Notes From A Muddy Island: Transport


It’s two months this week since we took the rather life changing trip from South Africa to the UK to come live and work here. Instead of one long post on everything, I thought I’d stagger it into bite sized chunks, dedicated to one topic at a time.

Let me talk about transport first, because it is one of the more iconic things about London, in some strange way. We’re spoiled in South Africa – because assuming we’re financially ok and in the workforce, we generally drive everywhere. Or are we spoiled? I’m not sure.

Back in Johannesburg I’d step out of my house at around 07:00, dodge a couple of somewhat large lizards around the car a few metres from the front door, and set off on the twenty minute drive to work. Comfortably lost in my own thoughts, until I pulled up in the parking lot of my office, to ascend the stairs and get to work. Total steps – probably 20.

London is slightly different. You have to be ready for a personal space invasion. I get on the tube at Buckhurst Hill station, up on the edge of town, and then get off at Holborn to walk to work. As the train gets closer to the city centre the train fills. And fills. And fills. Before you know it some big geezer in front of you backs further and further into you, to a point where you can study the hairs in his ears, make patterns with the wrinkles on his neck, or worse, smell that he may not have showered that morning. Total steps – probably around 6000.

Walking. So much walking. After just two days of going into work and back my trusted Woolies work shoes were badly wounded. A hole at the bottom and the sole coming apart. Off I went to buy new shoes, a massive grudge purchase for someone trying to limit spending. For the first time I was paying more attention to a shoe’s sole and heel strength than their design. This in itself was a mistake, as I should have been paying attention to how the shoe felt on the back of my ankle. Naively I decided to do the entire work journey the next day in brand new shoes. My feet were destroyed, specifically the back of the ankle. They’d even bled quite badly, to a point that I was worried the bleeding behind my foot might be noticeable.

On the following day, equipped with two pairs of socks, at around midday I had to go with a colleague across town to an agency. A trip that involved lots of, you guessed it . . . walking. My feet screamed with each step. My rather good looking female colleague glided along like someone ice skating, while I struggled to keep up, trudging along like Big Foot holding one in on an urgent trip to the lavvy. Do all South Africans walk like this, or just this weirdo?  

In the evenings I have to make my way from The Strand through Covent Garden to get back to Holborn Station. The area is densely populated with tourists from all corners of the earth. It’s quite a thing walking through endless tourists while not being a tourist. There’s a rather annoying holiday euphoria about  them all, as they stroll along, in the high spirits one tends to be while travelling. It left me with an interesting question one day. Is the primary reason people travel more to do with getting away from their mundane lives or actually seeing interesting things? I’m starting to believe it’s the former. I’ve followed tourists over the Waterloo Bridge and noticed that they hardly looked up from their phones.

But it’s not all negative. Having worked out that I walk 5km per day, I feel quite good about the whole ordeal. I’m walking 5km per day more than I was at home. As a consequence I’ve actually lost weight, despite drinking more beer than I was in SA (see post on that in the next few days).

The issue of the shoes and feet was quickly resolved by using my orange trainers, and then swapping them out at work. I can pull off the look with jeans and a K-Way jacket. I haven’t attempted the orange shoes with a suit jacket yet. But hey, I’m in London, nobody knows me. Who the hell cares if I look like a spaz. Better that than broken feet.

Speaking of shoes, you notice them. Particularly in the underground, if you’re lucky enough to sit. Usually because you have nothing else to do and you’re tired of what’s going on on your phone. You don’t want to disturb the people sitting directly in front of you by looking looking straight at them, so you glance above them, or you look down . . . at their shoes. Old ones, new ones, vellies, loafers, work shoes, high heels, trainers, trainers trainers. So many trainers. But also, so many questions. Often I look at some shoes and wonder How the fuck do you walk more than 500 metres in those without ruining your feet? I never thought I’d look at shoes this way before.

For the first time in my adult life I’m not driving. And it’s ok. Actually, at times it’s great. No car repayments, no car insurance, no despondent Fuck! under your breath as you read about a petrol price increase next week of R1,73. No road rage. In Johannesburg driving was a bit of a schlep, often leaving me with serious doubts about my fellow human beings and their intelligence. Now a leisurely walk to the train in the morning allows some sort of reflection and peace. Similarly, the walk from the train in the evenings in the all too fresh air is often pleasant, and much needed after a day cooped up in an office.  Unless it’s windy and raining. Then give me the damn car.

This reliable public transport reminds me again of another thing South Africa has failed at. Comparing the busses that are always on time and the reliable trains to a dilapidated taxi veering around Johannesburg breaking traffic laws that haven’t even been invented yet brings me quite a bit of sadness. Also, in a tube carriage it’s quite strange to see people who could very well be some sort of high level director alongside, for example, a construction worker. Social classes mashed up together like woolly sardines. As if that would happen in SA.

So much to observe. Even on the trains. Especially on the trains. Often I observe the non-observance of others. I’ve noticed people who never looked up from their phone at all in a 30 minute train ride, their expression remaining completely unchanged. In the evenings I look at one or two faces and wonder what types of lives they’re going back to. What types of homes wait for them? Is he going back to a loving family for a wholesome meal, or is he going back to sit on his own in a dirty apartment, doing a little cocaine while death metal plays in the background?

Ordinary lives. And I’m one of them.

Home is Temporary, Roots are Permanent


There’s a novel by John Steinbeck, a famous one called The Grapes of Wrath. It centres around a family (and many other families), venturing thousands of miles westward to California in search of a better life, escaping the harsh dust bowl of Oklahoma in the 1930’s. One scene early in the book depicts how the women would watch their farmer husbands in the wake of devastating dust storms to see their reaction:

“The women watched the men, watched to see whether the break had come at last. The women stood silently and watched. And where a number of men gathered together, the fear went from their faces, and anger took its place. And the women sighed with relief, for they knew it was all right – the break had not come; and the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath.”

Yes, at the end of this month I am leaving South Africa for the UK. It is still difficult to grasp the fact that it’s happening, but it is. I was always one of those who saw the realities of South Africa, yet always remained positive that things would be fine, and that we could live happy lives here. But like the poor farmers in the Steinbeck novel, the fear for the future of South Africa has turned to wrath, one time too many. Needless to say, my wrath is aimed at the South African government. I never like being forced into something – ask my wife this, or any of my friends. This is a prime example. This feels forced.  I look forward to the adventure, and feel positive, of course. But still, if South Africa was thriving and hope was high, I wouldn’t be doing this.

This isn’t a political post, but this is unfortunately a political issue. Many of my political rants of the past (some on this blog) have argued against the ever increasing sizes and extents of governments and government interventions around the world. The concept of a government, I maintain, is one of the most dangerous entities operating around the world today, which is why they need to be kept to a minimum in size and kept in check. A bloated, morally bankrupt government with a bad ideology can destroy an entire country, which is what is happening in South Africa. There are many other examples of this through the 20th century which I won’t mention, for fear of making this a political post. This is why I always support the ideal of small government and individual autonomy.

You can take a lot of things from a person, and they can carry on almost perfectly ok. Little bits of freedom, little bits of safety, little bits of disposable income, little bits of patience. But as soon as you start chipping away at hope, you have someone who takes action. That action is to say goodbye to my country.

Contrary to my outward appearances, I’m actually an incredibly sentimental person, bordering on melancholic at times.  This is despite my rather awkward, somewhat cold disposition. I hate saying goodbye to things, it always leaves me with a sense of emptiness and sadness. When I drop relatives off at the airport in Joburg or say goodbye to them in Port Elizabeth as I leave, it usually takes me a while to recover from my gloomy stupor.

Leaving a country, your home country, will be no different, I suspect. Perhaps even more severe. I’m not sure what I’ll be feeling when the plane takes off from OR Tambo International, but I’m sure the sadness, albeit temporary, will outweigh the excitement. But what is it that I really love about South Africa? I don’t feel any particular affinity or sense of belonging with the people here. I don’t do the whole South African pride thing. I probably won’t wear South African apparel in the UK. A small, dark part of me is so angry I want to disown the place.

It’s the more permanent, non-human elements that I love and will undoubtedly miss. Some weird deep love of the land. Like an old oak tree, it’s like a fixed rootedness, an attachment to the land that’s near impossible to displace. I’ve always had a keen interest in where it is I came from. Who were the people who came before me, and what did they do? Maybe knowing that my forefathers landed here in 1690 and have been here since then has something to do with my attachment to this land, in a way that goes beyond sentimentality into the spiritual, energy side. I tend to think some have a greater attachment than others, and I tend to think my roots are very entrenched in this land. It’s quite hard to put words to this. Some will understand this, but many won’t. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. It just makes leaving that much heavier.

The smell of a braai as you light the firelighter and the relaxed feeling that follows. The beautiful severity of Johannesburg thunderstorm. The chorus of birds at 4:30am. The calm serenity of the Karoo at sunset. Driving 100km of road without passing a car. Reaching a royal hotel at 5pm after 8 hours of driving in the heat and the magnificence of drinking that ice cold lager. The feeling of entering Cape wine country after going over a Cedarberg mountain pass. These are the ways one’s roots speak to you. These are the odd things so hard to let go, because they’ve become part of who I am, and how I identify with my roots. Nature and the land are powerful things.

Unlike roots, which are permanent, home is not. Home is temporary. Home is moveable. When I moved to Johannesburg in 2012, one thing became very clear to me, and it’s something I seem to have forgotten in the few years that followed: Home is not a place. Home is where your family is. Home is a feeling. A feeling of safety and familiarity. A place where you truly are your real self. That’s why moving from your home country is so daunting. You go beyond the familiar into the unknown. But it is impermanent, because in no time the UK will be home, feel like home and be familiar. This is why I’m not at all worried about settling.

I’m also reminded, painfully, that nothing is permanent in this life. The sentimentalist in me keeps recognising the last times I’ll be doing things (for a while at least). The last time I put petrol in my car. The last time I have those amazing chips from that restaurant. The last time I drive a certain road across the country or see certain towns. The last time I jog down certain streets. The last time I have a get together with good people. The last time I look at my bookshelf before it’s sold and the books packed away. The last time (for a while) that I leisurely watch football in my own house on a Saturday afternoon, with the braai burning outside. Yet all the ‘last times’ experienced will inevitably be balanced out by a whole lot of first times as I do things for the first time. Everything changes. Always.

I could come back from the UK in a year after a failed experience and none of the above is relevant. I could love it and become highly successful there, staying long term. One thing I’ve learned in life is that you never know what’s around the next corner. And that’s ok. We’re ok. I’m ok.

What can one do but smile, put some classic rock on the headphones, some wine in the glass, and roll the crazy wave of life.


South Africa’s Higher Education – What We’re Not Talking About

There’s a great deal being written about the fees protests at universities and all the news around it. Whether fees can be reduced, or eliminated completely, remains a major topic of discussion. I’ve written one or two things about this myself, but I’ve purposely stayed away from commenting on any of the recent fees news and events in the last few weeks. Not because I’m indifferent, but because when I take a step back, I see far bigger problems which we’re not really talking about. The more I read into education in South Africa, the more I change position on the feasibility of free higher education. I think we’re all missing the point a bit. So while Feesmustfall grabs headlines, there are two major things we’re not talking about, which we should be.

The first problem we seem to be conveniently ignoring is that we’re failing our school children on an epic scale.

There were 1,1 million learners who started school in 2002, yet in 2014 there were only 550 000 matrics. This begs a massive, massive question that should be at the forefront of our public dialogue. Where did the 550 000 other learners go?

A recent study by the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) showed that only 3 in 10 public schools have a library‚ and only 4 out of 10 have a computer facility. Only 18.3% of schools have a science laboratory‚ while 57.8% have sports facilities. Numeracy rate test scores show that at Grade 9‚ just 11% of children are numerate to the required standard. Would we really scrape together billions for universities while we see this at schools?

It gets even worse, a World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness report for 2015/2016 showed that in terms of the level of quality of science and maths education in schools, South Africa was ranked 138th out of 140 countries. The bottom three in the world.

Department of Higher Education stats show that throughput rates in South African higher education averages between 15% and 21%. Putting this into perspective, around 4 out of 5 students who commence a degree don’t graduate. In the bigger scheme of education, if you took 100 children in South Africa at the beginning of Grade 1, only 4 of those 100 would eventually complete a degree.

When only 14% of the learners who started school actually qualify for university, why is free higher education the number one discussion point? The irony, and the real problem that nobody seems to understand here, is that our schooling system is so bad that an extremely low portion of disadvantaged matriculants are even able to qualify for university. Also, how do we tackle the fact that the majority of university students don’t even graduate? So if we did render free higher education, for the most part, would it not a giant waste of money?

Don’t get me wrong, I think there are major issues with the cost of higher education which do need addressing. I think there is also a moral case for giving gifted disadvantaged learners with the right attitude a chance at higher education. But the quality of the schooling system is so poor that it makes a mockery of the adage that basic and secondary education is a right. The right to poor quality, bad infrastructure and ultimately a qualification that does nothing for you. That isn’t much of an appealing right. So making general access to universities cheaper while not addressing the shambles of the schooling system and schooling output is a bit like spending big money building a fancy new roof while the house’s walls are crumbling.

If university fees are decreased, the protests of the future will more than likely revolve around increased access and higher numbers in the institutions. To achieve increased access, standards will be dropped. Academics will have to service and teach more students. Revenues vs running costs will be squeezed to breaking point, and your level of quality will almost certainly drop. In fact, it already is. A QS World University Rankings survey of universities shows SA universities already falling. Year to year UCT dropped 20 places and is now ranked 191st. This is a fall of more than 10% in one year. Wits dropped 28 places and are now ranked 359th. The University of Pretoria fell from the 501-550 band to the 551-600 band. Rhodes dropped from the 501-550 band to the 551-600 band. Only Stellenbosch can hold their head high, breaking into the top 400.

The second major problem we’re not talking about is the question of whether a degree really is a good investment. I don’t think it is anymore. In fact, it might be a very bad investment when you think about it. We’re trapped in this mindset of a university degree being the only path to employment and career success. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in the UK, 59% of graduates never even end up working in their chosen careers. In a UK study this year the Institute for Fiscal Studies found 23 universities whose average male graduate earns less than those who had not been to university at all. Imagine being a student who’s just graduated with R100 000 in debt and ending up working in a job unrelated to the degree. It starts looking like one of the worst investments you could make.

In the past 5 years the number of graduates coming out of university has increased by 25%. Over the same period the unemployment rate has gone up. We’re not exactly creating a great deal of new jobs. The world is moving as unprecedented speeds. Let’s be honest, universities aren’t exactly fluid, dynamic institutions moving daily with the most current trends in industry and the workplace. This is why the bureaucratic, archaic nature of universities will let thousands and thousands of graduates down, because they’ll more than likely continue down this path of theoretical knowledge, disconnected from the real world. Don’t get me wrong, the role of the university in progressing knowledge at the highest level will still be a vital one. I’m however referring to the base students at the ground level.

They’ll more than likely continue testing knowledge and whether one can pass an exam rather than actual competence – i.e. can they actually do the tasks that would be required in the real world job? The high dropout rate in South African Universities also illustrates just how dysfunctional these traditional methods are at keeping students engaged and successful in their studies.

A 2013 Oxford study reported that work automation will put 47% of existing jobs in the U.S. at “high risk”. This means that around half of all U.S. jobs will be replaced by machines in the next 20 years. uses 15 000 robots in their warehouses to keep up with supply and demand. There are hotels in Japan where 10% of the staff are people, and the rest are robots. The robots greet you at reception, they carry your bags, deliver room service and many other functions. Some companies have artificial intelligence security guards which use visual scanning to detect differences in images and areas from one moment to the next. This is what governments don’t understand when they keep increasing the minimum wage – all they’re doing is incentivising companies to automate and use technology to minimise the number of humans needed. Machines are cheaper once the initial investment is over, they cost less to maintain, and generally give HR fewer problems. Closer to home, Pick n Pay have recently tested automated cashiers. Whether this develops into a trend remains to be seen.

These seem like disturbing pieces of information about the future of jobs in general, but this is the point – the world moves on. For many of the jobs currently disappearing, alternative jobs will be created. For example, in 1870 the Agricultural sector in the US employed 70% to 80% of the working population. Today it’s less than 1%. This is why change management, adaptability, critical thought and attitude will become such essential elements of future graduates.

Traditional education as we know it, as an industry, is in in the decline phase of its life cycle. It’s probably positioned similar to that of the fax machine at the turn of this century, or the metered taxi driver about three years ago. The successful education of the future won’t teach isolated, specific content around a singular career direction. In fact, successful education of the future won’t ‘teach’ at all. It will facilitate collaboration, real world activities, critical thinking, lateral thought across different business units, adaptability and seamless, confident communication. The days of a lecturer standing in front of the class talking for an hour are over – or should be. The days of primarily using an exam as a key indicator of subject mastery and future success should also be over.

Employers’ hiring decisions in the future will be based primarily on skill, attitude and competence rather than qualification. In fact, this is already happening in many regards. For future graduates, it’s all going to be about competencies. Education of the future needs to enable how to do rather than teach what to know.

Even if universities do become free, which is unlikely, I believe that in the next decade or two it’s within the private sector of education where the consistent quality of graduates will lead the private providers to attain greater reputations than even the leading names such as UCT and WITS. The matriculant of 10 years from now may have a clear choice: Go to university cheaply for a qualification rooted theoretical knowledge, removed from industry and pragmatism – a qualification which won’t guarantee anything. Or pay a leading private provider for relevance, work readiness, competence . . . and ultimately a job.