Article By NOMALANGA MKHIZE
We need to teach, prepare and support black graduates to take risks
I teach students who fall into three categories. There are those whose lives are already taken care of, regardless of how well or how badly they do at university.
These are students who are largely middle class and have had at least two or three generations of family financial stability. They may not be wealthy, but they have extensive social networks and that thing called “social capital”, which gives them preferential access to professional and business opportunities.
The second type of student will invest everything they have in university degrees because it is the primary asset to get ahead in life. These students come to university believing that if they play by the rules the system will reward them. Playing by the rules largely means studying, participating in student societies, perhaps even running for student representative council positions and doing some kind of community service.
These students will do these things because, as their university career guidance officer will tell them, in order to be selected for scholarships or graduate recruitment, they must demonstrate that they are “rounded” with a range of leadership and academic capacities.
These students will care very deeply about their university as an education brand; they are as invested in their education as in the name of the university they will show possible employers. They know employers will probably judge them as much on the university they attended as on what they studied. For this student, the university brand and degree is their social capital and it is also the foundation of future professional networks. However, once they start working, they will realise just how limited their networks are and how this makes it hard to start a business. They will realise they are always a retrenchment away from downward mobility.
The third type of student invests in university education but does not realise that the basic education system has set them up for failure. These students will arrive at university believing they are among the top students in the country, but they will struggle academically. They may have a greater intellectual inclination towards the sciences, but their poor matric marks and subject choices (such as maths literacy) will become hindrances in tertiary education when they find their degree options severely limited. Typically, these students will find themselves graduating with an undergraduate degree that opens very few career opportunities.
Now, I try to explain these observations to many of the black students I encounter. I tell them, “If you are black, the chances are you fit into category two or three.” I try to explain to them that, as things stand, our universities train them to fit into the system, to not be disruptive, to never innovate and to largely administer paperwork for the parents of the type-one students I described at the opening of this article. (In my previous column I alluded to some of this).
Now, typically, the response I get from black students when I talk about this is a kind of scepticism or boredom. Sometimes I become more direct: “Look, black people, you do not own this economy and your degree is simply going to make you a glorified clerk for a capitalist unless you use your education to think innovatively and politically.”
I cannot count the number of times I have had this conversation.
But one should not be surprised because, in many ways, black life has been a struggle to fit into the white economy, not take it over. We need to teach, prepare and support black graduates to take risks. This is what Youthlab, an independent youth organisation in Gauteng, is doing. It is a pity the ANC does not do this — instead, every youth-support institution from Umsobomvu to the National Youth Development Agency has been corrupted.
Mkhize is a lecturer in history at Rhodes University
This article first appeared in Business Day