Opinionista Vashthi Nepaul 5 November 2013

The myth of black intelligence

We’ve squabbled, tested, researched and compared notes over the decades - and the results are in. Intelligence cannot be tested by one catch-all test, it is not gendered, not racially determined and it is not static. You are both born with it and have it boosted by your environment. What we do know for sure is that above average intelligence and giftedness reflect as a statistical reality in every single population group. Every society has an indiscriminate slice of random brilliance. Why, then, does society shy away from black intelligence as a fact of life?

Confirmation bias is a powerful thing. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party was responsible for many early depictions of Jewish people as filthy and sickly. Then they rounded Jews up and forced them into ghettos. The ghettos were drastically overcrowded, which led to a breakdown in plumbing. Garbage and human waste collected in the streets and contagious diseases spread. “Told you so”, said the Nazis, and the rest of the Germans nodded along, suspicions confirmed. If you asked them why Jews were in ghettos, they’d say it was because Jews were unhygienic, not that Jews were unhygienic because of ghettos.

Humans can be pretty rotten at root cause analysis.

In South Africa, the first formal education available to black people was mission schools. They worked in accordance with the values of their respective churches. Education was heavy on the Bible, western values and gender-based practical skills. They were not widely subscribed to by our indigenous populations. But droughts, famine and the 1913 Natives Land Act took their toll. More young black people needed to sell their labour to survive, and speaking English, a qualification or a letter from a mission school went a long way to assisting with this. As class numbers swelled, the administration took notice and began to meddle.

The Cape governor, Sir George Grey, convinced the British government to subsidise mission schools, saying, “We should try to make them a part of ourselves, with a common faith and common interests, useful servants, consumers of our goods, contributors to our revenue; in short, a source of strength and wealth for this colony, such as Providence designed them to be.” And so the commodification of black people through education was very closely entwined with their commodification through labour.

A visit to the archive collection at the Killie Campbell Museum of Africana reveals letters of instruction and policy from the colonial administration, influencing both the level of education that black people obtained and the areas of learning that should and should not be made available to them. Later on both eugenics and theories of ‘arrested development’ would also influence the system.

Fast forward to 1953, where Dr Hendrik F. Verwoerd would introduce the Bantu Education Act by saying “There is no space for him [the “Native”] in the European Community above certain forms of labour. For this reason it is of no avail for him to receive training which has its aim in the absorption of the European Community, where he cannot be absorbed.”

The curriculum would teach General Science, Homecraft, Needlework, Wood and Metalwork, Art and Agricultural Science in English. Mathematics, Arithmetic and Social Studies in Afrikaans and Music, Religion and Physical Culture in a mother tongue. The state would spend ten times as much on the education of the white child in comparison with the black child. It would not spend on hiring nor training more black teachers, nor would it require teachers be qualified. It forced all mission schools to comply or face a withdrawal of funding. With the wholesale exception of the Catholic Church, most took the money and implemented the policies. The state followed this up with racially segregated universities.

Thus did the state exert one of the most insidious means of control. It set black people up for failure and hamstrung black advancement, while using the under-education of black people as evidence for why they required subjugation and guidance instead of the vote. It was a feedback loop the Nazis would have been impressed with.

So how well did it work?

Last year President Zuma would criticise black intellectuals, saying black people “who become too clever… become the most eloquent in criticising themselves about their own traditions and everything”. There was the strong suggestion that intellectualism and black culture were naturally antagonistic to one another. This August, ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu would tell City Press that “the intelligentsia should not be anti-ANC and government.” Intelligence is fine, as long as it exists on terms the government is happy with.

Working as a volunteer in extra-curricular school debating, some black coaches of black children (from schools deemed economically disadvantaged) opposed team integration with their financially better off and mostly white peers on the grounds that the poorer children wouldn’t be capable. Some white coaches held a similar view on the basis that the poorer (and incidentally all black) learners would hold the others back. Bear in mind, this was before any of the high school learners had even received provincial training and coaching so that we could compare their ability. I raise this example not purely because it was a profound personal experience but because it happened within debating – something very much considered a thinking sport. Educators were essentially prepared to make predictive, quantifying decisions on the mental capacity of children along race-class lines.

In the rhetoric of everyday life, intelligence is recognised in very narrow terms. Black people deemed intelligent are considered a minority that has somehow gained access to a trait upon which white people have a monopoly. We only feel comfortable with black intelligence when it presents no surprises. The growing numbers of black professionals with solid middle class backgrounds, who went to largely white schools and universities, and think and sound the way the chattering class values, are not the concern of this article. Should any of their children present as gifted in some way, there would be a trip to the occupational therapist and supplementary activities to grow their talent. Those children are only a small sample of our wealth of talent though, even though the rest of those children may barely speak English or currently be two years too old for their grade. That idea seems so foreign and radical that we just don’t believe it is possible. And so we don’t go around looking for evidence of black intelligence because there is a pervasive fear that if we looked, we might not find it.

I believe that the largest factor in society that is guilty of this is the government itself. One could take as evidence of this the lower pass rate, weaker subject material, near insulting filler subjects like Life Orientation and Math Literacy, substandard teacher controls and poor administration. But let us set that aside and give government the benefit of the doubt: that these things exist because the system is broken, not because it inherently undervalues the aptitude of our children. What then is the further evidence?

The status quo view of achievement in South Africa is that scholastic results are a combination of teaching, parenting, infrastructure, administration, learning material and hard work on the part of the child. For the most part, government and NGOs focus on fixing what does not work and on improving things for the child least likely to succeed. In recognition of outstanding achievement, the government is purely reactive. It waits for learners to excel and then swoops in to award annual accolades to schools, teachers and learners who perform well provincially or nationally. It is only brave enough to reward those few who emerge unscathed from their system 12 years later.

In the rest of the world, many state school systems assume that there will be a random allotment of above average and gifted children in every grade. They create systems to recognise these children and to provide them with additional support and stimulation in much the same way as we assume some children will need remedial assistance or will have disabilities. By assuming that their population contains such potential, they create education systems more likely to retain high potential learners (data suggests a higher than average dropout rate among poor children with 130+ IQ) and more likely to generate outstanding academic results. The trajectory of these children indicate that South Africa is missing out on setting up for success an entire band of future leaders, entrepreneurs, academics and public servants that, most importantly, ascend into the middle class and pull others up along with them.

The first step, however, is the assumption that these children are out there. It is here that government, NGOs and society at large seem hesitant to go searching for potential in our general populace. I believe this stems from a fear that black children would be massively underrepresented in any such system, despite all scientific and anecdotal evidence to the contrary. It was Steve Biko who said that “the greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” If we continue to value our children the same way Verwoerd did, we’re choosing to set them up for failure. DM


In other news...

July 18 marks Nelson Mandela day. All over the country, South African citizens devote 67 minutes to charitable causes in memory of Madiba. It's a great initiative and one of those few occasions in South Africa where we come together as a nation in pursuit of a common cause. An annual 67 minutes isn't going to cut it though.

In the words of Madiba: "A critical, independent and investigative free press is the lifeblood of any democracy."

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