Thursday, November 20, 2008


Last week, the final year students began writing their matriculation (“matric”) exams. These exams are different than final exams in the U.S. They are separate from high school graduation. Here after finishing high school and having a ceremony (if your high school has a graduation ceremony) you write nation-wide exams in every subject you studied. You need to pass matric exams to enter university. It's a bit like the SAT or ACT in the U.S. except the students here take 2 or 3 English exams, 2 or 3 French (or any foreign language), 2 or 3 physics (or another science), 2 or 3 maths, 2 geography, etc. Students can have 10 exams or even 14 exams. They space them out and take them for about a month or so only going to school when they have an exam; otherwise they stay home as they must finish their final year early because of the matric exams (they start before final exams of Grades 11 and below).

What is special this year is that this is the first matric exams under the outcomes-based curriculum. People hate this curriculum (similar to objective-based versus marks-based) and blame it for students' general lack of competence in many subject areas. My unexperienced opinion is that whether or not it is the best system, it is probably a question of implementation. It has been poorly implemented as it requires extra care to make sure the students are competent in all content mastery topics/areas. Either way we have children that graduate and struggle to read. It's a problem. So the country waits with bated breath to see what will happen. This is the first matric exam set under the new system and we hope at least to have the same number of students pass as last year.

We're battling climate change and even future water stress (we're slated to be one of the countries hardest hit by the upcoming water shortage say around 2025, according to the World Wildlife Fund [WWF]). But the most immediate health and environment concern this month was a new virus that showed up. Four people have died from some sort of hemorrhagic fever. They died in the Joburg area. But the unknown fever has been finally named: it is a member of the arenavirus family. Originally
the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NCID) wanted to name it after Lusaka where the first victim came from, but Zambia doesn't want the stigma attached to its capital city, so Bob Swanepoel of the NCID is going back in history to find the “putative” name. This new virus could be the result of two known arenaviruses coming together. The fifth infected person is recovering. Hopefully the virus was contained.

The former defense minister “Terror” Lekota (named Terror for his younger soccer days) has resigned from the party over the past month and started a break-off group from the ANC. He has been critical of the ANC's criticism of the courts (when judges do not rule in Zuma's favor) and of the direction of the party. He had a conference last weekend. It was amazing to see normal everyday citizens get in buses and vans and drive to be delegates in this new party forming. For the first time South Africans are beginning to see that they may one day live in a country with competitive politics, and this is exciting. They look at the U.S., and relative to what we have here, they see the race between McCain and Obama as exciting. As my lovely friend Eliza Choo (studied development/IR and has a beautiful heart for Africa; based out of NJ) suggests, political races are likes sports matches, “you like it when they are close.”

Inasmuch as this is true, then they are moving closer towards a democracy. You see the problem that plagues South Africa and the U.S. is the settling of something less than true democracy. In the U.S., the people are considered as dumb or not so intelligent by the rest of the world. Americans are told what to believe and think and they follow and listen. The ability to think, I mean to really think critically, independently is lost. So if five people want to run for president, American people focus on the two the media focus on—the Democratic and the Republican candidate. This is one of the reasons I wish there was a government fund for candidates, a fund that was minimal. Or I would even be happy with a limit. Each candidate gets two commercials that can be run throughout the campaign and no more. Debates are equally accessible to all candidates, and no petition-list barriers for third party candidates. I would love to see a race where all candidates are considered equally. Because what's missing are ideas. In the REAL world, there are more to two sides to MOST issues, yet the media does this spin doctoring thing that presents it as two sides that can never agree because that makes good TV (so they work things out in the pre-interviews for the political commentary; guess what happens if both guests want a bi-partisan solution with non-partisan rhetoric?). Democracy means everyone has a voice. It means voices, MANY voices. Is that what is in the U.S.? That's the question to ask yourself. It's especially troublesome when parties become very similar; they receive financial support from the same groups and companies. Both parties forget the same people: one focuses on the wealthiest Americans, the other on the middle-class. Both forget the guy at the bottom. One blames poverty on lack of values and wants to fight it with money for marriage and family programs. One wants to focus on social programs that temporarily help people's immediate needs. Why not both? Why not also take care of people's immediate needs while addressing the root of the problem that is causing this?

If you ever lose the multiplicity of voices, no matter if you have free and fair elections, you have lost a democracy. So South Africa sits in the same boat; although its boat is developmental or structural. There is one dominating party that dominates because it liberated not because it governs well. There is a subtle difference, but they have been riding the residual wave for 14 years. This moment was due to happen, and it is the natural course of events for such new democracies. But it's still at the point where you know which party will win. There is no surprise. There is no anticipation. It's one voice. South Africa is so dominated by one voice that opposition groups are opposing only because they are against something and not for something. This is dangerous. If you are against something you simply re-establish the notion that there is always that minority faction of discounted people, the “nu-silent minority”, the complaining company. It's expected. Therefore it is dismissed. When, instead, you offer an alternative, a viable alternative, you actually force those in power to think and question and decide what is best. At the very least, they have to answer.

So when Bekki resigned and people said it was good for democracy and I didn't see it, perhaps they were right. If they foresaw a new party forming and if they were referring to that, then it is true. It's good for democracy.

Right now there has been controversy over a letter from Bekki to Zuma. It was read last week by the ruling party's secretary who selectively quoted it making it sound like Mbeki was distancing himself from the new party. Now the letter has come out in public—Mbeki was, in fact, refusing to be involved with the ANC's run in the 2009 elections and its internal politics, implicitly defending the new breakaway party, and implicitly attacking Zuma calling the ANC a personality movement which is what ANC members accused Mbeki of leading (Mbeki referred to the Youth League's leader's comments about killing for Zuma).

So drama, drama, and more drama. My guess, judging from now, is that the breakaway party won't have enough support to win next year, but by 2014 (we vote every 5 years for presidential races) I think it will be a viable alternative. Let's hope they get a platform together about what they support.

No comments: