I recently spent a week in Cape Town, South Africa where enthusiasm for The Happiest Kids in the World was overwhelming. I was interviewed for various magazines and given a lot of air-time on the radio. Rina gave some interviews too, by remote. The journalists and parents I spoke to all admitted to being overwhelmed by the current parenting culture. The country is still divided with a massive gap between rich and poor. Affluent parents tend to be overprotective due to the climate of fear, schools are apparently strict and old-fashioned in their teaching methods, and children have very little freedom as a result. Parents from poorer communities struggle with social inequality and cling on to the idea that tough discipline will prepare their children for the real world.
First tell me a bit about yourself and how you grew up. What kind of school did you go to? Were your parents strict? Could you roam freely, play outside etc?
I was born in Port Elizabeth, a seaside town in the Eastern cape. We had a large house, garden and a pool – like most middle class people in the area. Both my parents worked full time, so I was looked after by a black woman called Nellie, who lived with us and whom I adored. I went to an English creche (we are Afrikaans speaking) and I remember that being alienating. I completed grade one in an Afrikaans goverment school called (horror): Hendrik Verwoerd. The architect of Apartheid. My parents were very liberal, but that was the system we grew up in.
When I was 7 we moved to a small town in Zululand, Empangeni. There I attended 2 different government schools (we moved house) and I liked the second one. It was special in that the teachers focused more on individual and cultural development than the average government school. They even had optional extramural classes about Archaeology in grade 3! I was neither sporty nor competitive so I flourished here. We had a huge unkept tropical double garden with countless fruit trees, strange lizards, chickens, rabbits and a dog. We ‘roamed free’ in our garden and at friends’ houses. My parents were not strict but politically it was a very tense and violent time in the country, especially in Zululand where we lived, and my mother, a journalist, was extremely anxious.
When I was 9 we moved to Johannesburg, where I stayed until I completed high school. I passionately hated both my Afrikaans mainstream primary and high-schools. High school was huge, with ugly uncomfortable uniforms, sports-obsessed, competitive, strict, racist and extremely conservative. It was definitely no place for non-conformists or even individuals. Life besides school was good though – we lived in suburbia and played and cycled in the streets there, although not completely carefree – always aware of possible danger – in Johannesburg crime was picking up rapidly.
My marks were good, and in high school I rebelled by bunking school as often as possible. I got away with it mostly – we lived close to the school and I (often with a brave friend) would just return home after my parents went to work. We would take the bus to Hillbrow for the day, or hang out in the park. In my last school year, I was absent almost as many days as being present. A record I was proud of. The teachers turned a blind eye or gave up on me, didn’t care. My parents were largely unaware.
What a waste of an education! The irony is I loved to read, and learn. But the way lessons were presented by mostly unenthusiastic, frustrated teachers and the way we were treated and the pressure of conforming brought out the worst in my teenage self.
Your daughter was born in the Netherlands so you had some experience of child-raising there and now you’re back in South Africa with her. What are some of the cultural differences?
In Amsterdam where I lived, motherhood is percieved as an adventure to be enjoyed, the moms I knew where relaxed, took it in their stride. It helped tremendously to be able to work part-time – as an art director it’s unheard of in SA. Family-life in Netherlands seems to be valued by society and the workforce – even fathers get to spend time with their children. An ideal society to raise a child.
Sadly, in South Africa, work-life is much more intense, faster, more cut throat as there’s more at stake (there are no social grants, the unemployement rate is 27%). The economy and politics are volatile. Crime is rife. Having a baby is more of a handicap, a spanner in the works.
For the middle class, there is rarely ouma / oupa days, (IF they live close by, they’re often still working). ATV days don’t exist and both parents mostly work full time. The child goes to daycare 5 days a week, or stays at home with a nanny. In the townships and poorer communities, they stay with the unemployed family member or grandparent. It must seem really bizarre that I chose to return!
What are the main challenges of raising children in South Africa?
For a start, earning enough money for school fees. The quality of the education system has declined rapidly. Private schools are expensive and often elitist. Crime & safety is a real issue. There’s definitely no ‘roaming the streets’ anymore. Rape statistics are among the higest in the world. Here we either live on the edge, or if you’re wealthy, in a bubble.
The schools seem really strict from what your daughter told me. Why is that? Do you see any benefits?
I suppose it’s the only way that they know to try and create discipline.Teachers are underpaid and stretched thin. Many of the rules are just petty though and make no sense to me at all. I can see the benefits of wearing uniforms in an unequal society, although I don’t see why they need to be so formal and uncomfortable.
We have enrolled her in a lovely Montessori school on a farm and are on the waiting list.
The school she’s in now is in an affluent area, and I think some wealthy children probably benefit indirectly from the standardisation and strict rules, to keep them from becoming too entitled…