Opinionista Stephen Grootes 28 March 2014

The politics of parenting

Bringing up children is, for most people, the most important and the hardest part of their lives. It is what life is really about, in many ways. And South Africa being the complicated, complex place it is, with its recent history still very much with us, parenting is a trickier task here than it might be in less interesting places. One of the real problems is trying to make sure your kids are truly South African. Whatever that may be.

When you have young kids, you know you are competing against the clock. At some point, they’re going to tell you, “We don’t need you, Dad,” when they’re four and have mastered the art of smashing the tricycle’s front wheel into the gate with a satisfying and relatively safe sound. In just a few years, it’s more likely to be “I hate you!” accompanied by slamming door. And so you rush, rush like hell, to make sure they get all the right influences, all the right values, all the right impulses within them, before the time comes. And “right” is often code for “like me”.

Like all parents, I want my kids to feel comfortable in this society, to feel they have a future where they can rise to a position of influence, where they will be safe, secure and happy, and of benefit to South Africa. And to feel all of those things. But so many of the influences that I find my children are exposed to are simply not as South African as I would like.

Take one of the key influences – the books we’re able to find to read to them every night. Just about all the kiddie books you can find in a school library, or in your local branch of Exclusive’s, feature white male protagonists. For someone who has both a son and a daughter, this is not good news. In some cases, I can change the name and the gender of the hero to a girl, but sometimes you simply can’t. And it’s impossible to make the heroes darker.

I often wonder, if my kids were black, if I would want to discourage reading for pleasure, just because it would create a sense of isolation, of fiction for children being alien to their reality.

It goes much deeper than that, of course. Many primary school libraries have books that they’ve had for decades. And these are government schools we’re talking about in the “good” suburbs, not the posh private schools. I remember my primary school library having books going back to the 1930s. And considering the place in the world South Africa occupied then, those books have what you would call middle-class British virtues instilled in them. These are books about boarding schools, with heroes like Julian, Dick, Georgina, Ann, and the dog called Timmy (being the Famous Five) rather than Vusi, Jabu, Mpho, Xolela and Azania. And those books carry far more baggage than just identity. They have a subservience to the head of the house, the father (or Pater, if you go back far enough); often a servant who may be foreign (i.e. not white and English) in some way, and an over-developed sense of respect for the authority of the state (considering that there was a king on the throne at the time).

You can imagine the dilemma for a school here. Do you chuck all the books out? Or do you keep them and try to instill a reading culture anyway? Or just throw out the “worst” ones?

It’s a real indication of the lengths to which young minds can still be colonised years after the colonisers have gone.

In modern-day South Africa, the vast majority of entertainment for children that is available actually comes from foreign places. The SABC produces good kiddie content for older kids, but for younger ones, you inevitably end up (in a DSTV home) with Disney Junior, and C-Beebies (if you don’t know, that’s the BBC’s 24hr kiddy channel…Tellytubbies on repeat. Endlessly). This means that the “foreignness” to South African culture of those middle-class homes, including mine, is re-entrenched. And you can limit and ration TV, but such is its power that you have to fight it constantly. You could imagine how a young child might well pick up English mannerisms, and accents, and even morals, rather than South African ones. In the end, you’re faced with a choice between American and British. And then you go with where your parents originally came from.

A huge amount has been written about cultural imperialism, about “Coca-colonisation”. I used to never really worry about it. Now I do. Why is it, for example, that there must be children out there who have learnt to count to ten in Spanish, because of the series Handy Manny, and the books that go along with it, before they have learnt to do the same in Zulu? I know they exist. My son is one of them.

It is with a sense of very real shame that I write that. And yet it happened before I even knew it, and long before I realised the cultural significance. It’s because the show is so good, and he’d seen it a few times, but mostly because of the book he received as a present. It introduces Manny’s friends, and then you count them along the bottom of each page as you go. I have not seen a similar book in English with Zulu numbers. If they do exist, it’s probably my fault for not looking hard enough.

Even the books and programmes that don’t feature human beings at all come with their cultural baggage. If you have a three-year-old and you haven’t read them The Gruffalo, you are a failure as a parent. It’s a wonderful book, and the author, Julia Donaldson, is a living genius, who has provided hours of merriment in our home. But the sequel, The Gruffalo’s Child, is set in a dark-dark snow-covered wood. Donaldson is aware enough to make the child a girl, but snow is not a big feature of our environment.

She is writing for a British market. And one of the changing features of British society over time is that it has become more diverse. So her stories do feature classrooms that are not lily-white (as a former busker, her story about a busker’s cat in what looks like Paris also properly reflects Paris today).

But this really gets us to the nub of the problem. We simply don’t have a big enough market for really top-class kiddy books and television. So we import it. And in a fight between culture and economics, culture never wins. As listening to the accent of any child at an English-language school in a “good” area will tell you.

In the end, it’s back to the usual semi-solution. Make sure that our children are surrounded by more South African influences that foreign ones. Spend as much time with them as possible. Seek out better influences. And learn, and then teach them, the languages of our country. DM

Grootes is a parent. And the senior political reporter for Eyewitness News, and the host of the Midday Report.


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