Our fragile students wallowing in self-pity need a history lesson
It is hard to grasp their woe-is-me attitude this side of apartheid - but I have found an antidote
There is something strange going on in Mzansi. I call it fragility – this singular narrative among young South Africans of being constantly battered and bruised by their circumstances.
“Our students say they are oppressed,” said one questioner at a social sciences research conference I addressed last week. To be honest, I do not fully understand this lament. I remember when students were truly oppressed – tortured, maimed and killed by police; driven and pursued into exile; and deprived of their most basic human rights as activists. So this heightened sense of fragility is hard to grasp this side of apartheid.
Two new books pander to this fragility. One with an imported title, Studying while Black, gives away the plot right there with an inappropriate Americanism. It tells the story of the struggles of 69 students over a five-year period. Another book, Going to University, narrates the story of 73 students who entered university for first-degree studies six years earlier. Both books will sink you into depression for their narratives of despair given in the words of students, often through direct quotation.
Student life is tough everywhere regardless of race, class or national origins. The gap between school and university is severe, anywhere. Universities across the world struggle with access (enabling more disadvantaged students to enter higher education) as well as success (empowering those who enter to attain their degrees). The burden of studies with limited resources is a vexed problem in every nation that charges fees in an unequal society. Only in SA do these very real problems become a tortured lament that zooms in on the university (not capitalist society, not a broken school system, not a corrupt government) as the problem behind all these ills.
What these microscopic studies therefore lack is a telescopic view of why students struggle in the first place. In speaking up for the university, let me make this point again: until we fix the deeply dysfunctional school system few black and coloured students (as a proportion of the age group) will enter university and those who do will continue to fail. When most children cannot read in Grade 4 and half of them drop out before Grade 12, the crisis will express itself at university. Too few black professors will emerge. Major works of science and literature will still be composed by white scholars – in fact, both these books have as lead authors white South Africans. And no number of academic support programmes can fix the systemic problem even if it does assist some fortunate individuals.
And for heaven’s sake, the problem is not teaching in English – it is teaching academic concepts and methods in any discipline competently to students with adequate school preparation to succeed in university.
These debates are now going in circles. Multilingualism is not the key solution here, nor teaching in the African languages – a pursuit I would otherwise support on grounds of social justice. But what we have here is a problem of academic preparation for higher degree studies, which both books give scant attention to.
We are left with the usual list of devils, especially in the first book (colonialism, apartheid, racism, sexism, classism) and a sorry display of academic pretence through the use of extremist language such as epistemic murder, epistemological suicide, and academic drowning. Such superficial accounts of serious historical events combined with page after page of student laments, leaves the reader with a sense of exaggerated fragility.
Are our SA students becoming too soft? I do not sense this kind of fragility among students in much poorer countries such as Mozambique and where citizens have been subjected to unimaginable cruelty at the hands of post-colonial despots such as Rwanda.
Thank goodness for a third book written by the eminent psychobiographer Professor Chabani Manganyi, who has composed moving biographies of the literary giant Es’kia Mphahlele and the artists Dumile Feni and Gerard Sokoto.
His Apartheid and the making of a black psychologist has just won the prestigious book award of the Academy of Science of South Africa. What makes this book different is the compelling story of how a black child from the rural north becomes research fellow at Yale University, the first director general of education under Nelson Mandela, and vice-chancellor of the University of the North.
The daily burden of institutional racism dogs Manganyi all his life. The anger is there, if subdued. But he navigates his way through countless obstacles – from the debilitating effects on the family of the migrant labour system to racist professors in the academy – with a single-minded determination. Excluded from vital experiences in his career as a clinical psychologist, Manganyi made his own path; as he recalls: “I read myself into important but unfamiliar knowledge domains.” Always alert to new opportunities, “I kept my eyes and ears open”. Not being able to access the supervisory expertise needed, Manganyi exercises his agency: “I did not twiddle my thumbs in confusion and self-pity.”
Here is an antidote to fragility. This book should be made compulsory reading for every SA student.