Links I liked…

tiny grass

  • Great interview with my supervisor Servaas van der Berg on his work in Social Policy. I really enjoyed this quote: “You know that in the end the country will get through these and other contortions…The question is actually how many years it will take and how much time will be lost in the process.” (I clearly haven’t found the patience to cope with these ‘lost years’ yet – they make me so mad!)
  • An illuminating open-letter written by Pieter Odendall (2012) to Stellenbosch University’s Rector Russel Botman asking why it is that we still continue to honor the architects apartheid on the University’s campus. Really well worth the read. I completely agree with him.
  • Six videos of Douglas Willms explaining things like “Raising and levelling the learning bar” and “Informing decisions with leading indicators.” High up on my “to-watch” list.
  • Stephen Taylor & Co are currently in the beginning phases of a Randomized Control Trial (RCT) to evaluate early grade reading strategies in South Africa. Even if this isn’t your field I’d encourage you to look through this 6-page summary document since it gives a nice overview of their approach. They are also looking for a project associate to run the project (part-time) for the next 6-months or so. If you feel you’re qualified drop him a mail (he’s a really nice guy).
  • Interesting Paul Krugman NYRB review of Piketty’s new magisterial book “Capital in the 21th Century.” It’s now on my ‘to-read’ list. In the book Piketty quips that economics “has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaborations with the other social sciences”
  • White privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack” – I definitely want to blog about this at some stage.
  • 20 ways to turn your life into a Wes Anderson movie – I especially enjoyed #5 (Only ever engage in complicated love affairs) and #19 (Be childish – run away, build forts, live in treehouses).
  • Applications are now open for the two-week 2014 LSE-UCT July School in Cape Town, run in South Africa this summer by LSE and the University of Cape Town from 30 June – 11 July (deadline for early applications 24 April). The programme’s ten courses enable participants to explore the challenges and opportunities faced by Africa today from a range of social science perspectives. For more information and to apply online please go to or email us at
  • The Economist takes a measured approach to the Pistorius hoo-haa: “Whatever the verdict in the Pistorius-Steenkamp case, expect news coverage to focus on South Africa’s high levels of violence. Things are indeed pretty dire. But the truth is that for men and women alike, things are less bad than they used to be“.

Stellenbosch homophobia: A response in 8 GIFs


Judging from the positive response to my previous blog post, it would seem that I am not the only one who wants to be celebrated and not just tolerated. As someone who enjoys a bit of controversy, I am so very glad that my friend and colleague Johan Fourie pushed back a little and probed some of my sweeping statements related to Stellenbosch and specifically those related to language, race and culture. I believe that only in teaching do we learn, and only in defending our positions do they become truly our own. So thanks Johan – the wheels of progress are oiled with opposition, confrontation and critique.

Let me start by saying that I do love Stellenbosch. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world that I have ever been to and it has been my home for four years. I am indebted to the professors here who have taught me practically everything I know about education and social policy. In a country of horrific violent crime and incompetence, the campus is an oasis of safety and functionality. It is efficient, productive and entrepreneurial. It is also unequal and conservative.

I’m also glad Johan goaded me on this issue since I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while. Rather than paraphrase his arguments (and miss the Barry Roux reference) I’ll include his comments verbatim below and then address the points one by one.

“Hi Nic. An excellent post as usual, challenging and thought-provoking. But let me be devil’s advocate and ask whether your experience of Stellenbosch as ‘conservative, White, Afrikaans … that is subversively and insidiously homophobic (and White)’ is not your experience of ‘Stellenbosch’ but rather your experience of the church and the social networks linked to it. Even if you want to portray Stellenbosch as white, which means you ignore the black and Coloured communities, and even if you want to portray Stellenbosch as Afrikaans, which means you ignore the large presence of English-speaking whites (Rhenish?) and Xhosa-speaking blacks, how can I, white and Afrikaans and living in Stellenbosch as I am, not take offence at your assertion that I thus partake in this ‘subversively and insidiously homophobic’ behaviour? I put it to you that, perhaps, your social network of earlier were biased towards those less tolerant of homosexuality than the average Stellenbosch inhabitant you would have encountered in a counterfactual world had you arrived as homosexual Nic, a world in which, presumably, you would not have attended a church that are explicitly homophobic. So instead of ‘Stellenbosch is homophobic’, your reason to move to Cape Town is more an attempt to avoid ‘a sub-culture of Stellenbosch that I do not want to be confronted with again’. That is a more than good enough reason to move, of course, but different to the one you are currently proposing. Because, if you want to label ‘white and Afrikaans’ as homophobic, are you not committing the exact generalised prejudice you warn against?”

hmm very interesting

There are a number of points here, let me try and address them systematically:

1) Stellenbosch homophobia: sub-culture or mainstream?

I think the first point and over-arching theme of Johan’s criticism is that my views are based on my experience of a particular sub-culture of Stellenbosch (homophobic churches and associated social networks) and that this is not an accurate representation of mainstream Stellenbosch culture. I have to disagree. Let me use a well-known example to illustrate my point. One of the traditions in Stellenbosch is called “Soen in Die Laan” meaning ‘kiss in the avenue” where students congregate in one particular street on a specific day at a certain time and they kiss each other. I’m not sure how it started, perhaps a quaint throwback to earlier times of sexual repression, who knows. In any event, during my first year at Stellenbosch (2010), two gay UCT students decided to kiss each other at ‘Soen in Die Laan’ which caused a big stir in the town. It made the front page of Die Matie, the university’s student newspaper and proceeded to go viral. Now, I put it to you that if my experience of below-the-surface homophobia in Stellenbosch was merely a sub-culture then the backlash to this innocent kiss would only have been seen in church newsletters and Sunday sermons rather than the front page of the student paper? Yes, some of the reactions were positive, but much of it wasn’t, for example “Copies of the newspaper were ruined, defaced and slashed as students discussed the impropriety of the image and how it had made them ‘throw up’ “ (from here). It’s perhaps useful here to mention that this was an innocent kiss between two consenting adults? I’m sorry, WTF?! Perhaps a more recent example – last year I heard about two guys being thrown out of Terrace (a nightclub in Stellenbosch) and beaten up for kissing on the dance floor. These are just the visible surface-breaching manifestations of homophobia on campus. But Johan, if you don’t believe me, perhaps some first-hand experience may convince you – why not walk down Victoria Street around lunch time holding hands with another guy and pretend you’re in a relationship and see the looks you get. Nuff said.

2) Booby-trap consolation prize: bad is better than worse

I think one of the comments Johan made was also quite revealing: “Perhaps your social network of earlier were biased towards those less tolerant of homosexuality than the average Stellenbosch inhabitant you would have encountered in a counterfactual world had you arrived as homosexual Nic.” That is almost certainly true but misses the point of my argument. I do think that the average student in Stellenbosch is more tolerant than the average church-goer, but the whole point of my post is that I do not want to simply be “tolerated” as if that were something to strive for or accept. I think people should be endorsed, affirmed and celebrated for who they are, not merely tolerated. Basically, this entire excerpt from Johan’s comment is taking place in the “tolerating” (i.e. accepting) domain rather than the “celebrating” (i.e. affirming) domain.

3) Portrayal of Stellenbosch as White, Afrikaans and conservative – T/F?

Another point Johan raises is that my depiction of Stellenbosch as White/Afrikaans/conservative is inaccurate and ignores the racial, linguistic and political diversity of the campus. I disagree. Acknowledging, identifying and referring only to dominant majorities doesn’t “ignore” minorities it just highlights rhetorically the dominant role of the majority and the marginalization of the minority, which is exactly what I was trying to do here. Regarding the race issue, I blogged about this last year during “Maties Diversity Week” where I dug up the racial statistics in Stellenbosch (I was personally curious) and summarised the findings in the graph below.


I only include UCT as a benchmark comparator to show that even in English-speaking universities (UCT) – where language is less of a barrier – White students predominate. Yet, I was still surprised by the lack of transformation over this 4-year period (2009-2012). In 2012, more than two thirds of the students at Stellenbosch were White. (Remember Whites make up less than 15% of the South African population). It would’ve been nice to look at the linguistic breakdown of the White group at Stellenbosch and disaggregate it into first-language English and first-language Afrikaans students but alas I didn’t have time to look into it.

So looking specifically at race, yes, there are some Black and Coloured students on Campus in Stellenbosch, but for every Black student there are almost 5 White students. This is just in purely racial terms. Given that universities (like most social organizations) have strong institutional inertia/memory, the dominant culture at the university is Afrikaans culture. I am not saying that is a bad thing, only that that is the case. I also don’t think that we should equate racial “share” with cultural “share” at the university for the reason that there are often cultural economies of scale with threshold effects below which there is little legitimate cultural diversity.

Apart from a lack of cultural diversity, I also think that there is a lingering sense of half-cloaked racism on campus.  Let me provide some examples:

1)   A friend of mine at the university relayed a story of being told that one of the nightclubs on campus was “full” when it clearly wasn’t and that the main reason for this was that there were a group of eight or so Black students who wanted to get in and that they were “too black.”

dance nigga

2)   It was only last year that I had my own taste of this remnant racism. Given that I was living very close to campus I was walking home at around 9:30pm one evening and as I got close to the Dagbreek student residence on Bosman Street I heard a dog barking loudly about 20 meters in front of me. The closer I got I saw that there was a large dog barking viciously at a Black student on the pavement outside Dagbreek, preventing him from getting in. This dog was clearly aggressive and kept trying to lunge to bite the student, at which point he would jump away terrified. Worried for the student and seeing that the dog was clearly only barking at him because he was Black (for the non-South Africans out there this kind of thing happens – dogs can be socialised too!) I jumped in-between the barking dog and the student and I started shouting at the dog and holding my book up as if to hit it and also shouting: “Who the fuck does this dog belong to?!” After about 1 minute of this ordeal two White Dagbreek students waltzed past and then standing on either side of the student said “Ag, don’t worry about it Sizwa [not real name], he’s only barking at you because you are Black (laughs).” This was meant as a consolation as they escorted him into his own res – he was also a Dagbreek student. I later found out that this dog (Wolf) is actually owned by a Dagbreek student and kept at Dagbreek.

thats messed up

3)   Last year there was considerable commotion at the University convocation where many alumni and parents weren’t happy with the proposed rule that would require all residences to have racial quotas where at least 25% of their students would have to be from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. The main concerns that I could pick up (at least those publicly expressed) were that this would change the “culture” of the residences and that this was seen as a bad thing. Now I agree with them that I do think this rule will start to change the culture in res. Where I differ is that I think that’s marvellous and should be welcomed. I don’t think that you can live in South Africa – a beautiful multicultural, linguistically diverse and ethnically heterogeneous country – and not be exposed to different cultures and languages. To try and remain walled off from the rest of the world in order to preserve your culture is a losing strategy. Modernise, adapt, re-invent, re-discover, incorporate, synthesise, change. Or stagnate and die.

yoda dance

4) The exception to the rule doesn’t negate the rule

In his reply Johan also explains that he is partially offended that he, being a White Afrikaner in Stellenbosch, is assumed to partake in this insidious homophobia. This is a misunderstanding of dominant culture and individual variation since Johan is an exception to the rule (and there are many many others). I know Johan to be a liberal, open-minded and progressive person who has been very supportive to me and to other mutual friends who are gay. He’s a stand-up kind of guy. I also know that mainstream Stellenbosch/Afrikaans culture is conservative and subversively (i.e. not overtly) homophobic. These two things are not contradictory. This just means that Johan is in the upper tail of the cultural distribution being more educated and having travelled to many more countries than the average Stellenbosch resident or student (the latter being more important when looking at culture IMHO). If you grow up in a small, conservative, patriarchal town with religious parents and strong Christian moral guidelines, you are likely to bring that conservatism with you when you come to university. Ironically this conservatism is only tolerated to the extent that it is non-inhibiting. Parental/cultural views around drugs, alcohol and sex are clearly inhibiting and thus are usually the first to be revised.


But things like the importance of friends, family, education, language and culture are not personally inhibiting and thus the cultural dividend they pay and the identity capital they maintain warrants their retention. Unfortunately there is little perceived benefit to challenging one’s inherited views on race, homosexuality and gender. Why address these uncomfortable topics if you don’t have to? Cognitive dissonance is a bitch.


My conclusion on Stellenbosch culture is that the over-riding motto is live-and-let-live, to an extent. We (the disembodied cultural majority) are happy for you (the disembodied cultural minority) to express yourselves and your culture, as long as it does not infringe on our (majority) culture. If it does, we’ll have problems. If not, we love diversity. Obviously none of this is codified, but rather enforced through the insidious norms and expectations of most students, parents and staff.

no to the rainbow

Do I think this will change in the future? Yes – of course, it is inevitable. Am I going to stick around and wait for it to do so? No – ‘aint nobody got time for that!

A way forward…

Until the powers that be are serious enough to start tackling the extremely uncomfortable realities of race, language, history and culture in an open and transparent way, we shouldn’t be surprised at the occasional pressure-release expressions of homophobia and racism. I often wonder why there isn’t a permanent exhibition/museum highlighting the central role that Stellenbosch University played in apartheid (see here for one countervailing example). The central figures and fathers of apartheid – Verwoerd, Malan, Treurnicht, Hertzog – were all students at Stellenbosch, which has been described as the “crucible for Afrikaner nationalist ideas” in the 20th century. Do we think these students were inculcating themselves?! This is an awkward reality conveniently left out of the official “History of Stellenbosch University” webpage. [Disclaimer: This is a new area of interest to me so perhaps some of you out there (Johan?) know of existing SU programs that do exactly this that I've missed? Or articles, documentaries etc. Please post in the comments section if you do.]


What I’ve written above is reflective of my experience of Stellenbosch, which is one slice of the spectrum and by no means representative. I think the best way to figure out how Stellenbosch is experienced by different people is simply to ask them. I have no idea what Stellenbosch feels like for Muslims or lesbians or Black students? If you have anything you’d like to share about how you experience Stellenbosch please do leave a comment – I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this.

On being celebrated, not tolerated.


Right now I am sitting in a café in San Francisco and contemplating life listening to Asaf Avidan and Passenger Official. Generally speaking I normally love psycho-analysis and probing questions, but when I’m travelling this past-time takes on new forms of intensity – it feels like I cannot escape the onslaught of questions about things like the meaning of life, the definitions of culture, the sources of creativity, and finding one’s vocation. Personally I find inherent joy in reflecting on my life and experiences and trying to understand who I am and why. Today the questions were of the punchy variety, questions like:

  • What do you want to be?” (happy);
  • Who do you want to be?” (myself),
  • What do you want to do?” (fix education).
  • Where do you want to live?(…)

But the last one stumped me for a while. The first three were really easy to answer if only because I’ve reflected on them at length before. But the location one took a while. Maybe it’s because I’m trying to decide between a bunch of post-PhD (2015) options at the moment, ranging from a single post-doc in the U.S. to research visits at multiple universities in America (Boston, NYC, San Francisco, Michigan), a fellowship in Paris or staying on in Cape Town. I know my work will always focus on Africa and ultimately I couldn’t live long-term outside of South Africa (or at the very least a developing country) but the question was still quite puzzling for me. Then I remembered a quote that instantly became my answer:

Go where you are celebrated, not where you are tolerated.

This quote has been a guiding motif in my life ever since I embraced the fact that I am gay. It helped me make one of the most difficult, defining, and important decisions in my life: leaving the church, which I did around this time last year. Thank God I did – I would’ve died if I stayed in it. As most people already know, growing up gay in a hegemonically straight world can be difficult, no matter where you are born. To do so in a country where colonial patriarchy is systemic and ignorance fuels the fire of homophobia is even worse. But the real trifecta is if you get all three: (1) straight hegemony, (2) colonial patriarchy and (3) religiously-induced homophobia. Then you are fucked (proverbially speaking). Of course none of this holds a flame to those who have all of these and also the compounding factors of  poverty, an intolerant culture or familial rejection. Theirs are the stories that make us shake our heads in horror and shame, wondering how in 21st century South Africa a girl can be “correctively raped” by straight men, strangled to death and left with a toilet-brush in her vagina for the horrific crime of being lesbian.

My experiences of micro-aggressions are negligible by comparison. Yet for me they are real. It’s not fun having the church strip away what little dignity the world has left you. In any event, it was this time last year that I got the mental composure to ask myself why the hell I was willingly subjecting myself to the ongoing disdain of the religious establishment. The fact that church leaders have “good intentions” doesn’t change the fact that they made me feel like a second rate citizen who was depraved and sick for something over which I have no control. As CS Lewis has said “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.” Sometimes outright hate is preferable to pious pity.

So now I don’t stick around if I’m tolerated. Why would anyone do that? This has been an important factor in deciding to live in Cape Town rather than Stellenbosch, even though I’m still studying at Stellenbosch. The dominant culture in Stellenbosch is conservative, White, Afrikaans culture that is subversively and insidiously homophobic (and White). I work with amazing people who I love and feel completely accepted by, but we live in cities, not offices.  I think everyone should – as far as it depends on them – try and find the place where they are celebrated, not just tolerated. I never felt that in the church. Ever. So I left and I’m so so happy I did. I’d encourage anyone else who is in the same position I was to do the same. Yes, you will have existential angst and many of the cards come toppling down with the move, but they really aren’t cards you want to build your life on – conditional acceptance, cloaked-disdain, false certainty. Sometimes you have to go with the truth, even though there is less certainty

Go where you are celebrated, not where you are tolerated. 


“Why Children’s Books Matter” – exhibition at NYPL

IMG_3326This past week I was in New York en route to Boston and managed to get across to the incredible New York Public Library because they were having a special exhibition on children’s books: “The ABC of it: Why Children’s Books Matter” which I absolutely loved. While I am naturally interested in children’s literature (from a pedagogical, sociological and political perspective), the reason for my visit was because I am now an uncle and figured I need to get clued up on children’s literature for my (incredibly) cute nephew Lincoln William Spaull who will obviously be a reader. So here are a selection of photos of the exhibition and some of my comments…



One of the exhibits which I really loved was the discussion about the book “Goodnight Moon” which is such a sweet bedtime story about a rabbit saying goodnight to everything in his room, a wonderfully playful and beautifully coloured room.

IMG_3336It actually reminded me of Frida Kahlo and her boldness…

fridaBut getting back to “Goodnight Moon”, the guide told us a fascinating story about a parent who read the story to her young son before he went to bed but then later she heard him crying and walked in to find him sitting on the bed with the book open and a foot on each page. The little boy loved the story so much that he was trying to climb into the room and was upset because he couldn’t get inside. I thought it epitomised the idea that children do not make the same distinctions as we do between fiction and reality – they are one and the same. Another story illustrating the same thing is the book “Little Fur Family” by Margaret Wise Brown. The author was so well known and established that she managed to convince the publisher to cover her book in real rabbit fur (this was 1946!). The exhibition has stories of parents writing in and telling how their children thought the book was a real-live animal – one preschooler tried to feed the book and another child gave it as a present to her cat!


Education is also completely political, with some lovely examples from China, USSR and Japan (among others) where children’s literature was used as an instrument of indoctrination and nation-building.



There was also a section on books that had been banned over the years because they were controversial, usually for political, religious or moral reasons. One classic one is “The Rabbit’s Wedding” (1958), where a black rabbit and a white rabbit get married:

rabbits-wedding0181This caused an uproar in the South of of the US where segregationists tried to get the book banned. In the end it was put in a special reserve section of the library. See this quote on the issue:


This got me thinking about the representation of gay, bi and transgender characters in children’s books and the objections made by some conservative parents. In that sense, children’s books are a sort of battle-ground where adults fight it out and decide what is and is not OK for children to read and be influenced by.

A few other snippets from the exhibition:







Links I liked…


  • The above vase was made from ice-cream sticks – pretty epic.
  • This week I attended the Harvard African Development Conference and heard a bunch of cool talks : (1) Raul Pantaleo opened my eyes to a bunch of cool context-specific, culturally-relevant, architecture projects that they they’ve done around the world (TAM associati). Check out some of the their projects here. (2) The folks at Mass Design are also doing amazing work using architecture in new and interesting ways – think integrating sociology, ecology, the environment and design – pretty epic. (And they are crazy young which is always a plus!). Also watch this 5-min PopTech talk by Founder Michael Murphy on “Architecting Health” (3) interesting website aiming to “construct a web of knowledge” to learn new concepts - randomly started chatting to a guy at a cafe at MIT (Maths PhD student, of course) and it turns out he’s interested in  machine learning in education…
  • In 15 years the question of whether or not a surfer (or anyone) is gay will be so irrelevant that people will wonder why you are even asking it. See this short clip which is a rough-shod attempt at changing the gay narrative.
  • Great 2 page summary/highlights of the 2014 Budget for South Africa (thanks Treasury)
  • Helpful website listing post-doc opportunities in the US focussing on educational sciences.
  • “Gender-specific books demean all our children. So the Independent on Sunday will no longer review anything marketed to exclude either sex” (see here). Finally some sense.
  • Stem-cells in mothers breast milk (New Scientist article) “Cultured samples also grew into different tissues including bone, neuron, heart and pancreatic cells”
  • Great article by Servaas Van der Berg & Eldridge Moses (2012). How better targeting of social spending affects social delivery in South Africa.(accessible & important!)
  • Pretty interesting idea of offering a coding summer-school in CT - iExperience - with all the touristy bells-and-whistles that come along with trying to attract kids from America.
  • Interesting article on “The Rise of the Open Source Coder Generation” – thanks Christine

Help at last for gem in the dust (Daily News March 27)


The following article appeared in the Daily News on the 27th of March and highlights the tireless work that a friend of mine Anne Immelman has been doing in a rural school in KZN (Meadowsweet Combined School). Anne was a high-school Mathematics teacher at St Mary’s School in KZN and now that she has retired she helps out at Meadowsweet. Well done Anne – we need hundreds more active citizens doing what they can, where they are, with what they have. (The above picture shows some of the damage sustained to one of the classrooms during a recent storm). 


“On the backroads of KwaZulu-Natal, just off the R600, 20km from the farming town of Winterton, there is a gem: a school that has produced a 100 percent matriculation five years in a row. Meadowsweet Combined School is dilapidated, but shone brightly among the 116 schools in the province which achieved perfection with the class of 2013. The school outperformed KZN’s 6 125 other schools, many of them with resources and facilities that make Meadowsweet pathetic by comparison. It has 500 pupils and the teacher-pupil ratio, with between 60 and 88 to a class, makes its results astonishing.

Meadowsweet is defying the odds, triumphing over ramshackle neglect. It is making fools of school peers who blame poor outcomes on facility inadequacies. Something really good is happening there, a chemistry that should be analysed, bottled and spread to the rest of the province and the country.

Part of the answer is Anne Immelman, a retired maths teacher who volunteers at the school. She wrote to the Daily News to draw attention to this roughest of diamonds, and her dutiful intervention has caught the attention of education bosses in Pietermaritzburg. Meadowsweet, it turns out, has for years been on the department’s waiting list. Immelman’s cry for help has expedited it, with building of 17 new classrooms, two administrative blocks, four multipurpose rooms, fencing, and ablution facilities to replace the pit latrines, to start in May.

This school is the most deserving of recipients, with staff and pupils alike brushing aside bleak conditions, refusing ample excuses available to them for falling short of excellence. Praise to Meadowsweet for its outstanding achievements. And thanks to Anne Immelman for her citizen activism, drawing attention to this gem in the dust, and catching the eye of the right officials.”

Article from here.

Q&A with Doron Isaacs

Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 5.05.43 PMThe aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. This is the eighth interview in the series.  Doron Isaacs is the Deputy General Secretary of Equal Education (Twitter: @DoronIsaacs).

1)   Why did you decide to go into education and how did you get where you are?

It wasn’t so much a decision to go into education, as a decision to work in a poor community in order to help young people organise themselves to claim their rights and fight inequality. This involved building a small organisation, which became Equal Education.

When I was in my final year of law school at UCT I became interested in the role the legal system could play in the hands of progressive social movements. I wrote a paper about the efforts in the United States, during the second half of the 20th century, to use the courts to integrate and equalise schooling. It was eventually published in the SA Journal of Human Rights. That work helped me to understand that I didn’t want to practise as a lawyer at that time, that law alone is a fairly weak instrument, and that deep progressive social change is only produced through large movements of informed and organised poor and working-class people.

2)   What does your average week look like?

It is usually very full. I work in Khayelitsha at the EE head office. There are many meetings each week. One is with about 50 core staff members of Equal Education. Another is with a team of facilitators – post-matrics who have grown up in EE, and now organise high school students – to plan content for the weekly youth group meetings that take place across the city. Sometimes I attend a march, or facilitate a discussion. On Thursday evenings we have seminars which are open to the public. There are many projects EE runs, from our youth film school, to the school libraries, to camps and seminars, campaigns, court cases, and work elsewhere in South Africa. In addition to being a staff member at EE, I was elected, at the July 2012 Congress, onto its National Council and Secretariat, and those governance structures meet periodically. I also sit on the boards of other organisations: the Equal Education Law Centre and Ndifuna Ukwazi. I try to read every day, and occasionally find time to do some writing. I have seldom been bored over the past six years.

3)   While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick two or three that have been especially influential for you which two or three would they be and why?

When EE began in early 2008 the question of what to do about OBE was important and topical. I was curious to understand how pedagogy with such progressive intentions was damaging working class children. A book called Education and Social Control, by Rachel Sharp and Anthony Green, which looked at so-called progressive education in the UK in the 1970’s, was a truly fascinating account of why extreme learner-centeredness can be socially retrogressive.  A piece by Jo Muller, which connected me to Gramsci’s thoughts on the subject, was very helpful.

You know, just seeing the numbers on inequality had a big impact on me. EE used access to information law to make data on literacy and numeracy in the Western Cape publicly available. It showed that in 2009 only 2.1% of grade 6 kids in places like Khayelitsha were passing maths at 50%. Ursula Hoadley’s PhD thesis, which was a study of four Cape Town primary schools, showed me how inequality operates in education. Fiske and Ladd’s book, Elusive Equity, is still helpful in beginning to think about inequality. And I remember my eyes opening wide while reading a paper by your supervisor Servaas van der Berg where he showed that the socio-economic status of a school had a greater impact on academic performance than the socio-economic status of an individual child did (here, pg5). That really struck me, because it meant that investing in educational equality was a rational way to leverage social equality more generally.

When it comes to building organisation that can change society, there are so many good books. Two that come to mind are Steven Friedman’s Building Tomorrow Today about how the independent trade union movement was built here in the 1970s and 80s, and Parting the Waters, an epic account of the US Civil Rights Movement.

4)   Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?

My ‘field’ is not just ‘education’! Equal Education is about changing society, through changing the education system. We’re interested in the political economy of education. Many of us are excited to read Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the 21st Century. That is serious thinking! There is a young education academic at Stanford named Frank Adamson – he’s great. We are incredibly lucky to have been able to learn directly from some marvellous thinkers and activists like Zackie Achmat, Mandla Majola, Rob Petersen, Paula Ensor, Vuyiseka Dubula, Mary Metcalfe, Mark Heywood, Peliwe Lolwana, Zwelinzima Vavi, Geoff Budlender and many others.

5)   What do you think is the most under-researched area in South African education?

Well, take this provocative proposition: Achieving equal education would be a more potent way to build a socialist society than nationalising the mines or redistributing rural land. I’m not commenting on those last two right now, except to say that equal, quality, integrated education, from pre-school to tertiary level, would be a more radical and effective political program.

Okay that’s my provocation. Is anyone in South Africa doing research on education as a political and economic question? Is anyone even exploring what a transformed education system could look like? What its social impact could be? It’s being debated in healthcare around the NHI. Of course we need to fix teaching, textbooks and all that. But there is no imaginative thinking beyond that.

6)   What is the best advice you’ve been given?

In 2008 we had one youth group in Khayelitsha. After a few months equalisers chose our first campaign, which was to fix 500 windows at Luhlaza High School. I’m not sure if I can call it advice, because it was their decision, but it was a vital lesson: in organising you start with small, visible things that can be achieved, and build from there.

7)   If you ended up sitting next to the Minister of Education on a plane and she asked you what you think are the three biggest challenges facing South African education today, what would you say?

I think the Minister is fairly aware of major challenges facing education: teacher subject-content knowledge and motivation, text and textbook availability, school infrastructure conditions, and many others.

What I’d rather do is discuss certain dangers I see down the road. Testing is looming larger in our educational landscape. The matric results are the annual Holy Grail and the ANAs are on their way. I have concerns. Such intense focus on a few headline statistics could mean those stats lose their integrity. Matric results can be manipulated at all levels, including by schools who hold students back or push them out, driving up drop-out rates. Students are being pushed into Maths Literacy. In some cases schools are being closed because it’s a way to get rid of poor performance. What does she think?

There is a danger that this chorus of dismay about the public education system, and the need to fix it, turns into its opposite: a chorus for the false solution of privatising the schools. I think she’d agree, but I’d like to hear her thoughts on that.

The one thing I’d give her a hard time about is parents. I just don’t understand why the DBE doesn’t run massive campaigns to involve parents in education. There should be workshops in every community, often, about how to support your child, and how to support the local school. There is so much that could be done. EE has parent branches, but this is needed on a mass scale.

8)   If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?

I would love to have studied pure science. I’d also like to write history or biography. And I could see myself running a newspaper.

9)   Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?

I’m in favour of technology, starting with providing electricity to the 3,544 schools currently without it. After that it would be great if the 75% of schools with no e-mail address could get connected, and if the 46% of schools with no telephone could get one.

I think technology has a lot to offer but I’m yet to be convinced that it can replace the teacher. Those first few years of school need to give children the joy and spontaneity of learning, but also and equally the discipline of learning. It is a gift to be inducted into being able to sit at a desk, on your own, concentrating, mastering, acquiring, processing. A genuinely educational classroom, created by a teacher, is an environment that poor and working class children will encounter nowhere else.

10) If you were given a R5million research grant what would you use it for?

I’m very curious to know whether the crisis of unemployed youth (3.1 million aged between 15 and 24 not in employment, education or training) can be partially dealt with by involving young people in our schools. Why can’t there be a national youth service with young people as sports coaches, librarians, teaching assistants, food-producing gardeners and much else?

11) Equal Education has been one at the forefront of the Minimum Norms and Standards case – do you think that we are likely to see more of this kind of “legal accountability” going forward? Furthermore do you think this is a positive development or not?

With EE the balance tilts towards people power, and away from lawyers. It’s been primarily a campaign of people, but the legal work which the LRC assisted us with also mattered. It enabled us to set out facts and arguments in a structured process, producing a powerful window onto education in this country. My colleague Yoliswa Dwane’s founding affidavit and replying affidavit are worth reading. The supplementary material put before the court by Debbie Budlender and Ursula Hoadley was great.  I think the achievement of norms and standards for school infrastructure is big and very positive. We’re still busy with that work, because the new law must now be implemented!

12) Equal Education is a grass-roots organization with considerable links to the community and to students. In many countries around the world there is often a disconnect between what is happening at a national-policy level and what the reality is on the ground – do you believe this is also the case in South Africa? And if so, in which areas is this disconnect most apparent? 

Government policy is often complicated. Take teacher post-provisioning for example. There is a mathematical formula used to calculate how many government-funded teaching posts a public school gets. It sits in an appendix to a regulation made in terms of the Employment of Educators Act. It is hard to find and harder to understand! And it is not pro-poor. And yet this formula plays a massive role in determining how about 80% of the education budget is spent.

An organisation like EE has to make policy accessible and open to debate. In Detroit a wonderful academic named Tom Pedroni runs a project to make education policy accessible to communities and activists. I wish progressive South African academics would set up a similar project together with EE.

13) What would you say are the three major difficulties faced by civil-society organizations in South Africa?

The work we do is very tiring and sometimes depressing. But somehow I feel motivated to work hard, and I like the people I’m with every day. All organisations struggle for funding – it is an ongoing battle and there is not yet a culture of giving to social justice organisations. We have over 200 people who give monthly to EE and we desperately need more. Another challenge is to connect our work to a broader social justice agenda. For example, our divided education system still rests on apartheid geography. Poor people live on the edges of cities and so aren’t zoned to attend better schools. Housing and urban land activists need to get together with education activists. This race and class-divided society also challenges how an organisation like EE must go about its work. We can’t pretend that we have our own little utopia where race, class and gender oppression have ceased to exist. We have to overcome these things amongst ourselves as we try to overcome them in society.


Some of the other academics/policy-makers on my “to-interview” list include Servaas van der Berg, Martin Gustafsson, Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Hamsa Venkatakrishnan, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Linda Biersteker, Jonathan Jansen and Jon Clark. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.