Archive for August 2013

Highs and lows of the last week

It’s been a busy couple of weeks. We thought that a weekly ‘highs and lows’ post would be good just to give some insight into some of our daily challenges and joys so here goes:

The highs this week have been
1). Afternoon strolls. Meeting people, hearing their stories and discovering some really beautiful gardens outside some of the shacks here in ext 6

2). The municipal park. The kids love playing there and it has served well as a school holiday outing change from home.

3). The positive response we have received from a lot of members of the public on our blog. It’s been very encouraging and much needed when things are tough

4). My parents arriving back in South Africa after 4 years abroad. Being able to show them where we are staying and spending an evening with them (I also had my first bath and shower this month while with them which was AMAZING)

5). Being taught the techniques behind successful hand washing of clothes by my friendly neighbours who clearly thought my clothes didn’t look clean enough after my attempts at hand washing

6). Getting used to sleeping on the thin mattresses on the floor and the cold and actually having a few really good nights of sleep

7). Julia befriending the lovely ladies at the spaza shop near us and spending many hours there getting her hair braided or just chilling with the girls.

And some of the lows

1). The all permeating smell of paraffin. Our shack smells of it. Our clothes smell of it and I’m sure the hacking cough I have is partly as a result if it

2). Bucket baths. Washing hair and bodies in a bucket with one kettle hot water and some cold water does not do it for me. I miss my shower

3). Hearing the very sad story of a lady a few shacks down from us who was arrested for selling dagga (marijuana) earlier this week leaving behind a 4year old who now lives in the shack alone with only the Nyaope guys as company at night. (Update: the department of social services has taken the girl so she’s not alone. Good news. )

4). Feeling completely overwhelmed by the media interest our month has generated. Torn between talking to people to generate much needed conversation in this country and telling the media to go away and leave us in peace

5). Leaving my parents to return to Mamelodi when we would have loved to spend more time with them.

6). Julian’s 4am wakeup to catch the metro-rail only to have to wait 45 mins in the cold for a delayed train

Rudolph and the Illusion of Meritocracy

Rudolph is a really smart guy. He has a matric exemption and a thoughtful, bigger-picture perspective that transcends his context. You would never know this from his appearance though. The mid-morning sunshine is already up in the sky and Rudolph still has his hoodie on. He has sunken eyes, his clothes are unkempt and his greeting is softly spoken outside our Mamelodi shack.

Despite what looks like a tough life, Rudolph refuses to be defined by his situation. He looks at the shacks all around us and says: “These people still have choices to live in these shacks. For most of them this is their second home. They choose to live here because it is closer to work” And to an extent he is right. My landlord is building a brick house in Mpumalanga for his wife and child. Leah has brick house in Mabopane. I caution Rudolph though. “Yes, we all have choices,” I say, “but remember because of my financial situation, I have many more choices than these people do.”

And herein lies another riddle of our country. I worked hard at school. I applied myself at work. I took initiative where I could. In this, it might be comforting to think that I deserved the subsequent merit. But then let’s think back to Rudolph’s case.

Let us stretch our imagination a bit. Imagine if Rudolph’s mum gave birth to twins. His one twin (we can call him Steven) was adopted at birth by a middle class family while Rudolph lived exactly the same life he has lived.  With access to much greater resources, Steven would have a much higher chance of benefiting from a good education and obtaining a tertiary degree (Economists reading this: I would love to know stats what these stats are!).

As a black South African with a degree, Steven’s chance of formal employment stands at 91%. (CDE: Graduate Employment in South Africa – A much exaggerated problem). On the other hand, Rudolph only has a 53% chance of being employed. (2011 Census: Black South Africans, Broad Unemployment Rate incl discouraged workers).

I call these odds the ‘Illusion of Meritocracy.’ As much as I would love to comfort my ego by seeing my own success in life as being self-made, I started off from a position of privilege and this made all the difference. My parents could own land, they could live where they liked, they had no restrictions on starting a business. My life was by no means easy, but these opportunities conspired to afford me private education. At university, I still needed a student loan to make ends meet. But again, my parents had collateral to offer the bank that financed my degree.

Rudolph’s contribution to the broader South African society is very negligible right now, but his potential is a different story. The bigger question out of all of this is : How we can create a situation where the Rudolphs in this country are not just surviving but thriving like Steven. This would be to our collective benefit.

The Illusion of Meritocracy is of course not limited to South Africa. Here are some closing thoughts from Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, discussing Meritocracy at the prestigious Ivy League institution, Princeton University

“The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate – these are the folks who reap the largest rewards.”


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