A Facebook post from last night reads: “So impressed by hard work done by #Umhlangano today, as artists it is ours to reimagine not only the world but how we achieve it.” The comment refers to art and drama student group Umhlangano’s call and commitment to safe and creative expressions of protest, resistance and inclusion, on Hiddingh Campus, UCT.
Speaking as a collective to Marelise van der Merwe for the Daily Maverick, Umhlangano said “On Monday, the institution [sent] former soldiers, dressed in private security uniforms, in full body armour against us. For making art, for intervening peacefully, for doing the work that they just want us to study, but we guess, not actually practice.”
“Artists are expected to intervene in society,” the group added. “To make meaningful contribution, to shift the status quo […] We are trying to make safe space to explore what a free decolonial education looks like after years of listening to how the institution just needs time to implement substantive reforms but never does.”
Though it can be terrifying to navigate paths towards hard decisions without knowing what may have to be lost before that which is sought is gained, the student movement’s call, both last and this year, to decolonize the curriculum, has urgency beyond tertiary, into all levels of education across the country, in public and private schools.
Educational spaces are spaces of contestation, more so in divided and conflicted society. Schools are part of a power struggle over what kind of individuals and society the mainstream or those in power want. Student movements like Umhlangano, have exhibited great bravery, exercising a vision of educational spaces as critical, humane, loving and liberating, as shown through their art, their occupation, their position of inclusion and practicing of self-education.
Movements like decolonizing the curriculum are now essential for formal education systems in South Africa to remain relevant. The conversations and changes are happening, if not also in the corridors of the institutions, then certainly on our streets and in our homes. I have respect for the considered proposals for free education presented, and for students’ persistence in writing their own narratives. As a mother of three: one in primary, one in high school and one in university, the students’ non-violent #feesmustfall and #decolonisethecurriculum movements have my support.
Since the start of 2016, my daughter’s emotional state became suddenly, and markedly, different. From a curious, engaged and nurturing child, to one who was angry, frustrated and physically hurtful to herself and others. This caught me by surprise, and I searched for reasons why I was suddenly facing what appeared to be a behavioural regression. I called a meeting with the class teacher.
At the meeting, the teacher raised her concerns – my daughter didn’t manage her time effectively and didn’t complete work in class, her reading ability was behind what is expected, she couldn’t focus and was easily distracted. The teacher recommended I approach the school’s in-house language therapist for an assessment. I did, and by the beginning for March my daughter was taking weekly one-hour classes to lift her self-confidence and her literacy abilities while my monthly education costs had increased. The additional classes progressed, but her presence continued to diminish.
My daughter used to love to write stories, songs, poems, she used to toy with spoken language by making rhymes or playing with rhythm in her delivery. No doubt, her ‘d’s and ‘b’s were often confused, her ‘on’ would become ‘no’, she’d forget letters in basic words, but she loved engaging and playing with language. She would invent and explore, and we had fun together.
At her big brother’s house, they make and record sounds, edit and programme the recording to make interesting beats and rhythms. It is the most recent development in their ongoing joint creation of rhythmic language. I remember in her first two years of life, those two never spoke through words, only beat and rhythm — big brother would beat out his meanings against the bathtub, and she would sway and dance and pat the water making beats with his. Big brother would sit in the kitchen and beatbox, and she would focus in and join him, both spitting everywhere, but they had their language, before she could even walk.
Having read to her, every night, since she was a bud; the new rejection of reading I encountered in her was devastating. Despite becoming more involved at home, trying various approaches to help, we were still not meeting the class expectations fast enough.
The extra classes and the classroom curriculum were so disconnected that whatever smatterings of confidence and learning achieved in the weekly hour of grace during extra classes were killed off swiftly back in the classroom. She would be further punished for not delivering work timeously, either by isolation (being kept in at break) or given greater volumes of homework. Her frustration and anger mounted.
During these months, I did something unprecedented: I asked ‘why?’ Why the sudden change in her behaviour and why was it getting progressively worse? Surely, a stark change in a child’s behaviour is an indication that something is wrong?
The absence of these questions highlighted some problematic thinking. If there is no need to ask why, then is the assumption that this is either normal, or even expected? If this is the case, is the assertion then that the child was born this way? Or could it be that it is the child’s disposition to turn ‘bad’?
Surely, the impotency of a spectrum of professional educationalists and concerned adults in a school environment is an indication that something is wrong? When the school becomes a corporatised environment, parents become clients, and children become outputs. What then is the role of the teacher? Is the potential for developing a relationship with the child and the meaningful guidance through learning compromised when a teacher’s focus shifts to the delivery of regular assessments to service the marketing requirements of a school corporation?
Without answers forthcoming, I sought my own. I borrowed books and trawled the internet. I called friends whose kids in various ways, and to various degrees, didn’t fit the mainstream schooling system. I found other schools — so called alternative schools, remedial schools — I completed questionnaires and application forms, paid registration fees and took my daughter for assessment after assessment.
In the assessments I have confronted there is one section which is consistent. It is the socio-economic, familial structure profiling which is used to determine the child’s propensity for otherwise wayward behaviour.
The questions are posed in such a way that the family completing the document, which falls outside of the normative frame of heterosexual, nuclear and married, needs to disclaim their otherness, as evidence of problematic potentiality of the child, for use by the school.
My family is not easy to explain in one word, and typically I reject offering explanations. I live alone with my daughter, however my family constitutes several children and several parents within various constellations of love, biology, care and responsibility. I, have during this process, been complicit in the otherisation and thus problematisation of myself, my child and my family. By completing these parts of the application forms, I am participating in perpetuating the refusal to see a family – my family – outside of the normative patriarchal nuclear family unit, as a family unit which can be considered as being a loving, caring and nurturing environment for a child.
The experience of having to explain my family structure to notions of “normalcy” is a long time lame and tiresome. The seeking to profile my daughter is an epistemological violence and, quite frankly, unconstitutional.
Working in the arts, I am confronted regularly with the tenaciousness of the visionary artist. The potent, ongoing work done by artists on this continent, often is seemingly small interventions but of seismographic importance to steadily carve into square frames of society, to include space to dream, to imagine futures, to live in other ways, to create language, to challenge power and to advocate for change.
I am still struck by assessment results which call out a child’s hyper-responsiveness to auditory stimulus as a cause for distraction and lack of focus, something diagnostic psychiatry manuals indicate should be medicated. I can’t help but laugh at the absence of the suggestion to give the child a guitar, I almost cry at the absence of recognition of artistic inclination.
I am not calling out parents in the vulnerable position of having to make decisions about that which is most precious to them. I’m calling out a system which is oversubscribed to outdated notions of discipline, which too readily calls for medication which is too readily pushed by pharmaceutical companies which are in bed with institutions of educational research. I’m lashing out at a set of norms which has aligned itself with the logic of capital such that it can no longer see the serpents in its bed.
A friend in Cape Town, whose daughter has never been diagnosed or suspected of learning difficulties at the private school which he sends her to, is on the phone, and furious. A few weeks ago the teachers had attended a workshop on the eight intelligences. This asserts that each child shows particular strength in various intelligences. Driving his daughter and her friends home from school, my friend listens to them discuss who has what kind of smart, and therefore, what they need to acquire to enable them to learn — a range of products produced by the same company who gave the workshop to the school, now sold to parents through school via child.
A few years ago, again, in the parent’s corner of confidence — driving kids home — my daughter and her friend were discussing the things five-year-olds generally discuss when left alone: “But do you think God really made everything in the whole world?” the friend asked, “No, don’t be silly” my daughter asserted, “he downloaded it”.
When my daughter is an adult, she would probably already have a data stream connected microchip implanted under her skin. On what basis will she judge content received and discriminate information uploaded? What will she reference when integrating data into her being, or rejecting it? Will she have the experience and the confidence to formulate considered responses, and in what forms will she construct them?
“Art was for losers, basically” say Mantse Aryeequaye, co-director of ACCRA[dot]ALT, in an interview with Ariela Gittlen of Artsy.net. He goes on to argue that the success of African artists on the continent in recent times is now changing that mind set. But ‘success’ here is broader than the bills in your wallet. Success here is the investment in people, in spaces, in society. It is the retrieval and rewriting of histories, language and memory. It is the building of platforms for community, for participation and criticality; it is the mobilisation and advocacy for inclusion and healing.
“What we do as artists is probably one of the few and last remaining spaces for true freedom, because we can take the kind of risks which are not possible in politics, that are not possible in the corporate world, and here as artists we enjoy a lot of possibility to be free, to push boundaries of society and to push society into thinking differently of itself by opening questions about our own selves as artists” says Boyzie Cekwane, artist and choreographer, in a Durban television feature.
All around us, the demand to be in the world as we are, for the square frames of a society to adjust to include all which it contains, is an ever-increasing accumulation of individual voices. I see free bleeder Kiran Gandhi running the streets of London and Tess Asplund standing her ground facing far-right extremists on the streets of Borlange, Sweden. I feel Zanele Muholi’s Brave Beauties looking back at me off the walls of Grahamstown at the National Arts Festival, and I watch Lerato Shadi’s crochet needles write a red river of unwritten narratives.
Why is there a proliferating arts education movement happening in our region, outside of formal schooling systems? How different is psycho-social assessment from socio-economic profiling? Has pathologizing through phycology become the new disciplining mechanism of our schools? How many private schools report to share-holders? Is it not, the burden of the single, the mono, that we must together, learn to outgrow?
I feel unease at hearing some of our older generations assert positions and warnings, when we are being asked to engage. An image of one of Umhlangano’s installations stays with me as I write this: mirrors with the painted message ‘you failed us’ placed at the doorway of a hall as academics enter for meetings.
The phrase Se mwen k frape, se mwen k reponn meaning ‘I knock at the door, and I answer too’ is used in Haiti when one is taking on what should have been shared responsibilities.
The students, staff, alumni, parents – we are knocking.
Main Photograph courtesy of Flickr