In the ‘inspirational’ stories told to township kids about the heights they can reach in their futures, they are rarely told the harsh truths about what it takes to get there.
I was recently asked to address Grade 12 learners at Saulridge High in Atteridgeville, a township in the East of Tshwane, who are considerably less privileged than I am. I was one of a number of speakers herded together by Vusi Mkhondo, the MD of stockbroking firm Lefika, who is an alumnus of Saulridge.
He had gathered an impressive bunch of speakers. Among them were two motivational speakers who told the learners that where they came from need not define their future. There were SA Air Force pilots, breaking the ladies’ hearts. Economists, lawyers, stockbrokers, an advertising executive, scientists from the CSIR and me – a journalist.
All the speakers came from similar backgrounds to the children they were addressing and could relate to the challenges they were facing. All the speakers were well-dressed, earning good salaries and driving nice cars. And all of them unintentionally told a lie.
The learners were seeing the final product; the polished end result after years of battling to be successful. We had all the trinkets of success. It was not, however, where we had started. We had all been on a long, unseen march that the learners, too, would have to undertake.
I remember arriving at Wits University in 1994 and struggling to adapt to the completely strange environment – one that seemed to take pleasure in trying to exclude me. This is a challenge shared by each one of the speakers.
Those who do not speak English well are alienated by their means of communication. For those like me, who do have a decent command of English, adapting to academic thinking and arguments was hard enough. Academic institutions were not going to drop their standards or take pity on poor township-based children in order to give them a better life. The standard is the standard and everyone has to reach it, no matter how disadvantaged you have been in your journey to get there.
I told the young learners who were contemplating university that their journey was going to be hard. They would feel alienated in a foreign environment. They would question their abilities and their right to be where they were. I told them their classmates who went to former Model C and private schools would have massive advantages. These schools were better equipped, and their learners had better life experiences and a better command of both written and spoken English. All of this would give them a confidence township kids may find intimidating.
Statistics appear to back up the reality check I gave these eager young people. With only 15% of tertiary students graduating on schedule and 46% dropping out, the picture is bleak.
I warned the learners: “Your first year will be tough.” In fact, I told them it would be very, very tough, and that they needed to prepare for that. But that they had to stick it out and that things would get better. Stick at it and you will get the qualification. That will open your life to a world of possibilities that YOU can control, instead of the world and your circumstances controlling you.
It is not fair that an accident of birth placed them on this side of the inequality spectrum, but it is what they have to deal with. So in closing, I gave them three pieces of practical advice.
Get a good command of spoken English
Get a proper understanding of written English
Get a driver’s license.
This is not an attack on vernacular, but a reflection on the disproportionate amount of influence English has over society, specifically the world of academics and business. In fact, the corporate lawyer among the speakers was adamant that all the presentations be done in English. She recalled struggling at Wits University in her first year and argued passionately that we should not disadvantage the learners in the same way.
In similar vein, often a key component of employability that gets overlooked is the need to have a driver’s license. Poor black kids normally do not have access to vehicles, which means they learn to drive much later than their suburban friends. It means that in the world of journalism, where I operate, I send out the journalist with a driver’s license out on the story. The journalist without the driver’s license is confined to the office. And poverty stretches its hand into career advancement.
I felt bad telling them my truth. I wish I could have been more inspirational, more optimistic. I regret not ending off my presentation on a positive note, but I wish someone had liberated me of my naivety before I had embarked on my own career journey. DM
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