Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Coherent thinking and diversity

Some of my academic training is in philosophy. The good teachers I had would always stress one important point: that we should strive for coherence in our thinking. Now, I am always quite flabbergasted when I encounter fuzzy thinking that seems unaware of its implications. For instance, visible minorities can become victims of discrimination, usually based on "racial" appearance. The perpetrators are for the most part "white" people. Yet, some members of these minorities would in turn discriminate against others based on sexual orientation and gender without any awareness that the processes of exclusion, the technologies of discrimination, are pretty much the same in both cases. The discourse of exclusion is identical. You make fun of the outsiders, you say how you appreciate them, you say how you have friends among them and yet you belittle them, and so on. I find it then very ironic when someone is ranting on about the paternalism of "white" people but is doing exactly the same towards women or gays and lesbians. A remedial course in philosophy would be very useful for the people concerned.

You may want to peruse the courses offered by the Wits philosopy department:

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Viva Wits World of Work 2007 Book Club, Viva!

We recently launched the Wits World of Work 2007 Book club. But not just confined to reading books, we will also write a book about the experience together. My contribution to the club is Kopano Matlwa's 'Coconut'. Here is my review:

Kopano Matlwa, a 21-year old medical student from the University of Cape Town, has written with ‘Coconut’ a remarkable first novel and scooped with due merit this year’s European Union Literary Award. It is a timely book for it looks at South African society from the perspective of two young black women and is refreshingly without any overbearing ideology. As the author writes in an afterthought, ‘Coconut’ “is our story, told in our own words as we feel it everyday.”

The first main character, Ofilwe, lives in a rich and dysfunctional family. Her father, while preoccupied with amassing fortunes, neglects his wife and children. He rather spends his spare-time in the company of numerous girlfriends. Her mother is whiling time away by making herself beautiful, meeting friends, gossiping about the children and the do’s and dont’s of a life in affluence. Ofilwe’s brother Tshepo has retreated into his own world, pursuing the beauty of the written word. The parents never talk to each other and Ofilwe celebrates a victory when her mother and her father engage in a shouting match. The confrontational bickering is more comforting to her than the nothingness of silence and indifference.

In the pursuit of wealth and status, much has been left behind: mutual respect and honesty, a sense of togetherness and African traditions. Ofilwe, for her part, lives up to the desire of her parents, to be at least equal to if not better than their white neighbors. In fact, she sees no difference between herself and white people. She is brought back to reality through the racism of her white friends and her white environment.

Aspiring to be like them, to be white, is the one thing that Ofilwe has in common with the second main character, Fikile or ‘Fiks’. While Ofilwe is white by virtue of her environment and the aspirations of her parents, Fiks desires to a better life by leaving blackness behind and join the wealth and beauty of white people. After her father run away and her mother killed herself, Fiks is raised by her gogo, a maid and her uncle, a security guard. Fiks is determined to escape poverty. For her, this poverty is tied to blackness and hence her aspiration to be something better, to be with the rich and the happy. To be white.

It is especially in Fiks’ characterization and psychology that Matlwa is at her best. Sexually abused by her uncle, she is running away from what hurts her and holds her back. Matlwa shows well the many layers of the consequences of sexual abuse and how the victim battles with these. After having been robbed of the most precious, the faith to be the master of her own destiny, Fiks struggles to find herself. Perhaps here lies the South African-ness of ‘Coconut’, in the determination of the two main characters to overcome hardship and pain, and to be content and happy.

You may chat with the author on her own blog and learn more about the book.

An equally excellent discussion of the sexual abuse of children I found in Arakis' 'mysterious skin'. For an insightful perspective, see

Thursday, June 7, 2007


Last month I attended the graduation of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, former president of Haiti. UNISA awarded him a doctorate in African languages for his investigation into the relationship between isiZulu and Creole, his native tongue from Haiti. Aristide is exiled to South Africa after he was kidnapped and carried out of Haiti by US, French and Canadian forces. President Mbeki and the first lady, Zenele Mbeki, attended. I was seated right behind them and Smuts Ngonyama, head of the Presidency, a very warm and gentle person by the way, was sitting in the same row as myself. Barney Pitanya, Black Consciousness activist and Vice-Chancellor, was the master of ceremony. Given the importance of the relationship between Mbeki and Aristide, to emphasize the ties between the diaspora and the African continent, forging alliances across the global South and showing solidarity with those who advocate pro-poor policies, the theme of Africanization was written all over the ceremony. Speaker after speaker drove the point home about the importance of African languages and the dire legacy of colonialism. At times, I found the ideology of the speeches quite overbearing. While the need for redress is quite evident in South Africa, and there is certainly a steep road ahead to achieve this, one should be careful not to short-circuit history and the complexities of cultures for the sake of ideology. The irony is that this is the same UNISA where some refuse to teach certain important European literary works deemed too subversive, ie. communist! Too much ideology, not matter from which corner, can do no good.

The 'Mbigi' question

As I wrap up my current projects and get ready for my new employment, I have what I call the 'Mbigi'question in mind. This question basically asks 'what is the value that I can add to the organisation' and closely related, 'what is the problem that I can solve within the organisation'? Of course, your employer knows what she wants you to do, and that is always your priority, but I think you want to put a challenge to yourself while you are on the job. Thereby, you become more valuable to the organisation, but you also have much more fun (and agency) in what you are doing. In other words, you want to retain the initiative in what you are doing.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

And now a breather

I was offered a permanent position. That was quite a relief. After all, all the studies and the extra-curricular activities bore some fruit. There are people who think I do valuable work, give me some recognition and are willing to trust me with employment.

Monday, June 4, 2007


Usually people write about the post-modern and the post-apartheid period. So let me write about the post-interview. Research and preparation are very important. But your own gut-feeling about what they are looking for is even more crucial. For my recent interview, the research I did about the organisation was not relevant. Our talk was much more about my CV and the specific task they have given me prior to the interview. One has to make trade-offs. While it is certainly important to be honest (who wants a dishonest employee?), perceived honesty can also make you look less good. I had done some legal work for government without any legal training. So they were wondering how I did it? Well, legal work at a basic level comes quite easy to me, so I was trying to explain that this was not such a big deal after all. I wanted to be honest but I rather diminshed my accomplishment. The more rewarding strategy would have been to emphasize the great efforts I had made. The second issue I realized is that after 30 minutes into the interview, my speech tended to be less clear and difficult questions were not dealt with properly (Ok, I was still battling a sore throat and a stuffy nose). The trick here is to be aware of the interview cycle, that we slow down and get tired. The sensible thing to do is to be aware of this weaknesses and then to re-focus and re-energize. The third important issue is to back up all your statements with evidence. The questions people ask are based on their assumptions and assertions and you cannot answer back with an assertion. They want you to give them evidence to prove or disprove their assumptions - they make assertions based on their impression of your CV and your person as they meet you. Hence, the smart preparation involves exploring all the different aspects of your skills and capabilities and how they relate to the employment for which you compete.