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South Africa: a journalist’s paradise

When I had my first “placement interview” during Peace Corps PST, Peace Corps staff asked me if there were any requests I had about my final site. My only request was that I would have access to blogging at least once a month, whether that be an electricity source or close to a shopping town with an Internet cafe. The conversation then breezed into how excited I am to report on culture here, write about it and be immersed in what I call a “journalist’s paradise”.

The program director said something along the lines to me of, “It seems like you are a journalist at heart, but you’re running away from it.”

That got me. For these past two years I’ve been in a weird place — writing about social issues in America and now here and making some aware of such realities. However, sometimes blogging just isn’t enough. I’m not writing for a large audience as I would be for a media outlet and it can be hard to get the word out outside of my social network.

Last week, my father sent me The Economist’s cover article on South Africa. The article is fascinating and finally gave me those statistics and political information I was so hungry and craving for but was never fed during training. Likewise, a friend from journalism school got in touch with me to discuss coming to South Africa to freelance about her favorite beat, as well as mine, education. Of course, my inner-journalist is now fighting to come out after getting a quality dose of statistics and statements backed up by research and facts:

  • Between 1996 and 2010 the proportion living on less than $2 a day fell from 12% to 5%, but after Apartheid, a huge gap widened between rich and poor in South Africa. There’s a “tiny black elite”, which left many blacks behind.
  • South Africa’s Gini coefficient — the best known measure of inequality, in which 0 is the most equal and 1 is the least — was 0.63 in 2009. In 1993 it was 0.59. After 18 years of full democracy, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world.
  • Persistent inequality is the government’s failure to educate young South Africans, particularly black ones.
  • In the World Economic Forum’s Global competitiveness Report, South Africa ranks 132 out of 144 countries for its primary education and 143 for its science and maths.
  • In the Department of Basic Education’s national literacy and numeracy tests last year, only 15 percent of the 12-year-olds (sixth graders) scored at or above minimum proficiency in the language. In maths just 12 percent did.
  • Three quarters of white students finish their final year of high school, but only a third of black pupils.
  • Only 20 percent of schools have libraries, and only 7.5 percent have books.
  • South Africa requires 25,000 teachers a year, but only 10,000 qualify.
  • Since 1995, South Africa has spent 5–7 percent of its GDP on education (more than Rwanda, which has better rankings).
  • Official unemployment is about 25 percent, and the real figure nearer 40 percent (In 1994 unemployment was 20 percent).
  • The unemployment rate among blacks is 29 percent, compared with 6 percent for whites.
  • Youth unemployment is over 50 percent. Young people who fail to find work by the age of 24 will probably never have a full-time formal job. (Source: The Economist)

I know I am a PCV and am not here to freelance or report, but it’s so hard to not think about how I am in the perfect placement to start reporting from observations and research. After witnessing my first case of “illegal” corporal punishment the other day (a teacher whipping a kid with a belt in the staff room), I realized how I’m going to see so many things that could be the basis for stories to expand upon The Economist’s article and figures. Ethically, it is not possible because I am representing the PC and am a Volunteer, not an American reporter.

But, maybe at another time in my life or in my literal dreams, topics I would love to explore and potentially write about would include looking into the following:

Teacher performance and accountability — SO many questions go into that. But most of all I’d love to investigate ties between the union and the government and why there is little teacher accountability. Money? Pride? ANC politics? What? For example, today a grade 7 learner came to my door asking for help on a project about “the spread of democracy” through the anti-Apartied movement. I asked her if she had any books to read out of, she said no. I asked her if the teacher had lectured at all about Apartheid and before Nelson Mandela was president, or democracy for that matter, and she said no. We have a library ON campus that HAS books about the anti-Apartheid movement figures. Did the teacher just photocopy this and give it to the students expecting them to somehow magically figure out how to research on something they have little — if no knowledge of? Where’s the accountability that teachers are actually teaching? I know there’s two sides to every story, but as someone who is at a school every day, it’s hard to not jump to conclusions.

English as a medium in language/A comparative look into education in Africa. How advanced are other African countries that learn in English as a medium and why? How is it taught and introduced to the children?

English as a workforce tool — English suffers in rural schools because teachers teach mostly in the native language. Schools that rural students can’t afford to go to — multiracial schools in larger towns or cities — strictly use English. How does this compare to younger South Africans finding work and/or attending university? What’s the correlation and how can it happen if South Africa wants to move forward and close the huge gap between rural and rich?

Unused resources at schools — libraries, computers, etc. Why are they unused? Lack of training or because educators know they won’t get in trouble?  If schools receive such resources, what is the oversight to see that they are actually being used and helping student achievement?

Hush-hush of corporal punishment — a survey of schools that still use it, testimonies, and how it affects the learning process.

How can South Africa become an equal country if not everyone, including those who were oppressed in the past working to make it an equal country? But why is this? Is there a lack of hope because of South Africa’s history or just the education and workforce culture? Why don’t some educator’s see their role as shaping a poor black youth’s future instead of repeating it? Is this because a lack of training and oversight or because of the culture of education from as far back as Bantu schools? What’s being done about motivating educators?

Obviously, my story pitches are always broad and can be broken up into smaller stories and would probably end up as way different stories than what I went in to intentionally find out. I hope as time goes on here I can answer some of my questions, but it’ll take some research. It’s too bad I don’t have Internet to nit-pick through education policy documents, testimonials, etc. But, once again, I gotta remember. I’m a PCV and NOT a journalist.

This country is a journalist’s paradise because of the first-third word dichotomy, its recent history, its education system, the widening gap between rich and poor, its 11 official languages — but English as a medium in education — and its politics. The best I can do is write for my blog, but I am thankful for The Economist to recognize the country’s progression and regression in the past years. Now that South Africa is in the global eye (well, or American), maybe someone will pick apart the larger problems into smaller problems. Maybe even my fellow Annenberg alum will do so — Fight On for journalism gems and education issues internationally!

Fighting the urge — it’s hard to forget about this side of me because it’s something I’ve always felt so passionately about. Journalism will always make up a big part of who I am and how I identify.

For now,

SmallTransparentLogoNeed-to-get-over-it-I’m-not-a-journalist-anymore Liz

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ellen Bramblett #

    Excellent & heartbreaking blog. Add to your list the fact that so often the standardized national tests have confusing questions and outright wrong answers (i.e. “which of the following statements is incorrect” when actually all are correct). I wish there was a knowledgeable person or team who proofread those tests before they were sent out. I’d think the principals could band together & demand such, since the result of these incorrect tests is even lower scores for their schools.

    October 28, 2012

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