Who is inspiring?

2009-08-26 00:00

I REFER to the recent article by Sipho Ngcobo (August 19) on the effect of race on the career development of black African childre­n.

In his article, Ngcobo defends African National Congress Youth League president Julius Malema’s insistence that top positions in the economic sector should be res­erved for black South Africans.

It was not the statement but the curious rationale of the argument that caught my attention.

Ngcobo assures us that he has no quibble with the competence of South Africans from minority groups, such as Pravin Gordhan, Trevor Manual and Gill Marcus. These people, he tells us, have all done a good job. The reason, however, that South Africans of their colour and race should be kept far from high office in the economic sector is, apparently, because their presence impairs the career aspirations of young black Africans: “The [black] youth will think that because Gill Marcus is white, they [whites] are born like that and there is no way I can be like that”.

My interest in the above article is more educational than political. Much of my professional life is involved with supporting the career development of young people from disadvantaged schools in the Umgungundlovu region. SchoolTrade is a local educational develop­ment organisation that serves in about 20 township schools. One of the ways in which SchoolTrade stimulates career thinking among township youth is through a project known as the TATS (Take an Adult to School) programme.

Most Thursday mornings I can be found in one of several township high schools on our network. You will be able to observe an interview taking place with a role model who has given up his or her time to be a resource and inspiration to young people. It’s exciting work and over the past year, the speakers have ranged from accountants to zoologists, they have been male and female, young and old, and, most pertinently, they have come from all race groups.

In inviting speakers, I am guided by two criteria. Firstly, to what exten­t are these people likely to inspire and motivate the young audi­ence? Are they “youth frien­dly” and do they have something to share that might help to shift, sometimes, deeply entrenched thinking patterns about relationships and careers? Secondly, how can I appl­y the accumulated wisdom of nearly 50 years of social learning research to the interview situation?

Given the above, the reader will understand why the article by Ngcob­o piqued my interest. Accor­ding to him, every time I intro­duce young township people to a successful South African from a minority group, I am doing the audience a grave disservice. Simply stated, I am perpetuating negative stereotypes about black people and reinforcing the notion that there is “no way I can be like that” (to quote Malema).

I would like to briefly examine the viewpoints of Ngcobo and Malema from two perspectives: Firstly, from the findings of Social Learning Theory and secondly, from the anecdotal experiences of the TATS programme.

To be fair to Ngcobo and Malema, demographic factors, such as race, gender and age, can be poten­tial variables in the career development of some young people. Known as the similarity hypothesis, there is evidence that I am most likely to be attracted to role models to whom I can relate. This is not a new idea and explains why, for example, BMX champion Sifiso Nhlapo, who was in the city recently, is such a wonderful draw card for the sport of BMX among black youth.

With the same similarity hypothesis in mind, however, consider Malema’s disparaging comment about Marcus as a role model for black youth. It shouldn’t be necessary to remind Malema that, as a woman, Marcus shares a natural “similarity” with half of South Africa’s youth, an affinity that transcends race. Social Learning Theory would suggest that young black women are likely to look at Marcus, not as an obstacl­e in their career development (as argued by Malema and Ngcobo), but as an inspiratio­n: “If a woman like Gill Marcus can be chosen over men to become governor of the Reserve Bank then dare I believe that I can pass matri­c accountancy and do a BCom?”

Interestingly, Social Learning Theory goes even further and reminds us that behaviour change, such as redirecting the career aspir­ations of young people, involves more than demographic similarities. While these similarities may serve to attract initial interest, in most cases it will take a lot more than mere similarity to sustain new behaviours over the long term. Complex constructs such as self-efficacy, environmental support, motivation and oppor­tunity, to name a few, will all play a part in influencing the eventua­l outcome of the desired behaviour.

If Marcus, for example, were to candidly share some of the obstacles she has had to overcome in her career journey thus far, this would most likely have the effect of boosting young boys’ and girls’ fragile sense of self-efficacy — “If Gill could overcome this and that obstacle then possibly I can overcome mine.”

Finally, in all the TATS interviews that I have conducted over the past year, I cannot find a single shred of evidence to support the view that people of minority race groups automatically inhibit the career development and sense of efficacy of black African youth.

On the contrary, my experience of the TATS programme has been that when South Africans of all races share their resources and reach out to each other with the intention of offering encouragement and support, a certain magic happens and the true wealth of this country is revealed.

Umnotho we sizwe usezandleni zabantu zonke. The wealth of the nation is in the hands of all its people­.

• Colin McKay is a local educational psychologist, who runs an Adopt-a-School project for township and rural schools, called SchoolTrade. For more information about SchoolTrade go to www.schooltrade.co.za

To take part in a TATS visit contact SchoolTrade on colinm@schooltrade.co.za

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