Opinionista Khadija Patel 7 June 2013

Mind the gap

Ours is an unequal society. Some argue that it is the most unequal society in the world. Others bristle at that argument. But how much are we – and I don’t mean Zuma & Co – doing to help bridge these inequalities?

In October 2011, I was one among a handful of South Africans who participated in a project by the Mail & Guardian and the Gordon Institute of Business Science that sought to get different South Africans talking to each other. At the end of it all we were meant to come up with five questions every South African should answer. Two years on, I don’t recall the questions my group suggested. I do, however, remember one exercise, called the “Race of Life”, which drove home the reality of my own privilege.

In that activity, we were made to form a line, all of us standing against the same line. We were told we would be racing for our lunch.

As one, who has never quite understood the apparent human inclination towards running, I approached that line wearily. “There really is no such thing as a free lunch,” I thought, slightly exasperated.

There was no starting gun. There was not even the old fashioned “On your marks, get set, go.” Instead we were asked a series of questions and the way you chose to answer the question determined whether you moved forward or backward.

If you replied in the affirmative to any question, you took two steps forward. Else, you took two steps back.

I was just relieved there was no actual sprinting involved.

And then with some mirth, the questions were broadcasted over loudspeaker: “Did you grow up with both of your parents in one house?”

“Did you eat three meals a day?”

“Did you grow up in a home with running water and electricity?”

“Was there a computer in your childhood home?”

“Did you ever go on holiday?”

I remember one particular question, “Have you, or anybody in your family benefited from Apartheid?” to have been particularly difficult to answer.

At the end of the race, I was midway between the start and finish line. There were a few people far ahead of me. Some of them appeared to already be halfway up the stairs to the promise of lunch. A few people, like the former MMC for transport in Johannesburg, Rehana Moosajee, were beside me. But it was only when I turned around that I saw how many people were behind of me – and how far behind, too. A few people were so far behind that they had to stop answering questions because they had reached the boundary of the courtyard we were standing in.

The facilitator then explained that our places were an indication of how dramatically different each of our situations are, how much harder some of us must work to actually get to the starting line.

It was an uncomfortable realisation of my own personal privilege.

And I certainly wasn’t alone in feeling affected by that realisation. Some of the friends that I had made there that day were overcome by their own emotions at the end of that “race”.

Almost two years on, that experience has dimmed in my memory. The lessons and reflections it garnered have coalesced into my subconscious. They are still there, I just don’t confront them very regularly.

So it was with some distress that I was reminded of the Race of Life last week.

I was asked by a charity organisation, the South African National Zakah Fund (Sanzaf), to participate in its commemoration of Cell C’s “Take a Girl Child to Work Day”. I tried to ignore the request in my inbox for as long as I could – even though as a student, I would read about “Take a Girl Child to Work Day” and wish I could be involved. I was just reluctant to have a girl child tailing me on a day that I could not predict. “I don’t have a staid office job in which I could predict my diary with absolute confidence even days in advance,” I argued to myself.

Eventually I relented.

Sanzaf asked me to take on four girl children.

I had visions of four ungovernable teenagers running amok in the Daily Maverick office. I politely asked if I could take on just two girl children instead. Sanzaf happily acquiesced.

I fetched the girls from the Sanzaf office in Fordsburg last Thursday morning, not quite knowing what to expect. I steeled myself against the possibility of ungovernable tendencies and sought to make the day memorable for the girls. I created name badges for them – the kind journalists often wear at fancy events – and placed them in packages together with notebooks, pens, copies of the day’s news diary, and an old netbook that they could use in the office.

I didn’t have a run-around-town-helter-skelter-between-Johannesburg-and-Pretoria day ahead after all. The highlight of their day would have to be an editorial meeting at our offices. And well, since our editorial meetings excel at entertainment, I thought they may get a kick out of the madness.

They may have been lying to me but they did tell me that it sounded very exciting.

The meeting was actually one of our more orderly meetings, our chief miscreants were away doing real journalism (Brownie points for the Daily Maverick reader who can correctly guess who our two chief miscreants are), and I looked over to the girls every now and again, to check if they were actually having any fun. At some point during the meeting they had taken out their cellphones and did not look up unless they absolutely had to.

I despaired.

I really wanted the meeting to an experience into the back end of the news factory, the behind the scenes footage that would endear journalism to them even more.

Resigned to the fact that my own expectations of them were stacked too highly, I resolved instead to make the rest of the day memorable still.

Back to the office after a couple of hours in the boardroom, I set up the netbook opposite my own work station and asked the girls to research the latest reported incidents of violence against foreigners. They looked like they were about to write a calculus exam (yes, that terrified). I tried to mollify them, telling them that it would be fun and I wasn’t grading them. I just wanted them to feel like they, too, were doing something useful.

The distressed look on the girls’ faces however did not disappear.

I tried to laugh at them, telling them that it really was not a test.

I got to work at my computer and a few minutes later I noticed the pair of them whispering furiously to each other as they pushed at buttons on the keyboard.

They did not know how to turn on the computer.

I thought the power switch was just too obscurely placed.

So, I turned on the computer for them and told them to search with local news sites (giving them examples) and note down every incident of violence against immigrants they came across.

The computer had fired up by now. I settled back into my own seat, expecting them to be busy for the next hour at least.

Until I noticed them both looking perplexed again.

They didn’t really know what to do, how to access the Internet, which search engine to use, or where to type in web addresses.

Neither of these girls had ever really used a computer before.

I felt ashamed – of myself and my own assumptions.

I never paused to think that they may actually not know how to access the Internet, let alone switch the machine on. I expected them to know how to do it because I did – and the kids I know who were their age, and younger, know their way around a computer.

I taught them how to open a browser and use a search engine.

Each time they inadvertently closed the window, they groaned in disappointment.

Eventually, they got the hang of it. They each briefed me on violence against foreigners in different areas of the country. And it was at this point, that I decided to shelve my own work for a little while. I asked them about their part of Johannesburg, what they perceived to be the biggest problems there. And then, I asked them about themselves, their ambitions and the madness that inspired ambitions of journalism.

I learned that the only time they used the Internet – for school projects – was on their cellphones. And these were not smartphones, either. One of them had a library at school – but the use of computers was reserved for matric learners. The nearest library for the other was far away from home and school.

In all that I went on to learn with these girls, and share with them, the reality of their unequal access to technology was sobering.

“My father tells me that it is up to me to break the chain of poverty,” one told me.

I felt chastened.

What an immense responsibility on the shoulders of a 16-year-old who must start from so far, far away from the starting line.  DM


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