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Lowe McManus

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Lowe McManus, GSW program instructor at Bowling Green State University

QUESTION POSED: This grant was a study of democracy. What are some of your thoughts on what you experienced in regards to this concept? What are the curricular implications and how will this study focused on democracy enrich/inform/expand your teaching/research here at ONU?

Democracy questions: To see in actuality what I have read so much about over decades in regards to South African political and social structures left me less surprised than quizzical. How is South Africa to move past its history of institutionalized racism, resented so deeply by black South Africans and sometimes still denied by many white South Africans who themselves still chafe at the memories of opprobrium the rest of the world aimed at their ruling National Party’s government? How is the current ruling party, the African National Congress, to avoid the hubris inherent in themselves holding the reins of what is, at this point, operationally a single-party democracy? And how can the country handle the issue, raised in his interview with our group somewhat poignantly by Lassy Chiwayo, the mayor of Nelspruit, regarding the necessity to “institutionalize” (i.e., turn into standard operating procedures) the functions of democratic government?

One sees everywhere that serious progress has been made in the 16 years since black South Africans have had the vote, even in programs that didn’t achieve their goals. For example, the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) originally under Mandela’s presidency ambitiously attempted to build decent, though basic, houses for millions of South Africans within what turned out to be an unrealistic timeframe under troubled financial conditions exacerbated by corruption. And yet, one has to be impressed with the sheer number of houses – many, admittedly, without roofs because of collapsed funding – erected during this period. The contrast between them and what sort of housing one can still see in other settlements gives a strong picture of the extent and depth of the housing crisis the new government inherited. And this is but one example of numerous issues of have and have-not discrepancies (in the delivery of basic utilities, in distribution of social services, in providing education, in addressing unemployment, etc.) the nation has to confront. Add to these the horrid farm murders of white landowners in Limpopo province, the AIDS fiasco with its devastating results, the unconscionable crime rate, and the specter of government censorship perhaps akin to the control the National Party had on news during apartheid days, and one can’t deny the vicious currents under the photogenic landscapes of this beautiful country.

But on this trip I gained a sense that most Afrikaners are not fixated on dreams of what they had in the past and feel they have lost, and most black South Africans are still willing to recognize the future has to be built cooperatively on some basis that goes beyond simple restitution. Each group seems to be better at identifying what the other group should be doing, which means confrontations, obstacles and crises are still ahead. In fact, at every step, one hears speculation about whether or not the country can “make it.” But one hears everywhere, at the same time, the expressions of pride the South Africans have in their constitution, in their form of inclusive democracy, and in their country. Watching grade-schoolers’ faces as they sang “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika” in their classrooms were perhaps the most inspiring moments I experienced during this trip. And their appreciation showed when Eva and I sang along with them on one occasion. As they grow up, if those children and others experience a progressive fulfillment of the freedom and democracy aspirations the song speaks to, then the struggles they and their parents and ancestors have experienced in the early days of their new democracy will have been validated.

Curriculum and research impact: I will implement my South African Group Project experience into analyses of social justice issues in a revised curriculum of an honors program course I have taught before at BGSU. I also intend to set up a multi-cultural, theme-based Research Writing 1120 course focusing on conflicts in democracy. Currently, I am researching three particular issues: the concept of “banning” people, the struggle over historical, cultural and artistic representation of SA events and ideas (what Lucia Saks in her study of cinema calls “the race for representation,” what MacCaan and Maddy have studied as false representation in SA children’s literature, and what John Peffer has explored as “grey areas,” wherein black SA art was “undermining apartheid”), as well as the hot-button issue of the proposed Media Tribunal some figures of the ruling party ANC have been talking about.

Classroom Contrasts and Commonalities: Our experience showed that great disparities of educational supplies, faculty training and support, and outcomes expectations are evident between public and private schools and between province-run rural and urban schools. A history of politically inspired social disruption of school activities during the apartheid years (most dramatically illustrated by the Soweto uprising but having occurred otherwise as well) has been grafted onto by those involved in current political struggles. This appears to have led to an ongoing expectation among educators (teachers) and learners (students) of periodic educational slow downs, “stay aways” and stoppages, with most of the lasting damage affecting students and faculty of the secondary schools. The stoppages and threatened stoppages of the school year make it extremely difficult for secondary learners to have the consistency of educational process needed to train them for passing matrics – even if their schools were given the materials required for such training. The same problems upset the continuity the educators need to stay on schedule with provincial day-to-day teaching guidelines. In addition, a BBC news report of Aug. 10, 2010, says the average annual salary of a South African teacher is “about $15,000.” Educational reforms, therefore, are made both more necessary and less likely to be successful – a true impasse at the moment. Primary school classrooms in the rural school we visited at length were colorfully decorated with teaching materials, whereas the secondary school in the same town had classrooms devoid of educational signs, pictures, posters or maps. Many windows were broken, and both tables and chairs were damaged or insufficient in number to accommodate the students. Whole ceiling sections were missing; as a result, clangor from one classroom intruded upon and added to that of others. The school had running water on only some days of the week, with what seemed like just as frequent “no-water” days. No Internet access is available, and I saw no evidence of adequate science supplies for instruction. The educators had limited numbers of textbooks for their classes. And the secondary school seemed to have very little in the way of guidance counseling. All in all, these schools seemed worse off than our own failing inner-city schools.

The urban public and private schools we visited were in far better supply and under much stronger control. In order to receive partial public funding, some formerly Afrikaner schools teach in both English and Afrikaans, thereby tending to receive the more qualified black students. Of course, the private preparatory school we visited (R60,000 per annum) was beautiful – lovely gardens, attractive, well-maintained buildings and relatively up-to-date facilities, with virtually perfect matric passing rates.

Commonalities are harder to figure. The secondary students seemed just as, or even more so, poorly developed in math skills as reports indicate U.S. students are. The post-school expectations of the rural students seemed either painfully fanciful or, in some cases, just as painfully limited. Explanations of organized extracurricular activities were hard to pin down, though I was grateful to have some interaction with a group of very bright students who were practicing in English their upcoming Model UN debate.