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Gathering of women from Joburg’s ganglands highlights failures of our education system

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Jon Foster-Pedley is chair of the British Chamber of Business in southern Africa. He is also dean and director of Henley Business School Africa, and founder and chair of MBAid, which uses the energies of MBA and executive education in business schools to help SMEs and NGOs.

One of the enduring tragedies of the apartheid legacy and governments since is education and the hurdles that ordinary people face to access it — at all levels, but particularly higher education.

South Africa is a profoundly broken country, violent beyond the telling of it and almost unfathomably unequal — and yet there is a deep well of unimaginable hope. As South Africans, we know this, we felt it again at the polls on 29 May. But too few of us do anything about it, except to go the opposite way, retreating into our echo chambers of class, creed and culture.

I was forcibly reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when I had the privilege of attending a community initiative arranged by a former Henley student and now a collaborator, Welcome Witbooi.

Welcome’s life arc spans being convicted at 17 of kidnapping and attempted murder, spending 14 years in jail, becoming a prison gang general for the feared 28s, and then transforming his life to become, after his release, a dedicated community activist for youth-at-risk, and a graduate from business school.

He had arranged a meeting of 183 women from Johannesburg’s Eldorado Park and Westbury. Included were 26 families, all with one thing in common; they had lost children, siblings, lovers and spouses to the internecine gang violence that has gripped both communities, indeed some of their families might have killed the others — and vice versa.

Over the past six months, a staggering 517 killings have been recorded in that area, the vast majority of which are men, many of them fathers, and children between the ages of 12 and 16.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Eldorado Park residents form community movement ‘after 30 years of neglect by political parties’

Welcome had arranged for a day of dialogue and engagement, something that we also need no reminding of in this country because it was precisely that which allowed ostensibly intractable foes to put their weapons down and hammer out a future for everyone, the promise of which dawned 30 years ago.

The women who attended were not angry. They were sad. They were tired to the marrow of the cycle of violence that repeats on an interminable loop, ebbing and flowing with each outrage. It was heartbreaking to hear the quiet resignation of a woman telling of how the system had failed her and her family, of how the police weren’t prepared or able to help but instead told her to find her son’s killers herself.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Welcome to Westbury, where the wild west looks quite tame

Or to be humbled by the strong voice of a community activist against GBV saying that she too has experienced all five elements of GBV — physical violence, verbal violence, psychological violence, sexual violence and socioeconomic violence — but has made a life of value, nonetheless.

The sense of loss in the forum was absolutely palpable, offset only by a feeling of incredible grace and inner strength, perhaps the most real embodiment I have ever witnessed of what Viktor Frankl termed “tragic optimism”.

Empowerment through education

They didn’t simply want someone to come in and stop the violence — after all there have been promises aplenty to do just that from various sectors over the years, all of which have amounted to little. What they wanted were opportunities to change the trajectories of their lives and the people around them. They did not dwell on what had happened to them but instead looked to what was possible.

One of the enduring tragedies of the apartheid legacy and governments since is education and the hurdles that ordinary people face to access it — at all levels, but particularly higher education. Spatial apartheid, transport costs, funds, all conspire against those who do manage to meet the academic threshold and be accepted.

Even for those who successfully negotiate all of these, sometimes familial responsibilities trump all of these, with students having to stop their studies to immediately get out into the workplace to start financially providing for the rest of the family.

It is a devastating cycle, a relentless tyranny of circumstance that imprisons those within it — and paradoxically makes a life in the gangs more attractive because it’s more achievable.

The best way to break this cycle is by giving people reason to hope; it doesn’t have to be grandiose schemes and speeches, but just the basic practice of humanity, listening and recognising. These families want to be heard.

There are countless others just like them in every city of this country, and they are all increasingly marginalised. They desperately need to be heard. And to hear them is to accept and lift your own humanity. As Maya Angelou repeated: “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me” — a quote across the sweep of centuries from an African, Ternetius Afer, enslaved by the Romans in 150BC (“homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”).

Broken promises

Once, every five years when we go through the electoral cycle, they have the faint flicker of hope that they do matter and that they are being heard. It must be intoxicating to stand in front of people who are so desperate for hope to give them just that from behind a microphone. It is something that our political leaders will have experienced week in and week out as they crisscrossed the country speaking to constituencies ahead of South Africa’s seventh general election on 29 May.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections Dashboard

But to give hope without following through is a greater travesty of Nelson Mandela’s legacy than even State Capture. The representatives that have been sworn in and, even more so, those appointed to positions of leadership and executive authority have a responsibility not to betray that hope.

We all deserve better, but the families of Eldos and Westbury — and the tens of thousands like them — deserve it so much more. As for the rest of us, there’s plenty we can do too. We can start by acknowledging the problem and recognising the people trapped within it, not ignoring them and retreating behind our locked doors in the suburbs.

If we truly want to be a nation, we have to stand as one, not a collection of different agendas buttressed by our prejudices and fears.

Education is key, we have to redouble our efforts to lower the barriers to higher education where only 5% of school starters end up getting a degree within six years of leaving school, against 50% in the UK. Yet, most of all, we must lose our fear of failure that threatens to paralyse us by allowing us to think that because the challenge is so vast, there is nothing that we can do that will change it.

If anything is the original sin, it is that. Every little thing helps, especially if it is done with the right intention. As Mandela himself said, every journey looks impossible until it is done.

Perhaps even more pertinent is his reminder on the concept of failure and success. “I never fail,” he said. “I either win or I learn”. He added: “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me on how many times I fell down and how many times I got back up again.”

He was right as he was about so much else: failure is how we learn and how we ultimately succeed. The one thing that we dare not do is continue to fail those whom history has marginalised, by refusing to accept that the void which threatens them, threatens us just as much because we are all — ultimately — equally at risk.

And equally obliged to hope and act. DM

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  • Helen Swingler says:

    In the wake of an election, this goes deep. A chance to change hhe trajectory of Haier lives and feel hhdy have some agency. Some dignity. This is the heartland of our country that politicians ignore, they who take an oath to serve the people. The sense of ‘tragic optimism’ stirs me deeply.

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