Young, Black and Trapped In Your Degree: The political and economic diagnosis of a passionless education

By Anele Nzimande (@Anele_Nzimande)

Finding herself in conversation with a woman who qualified as an engineer and is now a choreographer-artist on a recent trip to her hometown, Anele shares her thoughts on the burden of being young, black and finding yourself trapped pursuing a degree that is not your passion. She expands on the political and economic circumstances that dictate the difficult choices made by black students on career choice as well as the societal circumstances that have come to continue this problem. 

I recently visited my home town, Durban, with a group of creative’s who were shooting a documentary. One of the guys in the group had a friend who lived in the area and was screening a film nearby. We called a cab and minutes later, I found myself in a strange and dark building around a bon fire with some incredible people.

Among the group, I found myself in an intense conversation with a woman who was seated to my left. She shared with me that she is a choreographer-artist who had first studied engineering. She had had no interest in being an engineer but it had been a necessary detour that she needed to take in order to be able to finance her real interests. It sounded all too familiar. Of course this is not something just limited to the black experience, but I want to argue that this is more prevalent in the black community.

I have spent four years in University and believe it teaches you two important lessons:

  1. It teaches you who you are not (this is usually easier to make out), and
  2. In the process it inadvertently brings you to who you are and that person is not always easy to accept.

However, university can also be a deeply competitive, isolating and excruciating experience. What you are taught in cryptic code, is to suffer in silence; that everyone must bear their cross with spine-chilling grace and in silent acquiescence. Anything less is a clear symptom of weakness. A diagnosis we all do our best to avoid by the way.

The situation is much worse for black students. For a start, black students cannot be visibly unhappy in university. We must be the picture of contentment and copious gratitude for the following reasons; that we have crossed the first hurdle and were admitted, then for having the funds to finance all the years spent at university and then for finally graduating (if it happens). As when you are black, you are always in a ‘Nervous Condition’, looking over your back to see if the poverty you are escaping will ever catch up with you.

University does not take us out of poverty and suffering, it just creates an illusion of widening the gap between us and it. It awaits us when we visit our grandmothers over the holidays and have to temporarily forego our comfortable lives in towns and cities. The townships are all around us, enclosing us to cushion our fall from our upper class city lives when white benevolence tires (also read: non-white house Negro benevolence.)

Few black people have had the liberty to study what we want. We study what will cost us less and give a greater return in investment in that it determines how quickly one can gain employment and fast tracked upward social mobility.

What do white students have that black students do not? They have the ability to self-determine and the privilege to become who they want to be. It costs money to study. Universities are filled with thousands of black students studying degrees they have no passion for or interest in as in many instances, their decision was dictated either by the fact that this was the only way they could gain entry into one or that the degree choice was the only one offered on bursary. As the saying goes, “beggars can’t be choosers”.

Black students suffer depression and disillusionment and often contend with that in silence as they are worried about public opinion and family members to give priority to self care as in most cases, they are their families’ only hope. In the eyes of many still, choosing to pursue a career in the arts is choosing to be poor for a black student in South Africa. The greatest barrier to entry is the inability to self-finance.

We often laugh at how people are failing or are being excluded yet we never fully interrogate why that is. Of course, there is the general laziness and procrastination on the part of some students that causes the system to self-cleanse but there is a deeper political and economic aspect to why black students do not succeed in the pursuit of their chosen degree. Marechera puts it this way, “We are in search of unattainable elixir which our restlessness presaged.”

We are restless. We carry the burdensome weight of dormant potential and unfulfilled dreams that span generations and we have been tasked with the redemption of our family names and lineage. We are history’s henchmen and therefore, we are not at liberty to ever hate what we are studying. The same white supremacist capitalist system that once excluded black people, now allows black students to purchase their freedom for themselves and for their families through a university education. Even at that, this option does not come cheaply.

You are handcuffed with bursaries that you need to pay off with your employment and time. For some of us, our families need us to haul them out of the cycle of poverty as we are either first or second generation university attendees. We are here to advance our family’s history so that our parents can boast about having a doctor, lawyer and engineer in the family, even if it leads to our destruction.

Generations of black people, in the absence of meaningful reparations post 1994, have been attempting to buy back their freedom and human dignity through student loans and the acceptance of bursaries offered for any degree that will secure them employment after graduating. And all the while, this is done with them denying themselves in the process. Is that freedom? Is it freedom to be the blacks who can afford to bestow copious pity on others who are us, but are not really like us, because of our proximity to whiteness?

The only difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’, if there is one at all, for those of us who have been successful in the project of buying our freedom, is that we are spared the overt stigma of racial difference that is so deeply entrenched by centuries of dehumanisation of black bodies. It is as natural as breathing. We, who are allowed into the narrow gate, are created in their image. And white people are, through us, in a position where they become gods and in muted tones remark, blasphemously, that “It is good. People have always loved best the work of their fingers.”

The University space for a black student is a land mine that one has to expertly navigate in order to avoid explosives beneath the ground that have the potential to amputate one from parts of their ‘blackness’. We have to learn the implicit codes of the corporate world and white universities because we long for a restoration of our lost sense of wholeness, for our sense of ourselves and the world around us. We want to be convinced of our worth and dignity and so we enroll for degrees we do not want, because the reward is prestige and social esteem. Happiness becomes a small price to pay for that.

South African Universities, particularly those that are former white universities, still do not bear the face of the people that it serves. Wits, University of Cape Town, the University of Stellenbosch and the University of Pretoria continue to be alienating spaces for most black students. Of course, this is only one side of the story. There are black students who are passionate about what they are studying and are doing brilliantly at it but this should not overshadow the problem being diagnosed here.

It is the deepest irony that black students also laugh the loudest and the longest when their contemporaries are financially or academically excluded. The process of reversing and re-writing family history is onerous. We have just come out of an era where Model C accents were celebrated and glorified. Where our parents celebrated, as the only sign of progress and achievement, that their children could speak English just as well and as good as white people.

I can only hope that there will be less laughter from us as black students every time one of our own falls out of the system. Even though it is a flawed system and does not solve our problems, there is reason why we have to go to university. As we continue with the process of decolonising the university space, until we feel and are represented and visible, we must strive to decolonise our minds.

There is nothing to celebrate, jeer at, or laugh about when a black student is excluded. The black student movement needs to be concerned with the ways in which we can mitigate this reality and stop viewing the education of the black child as a game of ‘Survivor’.

We need to build alliances and begin to imagine the ways in which we can access education anew and demand to be more than just doctors, lawyers and engineers.  Black students can be alternative, creative and innovative. We must demand that, and we must demand it now.

  1. What is said here is that I know this, feel and see everyday in a pursuit of so called university degrees by black Africans. What makes things worse now, is a tendency by the universities to constantly changing the curriculum, leading to the degree of Marketing that one enrol for, in this year to a less value next year because a new marketing degree has emerged. Again when I was watching a television program a while ago, I heard that Universities like Wits, UCT, University Stellenbosch and University of Pretoria do preserve some of the degrees for only white students.

  2. This is a touching and beautifully-written article that speaks to the struggles of many of us. It’s true – few Black people have had the liberty to study what we want, whether it’s because we’re carrying the weight of generations of untapped potential and unfulfilled dreams, or trying to escape economic deprivation. It’s a privilege to be able to be and do what you want in life without these considerations. Thanks for shining light on the obstacles Black college students have to maneuver in this flawed system and for expressing our right to be anything we want to be!

  3. This is very insightful. after reading the article i send it to my colleagues one thing we all could relate to was that the qualification that we have now aren’t the qualification we wanted to study for…. Thank you so much for this Anelle. I’m currently pursuing a degree in Business Management, which is what I wanted to study three years ago but could not everyone thought i would not get a job with it.

  4. 2015 has been an awesome year in terms of a real, tangible revival of black consciousness, I feel. I’ve learnt so much about myself as a black person with a degree AND as a black woman. One thing I’ve been thinking seriously about amidst the calls for the decolonisation of academic institutions, it is that we are always relying on others to help us. I’ve realised that it goes against modern human nature to handover power without guaranteed protection from danger to your livelihood. We’re designed to want to move forward and upwards, so it’s awkward going the other way, you know?
    The best return on investment of our degrees would be to build and manage our own black universities, from the ground up. I am a grade A cynic and I don’t think we have the time to wait for white people to have a conscience and give up their position of priviledge. The current protests must definitely continue, but we mustn’t rely on them as our sole source of decolonisation of institutions. What better prize to come from this than a spring of academic institutions that champion black people as creatives, financiers and engineers alike? That can feed the ideas into our communities that we are capable of anything and everything given the freedom to work on our own terms. I, for one, would love something like that.

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