Thursday, 29 January 2015

Death of a black mamba; death of all life


Death of a black mamba; death of all life


Many years ago, as a lad of seventeen I spent school holidays working on a friend’s sugar cane farm near Umzinto on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal.  On a hot summer day while on the farm, I killed a black mamba. It was a male, a little more than eight feet (2.4 metres) long. The execution was done with a pellet gun, half-dozen pellets and a stick.

At first, there was the modest sense of triumph one might expect of a teenager, since I’d ensured the safety of a number of people. But, later with the passing of years as I engaged increasingly with wild creatures, I thought back to that mamba with only a hollow feeling and enduring sense of regret. And the regret was tenacious and pervasive. It was just one of many such feelings that can come with growing maturity and change in outlook.

One the day of the encounter I was told that the tractor driver of the farm wanted to see me. It was an urgent matter. He was sweating from exertion when he arrived, and his words came in a rush. He’d just seen a huge black mamba coiled in an orange tree next to the footpath from the farmhouse to the labourers’ quarters. Although the snake probably wouldn’t be aggressive unless provoked, it was in striking distance of anyone using the footpath. It must be killed.

I was perplexed because neither the farm owner nor his mother was on the premises. Only they had access to the double-barrel twelve-bore shotgun which was locked in a safe. The cartridges were stored elsewhere.

Two other workers appeared. “It’s a big mamba close to the road,” they said. “The children go past that tree. What will you do? You must come now.”  I could think of no good  answer. The men persisted. The farmer didn’t let me use the shotgun; nor was it available for my use even if I had permission. It remained locked in the gun safe of the farmhouse. All I had was the rusted BSA pellet gun, a small-bore rifle that was not a suitable weapon of execution for so large a creature.

Still, the pressures were mounting. I must do something. I took the gun and a few pellets and approached the tree. The labourers were standing a respectable distance away in an erratic ring of excited, gesticulating onlookers. With the gun loaded, I approached the tree until I was a couple of metres from it, but could not yet see the snake. There was an expectant hush. I edged closer.

There, deep within the orange tree I saw the first evidence of what I had to deal with. A thick coil of dark grey tinged with a hint of brown and sporting a dull cream underbelly showed where the snake was draped. My head was not a half-metre from it as I tracked the sinuous body of the reptile. It was comprised of layer after layer of coils. The scales were beautifully patterned in little regular rows, like small shields melded together.

It looked enormous, and I had visions of something spanning four metres. The reality eventually proved more modest, but with a rampant imagination at work at the time, the snake seemed huge. It was as thick as my wrist, perhaps thicker. The crowd fell silent, waiting expectantly for action.

I pushed the muzzle of the air rifle against the reptile until it was in direct contact, and fired. The mamba didn’t flinch. I fired twice more, noting that the pellets had entered cleanly. The snake began slowly to resettle itself. It was a remarkably slight reaction because three pellets were now embedded. The mamba then slid forward a hands-length. It paused again, staring out at me with its jet black, mesmerising eye. There was no expression beyond the riveting intensity of the stare. It seemed to ask why I was driving these sharp, wounding missiles into it, but offered no threat at all.

I was making a hash of the job, and wanted desperately to finish the mamba’s suffering. Only later did I give any thought to the danger from a creature known for its virulent neuro-toxic venom and fearsome reputation for speed and aggression, draped through the foliage only a metre from my head.

 After placing several pellets, I flushed the reptile from the tree. The crowd scattered, leaping and scrambling away with cries of alarm. The snake shot from the foliage on the far side of the tree and slid swiftly to the ground in a long, fluid movement. Despite the pellets, it managed to glide into a patch of rank grass where it lay concealed from view.  I followed.

Two African kitchen staff arrived, carrying a heavy metal drive-shaft. We edged gingerly forward until we could make out the body of the snake amidst the grass stems. With a heave the men cast the metal rod onto it, pinning the snake and causing it to thrash and flail as it tried to escape. After discarding the rifle I despatched the stricken snake with a stick. We dug a shallow hole, dropped the mangled body into it and covered it with earth.

The cruelty of its death troubled me for years, yet I felt that I could not have left so venomous creature in peace when it was frequenting a habitat close to the staff living quarters. The larger snakes such as mambas no doubt came close to the farm buildings because rats, which were their major food source, were attracted by the grain stores. To leave the mamba in the vicinity could have led to an accident.

The troubling nature of the execution was deepened by several other encounters, during all of which the snakes I came across showed no aggressive intent. They only wanted to lie immobile as a camouflage, or else escape from the vicinity as quickly as possible. Not one came at us. Although my brother and I caught several reptiles for a Durban snake park, I never had cause to kill another snake.

On reflection, my brief anecdote about the mamba illustrates a syndrome that has operated continually throughout the world in recent times. It tells a microcosmic story of the worldwide destruction of wild creatures. Wildlife has been annihilated almost everywhere to make way for humankind as top predator. My home city of Durban, a port, can provide a good example.

In the year 1824 after literate Western settlers arrived by sailing vessel, they described the lagoon of Port Natal (Durban) as one of the most beautiful places in the world. There were mangrove forests, thick coastal lowland forests, reed beds, grasslands and scattered bush. Large and small game was everywhere, and the coastal seas were swarming with fish. The seashore was well populated and the river estuaries were thriving with an astonishing variety of life. Birdlife was plentiful. It had been an Eden.

And then, to these shores came Western man with his technology. Elephant herds were decimated, and buffalo, hippopotamus, the large carnivores, antelope beyond count, primates, reptiles and so many of the other wild creatures woven into the bio-diverse population of creatures were steadily annihilated for profit or sport.

Clearly, if we humans were to live here and use the marvellous resources the lagoon offered as a harbour, then the destruction of wild creatures was inevitable. How could the history have been different? If we were to survive and proliferate, it could not. We simply could not have continued to co-exist with the cornucopia of wildlife as our numbers increased and our properties expanded. One or other party had to give way. Inevitably it was the wild creatures that did so.

The question inevitably arises: what of the future? Will the present world-wide destruction of biodiversity continue unabated? Before I turn to that question, let me get back to mambas.

I was recently invited by herpetologist Jason Arnold, a noted snake-catcher living in Durban North, to join him in a ‘snake-release’. He was often featured in the local newspapers for his exploits in catching a variety of reptiles that had made some domestic residence or other its home, to the dismay of the registered human owners.

On this occasion, Jason had six black mambas ready for release. Each snake was secure in a spacious plastic container. There were adequate air inlets. A couple of centimetres of fresh water had been poured in to ensure that each reptile was well hydrated when it was released to explore its new home. They ranged in length from a young female of a bit over two metres, to a large male of more than two and a half metres. They were beautifully constructed creatures. Each was sleek and muscular; each sported the characteristic jet-black mouth cavity, a clean creamy-white belly and dark brown-grey back.

We drove for a half-hour to get well clear of human habitation that surrounds Durban, and found a remote spot along the inland Umgeni River Valley some kilometres from human habitation. Free of buildings, it was a unique wild location ideal for the release. Jason was well prepared for the job in hand, and efficient. He was focused and measured in his movements, with no sense of bravado. I was reassured. It was not a time and place for amateurs.

“I’ll get each one out of its box, and then scan it to see if it’s a repeat offender. If it already has a chip, I’ll know for sure. Finding a chip is unusual, but it happens now and then. I like to keep a check on their movements,” he said.

“Where do you catch most of them?” I asked.

“Outhouses, garages, storerooms, sometimes in the main house.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Not really. Not if you’re careful. They just want to get away.”

“Have you been bitten?”

‘‘A black mamba got one fang into me, and that wasn’t too bad because there was almost no venom. I think it was a mistake. As first choice, they’re not aggressive. They’d rather get away. I’ve had a couple of bites from other snakes, but nothing serious. I don’t take risks. Sometime, I think, people are unlucky. You know; really scaring a snake, or blocking its way when it wants to get away. And, as I say, they just want to get away. Sometimes when I’ve got them ready for release, they crap simply because they’re so afraid.”

In each case a procedure was followed; first re-catching the snake, then scanning its neck for an embedded chip, then searching for a good release site. This was usually a low branch on one of the acacia thorn trees. The body of the snake was first draped along a clump of branches or twigs until the reptile had a firm purchase, then the head was released with a gentle flicking action of the wrist to get it pointed away.

In every case, the snake wriggled uncertainly for a moment to get balance in the foliage, then got its bearings and settled down calmly. It first looked around to sight us, then moved away a metre or two before pausing, draped immobile across a couple of branches. There was no threat or aggression. The snakes all showed the gentle grin that the jaws of a mamba usually show.  They seemed secure in their camouflage.

The images brought back memories. I knew that the gentle, smiling look of a mamba holds the promise of unspeakable horror.

After a while, most of the snakes slid slowly through the foliage seeking denser vegetation, and climbed further in the acacia trees to be well clear of the ground. They then lay immobile for a time, apparently feeling secure in their natural habitat. When we looked again in a few minutes, they had disappeared. It was time for extra care on our part.

Once we had released three of the snakes, we shifted our vehicle a hundred metres further along the road to ensure that the next three releases were free of interruption from those mambas already released. They could still be in the vicinity and there was no need to tempt fate.

I’ve seen one or two snake programmes on television, showing ‘experts’ engaging with snake encounters. Sometimes this is focused around provoking the snake to get it to show sustained aggression to which the presenter can react while showing bravery. It’s understandable as a strategy to enhance viewer enjoyment, but my preference is to watch a thorough professional who understands the usually non-hostile nature of the snake and handles the situation accordingly. If aggression needs to be shown, it should surely be kept in context and balance. Aggression is not the usual behaviour and overdoing it is tasteless and sometimes cruel.

These creatures are not malignant killers seeking out human victims to envenom. A human is, of course, not a food source. Mambas live largely on small rodents or young rock hyrax where these latter creatures have colonies. They immobilize them with their virulent neuro-toxic venom. They simply want to get away from a larger creature that they realise intrinsically is a threat with the means to do them serious harm.

Nevertheless, all snakes with highly toxic venom must be treated with deep respect. This is especially true if one encounters them in a confined space. One runs a serious risk if one behaves casually or carelessly in their immediate proximity, or misreads a situation. It’s best to retreat to a safe distance. There’s also always the possibility of simply being unlucky.

As with so many other beautiful creatures, mambas are by default identified as aggressive creatures posing an immediate threat, and are being killed systematically. The best protection these and other living creatures can have is to be provided with as much natural environment as can be afforded in the present climate of exploding human populations.

Indeed, the growth of human populations in most countries needs urgent stabilization or reduction. Surely we need to have fewer children and to devote more resources to each child? Obviously, in doing so we will have to confront enduring and pervasive, primeval instincts embedded deep within our consciousness. But now, has the time not come when we must confront overpopulation seriously? With climate change, it is the most difficult problem we humans face.  Our very survival as a species depends on finding solutions..

We must give more resources back to the wild wherever we can, and must think more compassionately about the creatures that share our planet as we learn to empathize more. We need to re-establish biodiversity as best possible. We need to engage with the big picture beyond our personal concerns. And we must do this urgently at a particularly difficult period in our history as a species.

We also have a critical disadvantage no other species has; we are intelligent enough to destroy our own species totally and completely, but without sufficient empathy to prevent the catastrophe from happening.

I’ve written far more comprehensively in Adventures with African Animals, obtained for a few dollars from Amazon as well as Createspace (hardcopy) under Alex Coutts. They are displayed on

Saturday, 17 January 2015

The mind of a stone age artist

The mind of a stone age artist

An elephant-shaman

Look at the ‘painting of a painting’ at the head of this piece of writing. Look especially at the main focus, an elephant-shaman figure. It was painted by a man or woman one might describe with superiority as a ‘late stone-age’ being. One thinks of a primitive ‘cave-man’. But clearly, the artist was no shambling idiot. They were perceptive, intelligent and creative. How did they think?
Ebusingatha Elephant-Shaman

Exploring the mind of a stone-age artist is not the easiest excursion one might make. For a start, one has to shed the stereotype of the person as an uncouth, grunting creature with a brain ruled only by instinct. These were people as fully human as we modern, ‘sapient’ humans are. They might have differed in physical size, but barely at all in cognition. Perhaps they were a tinge more imaginative. Their incredible mythology bears witness to that.

Now study the main figure of an elephant-shaman in conjunction with the swarm of bees. Of the picture you’re looking at, these two images are all that the San (Bushmen) painted. The rest of the images, including the small, high-set cave with beehive and vulture droppings as well as the two human figures on a floating sandstone platform, were painted by the writer as a surrealist work to more completely explore and define the mythical world of the artist.

The original

The original rock painting was done perhaps two hundred years ago on an overhang (cave) wall at Ebusingata, a few kilometres south of Royal Natal National Park in the northern sector of the Natal Drakensberg Mountains of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. And that original is a masterpiece of technical skill and imagination. It also provides a brilliant historical record.

The original composition includes the large figure of a shaman bedecked with white paint and equipped with hunting equipment. He is probably in a state of trance, bent on extracting honey from a small cave in a rock-face crack high up to his right. The bees and their honey were associated with a high degree of potency (religious empowerment).

The modern artist has shown the yellow of the honeycombs of the wild African bees, to indicate the origin of the swarm and provide further context to the lively movements of the figure as focal point. A smear of vulture droppings also shows up white on the ledge of the cave to explain the action further.

Elephant man and the bees

The shaman, naked but replete with bow and arrows, has transformed mentally into an elephant, in the belief that the tough hide of that great beast will protect him from the bee stings. One can see the angry swarm diving and dashing in frenzy around him, but the man-beast (therianthrope) is focused and unperturbed as he strides towards the cave.

Since bees were thought by the San to have great potency, each bee can be seen as a symbol of the power that could be brought to the San shaman by encountering them in their agitated state. Filled with potency by Cagn, the great creator-god, the bees will enter the shaman’s body to travel through his gut and up the spine, to exit at the back of the neck or top of the head. The comprehensive empowerment then enjoyed by the shaman will enable him commune with Cagn during the trance dance, heal the sick, make rain, paint with sensitivity and perhaps be successful in the next hunt.

The shaman figure as art

The therianthropic figure is full of action, powerful and determination, set on a successful encounter with Cagn’s great potency. He is striding forward unflinchingly to the encounter, his limbs and body transformed to that of a great elephantine beast  The penis is infibulated to show his purpose untroubled by any sexual distractions. The San artist has in effect described a shaman in a state of trance, his imagination perfervid and roaming free of critical cortical control.

The mind that painted it

The minds of the San appear to have been modern in every sense, although during their history they suffered denigration and ridicule even from other indigenous groups because of their simple lifestyle. The fact that they were hunter-gatherers and not agriculturists or pastoralists with a sense of property ownership set them apart.

They were outlawed everywhere, and driven to extinction in the Drakensberg (Dragon Mountains) by genocide. On the other hand they possessed incredibly creative imaginations that developed a library of myths to explain their experience and experiences, and the capacity to transform their thoughts into commendably enduring works of art. Their creative thinking is very clear from the painting.

Critical thinking

Their development of effective poisons, oil-based paints of various colours, hunting instruments, clothing suitable for bitterly cold winter conditions and artwork of imagination reveals a capacity for rational, critical analysis and the use of hypotheses. This implies putting forward tentative solutions to problems, and then testing them to find successful patterns. Their record of thriving in montane and desert environments supports the contention.

Their language sounds peculiar to our ears; based on four or so sucking clicks and explosive pops! Peculiar, yes indeed; yet their sparse speech was adequate to their needs. Their sense of sight was marvellous, no doubt honed by their vocation as hunters, and their hearing was also acute.

They excelled us ‘modern people’, with our disposable society, in preserving their environment and not fouling the nest. That is something we who discard things so easily have not yet learnt. They held living things in high esteem, and celebrated and atoned to the creator-being each time they killed a large creature to satisfy their needs. They accorded to nature incredible powers, and tended to credit natural phenomena with human capacities and propensities.

Their womenfolk knew the characteristics and uses of a very wide range of plants, and could predict the seasons when each plant’s roots, fruit, berries or shoots would be available and most crucial to survival. That implies systematic as well as systemic thinking. The women were most astute in rain-making, since they brought the soft, soaking she-rain and not the thunderstorms that would rend the earth and destroy vegetation with its masculine aggression.

Creative thinking

Their great library of mythical stories show the extent of their creative talents. They have stories dealing with creation, great hunts, encounters with cannibals, the characteristics of wild creatures and much more. They had great skill in imitating a wide variety of wild creatures by use of gestures and posturing, and often inserted humour into their displays. These were learning experiences for the young, who would acquire gathering skills from their mothers; and if they were male, hunting skills from the men. A rudimentary education system was in place.

The two human figures

The two San (Bushmen) at lower right are not a part of the original painting, but are human images painted by the artist to give greater commentary, definition and explanation to this surrealist artwork. They are the two compatriots of the shaman whose minds also engage with the elephant image to gain protection in their quest for honey. The hive is no doubt their possession, having been in their family for years. The thong and stick ladder was perhaps fixed to the rock face a century before, and would be maintained from time to time. It is probable that the hunters would make a fire on their imaginary platform of rock to smoke the bees away from the site.


Many great thinkers of the Western and eastern scientific traditions used images, diagrams and other forms of visualisation as a cognitive strategy to clarify their scientific ideas. The San did the same. Their oil paintings show complex hunts, healing scenarios, battles, trance dances, attacks by wild beasts, securing a rain-making creature, cattle raids, and home life.

They are a startling testimony to the depth of intelligence of these diminutive people who suffered genocide and death from farmers and pastoralists who had lost stock from San cattle and horse raids. The San had no concept of property ownership such as that prevalent in most cultures in the world. They suffered heavily for that deficit within their conceptual libraries.

They also suffered genetic dilution through intermarriage with African tribes until a little more than a hundred years ago, when genetically ’pure’ San disappeared from the history of Natal.

More on the contemporary contribution

The circular shape of the central rock wall in the picture is a device to keep the viewer’s eyes from wandering out of the picture. Reds and yellows serve to accentuate the focal points, and edges are a little sharper near focal points to give them further emphasis.

The painting was blocked in initially with a quite thin mix of oil paint and turps to provide a warm tonal under-painting. Darks were subjected to some glazing, and the paint was scumbled in to accentuate the lights. Sandstone is subject to weathering, and one had to be careful not to sharpen edges too much because that would give an unnatural flint-like sharpness that sandstone doesn’t have when well weathered.

Child of the Dragon Mountains

The book Child of the Dragon Mountains tells the story of the San rock artists, hunters, shamans, healers, rainmakers, in the form of a novel. It is based on forty years of research in the Drakensberg Mountains and is an authentic view of the fascinating lives of these diminutive people. The suffered genocide over more than a century, and had disappeared from their range in the montane regions of Natal by about 1900.

It is accessible on and back through the linked blogsite  The book is available on Createspace in hard copy, and also Amazon Kindle in digital form.

You might prefer to just look at the fifty oil paintings or check out a blog that interests you.


Saturday, 10 January 2015

Transform schooling in South Africa

Transform schooling in South Africa

Shadows of the past

The school matriculation results for 2014 show a lower pass rate for KwaZulu-Natal province than in the previous year. Political administrators have taken a measure of responsibility (Mercury, 7 January 2015), a commendable action on their part. They have also quite correctly pointed to poor teacher performance as a major causal factor, attributing it not only to poor training, but to weak subject knowledge and even laziness.

There’s little point in becoming obsessed by these indicators, since they are primarily reflective of the fortunes of the millions of pupils and students moving through the system of twelve years of schooling, rather than just those writing matriculation. If one is to understand the poor performance of many learners, one needs to focus on their experiences during the earlier years of schooling. And one needs to maintain balance; many learners not in the firing-line have done very well indeed.

Many have done very well indeed.
End of a journey; start of another. 

Of the total number of pupils who entered schooling more than a decade ago, only about one-quarter finally ‘passed’ their formal education with a satisfactory result. Many fell out along the way, and a few failed at the final hurdle. In some cases they were hampered by persistently large classes and the non-delivery or late delivery of text books. Some were not allowed progression at a late senior secondary stage, to prevent their failures from being added to the final statistic. When one takes the initial entry numbers of those coming into the system into account, the overall result is dismal.

It is common knowledge that much exam-coaching of students is done in the higher levels, which with the production of exam model answers results in slightly elevated pass rates but poor educational experiences. Exam papers are sometimes sold, and cheating is apparently rife, with 5300 students currently subject to investigation (Mercury, 09 January 2015). The reasons for failure are complex, made up of a great many factors. The aetiology behind an inadequate schooling system and the actual, limited educational experiences derived from it by many pupils is more complex still.

The root cause

From the early days of the apartheid era when the differential of spending was decided on racial grounds (R16 per white child, R1 per African child in 1971) to the present day, the rot has gnawed away steadily. The weaknesses in our education system are a compound of many factors, but in the modern day a lack of sufficiently deeply committed, well-trained and creative professional teachers remains the root cause. One reads statements to this effect in the front-page article of the Mercury of 7 January 2015.

One gets the feeling that some within the teacher corps simply do not understand the level of commitment and hard grind required by the profession. Unions do not seem willing to intervene. The slogan still seems to be the old historical one of ‘rights before service’.

Talk and chalk methodologies have prevailed throughout the history of education in South Africa, in which teacher-centred instructional methods were widely prevalent, supported by a standardised textbook. Content-dissemination and memorisation were prevalent methodologies, with little thought given in many schools to creativity and innovatory thinking.


I served on the staff of the Edgewood College of Education in Pinetown, a suburb of Durban, for over twenty years. I was Deputy Rector for the last few years of service, and was therefore deeply implicated in training thousands of teachers over two decades. Our Rector, Professor Andre le Roux liaised with more than a hundred institutions for training, via CORDTEK (Committee of Rectors and Deans for Teacher Education KwaZulu-Natal).  Senior staff committed to working together in the ‘New South Africa’ then emerging, to maintain and even enhance standards by open-minded collaboration and the sharing of facilities.

In the New South Africa that emerged in 1994, such projects as CORDTEK were however rejected by the new incumbents. Thereafter, many highly competent professional administrators, lecturers and teachers retired of their own volition or were encouraged to retire, thus losing a great deal of accumulated wisdom and experience.

Seeking a way forward

I personally welcomed the New South Africa and during the ten years prior to the political changes of 1994 undertook research on multi-cultural, non-racial education and gave numerous public addresses in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

The research was a D.Phil. study titled An exploratory study of the South African New Era Schools Trust. A four-year longitudinal study, it was completed in 1989 through the University of Natal (now University of KwaZulu-Natal).

I analysed the possible pathways of transition to a non-racial dispensation, encouraged privileged institutions to accept the process in a positive way and urged an open-hearted, collaborative effort.

During our staffroom discussions in the 1980s and early 1990s, the view was expressed that it could take thirty years or more for South Africa to move beyond the apartheid legacy. This implied attempting to construct or upgrade adequate school buildings and other facilities, develop multi-cultural curricula, re-organise disparate systems and their administrations, integrate teacher education institutions, alter mindsets as best possible, reduce class sizes and enhance examination procedures.

A lingering cost of the struggle

During the College’s practical teaching programmes, for which I was responsible as Deputy Rector, I liaised with three hundred school principals and visited many primary and secondary schools. I noted how the prevailing disillusion with highly discriminatory apartheid education had for years been channelled into resistance to the system, often activated as a go-slow on the part of educators. It was an understandable reaction, yet at the heart of it lay future disaster for South Africa.

In many schools, very little education was taking place. The liberation ends were seen to justify the means. Some principals who tried to raise their school’s standards and provide sound leadership were threatened, and office windows were smashed and the buildings even set on fire. With their lives at risk, it was understandable that most teachers accepted the status quo; thus setting a pattern for the future. As far as I could make out, many parents were prepared to accept the situation since they too, would ultimately benefit from political change.

I had for long recognised the political ends (a non-racial schooling system) as necessary and commendable, but was wary of the destructive means used to achieve those ends. Teachers were vulnerable to settling into a comfortable pattern of minimalist teaching that would not be suited to the transformed and vigorous society South Africa required. Training colleges were not immune; and there, too, resistance at all costs was the watchword.

I believe that the pattern set in those years has persisted to the present day. Apartheid during the seventies and eighties was successful in teaching people how to resist through withholding their labour. It seems to have continued to the present time, although formal apartheid is long gone. And all the while, few civil servants have given serious thought for the children who were caught in the middle of the fracas; their needs became secondary or lost sight of. Indeed, apartheid has much to answer for, but so has the lethargy and occasional arrogance that superseded it.

Since those years my wife and I, who have no children of our own, have seen to the education of numerous young Zulu boys and girls. It became our alternative commitment. All are now adults to whom we gave a home, financed as best possible, motivated and guided during their years of education. Several are now qualified with diplomas or degrees. The experience, not yet concluded, has given us insights into many aspects of current education. My wife retired from a secondary school principal post a few years back, so our insights have remained current.

After the advent of a ‘new’ South Africa, the ‘new brooms’ in formal state education got busy; quite possibly too busy. Some of the remaining most competent teachers left or were ousted by officialdom making their lives unbearable. Many in-service courses dwelt on the historical past rather than the promising future. And, they brought in ill-conceived changes without sufficient preparation of those who would implement the system.

Outcomes Based Education

Outcomes Based Education was a monumental, sweeping curriculum change rather than simply a reformulation of syllabi requiring upgrades. It was developed during the 1990s and expanded with the New Millennium. It relied on assessment statements that forced convergence of thought on a single, clearly defined answer as means to avoid discrimination between races, cultures and classes. In practice, creative answers were often seen as controversial because they sometimes deviated from the official statement of outcome. One either knew the answer or didn’t. For teachers with a lively imagination, their profession became a highly-regulated, debilitating endeavour.

My wife and I visited New Zealand in 2005 for a principals’ conference, and I arranged an interview with senior officials in the capital Wellington. I heard many cautions about outcomes based education, including pointers about the increased administrative burden it brought, entrenchment of linear, convergent thinking, and much more.

Despite the caveats, this became the new great way forward, with a tendency to relapse into monumental administrative overload. Only the end-product of a section within a syllabus was widely seen to have value, and methods of teaching and learning lapsed in importance. The route to the end product was of little consequence, as long as it could be classified under banal labels such as ‘practical’, ‘knowledge’ or ‘question and answer’.  

As the familiar teacher-centred approaches of the past were rejected in favour of radical new freedoms for the learners, confusion reigned and there was loss of discipline in many schools. The transformation was too rapid, confusing and bluntly implemented. Teacher morale took a pounding.

The fundamental literacies of languages and number deteriorated further to become matters of secondary importance. Yet these critical, symbolic domains of learning still inevitably constituted the means by which all other meanings of the ‘empirics’, ‘aesthetics’, and synoptic ‘subjects’ were conveyed.

A confusion of policies

Teachers already struggling with quite simple teaching methods in the midst of harsh conditions were overwhelmed by the constant shift in a confusion of policies and requirements as these evolved, transformed and sometimes disappeared without trace. Since for six years I offered training within the SETA system, I became aware that in the early stages the officials administering the system were often far less informed about its nuances that we who were already widely experienced educators.

Now, in the second decade of the new millennium, the government is trying to rectify matters through the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS). This document could remedy some of the more obvious deficiencies of the past, but it has brought yet another set of requirements to be negotiated, digested and implemented by teachers. The sometimes weak 2014 results are blamed partly on CAPS. It is fingered as something imposed without adequate preparation.

One longs for a time when the National Education Departments will have approved, settled curricula, with syllabi within it nuanced and modified only as is necessary. That would avoid the morale-destroying massive curricular revolutions that make teachers feel that everything done before was a mistake and waste of time.


Typically, we who served at Edgewood were committed professionals who made their vocation a central part of their lives. But however we express it, we tended to be shielded from the most debilitating experiences.

To lecture and teach was a rare privilege, something to be nurtured, nourished and valued beyond most other things in life. We were there to serve the children of this country, not ourselves. And many of us worked steadily towards a non-racial society free of prejudice. For a few of us, salaries were things you received at the end of the month with gratitude, because such an astonishingly special profession went with it.

But we, and many other educationists working ceaselessly in privileged environments were not heroes; just professionals doing a reasonable job.

The real heroes

To put things in perspective, more worthy than any of us at Edgewood are the teachers who served truly impoverished communities with commitment and resolve, under the difficult conditions brought about by apartheid. Some endured unmotivated and faltering leadership, others worked in decrepit crumbling buildings. Yet others suffered from the generational transmission of illiteracy from poverty-stricken parents with no resources to offer their children, while others interacted with parents who had no interest whatsoever in their offspring’s education. The teachers who wrestled in the front line with these problems and never gave up are the real heroes. 

Deep-seated flaws

In thinking through some of the errors of the past, we need to engage with systemic (and systematic) thinking, especially with some of the so-called ‘archetypes’ or fatal flaws that have dogged the emerging structure. As pointed out, many can be traced back to the burst of euphoria and emotion, not rationality that emerged after 1994. 

Negative perceptions

It is clear from the plethora of articles, reports, and anecdotes that have emerged during the past couple of decades that there were, and still are, many in service within education who remain a source of shame to their colleagues. Many are apparently comfortable with an existence in which they remain uncommitted, lazy, unimaginative and poorly trained. Some are content with their now comparatively indulged and protected lives. Indeed, these factors have been identified and stated publicly by senior officials within a week of the time of writing.

Although it is understandable that some might relapse into unproductive comfort, in a sense it is a betrayal of trust in a country that has come a long way towards an equalisation of educational opportunity. The syndrome has been destructive of our nation’s most precious possession, our youth. The 2005 Human Sciences Research Council report Educator workload in South Africa (Chisholm, L., et al.) paints a picture of teachers’ effort tailing off during the working week, with some teachers only spending 46% of their time actually teaching, and some as low as 10%.

Other time is given to administration, union meetings, and so on. In some schools, one understands, unprofessional behaviour has been identified by education authorities. Currently, cheating has held back the dissemination of results, with 58 matriculation exam centres indicted in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. At the time of writing, 5 300 matriculants (1% of candidates) were being investigated for cheating (Mercury, 9 January). Government is to be commended for investigating and declaring the figures so openly.

We have seen a drop in pass rates of the 2014 matriculants for mathematics, science and second language. There are especially dismal performances in some cases, with the products of the formal state education system in South Africa rated low in Africa and the World. Teacher absenteeism and general non-commitment to the bigger vision is sometimes blamed (Mail and Guardian, 8 July 2011). Where, then, is the much-vaunted ‘ubuntu’ towards our youth?’

Teacher training

Teacher training has also been fraught with difficulties. A great loss of teachers to the system occurred in the early years, when many left after the installation of a new government in 1994 brought perceptions of ‘reverse’ racial discrimination and stalled careers. Since that time there have been periods when far more teachers have left the profession than entered it. The integration of colleges of education and teacher training colleges into universities has also, arguably, lowered the standard of teaching, as the unique focus on education and teaching rather than content knowledge was lost by this move.

The way forward

The following suggestions are made in an effort to move a faltering system forward.

1.    Principals.

Give sound, informed, committed, ethical and inspiring leadership, with the pupils and their parents placed centrally before any other considerations. Principals need to confer on the concept of professionalism and then lead the way in demonstrating it in practice. Your role is too crucial to the success of our country. There can be no Plan B.

2.    Teachers

Re-commit to professionalism, with the pupils and students at the centre of your professional lives. Being professional implies valuing one’s  knowledge and experience, focusing on service before self-interest, following a meaningful Code of Conduct, building on initial training by pursuing one’s  own scheme of further service training, and submitting to moderation by a professional council of peers. One might also pursue lifelong learning and a course in cognitive enhancement.

3.    If a teacher has the capacity, they might retrain for the critical subjects the country needs, such as mathematics, sciences and language of the economy.

4.    All educators must display professional conduct in the discharge of their duties. They must at least:

·         Have a commitment that pursues service and not a comfortable existence.

·         Be punctual.

·         Master the curriculum components, or syllabi, that they must teach.

·         Prepare and teach a range of lessons, including approaches that depend on at least learner-centred question and answer and discussion, the use of group work and individual assignments, as applicable.

·         Treat children with absolute propriety and respect, while ensuring a disciplined environment.

·         Simplify their administration yet maintain quality, and make basic teaching the priority.

·         Follow one’s individual conscience rather than the crowd.

·         Evaluate and assess learners’ work systematically and meticulously.

5.    Teacher Unions

Unions should support and indeed lead a move to promote teaching as a full-blooded profession in which service to the pupils and their parents is given equal weight to concerns with salaries and service conditions. Expressed differently, union officials need to see the promotion of teachers’ duties and responsibilities as equal in importance to the support for teacher rights.

6.    Business should have a far more powerful say in education, giving government a lead as to what attributes and skills are required for success in industry and business, from time to time. Business should be cultivated as an ally of government in the fight for a sound education system, and not a hindrance or even oppositional force.

7.    Every student in South African schools should at some time engage with a course in entrepreneurship, including how to run a small business and how to fit into a variety of enterprises.

8.    A system should be put into place to hold teachers accountable for their personal performance. In fact, if all government officials had to place their children in state schools, it would hold them more accountable too.

9.    Greater devolution of authority should be permitted. There is as much intelligence nestled in peripheral areas as there is at the centre; and there could be more creative thinking and positive ownership besides.

A better future

I remain intensely interested in education in South Africa, hence the disappointment inherent in this piece of writing. I will not accept that, while we have made enormous strides in developing a non-racial system (a desperately difficult task in the presence of so many contested political interests), we have regressed or at least shown little progress in some core areas. I expected better.

Were my wife’s and my long careers in education wasted? No. And there is no bitterness. Through teaching, my wife and I have left useful ideas with numerous school and college students as well as our Zulu family. Tens of thousands of other committed educators and educationists of all races have done the same; and no doubt done it far better than we.

Correcting matters is a national endeavour. Or else, we sink as a nation. Effective teaching is the core requirement of the entire educational edifice. All else is subservient to it. The teachers of this country hold the future in their hands. It’s time they began to lead the way to a better future for all South Africans. But they needs the tools and support to do it.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Saved From the Charge of a Black Rhino

Saved From the Charge of a Black Rhino

Many years ago, accompanied by a friend I visited the Ndumo Game Reserve in North-East Zululand to study the magnificent birdlife, and also look for ubejane, the irritable and dangerous black rhinoceros as well as the beautiful nyala antelope. Peter Jacobs and I spent a day on foot with a knowledgeable Zulu guide I recall as Sipho... and found our rhino.

The Magnificent Black Rhino

While on the hike, we entered a vast plain of short dry grass, with a little scattered scrub along the edges and a single, stately acacia tortilis (umbrella thorn) tree standing in lonely isolation in the midst. The three members of our party hesitated at the edge of the grassy plain, and then made a way forward in single file towards the lone tree. The broad expanse of short grass around it was devoid of other cover. When we were about half way across the open ground, walking towards the tree, Sipho called to us:

"Stop!" he whispered, jerking his hand up in a sharp, urgent jab.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Thula. Don't talk," whispered Sipho. "uBhejane. Black rhino." He gestured with two fingers for us to look beyond the tree.

From a small patch of thorn scrub on the other side of the plain a heavy, dark grey bulk had appeared, ambling towards the thorn tree to which we were headed. The beast hadn't seen us, but it had its head up testing the breeze for scent. One could see the sharp prehensile upper lip that identified the creature as a browser. It was a hundred metres from the tree. We were thirty metres short. We stood and waited for a few seconds, but the rhino came on steadily, testing the air. He looked huge.

"What must we do?" Peter mused. "Should we go towards the tree?”

 "Yes. Run to the tree,” said Sipho, using a mixture of Zulu and broken English. “Don’t go back. No cover. It's a black rhino. It is the grumpy vicious one. It can move very fast." Then he added encouragingly. “He will kill you if he catches you.”

Looking behind us for shelter and realizing how vulnerable we were, we didn't wait for further advice. We made a rush for the thorn tree, towards the rhino that had slowed to halt on the other side. It was now about sixty metres away from the tree. Sensing the movement and now having our scent from a shift in the wind, the massive beast raised its tail and began to trot and then gallop towards us, with a heavy, lurching action that showed its enormous power and weight. It snorted and belched and farted as it came.

We sprinted. Husain Bolt would have been proud of us. Gasping from the exertion and sweating profusely, we gained the shelter of the tree, and the rhinoceros drew up some lengths short, testing the wind again and making thrusting motions with its horn.

Peter and I scrambled up the single trunk onto the three thick branches closest to the ground, and then went higher to where the long white thorns penetrated our shirts and furrowed our shoulders and necks in the canopy. Sipho climbed quite calmly onto a lower limb and stood there about two metres from the ground. He declined to join us higher up.

 We tried vainly to seat ourselves in more comfort about three metres off the ground , making the quite thin branches we were seated on sway wildly and threatening to tear the base from the trunk with our combined weight. Inquisitive now, the rhino lumbered up to within a short distance of the tree and then walked forward to stand in its sparse shade, swinging its head from side to side.
It rubbed its hide briefly against a part of the tree trunk where constant use as a rubbing post had worn the bark red and raw. It was clearly agitated by our intrusion, but its weak eyes couldn’t make out our whereabouts. We looked down and saw the bloated purple ticks that troubled the rhino's hide. The muscles bunched over the neck and shoulders were massive. It impressed us as an enormous, powerful and strangely beautiful creature.

“How can anyone want to kill these remarkable things?” I wondered.
We were silent at first, and then Peter started to giggle at our plight. His mirth was soon amplified by my own. The tree swayed wildly as we choked back our laughter, disturbing the rhino and sending it off. It wheeled away from the tree and ran a few paces with its tail up, droppings emerging from its rear like little bombs as it went.  Eventually we dared to climb to the ground, while the rhino stood watching the tree from the length of a football field away, for a quarter of an hour.
"We call him ‘ubejane', the vicious one," said Siyabonga once more, thus assuring a stay close to the tree. A movement from one of us was seen by the rhino. It swung back again to face directly towards us and advanced with purposeful steps, its weak eyes once more sensing movement. 

We went up the tree again, carefully avoiding the thorns higher up, and deciding how best to end the stand-off.  After some time the rhino lost interest, swung around and jogged away out of sight. We came down again, to sit on the ground and tend our scratches and punctures.
Now, fifty years after my first encounter with rhino, these magnificent beasts are threatened with extinction as many significant players look on helplessly or with disdain. Many who might help are consumed by their own problems, while voracious and brutal syndicates in Southern Africa and the Far East refine their tactics to generate wealth out of the distress of these great beasts.

Others simply look on with ignorance at what is happening, little concerned at the impoverishment of their own and other people’s children who in future might have to look at books or stale videos showing the animals.

A few committed and brave people are in the firing line, trying with limited resources to save the remaining rhinos. Armed guards, aerial surveillance, fences, dehorning or poisoning of horns, improved legal procedures will all help, but finally it is probably the education of consumer populations in the Far East that will bring an end to the slaughter.

Soon, unless more action is taken, we will have few of these great creatures left to remind us of their massive, dignified presence.