Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 10 December 2020

What practical value do the likes of Des van Rooyen have for South Africa?

As we approach the fifth anniversary of Van Rooyen’s brief tenure as finance minister, I realised nobody in my family, going back generations, was as educated and qualified as Van Rooyen, but they knew how to build things with their hands, and never let their artisanal skills and morality take second place to money.

I have spent the past two months in various states of misery induced by a little accident I had early in October. Drugs, a lot of drugs and many hours of bed rest, have made it somewhat easy to think straight and navigate my way around the house, or yard, without falling over.

To help my recovery, I embarked on a few chores around the house. Or, at least, I tried. One clothes hook (four wrong-sized holes, and three plastic wall plugs) later, said clothes hook remains tenuously attached to the wall. I didn’t even bother to attach the others, nor set up the shelf in the bathroom. The toolbox and its contents, bits and bobs of hardware are scattered around the place. I am just about able to chop onions, or peel potatoes, but that’s probably because I have been doing my own cooking for decades – lest I lose a digit. And anyway, I am on a liquid diet, so I buy a lot of soup. The fact is I am useless with my hands. And it’s a bit of an embarrassment.

Let me go back in history, a bit. Not the history according to the ANC or the EFF. The EFF, in particular, has simply erased the history and presence of “non-Africans” and uses “non-Africans” only for propaganda, and performativity – like the way they dress down against the system. Let’s go way back to when my forebears, “non-Africans”, who were sent to this country as exiles and slaves, were craftspeople. People who could do things with their hands. People who would be ashamed of me today; I don’t even know how to properly use a hammer. Yes, there is a right and a wrong way to bang a nail into a wall.

Fast-forward, then, from the time of the arrival of the first exiles, slaves or indentured labourers, to my grandparents’ and parents’ generation. These people were bespoke tailors, carpenters, cabinet makers, upholsterers, dressmakers, seamstresses (my paternal grandmother was a washerwoman who hand-washed laundry for white people in Port Elizabeth when my father grew up in South End), plasterers and painters. One legend has it that my maternal grandfather, a prominent Imam in Johannesburg’s Malay Camp, was one of the painters brought in to paint the Pretoria home of Paul Kruger. Other family members painted massive boats in “Algoa Bay” at the end of the 1800s.

My first “knowledge” of the female body was when I helped my mother, who was a wedding gown and ballroom gown maker of note in the southwestern townships of Johannesburg – where I also learnt ballroom dancing. I got to know the difference between a crotch seam, a bodice and a gusset. I also spent three or four years working in a mechanic’s yard in my early teens and got to know almost everything (within limits, of course) about Volvos. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a motor mechanic, and then a carpenter; my father taught me bricklaying. Then I discovered books.

Let me make a couple of quick points. None of the people I mentioned (above) was as highly educated as Des van Rooyen, or Quintin Ndlozi, for that matter. I’m sorry, Dr Quintin Ndlozi. They were just hardworking people (who, by the way, wrote their own test papers) who always carried with them a tape measure, and never needed to call a plumber, builder or a carpenter. These days, it’s hard to find a builder you can trust. And, at the rate people are rushing into university, while street corners are populated by desperate and hardworking people who have either no formal skills or make things up as they go along, you wonder: if so many people enter university – some take up to eight years to finish a three-year degree – who will build the houses, make the dresses, paint walls, or build cabinets?

Sure, you can go to the local mass hardware store and get “ready-made” cabinets or shelving, but there is a craftswoman or craftsman skills deficit (and no, this is not nostalgia) that is at once social and cultural. The very ability to use a drill, saw, hammer or a pipe wrench or torque wrench has been receding faster than you can say “democratic transition”. These skills, as cultural influences, shaped families and communities in place and time around the world.

One explanation for the decline in craftwork is that young people today see how easy it is for someone like, say, Jacob Zuma, or Ace Magashule, to become stupendously powerful and wealthy, without having to study – or, God forbid, get their hands dirty. A second explanation can be tied to consumer capitalism’s culture of mass production. You don’t need to be able to build a cabinet by hand or repair a plumbing failure when there is a plastic replacement, mass-produced in another country, where the producers (themselves) are mass-produced for assembly lines that require increasingly fewer skills.

But we cannot let the highly educated Van Rooyen and Dr Ndlozi get away that easy. The ANC’s Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction, and the fascistic EFF, would have us believe that “the African child” should, necessarily, go to university – even if some emerge with dissertations that were written by supervisors or mentors, or they are unable to string together a coherent sentence or read a complex sentence. It is closer to reality to make the point that not everyone has to go to university. Among the world’s best thinkers – from successful public servants to public intellectuals – have been people without the qualifications of Van Rooyen and Dr Ndlozi.

A greater danger of forcing people into university amounts to forcing people away from craftwork. I am a prime example of this failure. The reality is that, at least in the West, the age of craftwork came and went with the mediaeval craft guilds. During that era, as in many communities in South Africa, artisans (trained through apprenticeships) plied their craft from their home and “serviced” local communities. They, then, passed their skills and their attended culture and heritage on to sons (and daughters, although the literature refers only to “sons”) who would be trained by other fathers, and independent craftspeople.

These artisans acquired new skills, developed new tools and instruments that were necessary and sufficient, until the next round of improvements. My father first became a bespoke tailor in Port Elizabeth when he was inspired by and taught by his father’s generation. When he moved to Johannesburg in the mid-1940s, he learnt bricklaying and construction work from my mother’s brothers – one was a tailor, another a plasterer and another a painter. As they learnt their craft, they were formed by it, so to speak, and assimilated or absorbed the tacit moral code of artisan work. This cannot be dismissed – it really is hard to see where the boundaries of the RET/EFF axes’ moral code are, apart from “making money”.

I read somewhere that “if making money is the prime reason you work, money becomes your master”. This is the anvil on which apprenticeships were shaped. It placed pride in artisanal and craftwork above money.

These were the thoughts that altered my drug-filled mind as we approach the fifth anniversary of Van Rooyen’s brief tenure as finance minister. Nobody in my family, going back generations, was as educated and qualified as Van Rooyen, but they knew how to build things with their hands, and never let their artisanal skills and morality take second place to money. DM

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All Comments 6

  • Couldn’t agree more. No one is ever in desperate need of a mediocre academic, whereas the desperate need for a decent plumber arises regularly. This country and the world at large needs fewer people with useless university degrees, and more people with skills. (Disclosure: I am an academic.)

  • Great article. Love the nostalgia. We need to get the trades back on stream. I heard several years ago that the average age of a plumber in South Africa was 57. Frightening.

  • As a society we have lost respect for a number of traditional vocations and callings. Not only is this sad, but we have built a culture where the people who should and could enter these vocations and callings no longer wish to do so, because they no longer are afforded the standing in the community that they should have. Not only do I think of artisans here, but I think of teachers, nurses, policemen and women. We no longer respect these professions or the people who occupy them. It is tragic – these are the people to whom we entrust our children, our security, our safety and our health.
    So I’m with you on this Ismail – time to respect those who do things with their hands again.

  • Great article. I read recently that America’s problems stem from the vast number of ‘degreed’ people produced in the last decade, resulting in a dearth of ‘grass roots’ thought. Some years back I engaged the services of a painter. A highly skilled man, he had served a 7 year apprenticeship in East Germany. (No comment on our local side-of-the-road painters). My father held a very senior technical position in a large public company – he left school with a std 8 and could not hammer a nail in a wall!

  • Great article. One of cores of Germany’s success as world leaders in industrial endeavour is their trade apprentice schools. There young people gain significant work experience as part of their training. This option is also popular because of the attractive remuneration offered during and after completing their apprenticeships.

  • I wonder what the ratio of undergraduate classes in various Business degrees is to engineering and other worldly useful studies? My guess is that it is wholly disproportionate. Well Ismail, you may be heartened to know that your fellow Houghton Street Masters graduate is now a carpenter. One less lawyer in the world must be a good start.

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