Thembelani: Education is not a pedestal for success

I a been in the centre of education for a long time as learner/facilitator/teacher/lecturer/foreign-teacher. I haven’t been in the centre of it like my inspirational predecessors but I would like to believe I am making a difference too.

It is such a bold statement I am making isn’t it? but it’s true, especially for us who come from  ‘poor backgrounds’. Let me be clear that I will use my own experience in this writing, my own background, I mean I want to be fair, so whoever is reading is allowed the opportunity to understand the situation rather than me generalizing and then you find yourself arguing against me and saying

“Hai, that’s not right!!”

To deconstruct my “ill” statement above, I want to use a performance titled “Thembelani” I did for Jomba! Fringe 2019 in Durban, South Africa at the Sneddon Elizabeth Theatre. The Zulu name of the piece itself tells a story “Thembelani” which loosely translates to “The one we put our hopes on”. So much pressure in a name right?!

I have spent roughly about 11 years in Education, I am taking into account that from a decision I made to embark on a high education journey. Honesty the moment you tell yourself you’re going for a tertiary education you’ are throwing yourself in the field of learning and education, but it’s not as clear cut as that is it? Well especially for a poor background individual.

Now let’s look at the South African education system. OMG! right??? I haven’t even said anything but if you’re South African you could roll out your eyes so hard that you just became The Undertaker. Our education was constructed in the days of apartheid for the white minority (Koller, 2012). Yes, you are reading that right, technically it was for whites. I am in no way saying we don’t deserve to be educated, I am just saying it’s not for all of us and it’s not catering for all of us; more on that a little later. All of a sudden this writing is turning out to be a paper rather than a blog, but I have something to say, and if you read and listen you have the opportunity to learn something.

Thembelani was my first solo performance as a creative artist. To be honest i was scared; I always love working with other bodies, and this time I chose to work with just my body, not only that but I was during something I have never done before, use live text. I approach dance in my own way, I have weaknesses so I try at best to use my strength when constructing work and bring foreign perspectives. Foreign perspectives means i bring in strangers who have no idea what dance theatre is and i ask them to critically look at my work.

In this work I am interrogating education, the ideas of education, the structure of it and the future of it. Let’ me paint the setting for you first. On stage there are books creating a semi-circle, in the centre above hangs a graduation gown that has two books hanging on each side, and finally there is a mic stand at the centre of the semi-circle.


JC Zondi at Hexagon Studio Theatre 2019

On it’s own I wanted the setting to speak, in your head right now you can imagine for yourself what it is trying to say, yes? Unlike education there is no wrong answer, you let your own thought guide you; because essentially that’s what dance theatre should be about…interpretation.

Similar with any of my other dance work(s) I had a lot of ideas, luckily I kept the ones that worked best. I wanted my words to be the dance, I aimed to mold myself to become the text I spoke. The idea was that I wanted people to experience and see what education has done to me and ‘them’ out there in “South Africa”. I needed a structure to guide me, so I used the concept of rules of books, something I learnt in high school when I worked as a librarian (Library Monitor). I know, I was a geek, shusshh!

When I was young I learnt some basic rules about books, I want to share them today, in my own way.

  1. Don’t bend the spine of the book

Think of a contort creature that has been manipulated so much it doesn’t recognize itself anymore. This creature feels like it doesn’t belong. In this first rule so many thought came to me. I thought about how I have learnt so much that when I go back home to my friends and family who didn’t go as far, I feel foreign. I can’t seem to communicate with them the way I use too; It’s not because I think I am better but because I have learnt to see the world so different, I have seen how broad the world can be. So in the beginning I am multiple creatures that which include an embryo + A cockroach, which can survive an atomic explosion but merely turning it upside down can kill it. That’s what education does, it turns things upside down. Intelligent but stupid!

I bet you didn’t think dance theatre can be that deep huh?! Well suck it!

2. Use a bookmark, don’t bend the corners.

What’s the purpose of a bookmark? Yes, to remind you the last place were you read. I am guilty of still breaking this rule til this day, bookmarks are so hard to find. In this rule for the work, I was looking at where we come from in terms of education; How far it has taken us. That ability to read and write, the ability to break boundaries and talk to people from foreign countries. It’s a basic evolution of humans. This is were the books first come into use. The semi-circle resembles the idea of evolution. You go around learning and learning and suddenly you evolve as a person. It’s only then that you realise “You’ve been going around circles or rather half a circle”, you’re no longer evolving that much. You get mad, angry at yourself, the people around you and the world in general. but then…

3. Don’t lick fingers when turning pages and do not steal the books

In that mist of that anger, you try to think how education is trying to teach you how to be better than that. Its constantly trying to teach you how to handle yourself. Don’t be an animal it says…because apparently we “black poor people are animals”. We know violence and crime, so we are being educated so we become “Civil” creatures. Isn’t that why the education system was built in the first place for us South African Majority, so we can be civil and work for a living. Age of the British Empire!

You can imagine how frustrating it was for me to be in this situation. I love education and learning so much, but there is darker side of the moon that i know exists about education that it pisses me off.

4. Do not eat and drink with the book

Then there is that “PROMISE” in education. I am using the bold format and quotations so you can really see the sarcasm in the use of the word. I actually want to quote directly what i say in the work.

I was told education will serve us our daily meal, that it will be our daily bread. That is exactly why my mother gave me my name she told me, because she had hope, that I would bring bread to the table. So I learnt” ( Zondi, 2019)<<<< Yes, I am referencing myself.

I believe it’s about here in the work that i ran around collecting books “Knowledge and Education” so I can have a chance to feed myself and my family. Honestly there is that pressure isn’t there? For a black child, to feed your family and you haven’t even created your own yet! It really sucks to be placed in that position as a young person. That cycle of whatever finance you get, it must go home first. I mean that’s the reason the cycle doesn’t end, because now as a parent you’re fucking broke and living on hope that your kids will feed you; so on and so on.

In the work here I create this empire, this unstable tower using books, so I can reach the highest level of success in education above me. You know that graduation gown, that money, that PHD, that life; As I try to climb this tower of education it all comes crashing down and all I am left with is me staring at the roof and what could have been.

5. Do not write on the book, Ironic isn’t it?

I use the words ironic there because if not a book then where are we suppose to write? I believe that’s why the education system fails us so much, it keeps telling us what we need to do in order to succeed but when we do it; it goes and says “Uhmmm about that promise??”

Then we are fucked.

I was told education will provide so many things and i believed it. My mom and teachers beat me (Years of corporal punishment, yes I am that old); I was beaten, being told and forced to go get this education so I can get a better life. So in this part of the piece I beat education into me so much that my body is in pain… all over.

6. Do not rip off the pages of the book

What is education now?

I think it’s a question to ask everyone really; what is education? I mean as I say in the work

“The better question to ask is who is it for?” (Sir Ken Robinson, 2006)

We need to sell education better to people, especially black people. We blacks, poor background individuals are stuck believing a “PROMISE” that will never be kept.

“Education sells a linear idea, that if you start here (Bottom) and finish there (Top/ Graduate), you will be set for life” (Sir Ken Robinson)

Which is not true is it? Well not for most of us. Some of us spend a lifetime searching for the results of our education, and even that lifetime isn’t enough (Zondi, 2019)

We need to be told the truth. That truth is complicated but it does start with this KNOWLEDGE is important. It’s access to knowledge that has a better possibility to lead you to a better life rather than education. Access to knowledge gives eminent possibilities of self-discovery.

I am in no way saying education is bad, i just think it definitely needs a new approach. The future is ahead of us and some of us are stuck, especially those of us who come from certain backgrounds. Remember that question about what is education? Yeah ask it in your class and see what answers you’ll get, see where the common answers arrive from, you won’t be surprised.

I have great ideas, I really do. In this work there were certainly deeper layers that I want to leave for interpretation, those who were able to see the work can articulate those layers, even in the comments.

As a creative artist I watch the world and use what I see and my experience to deconstruct everything I possibly can. I am on that constant journey and I hope people can join me in that discovery.


Please do share this information, let others have access to this knowledge that I am dropping. You have a comment, do write to me. I will reply and we can have a conversation.

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