Saturday, 24 October 2015


Image from Daily Maverick

What a week of turmoil! I've been glued to my twitter news feed, following the tide of student unrest sweeping across tertiary institutions around the country. Processing the shock of watching the police's brutal response to unarmed protesting students. Thinking how protest has such an uncomfortable history in South Africa and the response is a quick, often fatal, knee-jerk violence. Facing the inadequacy of the political response - at first the "this isn't a crisis" denial by Blade Nzimande (our minister of higher education), then his tired reflex to Struggle-rhetoric (an "Amandla" booed by the students) to scrambling opportunism by a range of parties (also rejected by the largely nonpartisan nature of the FeesMustFall movement). Having to acknowledge the reality that education does not liberate people from poverty if access is denied for financial reasons - that it just wedges them further into the crevice between no hope and a handful of faded "rainbow nation" dreams.

The state of higher education in South Africa is a puzzle with too many pieces and anyone who proclaims they can put it together in the aftermath of this week is misleading us. Each piece carries much weight and as one picks it up and considers it, that particular one seems to grow in proportion until one eventually puts it down again and considers another. Will no tertiary tuition fees mean equitable access? What about the disadvantages and inequalities bequeathed to tertiary institutions by a sick school system? What about the language mess? What about the reality that many first-generation students are grossly underprepared for university study? Unarguably, schooling is a universal right, but is access to university a right or a privilege? And who make up the privileged population who manage to exit with a degree? Will no fees bring about equity and stability to a system that is wracked by strikes and disruptions annually? Or will it simply usher in the sort of slow, crumbling decline that we see all too often in the postcolonial context? Will it polarize our education system further where the wealthy opt-out and flee to private institutions (a feature we have come to see as normal in our schools)?  Will it bring in the sort of educated, free-thinking electorate that we need in a one-party democracy like ours?

By the end of the week students had won the victory of no increases in tuition fees for next year. Many breathed a sigh of relief, but for many more the same day-to-day struggles to survive still exist. The protests, I think, also whisper of a wider restlessness, a growing dissatisfaction with the complacency and corruption of the ANC. Too many pieces to hastily solve in one week, but at least the long-overdue debate has started.

Image from Faces of FeesMustFall

Monday, 19 October 2015

Dear Monday: on the border of day and night, we become their novelist

I feel like the day has crumpled up around me, lost its structure like a tent with its poles removed. A softly collapsed mess devoid of its former shape. Me still stuck somewhere in it.

I think I may have underestimated the demands of two little ones and working motherhood. Certainly of managing two sets of needs: there are after school swimming lessons AND nappies, lunchboxes AND bottles to prepare, soothing and rocking AND bedtime stories. The end of the day does seem to collapse in on itself at times, the automatic routine of feeding and bathing and unpacking and repacking and washing and sorting and playing and fixing and listening, gaining the sort of momentum that eventually undoes itself.

And then just as suddenly, the frenzy is over, and it's bedtime. The little one popped into her cot with her bottle first, then the bigger one tucked into bed, snuggled up close for a story. The day seems to somehow regain its structure. I can recognise myself again. A full stop at the end of the sentence. All makes sense once more.

There's never a night without story time, no matter where we are, no matter how tiring the day was or how late it is. There's a magic in it that can't be skipped. It made me think of a section in Daniel Pennac's charming The Rights of the Reader. I thought I'd share his reflections on parents and that magical reading that takes place on the border of day and night, here:

We were in a state of grace during those early years. Our total sense of wonder in the face of a new life transformed us into geniuses. For them, we became storytellers. As soon as they emerged, blinking, into the world of language, we told them stories. It was a talent we didn't know we had. Their enjoyment inspired us. Their happiness gave us voice. We created character after character, adventure after adventure, ratcheting up the plots. We invented a whole world for them, much as the aging Tolkien did for his grandchildren. On the border of day and night, we became their novelist.
Not that it would have mattered if we'd had no talent for storytelling. If we'd told them other people's stories - badly, groping for words, mispronouncing names, mixing up adventures, muddling the beginning of one with the ending of another... Even if we hadn't made up stories at all, if we'd just read aloud, we'd still have been their personal novelists, their special storytellers helping them slip into their dreamy pajamas every evening before dissolving under the sheets of night. More than that, we were the book.
Remember that intimacy. There's nothing like it.
How we loved scaring just for the thrill of consoling! And how desperately they wanted to be scared! They weren't fooled, even then, but they trembled all the same. They were real readers, in other words. What a playful partnership we formed: they the cunning readers, we the book!

So beautiful!

(recent travel pictures: Slovakia)

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The importance of libraries

In his lecture for the Reading Agency, Neil Gaiman made an impassioned argument for the place and value of libraries in fostering reading for pleasure, a literate and critical citizenry and our collective imagination. This just confirmed it for me: libraries are not an add-on or a lucky extra, but essential. Without libraries as places of thought, of escape, of knowledge, our society would be that much poorer and we can't afford that in a country like South Africa.

Gaiman also reiterated the function libraries have in opening the world of reading to children, a subject that is very close to my heart. He stated, "We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy." I really like this way of describing that incredible and amazing climb into the literary world. So many don't make it all the way up, to that breath-taking place where you find yourself savouring a vantage point that will forever change you in some way. And that is sad.

He also spoke about how fiction builds empathy. Watching TV doesn't come close to the raw intimacy of reading, of being in someone else's head where you reach that indeterminable point somewhere in the midst of a narrative and notions of "I" and "you" break down.  He stated, "When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You're being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you're going to be slightly changed."

Empathy and knowledge, and the freedom to delve into them, are what stops history repeating itself. What could be more essential than that? Gaiman's argument builds strong links between the existence of libraries and an informed and active citizenry because it is ultimately through reading and imagining alternatives that we can bring about social change. Within a world that is becoming more and more digital, Gaiman hews out an important and unassailable place for public libraries. He puts it: "Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood. Libraries really are the gates to the future."

South Africa may not have grand libraries, spaces that sweep and impress, but the books are there with whole worlds contained between thousands and thousands of covers. Of course things could be better, more money could be spent, upgraded, grown, improved. That shouldn't be disputed, but my point is more that I know of few people who regularly attend the libraries we do have. I hear complaints stacked like a pile of reasons against the doors. Those more fortunate buy their own books, those not interested don't know where the local library is, and those somewhere on the edges drift between "not enough new books" or "I'm too busy" or "it's just not that inviting" and never quite make it through the doors.

And so libraries as open, public spaces as Gaiman describes them, are undermined.

Why don't more people go to the library? Because precisely by not going, we are active in justifying the lower budgets, the growing shabbiness and even worse, contradicting the very message of books, namely that reading publicly is important and that books are our escape and our solution.


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