Maboni Mmatli | 18 August 2017

In contemporary South Africa, passing one’s grade 12 is a big achievement. It is even bigger if the pass results in entrance into institutions of higher learning and training. We all get excited, our families and communities become very proud of us when one of the two happens but more especially, when both happens. However, we find that the transition from school to these institutions of higher learning is very difficult, depressing and at times, dehumanizing.

Personally, as Maboni Mmatli from rural Mashashane in the village of Segoahleng, my journey through the education system was characterised by the above. Moving from an unresourced high school, the first time I operated a microscope was when I did my first Zoology practical in my first year of study at university. Asked by the lecturer whether I could operate the device, I answered yes – too embarrassed to answer no. I refused to be dehumanized in the presence of so many people. I wanted to be like the many other students in my class who were easily turning knobs and adjusting lenses in preparation for their analyses. I remember feeling overwhelmed and ready to cry. “Could this have been the case if I had gone to the University of Limpopo?”, I asked myself. Of course I was not the only one. But one thing was common between and amongst all of the students who had their hands raised (though I didn’t) – we were all black. Where is the dignity in this case? Had it not been for my close friend Addisu Abebe – who was instrumental in me adapting – I could have failed.

But this piece is not about me and my journey but about the challenges faced by poor young black learners from rural and township schools with little-to-no Science and Technology resources. Another dehumanizing encounter was when we had to write-up the report of the practical we had conducted. “Hand-written reports will not be marked”, read a statement post the instructions and guidelines of the task. Again, I felt overwhelmed, anxious, depressed and wanting to cry. The only other thing I knew about a computer except what it looked like was where to switch it on. Now for this task, we had to type and insert figures, etc. I didn’t know how to and that killed me inside. But again, Addisu and Vusi Mguni (also my friend) came to my rescue. At this time, we had not learnt any computer literacy course. For my group, the allocated time for the computer literacy course clashed with our chemistry practical and had to be moved to the second semester. This too, was not an isolated case that was experienced only by me but others in my class as well. Many other institutional barriers and violence came our way and the only way to survive was to organize. Hence the formation of the Nelson Mandela (then Metropolitan) University Science Students’ Association in the year 2014/2015.

In it different people found solace, peace, comfort and a space to truly be a human being. We grew to be a family in an enabling organisation that recognised us as human beings and our right to dignity. We spread our reach to communities and extended our influence to student organisations in other faculties to foster interdisciplinary networks. We were not happy and comfortable with just being scientists. We wanted to be that and more and we made strides to develop ourselves holistically and not be categorised. After all, as Richard Buckminster Fuller said; “I [we] live on Earth at present, and I [we] don’t know what I am [we are]. I [we] know that I am [we are] not a category. I am [we are] not a thing – a noun. I [we] seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe”. From this, we define ourselves as any and everything.

Through the course of my studies, many more challenges presented themselves as I adapted and learnt to survive in a space that was clearly not mine. It was a violent academic space that made me question my capabilities and competence, and left me depressed on many days than I can remember. Today, I am just one of the “lucky” who survived the violence it brought over us. Then comes the employment world and its violent dehumanizing unemployment climate (issue for another time and space).

The gap between basic, and higher education needs to be prioritised and addressed. Little to none is being done by government and these institutions. University open days are not preparations and that is why I (as a Sci-Sa alumni and ordinary citizen) commend the efforts of the Science Students’ Association (Sci-SA) – under the current leadership - of taking the organization to Phakamani Senior Secondary School in Mtwakazi village, Whitlesea, Eastern Cape as part of one of their National Science Week program. The presence of Sci-SA will equip the learners with mental preparation, confidence, self-reliance and a revolutionary perspective on what Science is and how it can be used to empower both the individual and the community. The two-day event was characterised by an introduction to what Sci-SA is, rigorous leadership workshop for the learners and teachers, and a whole lot of more Science stuff. The organization was well received by both the learners and teachers and excitement was greater. A newly elected member of the executive, Imitha Timla, who is the Public Relations Officer thanked Lwando Goxo – an alumni to the school, 2016 Deputy Chairperson at Nelson Mandela University and current member of Sci-SA – “for not forgetting his background. If it wasn’t for him and his team, this project wouldn’t have happened. We embraced the opportunity which was given to us with open hands and we are trying everything we can, to make it work. And we would like our community to support us because we are not doing this for our school but for the community. Working together is very important and its through working hard that we can succeed and are willing to help poor families. So this project means a lot to us”, said the 11th grader. Teachers thanked the team immensely due to the initiative being “not that of promoting the institution and career talks aka “advice” but was a true empowerment initiative [that will reach the darkest corners of the community through its own inhabitants in the form of these young learners]” as one teacher said.

The Chairperson of Phakamani Sci-SA also extended gratitude to the Nelson Mandela University team and mentioned how she now sees Science as being relevant to her. “I have learnt a lot about [the] Science of hair, and also about the [different] kinds of plants. Before, I didn’t know this so thank you to the Nelson Mandela University team for this knowledge, so said Nonkosi Ncita. Phakamani SSS is just the first of many, Sci-SA together with Science for Ubuntu (Sci4Ubuntu) is coming to a school and a higher institution near you. 

This initiative of taking Sci-SA to schools is our deliberate and conscious attempt at addressing the gap between these two levels of education and foster a smooth transition from the basic to the higher. Through these efforts, learners who will be new in institution of higher learning will be equipped with the necessary mind-set to recognise and acknowledge Science as their own, use it in a humanizing way to address socio-economic challenges and also be equipped with the right tools to survive in a discipline that black people have been restricted from for hundreds of years.

The Science Students’ Association is a student organization that aims to bridge the gap between Science and Society through inter and trans-disciplinary methods and make Science a lifestyle and not just a study field. It was founded in 2014 by three young black visionaries named Maboni Mmatli, Cleopatra Dube & Siyabulela Finca. It became operational in 2015 and has touched many lives since its inception.

picture above shows the newly elected Phakamani SSS Sci-SA members of the executive committee and those of the Nelson Mandela University Sci-SA