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We need more than a stab in the dark (M&G article co-authored with Hamsa Venkat)

maths teacher

We need more than a stab in the dark” – Hamsa Venkat & Nic Spaull

[This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on the 8th of August 2014.]

Almost everything that is associated with mathematics in South Africa is either contentious or depressing or both. One could talk about the flawed World Economic Forum rankings, the confusion around the pass mark in matric, or the fact that only 3% of Grade 9 students reached the “High” or “Advanced” mathematics benchmark in the 2011 round of international student testing in Timss. However it is not our intention to bang the now familiar drum of low and unequal performance – the refrain that best characterises our schooling system. Of course we need to know how bad things really are, but we also need to know why they are so bad, and perhaps more importantly how we get ourselves out of this quagmire.

In grappling with these issues we believe that the national discourse around schooling needs to turn towards our most critical resource: teachers. No education system can move beyond the quality of its teachers. At its most basic level this is essentially what schooling is; the student and the teacher in the presence of content. Harvard’s Professor Richard Elmore has argued again and again that there are really only three ways to improve student learning at scale: (1) raise the level of content that students are taught, (2) increase the knowledge and skills that teachers bring to the teaching of that content, or (3) increase the level of students’ active learning of the content. In the South African context the evidence points towards huge deficits in the latter two areas: teacher content knowledge and pedagogical skill as well as low levels of curriculum coverage and cognitive demand.

Without ambiguity or the possibility of misinterpretation, all studies of mathematics teachers in South Africa have shown that teachers do not have the content knowledge of mathematics needed to impart to students even a rudimentary understanding of the subject. Unfortunately, almost all of these studies have been small-scale localised initiatives aimed at testing teachers in only a few schools or at most in one district. One recent exception was the 2013 analysis by Nick Taylor and Stephen Taylor of the SACMEQ 3 (2007) data – the most recent nationally representative data on teacher content knowledge. At the end of their paper they concluded that, “The subject knowledge base of the majority of South African grade 6 mathematics teachers is simply inadequate to provide learners with a principled understanding of the discipline.” In a paper we published this week we extended Taylor and Taylor’s work and analysed the nationally representative SACMEQ data from a curricular perspective. We wanted to know what grade 6 mathematics teachers know relative to the curriculum that their students are expected to master (CAPS).

This is important to determine what level in-service and pre-service teacher training should focus on. Preliminary results from a Joint Education Trust study show that pre-service training courses offered by five South African institutions had large differences in the amount and the nature of mathematics on offer. Furthermore, in-service education is commonly piecemeal, and frequently related to ‘managing’ the curriculum and assessment rather than with promoting understanding and communication of mathematics.

The findings from our analysis were sobering. Based on the 401 Grade 6 teacher responses in the SACMEQ 3 sample, we found that 79% of South African grade 6 mathematics teachers have a content knowledge level below the grade 6/7 level band even though they are currently teaching grade 6 mathematics. It is also worth noting that our definition of grade-level-mastery was a relatively low benchmark – teachers only needed to score 60% of the items in a grade band correct to be classified as competent in that band. Breaking this grade band analysis down further, the following patterns of results were seen:

  • 17% of the teachers had content knowledge below a grade 4 or 5 level
  • 62% of the teachers had a grade 4 or 5 level of content knowledge
  • 5% of the teachers had a grade 6 or 7 level of content knowledge
  • 16% of the teachers had at least a grade 8 or 9 level of content knowledge

Our analysis also confirmed particular weaknesses on problems relating to ratio and proportion, and multiplicative reasoning more generally – the kind of thinking that underlies many tasks involving fractions and decimal working as well.

While sobering, this analysis is useful for policy purposes and useful for thinking pragmatically about primary mathematics teacher education and development. The results suggest the need to begin work at the level of concepts at lower levels (Grades 4 and 5) in order to build more solid foundations of key ideas, rather than starting with higher-level mathematics.

We would argue that many of the problems we see in South African schools often have their roots in low levels of teacher content knowledge. When teachers lack confidence in the subject they are teaching this leads to two consequences. Either they do not cover those parts of the curriculum with which they are uncomfortable or they restrict classroom interactions to low-level problems that limit students’ opportunity to learn. Gaps in content knowledge also lead to highly disconnected mathematics teaching. This works against helping students to see connections between mathematical ideas, connections that are important for flexible and efficient problem-solving.

There are some signs of mobilization in the education field. The Association of Mathematics Educators of South Africa established a mathematics teacher education group in 2013 and has begun gathering information on pre-service course offerings. The Joint Education Trust study nearing completion is doing the same for the Intermediate Phase level. The Department of Basic Education has started preliminary work on developing tests which can be used to identify which teachers have critically low levels of content knowledge. All these initiatives are commendable and show promise, but the key obstacle to progress remains a lack of evaluation of in-service teacher training programs.

We know that content knowledge is not the whole story: good mathematics teaching requires a host of practical and interactional skills, but deep and connected content knowledge is a critical base. In researching our paper, we were unable to find evidence of any intervention that has been shown to raise mathematics teacher content knowledge at any scale in South Africa. Not a single one. Programs need to be piloted and evaluated before they are scaled up and only scaled up if they actually work. They should also be evaluated at different scales. Models that work for 10 schools may not work for 100 schools. What works in Gauteng may not work in the Eastern Cape. In the absence of rigorous evaluation we are shooting in the dark on a wing and a prayer. Our teachers deserve better.

There are moves towards more open discussions about problems related to teachers’ mathematical knowledge and greater consensus around the need for longer term interventions and evaluation of our development models and efforts. We believe that our findings and those of others, contentious as they might be, are important to face and acknowledge if we are to develop intervention models and content that build from the ground as it currently stands towards the improved mathematical outcomes that we all so desperately want to see.


Professor Hamsa Venkatakrishnan holds the position of SA Numeracy Chair at Wits University. Nic Spaull is an education researcher in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University. Their joint research paper can be found at: 

Links to all my presentations 2012-2014

keep it open

In the process of cleaning up my website I decided to create a separate tab for presentations (see above) and remembered that I haven’t actually published a post with my presentations in the past. See below for powerpoint presentations that I’ve given at various conferences and classes between 2012 and June 2014. You’ll notice that there is quite a lot of repetition since I often just add, edit and delete slides from previous presentations. Hopefully these are helpful to some of you out there :)

Job Vacancy: Education Innovation Researcher/Programme Manager



In the interest of getting the best people into education I am reposting a job vacancy for a Research/Programme Manager for Education Innovations program at the Bertha Centre at UCT’s Graduate School of Business (see details below). If you have a job-vacancy in education that you’d like to advertise on the blog please send me an email and I’ll post it.


The Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the UCT Graduate School of Business is advertising for a job vacancy (see documents here and here). The role would involve managing (HR, budgets, reporting etc.) the Center for Education Innovations ( team and leading the research into policy, emerging trends and impact within the education sector in Southern Africa. If you know of any potential candidates, please circulate within your network.

Closing date: 14 July 2014

Please see attachments: UCT Application form and Job Advertisement, email any queries and applications to

Many Thanks,


(My M&G article) Education rankings: There’s madness in WEF methods

My article on the World Economic Forum (WEF) education ranking fiasco appeared in the Mail & Guardian on the 13th of June (reposted here – original on M&G website here).

mg wef

“In the past two weeks the South African media has had a field day lamenting the state of maths and science education in the country. This is because the World Economic Forum (WEF) recently ranked South Africa 148th (out of 148 countries) on the quality of its maths and science education.

Let me cut to the chase and say, unequivocally, that the methods used to calculate these education rankings are subjective, unscientific, unreliable and lack any form of technical credibility or cross-national comparability. I am not disputing that South Africa’s schooling system is currently in crisis (it is), or that South Africa performs extremely weakly relative to other low- and middle-income countries (it does). What I am disputing is that these “rankings” should be taken seriously by anyone or used as evidence of deterioration (they shouldn’t).

The mistakes in the WEF’s methodology are so egregious that one needs only look at the list of countries and their respective rankings to appreciate how ridiculous they really are. How is it possible that the quality of maths and science education in failed states such as Chad (ranked 127th on the WEF list), Liberia (125th) and Haiti (120th) is better than modernising middle-income countries such as Brazil (136th) and Mexico (131st)? How do countries such as Madagascar (82nd) and Zambia (76th) outrank countries such as Israel (78th), Spain (88th) and Turkey (101st)?

Although these preposterous rankings sound like an April Fool’s joke gone wrong, they are reported without qualm on page 287 of the WEF Information Technology Report 2014. Even a cursory analysis of the faulty ranking methodology the WEF employed shows how it is possible to arrive at these outlandish “rankings.” The WEF asked between 30 and 100 business executives in each country to answer questions (relating only to their own country), using a scale of one to seven to record their perceptions, with one representing the worst possible situation and seven the best possible situation.

The question relating to maths and science education was phrased as follows: “In your country, how would you assess the quality of maths and science education in schools?” with “one” being “extremely poor – among the worst in the world”, and “seven” being “excellent – among the best in the world”.

In South Africa, 47 business executives were surveyed for these rankings. On the question relating to maths and science, the average score among these 47 executives was 1.9, indicating that the vast majority of these South African business executives believed that the quality of maths and science education in the country was “among the worst in the world.” Yet this is really just a measure of the perceptions of these 47 businessmen, as the department of basic education has correctly pointed out.

By contrast, when the 55 Malawian and 85 Zambian business executives were surveyed, they were more optimistic about the maths and science education provided to students in their countries, yielding average scores of 3.2 and four respectively.

This explains why Malawi ranks 113th and Zambia ranks 76th whereas South Africa ranks 148th. Yet we know from objective cross-national standardised testing in the region that Zambia and Malawi are two of the few countries that South Africa actually does outperform.

Clearly the ratings given by these business executives are subjective and dependent on their particular mental reference points, which obviously differ by country. These 47 South African executives were not asked to rank South Africa relative to other specific countries – such as Madagascar, Malawi or Mali – only relative to “the world”.

Although the perceptions of business executives are important in their own right, it is ludicrous to use these within-country perceptions to rank “the quality of maths and science education” between countries; particularly when we have objectively verifiable, cross-nationally comparable scientific evidence for maths and science performance for at least 113 countries.

Looking at South Africa specifically, we participate in two major cross-national standardised testing systems that aim to compare the mathematics and science performance of South African students with that of students in other countries. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) tests grade eight students from middle- and high-income countries, and the Southern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (Sacmeq) study tests grade six students from 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Worse than South Africa
Of the countries participating in Sacmeq, South Africa came 8th in maths, behind much poorer countries such as Kenya (2nd), Swaziland (5th) and Tanzania (3rd), but ahead of Mozambique (10th), Namibia (13th), Zambia (14th) and Malawi (15th). Although this situation is no cause for celebration, it does show that these countries – which outrank South Africa in the WEF rankings – are in fact doing worse than South Africa in reality.

If we look beyond Africa to the Timss rankings, South Africa performs abysmally. Of the 42 countries that participated from around the world (including 21 developing countries), South Africa came joint last with Honduras in 2011. This should shock us to the core. But it does not mean that we have the worst education system in the world. Rather, we have the worst education system of those 42 countries that take part in these assessments.

There is a big difference. Only 21 developing countries took part in these assessments, but there are around 115 developing countries in the WEF tables. The fact that Mali, Madagascar, Liberia and Haiti (for example) do not take part in these assessments means that business executives in these countries have very little reliable information on the quality of education in their countries.

In South Africa the basic education department has wisely chosen to take part in these assessments so that we have reliable information on the performance of our education system, however low that performance might be.

Continuing participation
This is one thing that the department should be commended for –that is, for continuing to participate in these assessments, which provide valuable information, despite being lambasted by their findings.

Perhaps the best example of how flawed the WEF methodology is is illustrated by comparing Indonesia and Japan on the WEF rankings and on the well-respected Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings, which also tests math and science, as does Timss.

In the WEF rankings, executives in Indonesia and Japan both gave an average score of 4.7 for the quality of maths and science education in their respective countries. This placed Japan 34th and Indonesia 35th of the 148 countries. Yet, of the 65 countries participating in the 2012 round of the Pisa maths and science testing, Japan came 7th (out of 65) and Indonesia came 64th. Go figure.

Although there are some early signs of improvement in the South African education system, we know that things remain dire. South African students perform worse than all middle-income countries that participate in assessments, and even worse than some low-income African countries.

But to claim that South Africa has the worst quality of maths and science education in the world, and to use executives’ perceptions over scientific evidence to do so, is irrational and irresponsible.

The WEF has seriously undermined its own technical credibility by reporting these ridiculous education rankings. Until it rectifies its methodology, no one should take the rankings seriously.

Nic Spaull is an education researcher in the economics department at Stellenbosch University. He can be followed on Twitter (@Nic­Spaull) and his research can be found at

Q&A with Michael Myburgh


The 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 fourteenth interview in the series. Michael Myburgh is the CEO of NAPTOSA Gauteng.

1)    In your career, why did you choose to focus on education and how did you get where you are now?

 My choice of teaching was influenced by firstly a need to have my university education funded (bursaries for teaching were relatively easily available) and secondly by one particular teacher whose passion for teaching was inspirational, both inside and outside the classroom. He became a mentor when I entered the teaching profession. My plans at that stage were to obtain a degree in Mathematics, teach for the required 4 years and then get a “real job”. I started teaching and stayed in schools for 23 highly satisfying years in the classroom as well as school management, and then a change to tertiary education as Vice-Rector at the Johannesburg College of Education.  Throughout the years in schools and the College I had a parallel interest in teacher politics. The exciting period was from 1986 through 1994 when the teacher association I was involved with was attempting to break out of its apartheid mould.  First came a flirtation with the teacher unity forum, which lead to the formation of SADTU. This exercise came to an end one week before its launch!  Then came the work to provide a home for the so-called professional teacher associations and the founding of NAPTOSA, first as a federation and then as a unitary body.  In 1997 I left the profession to take on the post of chief executive of a teacher union which evolved into NAPTOSA in Gauteng.

 2)    What does your average week look like?

Sometimes it seems to be “death by committee”.  In truth the real work is the interaction with teachers. As an educator union we deal with teachers who are volunteers and give of their time to the union in order to promote a better teaching environment as well as those members who need assistance. Although the staffing corps of the Union deals with the usual unionist aspects of negotiations, advice to members and representing them in hearings and disputes when necessary, the exciting work is the professional development of members and other teachers.  A good deal of the week is taken up in the planning and organisation of 8 professional conferences held during the year and which focus on teacher development. That planning also includes a programme of professional development courses, activities and seminars held on most afternoons during the term.  Some of these are in collaboration with Wits and other organisations but all focus on needs expressed by teachers with an aim to improve teaching and learning.

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

 The books and articles I read usually reflect my two overarching interests and the most influential at any one time are often those I am currently reading.  The first of these is the role and effectiveness of ongoing professional development of teachers.  The current interest in communities of practice and the role of the “expert” in these is a focus.  A book by Helen Timperey et al, “Teacher Professional Learning and Development”, is one I am reading which explores professional development of teachers.

The second interest is the teaching of Mathematics, how people learn mathematics (or construct their knowledge) and the formation of misconceptions in the learning of the subject.  A book by Paul Ernest, “Social Constructivism as a Philosophy of Mathematics” has led to a re-examination of my notions of the nature of mathematics and whether this influences how one teaches. Of more general interest to me is a book by the Russian mathematician now living in the US, Edward Frenkel, “Love and Math”, which is an account of how he became enthralled in the learning of mathematics through mentors and their challenges to him to solve problems in higher maths and  now his involvement in one of the great frontiers of maths research.

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

 I am not at all sure that in the field of unionism I believe there are eminent thinkers, certainly none I would regard as such.  There are those who promote a particular socialist philosophy.  I have difficulty in promoting workerest views in an education setting.  The conflict with a child-centred set of beliefs is all too apparent.

In education generally the work of the Finnish educationist Pasi Sahlberg interests me.  I have been following some of his work at Harvard where he was a visiting professor recently.  His account of Finland’s 40-year period of change in education which resulted in a phenomenal success story and education system is instructive in relation to our own halting efforts at education change.  In particular, the creation of teaching as a respected and sought after profession where a master’s degree is the entry level is important!  The work of Andy Hargreaves remains a favourite.

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

 Teacher training, both initial and continuing, need to be intensively researched.  What knowledge base do teachers need to effectively practice as educators?  Does initial teacher training prepare students for their roles as teachers?  The debate of a professional degree versus a general degree and postgraduate diploma is not yet dead and should be part of the research.  Implicit in these questions is the selection of students for teacher training.  Is it possible to identify what qualities an applicant should exhibit.  In Finland, for example, the selection criteria, including both academic and vocational interests, are stringent.

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

 Never stay in a job if you don’t enjoy what you are doing or your efforts are not appreciated. I have tried to follow that advice.  Life is far too short to be unhappy and to feel unfulfilled for a great part of each day.  Staying in education, whether it was teaching, management or teacher politics was the correct choice.

 7)    As the Chief Executive Officer of NAPTOSA Gauteng, can you explain some of the under-appreciated challenges faced by teacher unions in South Africa?

 The negative press that teaching attracts when a teacher is accused of some heinous behaviour frequently implies that the teaching corps is labelled as rotten, or when references are made to “teacher unions” when more often than not the author is referring to SADTU but for some reason or other would prefer to hide behind the generic.  Having said that, teacher unions in general do have an image problem which they are not dealing with effectively.

The dilemma of marrying the unionist functions with a desire to be a professional association is greater in some unions, such as NAPTOSA, than in some others but this remains an issue which teacher unions are having to face including their approach to the question of what is professionalism.

 The lack of funding for professional development activities, offered by most unions for their members and teachers in general, inhibits more ambitious programmes.  While the Department of Basic Education had proposed a funding model for teacher unions to assist with professional development this occurred once only and then quietly died.  The few provincial education departments that do provide funds for the development of teachers (eg Gauteng and Western Cape) usually tie these up in expensive programmes which are department controlled.  The Western Cape has shown some promise by outsourcing several of their programmes while Gauteng has brought all of their programmes back in-house (eg the literacy and mathematics primary school project).

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

 That is difficult to say.  It’s been such a long time since my plan of getting a “real” job. I suppose it would have been something related to mathematics research or when I finally accepted that I wouldn’t make it at that level in the discipline…

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

 A very cautious fan – I have little doubt about the value of many forms of technology, whether used by teachers or students when it aids the learning process and construction of knowledge.  Efforts though to downplay or even replace the human element appear to me to be an attempt to mechanise teaching and learning.

 10) If you were given a R10 million research grant what would you use it for?

The question of what constitutes good professional development for teachers and how this might lead to a sustainable improvement in teaching and learning is not well understood especially in the complex South African situation.  Researching the variety of different forms of ongoing teacher development and how each influences teaching and learning over a period of time is necessary.  While it is true that a number of doctoral studies have and are being conducted, a comprehensive research programme might provide an insight into one of the big questions in our system: how do we improve the quality of teaching and learning?

 11) Having considerable experience in basic education in South Africa, do you think there have been any major changes in the “mind-set” surrounding basic education in South Africa in the last 15 years? If so, what do you think those changes have been and what has caused them?

 The changes in the “mind-set” surrounding Basic Education has, amongst others, their roots in societal change, curriculum changes and the massification of education.

 Societal change and the culture of human rights have created an imbalance between rights and responsibilities.  While teachers point to the restrictions that children’s rights place on discipline in the classroom, they themselves are also part of the imbalance.  The increasing lack of autonomy is leading teachers in a retreat from taking responsibility for their own teaching.

 Curriculum change has contributed to this phenomenon.  From the heady days of OBE where teachers supposedly mediated the broad curriculum statement to the current situation where the curriculum statement (CAPS) instructs teachers what to teach and when to teach, what to assess, how to assess and how frequently. Teachers who are well educated, trained and experienced are able to resist the intrusion into their professional domain.  There are not nearly as many as there should be.

 The massification of education has been a huge achievement but the inequalities in the system still exist, and combined with the increasing lack of a sense of responsibility, quality education is perceived to be the victim.

 12)Although NAPTOSA is the second largest teacher union in South Africa, it is dwarfed in size by the much larger SADTU. Would you say that NAPTOSA and SADTU are well-aligned in terms of targeted “outcomes”? Why or why not?

 There are good reasons for the existence of more than one teacher union.  It is true that some of these are historical and in some cases are artefacts of the apartheid past.  The primary areas of difference between SADTU and NAPTOSA are the philosophy and principles that each claims as important.  More importantly it is how each union reacts in a variety of situations.  SADTU is often referred to as militant or worker oriented, while NAPTOSA has been accused of being “compliant” because of its child-centred approach.


Some of the other academics/policy-makers/activists on my “to-interview” list include Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Jonathan Jansen, Khulekani Mathe, Percy Moleke, and Joy Oliver. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

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.