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.”

Through the eyes of a child

I’ve been asked by some readers to give a little more insight into how the children are handling this huge shift in their daily lifestyle and routine. In a nutshell: remarkably! Give a child love and attention and they will be happy anywhere. There have however been some difficult moments.

During the first week in Mamelodi, the children still had to go to school which meant we had to get up really early to get them there on time. The mornings are very cold and waking a sleeping child to get them to catch a bus at 5am is not really fun. The early morning wake-ups also resulted in tired grumpy children in the afternoon where all the attention from neighbourhood kids sometimes got a bit much resulting in every mom’s nightmare: the temper tantrum/meltdown.

The children are now on school holidays and in a way it has been easier (no transport issues) but it too has some challenges. All the other kids are still at school so mornings can be a little long and boring. We have however discovered a municipal park about 20 minutes’ walk away that we go to most mornings. The kids love the park and we can easily spend an hour or two there with a little picnic. We’ve become really creative in terms of toys and activities. One fun ‘game’ is building letters, houses, train tracks etc with matchsticks. Julian has also become the master paper airplane maker and some afternoons when he’s around he’ll have to make up to 20 planes for all the children who play in our backyard. Every afternoon there are tons of friends for the kids to run around with, play hide and seek with, roll around in the dust with etc.

The children love helping with the daily activities such as washing the clothes, cooking and cleaning the shack. What I do find though is on a day where I don’t have to work and am home all day long with the children I am exhausted by the end of the day as I have to constantly be involved and playing with them: there is no TV as a distraction.

Food has been another area that has amazed me. The very first day we arrived in Mamelodi the children pulled up their noses at the vegetable soup I’d made for supper and said they weren’t hungry but since then they have never complained, asked for sweets or other food etc. Our diet is completely different to what we eat at home: lots of beans, lentils, pilchards etc. Yet they eat it all, say it tastes good and never complain.

We all sleep in one bed here (a habit I am sure is going to be difficult to break once we are back at home) but the kids love it. It’s warm and they feel loved and get lots of cuddles at night when it’s cold .

So all in all I can’t really say the children are easier or more difficult than they are at home: they are young, enjoy being around their parents and playing with friends. Have the odd melt down, but overall are having a great time but will also enjoy being home again after the month is over.IMG_3082

The Economics of Transport

It is almost halfway through the month of August and what has probably been the biggest logistical illumination so far is how expensive it is to get from Point A to Point B. Our shack rental for the month is R170 and by the end of today, our transport costs will have amounted to R432 already. These proportions are crazily out of alignment and I shudder to think what this equation looks like if you are a temporary worker in Sandton and live in Orange Farm or Soshanguve.

What sticks in the back of my mind is a recent quote by Professor Karan, a National Planning Commissioner, who said “What makes society most unstable is the cost of living.” It nags me then that taxi prices will rise in a week or two to mirror the increased petrol price and add burden to us and many other people trying to balance the budget.

Imagine then that you are a Mamelodi resident with 3 children and qualify for a child support grant of R290 per child. Lets looks at two scenarios. In the first scenario, you stay at home with your children and have no income other than the child grants. There are no transport costs as you do not work. Your household income is R290x3 = R870 for the month.

In the second scenario, you have a job paying R2900 per month (the threshold to qualify for a child support grant is a salary of R2800 or lower). Now you need to pay R200 per child per month to put them in creche for the day and lets assume that your taxi costs are 40% of your income (R1160). At the end of the month you are left with R2900-R1160-R600=R1140. Given the long hours and time away from your children, there is no a huge incentive to get a job in the first place (if you can even find one in the first place which is a whole new question) if you are only R270 better off because of it.

Of all the public transport I have caught over the last week (Putco bus, Metrorail, Taxi, Gautrain), by far the most efficient have been taxis. But they are also the only transport not subsidised by the Government (My R43 Gautrain ticket last week should cost the equivalent of R129 if it were not govt funds).

Wouldn’t it be great if the government could subsidise 50% of the taxi fare (fuel subsidy) in exchange for undertaking an annual roadworthy check, implementing a smart chip payment system (collect more taxes?) and allowing cycling lanes to be built along key township to work nodes.

If you were earning R2900, you would now be left with R1720 after taxi fares – practically double what you would have received if you just stayed at home. This seems like much better economic incentivisation to start unraveling the apartheid-era, remote township planning that still defines the livelihoods of vast swathes of the populace.

WWYD: What Would You Do?

Elena was the name of a lady we met on the streets of Phomolong Ext 6 while going on an exploratory family walk this morning.

She is a tailor by trade and was recently awarded a contract of R115 000 by the Department of Social Development to make just over 300 uniforms for learners of a Mamelodi school. Each uniform comprises of a jersey, skirt and socks.

Elena gets a 30% upfront fee to support operating costs. She has used this to buy material from Joburg and some labour costs.

Challenge is this. With 80 uniforms completed she has run out of money to pay her employees. She is now feeling very stressed and no bank would offer her a loan. The local micro lenders charge 50% interest per month. She needs R10 000 to cover this operational gap.

Sounds a bit like one of those tricky interview questions but for Elena, this is a real life challenge.

Now here is the question: WWYD – What would you do?

Profoundness in a Shebeen

Sometimes alcohol can bring out the best in people. It happened on Sunday when we took a walk and happened on a packed Shebeen glued to the Pirates v Supersport match.

The instant our family entered the scene, the whole place stood still for a moment to take in the unusual scene of two blonde girls entering with their parents and a friend.

Two patrons immediately came forward with Orlando Pirates’ misery of being a goal down having been quickly forgotten. It was clear that they had enjoyed a few quarts that afternoon but what they said seemed incredibly profound for the interior of a Shebeen.

“Seeing you here makes me believe that God is alive,” said the first gentleman. The second then starting quoting Mandela’s closing Rivonia Trial speech. “This is the ideal for which Mandela was prepared to die for,” he said while gesticulating at our family.

And in that out of place setting of a white family going for a walk around the shack lands of Mamelodi, it seemed like much more than just a walk.

Mamelodi undercurrents

On the whole we feel extremely cared for and safe here in Mamelodi: we are cautious and careful and try and avoid risky situations and the community has been taking excellent care of us.

There is however a horrible undercurrent that not only potentially threatens our safety but also that of all our kind, gentle hard working neighbours: a vicious drug called Nyaope. Nyaope is a blend of heroin, marijuana, rat poison, anti retroviral drugs and bleach. It is the hard drug of choice among Mamelodi youth. Young men hanging around on street corners with bloodshot eyes after their latest fix or awaiting the next are unfortunately a common sight. These are the people Leah is afraid of for our sake and for her own sake. When these youths want their next fix they don’t care if a passerby is black, white, rich or poor: anyone is a target for a fix will set them back as little as R30 and most people have a phone on them that can be stolen and sold to cover the amount.

Mamelodi police say 75% of crimes in the area are substance abuse related. A sad state of affairs for honest, hard working residents.

Photo essay of our weekend stroll






The value of being (rudi von staden)

Yesterday a good friend of ours, Rudi von Staden, came to visit. Here follows an extremely profound extract from an email he wrote following the visit:

What was amazing to me is that it felt so ordinary to just be there, and perhaps that is what made it spiritual. We were not trying to do give, or do, or uplift. We were only there to be, and we could relate as fellow humans. I think God exists in the space between people who are open to one another. Too often the door is closed from our side. Perhaps by always focusing on social upliftment, we are maintaining our aloofness. In seeing how people relate to one another in the township, and how warmly we were received when we had nothing to offer, I realized that true poverty is relational rather than economic. Before we come with anything, we have to first come with nothing.”

Wednesday Night Church

Last night Leah asked us if we wanted to join her for church. The children were already in bed as we had decided to catch the bus to school this morning, so Julian stayed with the kids and I joined Leah. Leah gave me one look and said: you can’t go dressed like that: where is your skirt and you need a ‘kopdoek’ (scarf covering my head and hair). I made a quick plan with a headpiece, borrowed a skirt from Leah and off we set, walking through the dark township alleys to get to church.

The area in Mamelodi where we are staying has no street lights but there are a couple of massive flood lights on high poles like one has at cricket or major sporting stadiums that light up the area when they are on. In typical inefficient local government style, I often see these lights on during the day (when they have no effect) and off at night. Last night the lights were off and that combined with the lack of electricity in the community results in dark alley ways lit only by the night light and the many many communal fires along the way. The ‘better off’  have little wood fires that several people huddle around but others stand around fires burning anything they can lay their hands on: plastic, old couch cushions, boxes etc.

There is quite a vibe as you walk along the streets, people returning home from work, others buying and selling snacks, lots of spaza shops cashing in on ‘rush hour’ trade, and people talking, walking and going about their business: a far cry from the deserted streets in the predominantly white Pretoria upper class suburbs.

The church was housed in a shack which looked exactly like all the surrounding shacks from the outside but was painted a beautiful pastel blue inside, had four rows of blue benches inside, three candles lit and a calendar from the ‘head office’ church and smelled of freshly burned incense. About 12 people (11 ladies and one man) came along to the service which was all in Sotho with a small part translated into Afrikaans for my benefit. It was a lovely and surreal way to spend a Wednesday evening.

The Highs and Lows of our First Few Days

There was much excitement in the Hewitt household on Sunday morning when we bundled the children into our car and set off for Mamelodi to go drop off all our ‘stuff’ for the month (mattresses, clothes, paraffin lantern, buckets etc). Upon arrival we could immediately sense the jovial atmosphere that had infiltrated the township on this post pay day weekend. We were pleasantly surprised to see the effort Leah and our landlord had made with our shack: some rat sized holes between the floor and the walls had been cemented up and the shack had been given a quick lick of paint and the floors a polish. We unpacked, headed back to our other home, left the car behind and caught a taxi back to Mamelodi.

Here are some of the highs of the first 48 hours in our new home for the month:

  • The warm welcome the community gave us and the steady stream of people who came to say hi
  • Sitting around a communal fire at night with a melting pot of cultures represented: the Ndebele, Xitonga, Xhosa, Pedi, Sotho, Afrikaans and English.
  • Experiencing the beat and rhythm of weekend township life with loud kwaito beats competing with Sunday gospel music and coal fires announcing the imminent arrival of supper and another cold winters night
  • The entire Putco bus singing gospel songs together on the way to work at 6:30 this morning
  • Children blissfully unaware of class and colour barriers: making friends, learning to cartwheel, chasing each other around with joy and abandon
  • The good Samaritan lady who saw me standing on the side of the road yesterday waiting for a taxi after fetching the children from school and offered me a lift, initially just down the road but upon hearing our story to our shack doorstep (her first time in Mamelodi)
  • Having conversations with people we would never have conversed with before like Sipho from Mica
  • Appreciating just how good a spaghetti meal with a basic tomato, leek, celery and onion sauce tasted after a day of oats for breakfast and a single potato for lunch


And some of the lows:

  • Experiencing a bone aching cold on the first night. Being way under-dressed for the bitter cold in bed and worrying about the children freezing
  • Water condensing on the shack roof while you sleep and drip drip dripping cold drops on sleeping bodies
  • Rats. Hundreds of them. Luckily none in our shack but scurrying outside as soon as the sun sets
  • Alcohol. Too much of it. Post pay day celebration turned inebriation. Luckily not in any way aggressive
  • Adjusting to living in such small space with children.
  • Frayed nerves in over tired children. Not knowing how to discipline effectively when tiredness turns to rudeness and fighting and there is no space for timeout, no TV or books for quiet time

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