Reflecting on Youth & Education in South Africa with Moses
“The social structure in our communities is messed up, and it all goes back to the old regime… It’s very systematic.”
Cape Town is a city of extreme contrasts of (ine)quality of life, and I wanted to interview a truth-teller to learn about it. I found that in Moses of ‘Coffee by Moses’- a friendly, open and intelligent South African coffee maker based in Cape Town. On a relaxed Friday afternoon, under sprinkling rain illuminated by bright sunshine, I sat down with him in the stylish The Electric cafe for an open-ended interview about his experiences navigating life as a young black South African, and what he sees as the major challenges young Capetonians are facing today.
Where did you grow up?
I had a conservative upbringing; I was born on a farm, my mom was born on the very same farm, her parents grew up on the same farm. A white farmer owned it; the family had maybe 13 or 14 families working for them. That’s how it works. They pay salary to salary, and it’s not even enough to take care of anybody. They give you lodging, they literally provide everything, but you don’t have ownership of the most basic human need which is land. But growing up in that, that’s the only thing you know, you don’t know anything different, you think that’s how you live your life. My parents thought that’s the way of life.
The Apartheid regime was a systematic way of depriving black South Africans from mainly wealth, and the most important thing was that it deprived them from ownership of land.
What was education like?
In the Apartheid era, black kids weren’t being educated to become a doctor; you were training them to become a public servant. You could only work in certain industries- you could never dream of becoming a pilot, an engineer, a surgeon. You could only dream of becoming a nurse, policeman, teacher. It wasn’t just impossible, it was law. Apartheid ended in ‘94, but that’s only on paper. It’s a process.
I went to university for a year and a half to study to become a teacher. And that’s where I got exposed to how education works. The old education system was more of spoon feeding information to kids, structure, how to behave, what to do, what not to do… it was the institutionalization of how people think. The new education system is more outcome based whereby the teacher is no longer spoon-feeding… the kids have to go out there and figure out stuff for themselves.
How do you think it can be improved?
First of all we need a proper infrastructure, we definitely need more teachers, especially mathematics teachers; we need more schools, and I think we need a higher budget in the education sector. It’s overcrowded, the teacher doesn’t have the proper study materials, and you have to share textbooks.
Imagine sitting in a class of 70 when it should be 30 kids in a class. They’re actually literally pushing you through school, they’re not trying to educate you. The sad thing is that in more affluent schools it’s easier. When the government can’t afford it, parents can afford it. If you want a good education, you have to pay for it. It’s not standard.
And unfortunately some kids don’t have the proper support structure to enable them to do that. Your parents aren’t really as eager about going to school as you are, they’re more worried about their physical security at the time which is money. They’re more worried about you going out there and maybe getting a job and trying to alleviate what is happening at the time. Your parents throw you in the deep end and you have to swim, there’s no support. It’s really hard but I don’t really blame them, because if they are not educated themselves how do you expect them to come and educate us. So it’s this vicious style.
I grew up with 10 guys from the age of one to fourteen, until I went to high school; they became my friends, they became everything to me, we shared almost everyday together. But our parents weren’t readily available… some of the guys would drop out of high school because there was nobody to make sure ‘Is this guy on the right track? Is this guy learning what he’s supposed to be learning?’ I don’t think teachers are really role models, and there are way too many students… and teachers can’t save everybody, maybe they can save one or two, but for the rest, they have to fend for themselves.
And being a teenager is hard, it’s a time of trying to figure out who you are. You can make the wrong choices, such as taking drugs.
There’s a huge culture of drugs in Cape Town because the social structure is messed up. That’s the only thing I think kids at that age are looking forward to. Like, ‘I grew up seeing this guy doing this and that, when I get to that age I’m definitely going to do that.’ Kids think that’s the coolest thing to do because he’s the cool guy, he’s the guy with the cars, he’s the guy everybody looks up to. There are no positive role models. There’s no guy driving a Mercedes Benz because he’s an engineer, or he became a successful businessman. You get your materials in life due to all the negative things. Kids growing up will look up to that, that’s the only life that you know, you think that’s the only way out. It’s a very destructive cycle.
You do find those unique stories of 1 in 100 who become successful in those circumstances, but I think that with the proper support we have more potential. Young people need support and they need good role models, which they don’t have. The social structure in our communities is messed up, and it all goes back to the old regime. It was trying to create a society in which black people will destroy themselves and I have to say they are doing a great job at doing that. It’s very systematic, like small little things, small little nuances.
For example, you go to any township right now and you see how people are shacked up… You must remember where the whole idea of townships come from. Townships were created during Apartheid; where we’re sitting now used to be District Six. This was a melting pot of cultures- we had black, white, Jewish, we had whole communities living in D6, and if you look at reports you see that the quality of life here was almost as good as in London. That type of lifestyle, how people coexisted with one another, it was a very conducive environment for people to live in. Everybody was equal. You had a black family who owned property, who owned houses…and overnight it was taken away. Imagine, people had to move into a government flat which housed close to 50 families, the house was less than half the size it used to be. What does that do to you? We are still staying there. And I think the townships become a perfect breeding ground for crime.
In the past 5 years in Cape Town, I’ve found the amount/ level/ type of crimes may push people not to go to school, because they’re afraid. I take more than 50% of my salary and put it towards rent, because it’s safe, and my main concern in Cape Town is the safety factor. You see how many people there are walking around the streets; I think more than 80% of those people feel more safe on the streets of Cape Town than they are in their own homes in the townships. I used to have friends that would spend the night at the club not because they want to, but because it’s too late to go home to Manenburg because they already started shooting. Like “Dude, it’s 7 o clock, I can’t go home, I’ll see you at work tomorrow. I’ll spend the night at the club, I’ll be playing pool…”
Moses has open eyes to the issues in his city. But there is reason to be hopeful and to look attentively at the positive aspects of life in Cape Town. Although our discussion was rather negative, his energy is positive; our conversation ended up transforming into a discussion of South African spirituality, which is incredibly rich. We parted paths at his coffee corner shop- ‘Coffee by Moses’, located in Just Like Papa, a stylish outdoors company. I departed with a full heart, new perspectives on the issues I’ve been studying, and my personal favorite latte I’ve ever had.