Reading, Teaching

Five books All Senior South African Students Should Read (according to me, anyway)

1. Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

This is such a necessary book because it gives you a brilliant overview of why the ANC was such a powerhouse of a party, and why Mandela was a great man (minus the ridiculous “ray ban” sculptures “in his honour. Cape Town, I’m looking at you). This is still the best book I have read about Mandela or the ANC. It is gripping, illuminating stuff.

2. Redi Tlabi: Endings and Beginnings

This book tells you something of the effect of apartheid on ordinary people. It is heartbreaking, triumphant and beautifully written. This book will change the way you see, which is what reading is all about.

3. K. Sello Duiker: Thirteen cents

Reading about a street kid trying to survive on Cape Town’s streets makes for uncomfortable reading, but the prose is electric and the author’s months on the streets as research makes this novel seem hyperreal. This is a read-in-one-sitting kind of book.

4. A Hidden Wholeness: Parker Palmer

Palmer is an educationalist and theologian who writes about what it means to live with integrity. In a world where learners and adults alike are forced to construct increasingly strange masks in order to be (what is considered to be) “successful”, Palmer’s book is a clarion call to be true to our souls and to save our communities in the process.

5. Margaret Atwood: The Maddaddam Trilogy

Because climate change is real; and no one describes (and satirises) the patriarchy, environmental movements, unscrupulous big business, the problematic ethics of massive gated communities and the beautiful complications of human relationships like Margaret Atwood can.

Obviously, there are numerous other books I would love to put on this list, but these are the ones I am thinking of today.

To my (numerous) readers: what would be your picks?

PS: Thanks to Prof Jonathan Jansen and Bruce Collins for this idea!


My life through books #2: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

I first discovered Alain de Botton because we had Status Anxiety, one of his (many) books on the shelf in the book shop I managed for a few months. The job was one of the most mind-numbingly dull I have ever under-taken, despite my misty-eyed sentimentality about making it a hub for African literature and philosophy. The owners were only concerned about pushing more copies of Twilight or the latest Baldacci thriller. While both Twilight and Baldacci have a valuable place in getting the public reading (I am not a purist and believe that readers should never be shamed for their choices – but that is another blog for another day), the shop I worked in was in a mall, and readers were more likely to buy a cheaper copy from the CNA or the better stocked Exclusive Books across the corridor.

Which brings me back to de Botton. The book caught my eye because I was beginning to have Status Anxiety. I was working in retail, a job which grants the status of a punching bag (practically an inanimate object that takes a lot of abuse), but this was not the root of my anxiety. It was being in a big city for the first time, and working in a mall being constantly surrounded by beautiful things that I was unable to acquire.

Before Pretoria, the most expensive store at which I could buy clothes was Woolworths (and a small-town Woolworths with hardly anything in it). Now I was being surrounded by just about anything I wanted: from multiple copies of obscure classic books I previously thought had never landed on our South African shores, a Nine West store (this was the only store that stocked my dream shoes when I was a teenager: two-tone high heels. I saw them in a magazine and pined), and Kauai (I thought only *Cape Town* had those…). Anyway, I was a little horrified by my almost physical longing for those beautiful fabrics and crisp pages in brand new books and for the legitimacy owning such objects would grant me (this was before I read Sarah Nuttall on identity creation through consumption), so “Status Anxiety” seemed as good a term as any and I was thrilled to see someone else had written about the creeping phenomena I was experiencing in my own life.

As I explained above, though, I couldn’t afford the book at the time, so I forgot about it (and its author) until I was researching philosophies of work on the internet and came across his TED talk and Maria Popova’s recommendation of his (short-ish) book on the subject: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. So I downloaded the audiobook (I am a Platinum member of Audible) and started listening.

de Botton calls The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work an essay rather than a book, and I would tend to agree with him. He slips straight into a description of a busy harbour and of all the produce that is shipped in and out. He details the messy, dirty behind-the-scenes work that results in the glossy malls and products that I was so bewitched by. He then goes on to explore different careers by going to speak to and spend time with the people involved and describing their day-to-day habits and the challenges of their work, interspersed with his own musings and realisations on the subject of work itself. He speaks to a rocket scientist, a career counsellor, a commercial fisherman (and the fish-factory’s owner), as well as an engineer and an accountant.

I was extremely keen to read the book, but I must say that the voice of the narrator was faintly patronising, which did not leave a good impression on me. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it in my own head. Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal (a fascinating look into evolutionary psychology) suffered a similar fate, as the narrator has a deep voice and seems to enjoy sounding his vowels and speaking as though he were giving a lecture rather than explaining interesting subject matter.

In addition, I was put off by de Botton’s occasional mockery of his subjects. His dwelling on the subject of the nasty smells of the house of the career counsellor he visits (from the cooking of cabbage to the smell of sweat from a gym) made me feel protective of his subjects: it made me upset that he made his subjects smaller and more pathetic than they (probably) already feel.

He does have some wonderful observations about the nature of the modern world and the pressures it places on people to find some kind of ecstatic fulfilment through making a lot of money and changing something in the process, specifically in the field of entrepreneurship. The statistical improbability of this happening (2 in 2000) makes this belief one of the really dangerous ones:

…in reality, the likelihood of reaching the pinnacle of capitalist society today is only marginally better than were the chances of being accepted into the French nobility four centuries ago, though at least an aristocratic age was franker, and therefore kinder, about the odds. It did not relentlessly play up the possibilities open to all those with a take on the future of the potato crisp, and so, in turn, did not cruelly equate an ordinary life with a failed one.

When I moved to this megalopolis, I quickly realised almost everyone had some kind of entrepreneurship dream stored in their back pocket or functioning out of their garage. While I do not want mean to sneer at such efforts to achieve the sublime of being your own boss and creating employment (as Talk Radio 702 seems to espouse constantly), I do worry it makes us “equate an ordinary life with a failed one”, which makes me sad.

Seeking the sublime in work does make me think that most of us see work as a way of “anchoring the motives for [our] existence” (de Botton again). Certainly, that is why many people seek to “do what you love” through work. As Miya Tokumitsu argues in this fascinating article, when we all seek to “do what you love”, it is more problematic than it first appears:

Superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. But why should our pleasure be for profit? Who is the audience for this dictum? Who is not?

By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace*.

de Botton only touches on these issues tangentially (and, at times, naively), and his essay is more focussed on musing and posing questions than answering them. This makes his writing wonderfully open-ended, and if you are looking for musings from a very particular kind of brain (one that makes sweeping comparisons to medieval morality and painters) and many descriptions of occupations, this is the book for you. If you are looking for something more concrete than one man’s whimsical description of individual encounters (as I am when I read books about matters of life and death), I would avoid it.

*You should really read this article. It is fascinating.

Procrastination Sunday

Procrastination Sunday #1

If you (like me) are a procrastinator in search of something really worthwhile to read, you may enjoy the following articles I have put together. There are only four (because you can’t procrastinate for too long on a Sunday) but I think each one changed how I thought about life this week (which, for me, is when procrastination becomes worthwhile).

Sighing over a fantasy drains energy from reality. What happens in our heads isn’t private; it is unspoken, that’s all. We all know what it’s like to live in the stifling atmosphere of what is unsaid.


and finally,

  • An old interview with Maria Popova, founder and writer of Brain Pickings, “discovery engine for interestingness”, that is still worth reading:


We’ve created a culture that fetishises the new(s), and we forget the wealth of human knowledge, wisdom, and transcendence that lives in the annals of what we call “history” – art, literature, philosophy, and so many things that are both timeless and incredibly timely.

Happy week ahead, everyone!


*Image source.


Thoughts on “Far From the Tree” #1: On Love

“It is not true that ‘love is not love which alters when it alteration finds’. Love alters all the time; it is fluid, in perpetual flux, an evolving business across a lifetime. We commit to love our children without knowing them, and knowing them changes how we love them”. Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree (388)

Being a teacher is a little like being a parent sometimes because each child (or adolescent) in your care has to feel safe and loved. Students (especially boys according to some studies, and all students according to others) will not listen to the content being taught unless you engage them directly and personally with what they find interesting.

I found this particularly difficult in the beginning of my teaching because at the boys’ school where I teach, team sport is compulsory, and teachers are encouraged to go and watch on weekends. After an exhausting week of teaching, the last thing I wanted to do was to go and sit next to a field and watch something in which I have no interest, and make small talk with parents when I never know what to say. Plus, there is always marking to be done, lessons to be planned, meals to be cooked for the coming week, the house needs cleaning (you get the idea).

In addition, I am not a sports’ fan. At best, I find watching sport a bit of a waste of time. I would rather be reading and learning something or going out and getting some exercise myself. At worst, I find the national obsession with sport a kind of bread-and-circuses conspiracy. How can you care about finding ways to stop global warming or being an active citizen when you spend all your time obsessing about (mainly male) teams of people who earn exorbitant sums of money to be modern versions of gladiators?

Finally, it made me angry that all boys have to play sport (particularly team sport). It felt like we, as a school, were forcing them into one version of masculinity, and into the kind of thinking I have criticised above. If you keep boys busy enough, the busyness and physical activity has the double effect of pacifying and also of lessening the number of opportunities for reflection and questioning. I was a swimmer and an actress at school, and the hours alone swimming laps provided some mindless boredom (singing the same song over and over in your head to the rhythm of your strokes) but also valuable solitary reflection time. Acting in a play (as anyone can attest) is one of the most challenging and rewarding exercises in team work, to the same extent if not more so (in my opinion) than sports.

Needless to say, I seldom made the time to go and watch until I was, by circumstance, forced to do so.

We were in Bloemfontein and we had had an inter-school debate the night before (which was the reason that I was there). On Saturday, there were back-to-back rugby and hockey games (which were at a different venue) so I was stuck watching rugby games all morning. The other teachers who were there were all male and huge sports’ fans themselves, so they were really involved in the games. I moved from group to group, making small talk until, patient though they were, they changed topics to the game we were watching or to talk about national and international teams. It was a frustrating and alienating experience, but it did afford me a lot of time to watch and I noticed something unexpected.

The boys (I was watching the U15s in particular) who mess around and who seem to need endless encouragement to be proactive about their learning and to concentrate were transformed into self-sufficient mini-men on the sports’ field. The A team cheered on the B team and vice-versa, and they spoke seriously to one another about each other’s potential and about how they could improve. I have already written about how John Green helped me to remember teenagers’ agency, but seeing these guys in their element made that realisation more than cerebral. These boys were not trying to be gladiators, they making full use of an activity in which they had agency and power to learn and mature.

It also changed how I interacted with these boys in class. When I looked at them, I was unable to forget that other side of them, the “real” side, not the side they manufacture to show their teacher as they sit passively behind their desks. They were also unable to forget (especially as I started to make a more regular habit of supporting) that I had been there to witness them being their best selves, the ones that they had chosen.

Reading further along in Solomon’s book (in the chapter on Transgender children), I discovered that research shows that some people do conform to gender “stereotypes” quite naturally. Some boys do find more fulfilment being active, particularly together and particularly on sports’ fields where they can take part in a kind of simulated war. I still think that my criticism of the assumption that all boys and men are this way is valid because not all boys are wired like this, but my sneering at all sportsmen and sport as a national (and school) pastime denied a fundamental part of some of the people in my care, and may have made them feel less welcome in my class. Even if, wrongly so, the dominant drive of schools is a sporting one to the exclusion of other skills and talents, my own classroom atmosphere should not exclude those for whom it is fundamental to their well-being because then I would be enacting the prejudice that I abhor. It also closes the door to the more important conversations one can have about sport and the way that it is run and undertaken.

My first “teaching” job was as a tutor at Rhodes University. I had fifteen students and I saw them once a week for forty minutes. Feeling anxious, I chatted to one of the best lecturers I had (Dr Deborah Seddon) while in an Honours lecture. She smiled and said, off-handedly, that students just want to feel safe. In retrospect, her detailed commentary and ability to listen carefully and closely to all my ideas made me feel just that. My mother (a teacher with almost forty years of experience) said something similar the day before I started this full-time teaching job as she said that as long as students felt safe and cared for, I would be able to teach them.

I started teaching with those pieces of advice in mind, and a burning desire to help shape the lives of the people I taught for the better. I think, though, that some of my students only really started feeling safe and cared for (and open to change and guidance) when I changed as a result of having cared for them.

Note: Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree is one of the most fascinating books I have read in years. It does all the things a great book should do: it illuminated parts of the world I had never before noticed, articulated feelings I had held but never expressed (sometimes even to myself), and it was so beautifully written that reading every sentence was a joy. This is the first in a series.

Image source: London French Rugby Club.


A story about white hair and children (and other things)

Black children who live in townships may have more opportunity, more freedom of movement, and better education (although the better education is questionable even taking Bantu Education into account – more on that later) than during apartheid, but what they do not have is experience with many white people. I know this because I draw a crowd of black children whenever I attend parties or church services there.

I have always relished the opportunity to spend time with children, and these sweet kids who stare at me solemnly until I smile at them or pull funny faces (and other things grown-ups unused to children do) make my heart feel all mushy. In addition, I have felt very strongly for a long time that everyone needs to spend a lot of time with people different to themselves or they just perpetuate those general stereotypes and prejudices that are passed down through the generations. I make an especial effort, therefore, to let these particular kids play with my hair and look into my eyes and even touch my face. I want them to see what white people are like (just people with different hair) and to feel more comfortable with difference.

Just like many of the stories I have told myself, this one is not entirely unproblematic. A string of children came up to hug me one by one the other day, each of them being real little girls and telling me how much they liked my shoes, and my dress and my hair, and one of them declared she liked everything about me. Then, they ran away to keep playing, and there was one girl left, who regarded me a little more seriously. She gave me a hug, stepped back, and simply said, “Sweets”. I sheepishly explained that I did not have any sweets in my bag, and she went away.

I joked with Zwe’s Mum that that is obviously what white women do in that part of town: they visit the township, soak up the admiration of little black children and hand out sweets in return. The white benefactor lives on and, clearly, I had not fulfilled my role.

Then, another young woman (a spunky fourteen year-old who wants to become a doctor) started playing with my hair and I felt uncomfortable, as she said that she wanted hair like mine because it was so soft. I felt conflicted for being not just someone people marvel at for a minute and then move on, but someone who is viewed by little black girls as a role model. As a teacher, I like to think I am a role model. I try to be a good person and to prompt young(er) people to question their assumptions, but I do not want my appearance to serve as an example.

Perhaps she said she wanted hair like mine in a similar way that I look longingly at people with curls, and it is less to do with race than it is to do with fashion. But little black girls have to read books about and watch shows about enough white girls and traditionally “white” beauty (long, straight hair and pale skin) and I think my hope is naive. Young black women need black female role models: women who look how they want to look, and are proud of their hair, whether they choose to use it to provide a base for a weave or to mould into an Afro. I felt rather foolish because I suddenly felt as if I was part of the problem. 

So lately, I have felt less part of an extended community, and more as someone who has moulded herself unwittingly into a white “saviour”.

I will keep playing with and talking to children of all races, and I still believe in the importance of spending time with people different from myself, but as long as my history is written on my skin, I need to keep questioning even the unwitting effect I have on others.


Image source: Mary Slessor was a missionary in Calabar (now a buzzing metropolis situated in South-East Nigeria). Some of these missionary and “civilising” impulses are still very present in certain charitable organisations, even local ones that should know better. Some of my so-called “born free” students still talk about “savage” early African cultures. Considering this (and what I have said above), I thought this picture was particularly appropriate, even if it makes me queasy.


On White Linen and Adulthood: an analogy

A few months ago, Zwe and I spent time in one of the most most beautiful places either of us had ever seen.

In Kleinemonde, the beaches seemed endless and were completely unspoiled, and there were lagoons with the odd paddle boat. In the morning, the view of the thick green foliage lining the banks of the lagoon and the clear, clean waters below were enshrouded in sea mist.

The house where we were staying was equally picturesque. It had a verandah with a plunge pool, and the couches just behind the glass verandah doors were oversized and comfortable, perfectly placed in the path of wafting sea air. The bedroom where we slept contained a white and brass-colored iron bed, a puffy white duvet and white curtains and blinds. That room was the locus of a place that was both a retreat and a starting point for an adventure. We returned to Pretoria feeling like we had visited another world.

Back in our narrow, tiled flat with the sound of the freeway and the red dust constantly seeping in, I found myself longing to re-create that fresh-aired atmosphere of Kleinemonde. I went out and bought my very first set of white linen and In one foul swoop, I had bought into adulthood.

I do not say this because I am unwittingly trying to develop my conception of myself through things (oh, capitalism!) but because I have willingly bought large pieces of material that I will have to work hard at keeping spotlessly clean. Adulthood (at least in my privileged world where I have been educated and can make career and reproductive choices) is about deciding to do something that will require sacrifices of your time for something that you think is worthwhile, and sticking by those choices no matter how painful (or just irritating) they will sometimes be. Billions of people decide to have children despite the fact that it will wreak havoc with their bodies, their sleep patterns, and the rest of their lives because, children (apparently).

I have been struggling with the notion of my own adulthood (and simultaneously, of childhood and children). Perhaps it is because when I first started teaching teenagers, I felt more “adult” than I ever have in my life. They looked at me like I was so “past it” (wherever “it” is) and as if I was there to supplement their lives that I wanted to wail, “What about ME?????” I felt like I had stuck my head out of the window of a train, expecting to see exotic scenery flashing past, and instead had discovered that I had reached the end of the line and everyone else had changed trains earlier without my realising. 

Luckily, one of the benefits of being a literature student is knowing when to change figurative devices. Life is not a train and I am not a passenger.

I have decided I much prefer analogy to metaphor in this case. When I was reading Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree (fittingly, a book about children and the adults they become), he refers to Lucretius, and explains that one can find the sublime by exchanging easier for more difficult pleasures. Choosing to buy white linen, in my mind, is a good analogy for consciously deciding to do something difficult because it transforms the world for the better. At our best, I think that is what adults do.

Plus, when I get into bed at night, I feel like I am looking out into an ocean of clouds.


Falling into a Rut (on race in the classroom)

At school, I sometimes fall into a bit of a rut.  No longer am I the Janus-faced teacher who takes on many different roles and can have an intelligent conversation about anime films or politics, philosophy or new scientific discoveries. No. I become the dreaded white-woman-pretending-to-be-down-with-the-brothers.  I lecture kids about black consciousness, the intimate horrors of apartheid, the right of a black woman to wear her her hair however the hell she wants without male judgement, and I make Boondocks-references and refer to Jay-Z and rap when teaching poetry.

Part of this horrifies me because I feel like such a stereotype (and not in a good way). I am the round-faced white woman who wears Zulu beads but cannot speak Zulu, but I am also the pseudo-revolutionary who calls for social change, but then goes home to my nice middle-class home and signs petitions on the Internet. Ugh.

The other part that needles me is that I feel that, as a white woman, what can I really know about what it is to be a young black man in a formerly white school? Also, what if I am missing something vital?  Most of what I espouse has been gleaned from a fairly limited reading experience, and, no doubt, from the overwhelmingly euro-centric media I read.  As I will go on to explain in a future blog, one comes to consciousness about the subtleties and intricacies of prejudice in bits and pieces.  As I am explaining about how I understand prejudice and inequality, am I enacting that same prejudice and inequality in some way I cannot yet see?

Despite my doubts and anxieties about all this, I still feel like I need to carry on teaching this stuff because no one else is talking about it. At school, one is supposed to do one’s best to equip young people to go out into the world as perceptive, sympathetic and responsible citizens. I feel like I will not be doing that job if I do not expose them to the casually racist assumptions embedded in their world views that may hinder them from being sympathetic, perceptive or responsible.

I also realise, though, that I do not just feel compelled to talk about it because I feel it is my civic responsibility, but also because I have a particularly personal stake in these issues. I am confronted by problems and anomalies caused by racism, apartheid’s resonances and white privilege more often than most people, and it affects and changes me deeply. Sometimes I talk about it less because my students need to hear it, and more because I need to lighten the weight in my chest.

So I have come to a compromise that I think will be healthier for my ability to engage with a variety of topics as a teacher.  I will keep starting conversations about these issues as the need arises, but I will also set all my thoughts down here on this blog. That way, I will be able to talk about things the students need to hear, but I will also be able to say what I need to say and exorcise the experiences that tend to twist in my gut.

* picture source: