind as we face another generation of black youth asking to be heard and demanding education in the fullest sense of the word.
30. Every time young people stand in defence of the fundamental values and principles of our great democratic country, South Africa, another June 1976 is being re-enacted around fundamentally similar causes that rises as new calls. #Feesmustfall, #zuptamustfall or #Rhodesmustfall is common and part of our mission to transform and build as well as nurture our people and nation. The students’ call has restored my faith and hope in Azania, a South Africa that is not yet reborn. We must not fail Tsietsi or let him die in disgrace. Keep the dreams, faith and hope alive.
I Thank You