Haste comes before a fall

I fell on wet verandah tiles a few weeks ago and fractured my ulna at the elbow. It was apparently a spectacular, if complicated, flight. A bit of bone schrapnel was thrown in for good measure.

Such things take years of practice. Nureyev would have been proud. A hospital excursion, surgery and recovery have been interesting experiences; no doubt suited to the needs of a writer for varied experience.

I’ll not be able to post for another month, but look forward to getting back to it as soon as my elbow treats me kindly again.

Alex Coutts

The Military Career of Shaka, Zulu King

The Military Career of Shaka, Zulu King

This is a summary of a presentation done in Durban on 12 February 2015 for the Military Historians Society of South Africa.


During the early 1600’s, a small band of people under the patriarch Malandela settled for a time on the Highveld in the proximity of present Vryheid. After trouble with local tribesmen during which the stone walls of their cattle kraals were damaged, they migrated down the White Umfolozi Valley, sojourning for a time in the area later known as Emakhoseni. In due course they settled in the Valley of the Umhlatuze under Malandela, who established an umuzi on the long slope north of the present Mandawe Church.

After a quarrel between his sons Zulu and Quabe, Zulu returned with his mother Nozinja to the beloved Emakhosini Valley they had traversed earlier. He is recorded as living from 1627 to 1709. From these origins sprang a long line of Zulu chiefs (kings). The otherwise nondescript valley holds the grave-sites of Zulu, Phunga, Mageba, Ndaba, Jama, Senzangakhona and Dinuzulu.

Shaka’s entire life was influenced by the heritage of the emerging Zulu nation, centred on the Emakhoseni valley, the ‘Valley of the kings’. Much of his military career can be attributed to his mother Nandi’s insistence that he take a rightful place in that dynasty.

In 1787, after a tryst between the Zulu heir Senzangahkona and Nandi, princess of the Elangeni tribe to the south, Shaka was born as an illegitimate. The Zulu dismissed the pregnancy as the work of ‘an intestinal beetle’. Shaka’s strong-willed mother became the unloved third wife of Senzangakhona. The fact resulted in humiliation for Shaka and his mother, leading to many hatreds and grudges and an urge to fight his way to supremacy.

Nandi kept the kingly vision in front of Shaka from his birth until her death and constantly brought to his attention that he was the son of a Zulu paramount chief (king). She urged him to resurrect the Zulu nation to dominance in opposition to his many less robust half-brothers.

This ensured the honing of Shaka’s character and skills during a tough and even brutal childhood. He endured torment and hardships as a young herder, and oppression from the Elangeni tribe of his mother. These cruelties are supported by many anecdotes. He learned stick-fighting and perfected it until left severely alone by the other boys, apart from grudging respect.

After an indiscretion involving disagreements with the Elangeni heir apparent Makedama and the stabbing of an unmanageable cow during the famine of 1802-04, he was obliged to flee with his mother Nandi to Mthethwa territory closer to the coast. They lived with that tribe for a decade.

Quick to learn military techniques and tactics, Shaka became a rising military star of the Mthethwa and a favourite of the renowned Dingiswayo. Shaka stamped his authority and presence on the younger warriors, and recorded notable achievements such as killing a cattle-raider known as Lembe.

In due course Shaka’s patron Dingiswayo engineered the young warrior’s supremacy amongst the Zulus in order to secure his western flank militarily against the feared Ndwandwe living to the north along the Phongolo River. Shaka arranged the assassination of his brother Sigujana and assumed the kingship while backed by a Mthethwa regiment. On Dingiswayo death at the hands of Zwide, he was free to extend his powers further.

He innovated the short, powerful iklwa stabbing spear and huge war shield, buffalo attack formation and hardening of his troops for battle. A strict regimen of discipline was instituted. Selected campaign strategies were refined and practiced on smaller local tribes. The Elangeni were overrun and a brutal vengeance exacted on those who had done him or his mother any hurt. The Buthelezi were defeated. Their leaders were incorporated as councillors, if compliant enough. Shaka steadily incorporated tribes near and far, and embarked on campaigns worthy of more historically lauded military leaders elsewhere, even Napoleon.

In his prime, Shaka as king was a magnificent physical specimen, resplendent in ceremonial dress. He showed an acute intelligence, capable of weighing evidence dispassionately, hypothesising, applying critical analysis and engaging with creative strategising. He showed acute awareness of how complex social and natural systems tend to operate. Many of these thinking processes are evident in his complex and usually successful military strategies.

Major battles includes Kwa Gqokli, involving an intricate deception to divide the Ndwandwe army between assaulting the Zulu regiments ensconced on Kwa Goqlkli hill, and pursuing a small herd of Zulu decoy cattle. Shaka used many elements such as thirst, breaking up the invading forces by various stratagems, superior fighting weapons, disciplined troop formations, and the constant availability of food and water provisions, to his advantage. The outcome was a far greater loss of manpower on the Ndwandwe side than with the Zulus.

The result was more than satisfactory, because the Ndwandwe reward was a limited number of cattle as the spoils of war, while the Zulus bought time during which to build up their forces. A major defensive campaign a year later was also concluded successfully, with the Ndwandwe suffering tremendous losses. The Ndwandwe were finally reduced to impotence in a savage campaign of retribution that took the Zulu army as far as the upper Phongolo River.

After the death of Shaka’s mother Nandi in 1827, the king introduced severe constraints to ensure a satisfactory period of national mourning for her. Sexual intercourse was banned. Living women were recorded as having been opened to check the presence of the unborn. Many cattle were also killed as result of the mourning period, while solid food might not be eaten. Resentment grew. Shaka seemed to be suffering from schizophrenia, with wild mood swings consuming him in his last year. He was wounded by Quabe or Ndwandwe attackers, with a blade driven under his left biceps and into his ribs. The wounds were attended to by the trader Farewell, to the king’s gratitude.

A few years after first meeting the white settlers who became ensconced in Port Natal in 1824 as traders, in 1828 Shaka engaged them with his army in an attempt to carve a way through Southern Natal and Xhosa territory to establish trading relations with the Eastern Cape town of Grahamstown.

The traders had a broad strategy of setting up a trading empire that would eventually link in with the Cape authorities. This involved a major campaign to Xhosa territory to the south. The policy brought mutterings from the Zulus, who felt that Shaka’s relationships with the traders were too warm, and too disparaging of the Zulus themselves. There were rising intrigues against the king.

The king was murdered in September 1828, in a side-kraal Nyakamubi of the great ikhanda (military village) at Stanger in Natal. The role of Shaka’s aged aunt and previously regent, Mkabayi, is clear in approving the actions to be taken by Dingane, Mhlangana and Mbopa to ‘save the nation’.

The book Shaka.The story of a Zulu king is available for a few dollars on Amazon Kindle and in hard copy from Createspace, under Alex Coutts. The web site www.alexeducational.co.za and blog site www.alexstoriesandart.blogspot.com will get you there. Alternatively you might just enjoy looking at the 50 paintings on the website or reading of the blogsite stories set in KZN.

Little Fur Bundle: A Poem for Memory

Little Fur Bundle; a Poem for Memory

 (Ode to a Grumpy Cat Owner)

2005-12-02 19.15.09

Little fur bundle at the base of the bed,

Stay asleep in the darkness, don’t raise your head.

We need far more sleep, and it’s just 3 a.m.,

Take heed of your parents; take pity on them.

Is that a faint purring I hear in my ear,

The little ‘soft touch’ gets closer and near.

Are you creeping up under cover of dark?

At least with a dog, one can hear the thing bark.

Dammit, cat: now you have made your point,

Your dish is quite empty, your nose out of joint.

Let’s start the routine, lead on through the gloom,

I’ll climb off the bed, slouch out of the room.

Down the dark passage, black shape leads the way,

Straight for the food dish, without fail each day.

Now starts the chorus. I open a tin,

Cat moaning, and squalling, and making a din.

It’s amazing how quickly one can dislike a cat,

Feeding and stroking it, then this and that,

You don’t like the food, and you don’t like the tin?

I’ll try one then another, until I can win.

One the other hand, my small grumpy cat,

You’ll get one tin, and that will be that!

I’ve made up my mind, I’ll give you away,

Then we can relax, and sleep late each day.

I’m just joking, Sootie; I know you’re not bad!

If you ever left us, my spouse would be sad.

The mind of a stone age artist

The mind of a stone age artist

Ebusingata elephant-man

An elephant-shaman

Look at the ‘painting of a painting’ at the head of this piece of writing. Look especially at the main focus, an elephant-shaman figure. It was painted by a man or woman one might describe with superiority as a ‘late stone-age’ being. One thinks of a primitive ‘cave-man’. But clearly, the artist was no shambling idiot. They were perceptive, intelligent and creative. How did they think?

Exploring the mind of a stone-age artist is not the easiest excursion one might make. For a start, one has to shed the stereotype of the person as an uncouth, grunting creature with a brain ruled only by instinct. These were people as fully human as we modern, ‘sapient’ humans are. They might have differed in physical size, but barely at all in cognition. Perhaps they were a tinge more imaginative. Their incredible mythology bears witness to that.

Now study the main figure of an elephant-shaman in conjunction with the swarm of bees. Of the picture you’re looking at, these two images are all that the San (Bushmen) painted. The rest of the images, including the small, high-set cave with beehive and vulture droppings as well as the two human figures on a floating sandstone platform, were painted by the writer as a surrealist work to more completely explore and define the mythical world of the artist.

The original

The original rock painting was done perhaps two hundred years ago on an overhang (cave) wall at Ebusingata, a few kilometres south of Royal Natal National Park in the northern sector of the Natal Drakensberg Mountains of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. And that original is a masterpiece of technical skill and imagination. It also provides a brilliant historical record.

The original composition includes the large figure of a shaman bedecked with white paint and equipped with hunting equipment. He is probably in a state of trance, bent on extracting honey from a small cave in a rock-face crack high up to his right. The bees and their honey were associated with a high degree of potency (religious empowerment).

The modern artist has shown the yellow of the honeycombs of the wild African bees, to indicate the origin of the swarm and provide further context to the lively movements of the figure as focal point. A smear of vulture droppings also shows up white on the ledge of the cave to explain the action further.

Elephant man and the bees

The shaman, naked but replete with bow and arrows, has transformed mentally into an elephant, in the belief that the tough hide of that great beast will protect him from the bee stings. One can see the angry swarm diving and dashing in frenzy around him, but the man-beast (therianthrope) is focused and unperturbed as he strides towards the cave.

Since bees were thought by the San to have great potency, each bee can be seen as a symbol of the power that could be brought to the San shaman by encountering them in their agitated state. Filled with potency by Cagn, the great creator-god, the bees will enter the shaman’s body to travel through his gut and up the spine, to exit at the back of the neck or top of the head. The comprehensive empowerment then enjoyed by the shaman will enable him commune with Cagn during the trance dance, heal the sick, make rain, paint with sensitivity and perhaps be successful in the next hunt.

The shaman figure as art

The therianthropic figure is full of action, powerful and determination, set on a successful encounter with Cagn’s great potency. He is striding forward unflinchingly to the encounter, his limbs and body transformed to that of a great elephantine beast  The penis is infibulated to show his purpose untroubled by any sexual distractions. The San artist has in effect described a shaman in a state of trance, his imagination perfervid and roaming free of critical cortical control.

The mind that painted it

The minds of the San appear to have been modern in every sense, although during their history they suffered denigration and ridicule even from other indigenous groups because of their simple lifestyle. The fact that they were hunter-gatherers and not agriculturists or pastoralists with a sense of property ownership set them apart.

They were outlawed everywhere, and driven to extinction in the Drakensberg (Dragon Mountains) by genocide. On the other hand they possessed incredibly creative imaginations that developed a library of myths to explain their experience and experiences, and the capacity to transform their thoughts into commendably enduring works of art. Their creative thinking is very clear from the painting.

Critical thinking

Their development of effective poisons, oil-based paints of various colours, hunting instruments, clothing suitable for bitterly cold winter conditions and artwork of imagination reveals a capacity for rational, critical analysis and the use of hypotheses. This implies putting forward tentative solutions to problems, and then testing them to find successful patterns. Their record of thriving in montane and desert environments supports the contention.

Their language sounds peculiar to our ears; based on four or so sucking clicks and explosive pops! Peculiar, yes indeed; yet their sparse speech was adequate to their needs. Their sense of sight was marvellous, no doubt honed by their vocation as hunters, and their hearing was also acute.

They excelled us ‘modern people’, with our disposable society, in preserving their environment and not fouling the nest. That is something we who discard things so easily have not yet learnt. They held living things in high esteem, and celebrated and atoned to the creator-being each time they killed a large creature to satisfy their needs. They accorded to nature incredible powers, and tended to credit natural phenomena with human capacities and propensities.

Their womenfolk knew the characteristics and uses of a very wide range of plants, and could predict the seasons when each plant’s roots, fruit, berries or shoots would be available and most crucial to survival. That implies systematic as well as systemic thinking. The women were most astute in rain-making, since they brought the soft, soaking she-rain and not the thunderstorms that would rend the earth and destroy vegetation with its masculine aggression.

Creative thinking

Their great library of mythical stories show the extent of their creative talents. They have stories dealing with creation, great hunts, encounters with cannibals, the characteristics of wild creatures and much more. They had great skill in imitating a wide variety of wild creatures by use of gestures and posturing, and often inserted humour into their displays. These were learning experiences for the young, who would acquire gathering skills from their mothers; and if they were male, hunting skills from the men. A rudimentary education system was in place.

The two human figures

The two San (Bushmen) at lower right are not a part of the original painting, but are human images painted by the artist to give greater commentary, definition and explanation to this surrealist artwork. They are the two compatriots of the shaman whose minds also engage with the elephant image to gain protection in their quest for honey. The hive is no doubt their possession, having been in their family for years. The thong and stick ladder was perhaps fixed to the rock face a century before, and would be maintained from time to time. It is probable that the hunters would make a fire on their imaginary platform of rock to smoke the bees away from the site.


Many great thinkers of the Western and eastern scientific traditions used images, diagrams and other forms of visualisation as a cognitive strategy to clarify their scientific ideas. The San did the same. Their oil paintings show complex hunts, healing scenarios, battles, trance dances, attacks by wild beasts, securing a rain-making creature, cattle raids, and home life.

They are a startling testimony to the depth of intelligence of these diminutive people who suffered genocide and death from farmers and pastoralists who had lost stock from San cattle and horse raids. The San had no concept of property ownership such as that prevalent in most cultures in the world. They suffered heavily for that deficit within their conceptual libraries.

They also suffered genetic dilution through intermarriage with African tribes until a little more than a hundred years ago, when genetically ’pure’ San disappeared from the history of Natal.

More on the contemporary contribution

The circular shape of the central rock wall in the picture is a device to keep the viewer’s eyes from wandering out of the picture. Reds and yellows serve to accentuate the focal points, and edges are a little sharper near focal points to give them further emphasis.

The painting was blocked in initially with a quite thin mix of oil paint and turps to provide a warm tonal under-painting. Darks were subjected to some glazing, and the paint was scumbled in to accentuate the lights. Sandstone is subject to weathering, and one had to be careful not to sharpen edges too much because that would give an unnatural flint-like sharpness that sandstone doesn’t have when well weathered.

Child of the Dragon Mountains

The book Child of the Dragon Mountains tells the story of the San rock artists, hunters, shamans, healers, rainmakers, in the form of a novel. It is based on forty years of research in the Drakensberg Mountains and is an authentic view of the fascinating lives of these diminutive people. The suffered genocide over more than a century, and had disappeared from their range in the montane regions of Natal by about 1900.

It is accessible on www.alexeducational.co.za and back through the linked blogsite www.alexstoriesandart.blogspot.com The book is available on Createspace in hard copy, and also Amazon Kindle in digital form.

You might prefer to just look at the fifty oil paintings or check out a blog that interests you.

Transform schooling in South Africa

Transform schooling in South Africa

2010-01-03 17.30.55
We need brilliant teachers


Who is this blog written for?

South African parents, teachers, principals, school administrators, ‘ordinary’ concerned citizens as well as overseas researchers and academics might find this post interesting.

 The legacy of apartheid

The government that took control in 1994 after national elections had a tough task ahead. They had a dreadful legacy to overcome, with wide discrepancies between the privileged sectors and those who had suffered discrimination. The tasks confronting them ranged from overcoming negative mental mindsets to facing deep-seated and daunting challenges in curriculum construction, standardisation, infrastructure, funding and a host of other contested terrains.

The result has been a mixed bag. Steady progress has been made in many domains of educational endeavour and occasional brilliance shines through. But on the downside there are such debilitating factors as corruption, poor official decisions, parental passivity, the laziness and arrogance of many educators coupled to an apparently widespread lack of understanding of the concept of ‘professional behaviour’, and a host of other debilitating drawbacks that have beset the system.

While some learners and students have grasped their chances, may others have been reduced to a consuming sense of defeat. That is largely undeserved.

This is not what many of us who wanted a better South Africa strove for during the 1970s and 1980s. And, if this country is to forge ahead, the more devastating damage must be rectified. It must be accomplished urgently. And in the face of other deepening problems, from a fractured parliament to a draining energy and water supply, there is diminishing time.

 Shadows of the past

The school matriculation results for 2014 show a lower pass rate for KwaZulu-Natal province than in the previous year. Political administrators have taken a measure of responsibility (Mercury, 7 January 2015), a commendable action on their part. They have also quite correctly pointed to poor teacher performance as a major causal factor, attributing it not only to poor training, but to weak subject knowledge and even laziness.

There’s little point in becoming obsessed by these indicators, since they are primarily reflective of the fortunes of the millions of pupils and students moving through the system of twelve years of schooling, rather than just those writing matriculation. If one is to understand the poor performance of many learners, one needs to focus on their experiences during the earlier years of schooling. And one needs to maintain balance; many learners not in the firing-line have done very well indeed.

Of the total number of pupils who entered schooling more than a decade ago, only about one-quarter finally ‘passed’ their formal education with a satisfactory result. Many fell out along the way, and a few failed at the final hurdle. In some cases they were hampered by persistently large classes and the non-delivery or late delivery of text books. Some were not allowed progression at a late senior secondary stage, to prevent their failures from being added to the final statistic. When one takes the initial entry numbers of those coming into the system into account, the overall result is dismal.

It is common knowledge that much exam-coaching of students is done in the higher levels, which with the production of exam model answers results in slightly elevated pass rates but poor educational experiences. Exam papers are sometimes sold, and cheating is apparently rife, with 5300 students currently subject to investigation (Mercury, 09 January 2015). The reasons for failure are complex, made up of a great many factors. The aetiology behind an inadequate schooling system and the actual, limited educational experiences derived from it by many pupils is more complex still.

The root cause

From the early days of the apartheid era when the differential of spending was decided on racial grounds (R16 per white child, R1 per African child in 1971) to the present day, the rot has gnawed away steadily. The weaknesses in our education system are a compound of many factors, but in the modern day a lack of sufficiently deeply committed, well-trained and creative professional teachers remains the root cause. One reads statements to this effect in the front-page article of the Mercury of 7 January 2015.

One gets the feeling that some within the teacher corps simply do not understand the level of commitment and hard grind required by the profession. Unions do not seem willing to intervene. The slogan still seems to be the old historical one of ‘rights before service’.

Talk and chalk methodologies have prevailed throughout the history of education in South Africa, in which teacher-centred instructional methods were widely prevalent, supported by a standardised textbook. Content-dissemination and memorisation were prevalent methodologies, with little thought given in many schools to creativity and innovatory thinking.


I served on the staff of the Edgewood College of Education in Pinetown, a suburb of Durban, for over twenty years. I was Deputy Rector for the last few years of service, and was therefore deeply implicated in training thousands of teachers over two decades. Our Rector, Professor Andre le Roux liaised with more than a hundred institutions for training, via CORDTEK (Committee of Rectors and Deans for Teacher Education KwaZulu-Natal). Senior staff committed to working together in the ‘New South Africa’ then emerging, to maintain and even enhance standards by open-minded collaboration and the sharing of facilities.

In the New South Africa that emerged in 1994, such projects as CORDTEK were however rejected by the new incumbents. Thereafter, many highly competent professional administrators, lecturers and teachers retired of their own volition or were encouraged to retire, thus losing a great deal of accumulated wisdom and experience.

Seeking a way forward

I personally welcomed the New South Africa and during the ten years prior to the political changes of 1994 undertook research on multi-cultural, non-racial education and gave numerous public addresses in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

The research was a D.Phil. study titled An exploratory study of the South African New Era Schools Trust. A four-year longitudinal study, it was completed in 1989 through the University of Natal (now University of KwaZulu-Natal).

I analysed the possible pathways of transition to a non-racial dispensation, encouraged privileged institutions to accept the process in a positive way and urged an open-hearted, collaborative effort.

During our staffroom discussions in the 1980s and early 1990s, the view was expressed that it could take thirty years or more for South Africa to move beyond the apartheid legacy. This implied attempting to construct or upgrade adequate school buildings and other facilities, develop multi-cultural curricula, re-organise disparate systems and their administrations, integrate teacher education institutions, alter mindsets as best possible, reduce class sizes and enhance examination procedures.

A lingering cost of the struggle

During the College’s practical teaching programmes, for which I was responsible as Deputy Rector, I liaised with three hundred school principals and visited many primary and secondary schools. I noted how the prevailing disillusion with highly discriminatory apartheid education had for years been channelled into resistance to the system, often activated as a go-slow on the part of educators. It was an understandable reaction, yet at the heart of it lay future disaster for South Africa.

In many schools, very little education was taking place. The liberation ends were seen to justify the means. Some principals who tried to raise their school’s standards and provide sound leadership were threatened, and office windows were smashed and the buildings even set on fire. With their lives at risk, it was understandable that most teachers accepted the status quo; thus setting a pattern for the future. As far as I could make out, many parents were prepared to accept the situation since they too, would ultimately benefit from political change.

I had for long recognised the political ends (a non-racial schooling system) as necessary and commendable, but was wary of the destructive means used to achieve those ends. Teachers were vulnerable to settling into a comfortable pattern of minimalist teaching that would not be suited to the transformed and vigorous society South Africa required. Training colleges were not immune; and there, too, resistance at all costs was the watchword.

I believe that the pattern set in those years has persisted to the present day. Apartheid during the seventies and eighties was successful in teaching people how to resist through withholding their labour. It seems to have continued to the present time, although formal apartheid is long gone. And all the while, few civil servants have given serious thought for the children who were caught in the middle of the fracas; their needs became secondary or lost sight of. Indeed, apartheid has much to answer for, but so has the lethargy and occasional arrogance that superseded it.

Since those years my wife and I, who have no children of our own, have seen to the education of numerous young Zulu boys and girls. It became our alternative commitment. All are now adults to whom we gave a home, financed as best possible, motivated and guided during their years of education. Several are now qualified with diplomas or degrees. The experience, not yet concluded, has given us insights into many aspects of current education. My wife retired from a secondary school principal post a few years back, so our insights have remained current.

After the advent of a ‘new’ South Africa, the ‘new brooms’ in formal state education got busy; quite possibly too busy. Some of the remaining most competent teachers left or were ousted by officialdom making their lives unbearable. Many in-service courses dwelt on the historical past rather than the promising future. And, they brought in ill-conceived changes without sufficient preparation of those who would implement the system.

Outcomes Based Education

Outcomes Based Education was a monumental, sweeping curriculum change rather than simply a reformulation of syllabi requiring upgrades. It was developed during the 1990s and expanded with the New Millennium. It relied on assessment statements that forced convergence of thought on a single, clearly defined answer as means to avoid discrimination between races, cultures and classes. In practice, creative answers were often seen as controversial because they sometimes deviated from the official statement of outcome. One either knew the answer or didn’t. For teachers with a lively imagination, their profession became a highly-regulated, debilitating endeavour.

My wife and I visited New Zealand in 2005 for a principals’ conference, and I arranged an interview with senior officials in the capital Wellington. I heard many cautions about outcomes based education, including pointers about the increased administrative burden it brought, entrenchment of linear, convergent thinking, and much more.

Despite the caveats, this became the new great way forward, with a tendency to relapse into monumental administrative overload. Only the end-product of a section within a syllabus was widely seen to have value, and methods of teaching and learning lapsed in importance. The route to the end product was of little consequence, as long as it could be classified under banal labels such as ‘practical’, ‘knowledge’ or ‘question and answer’.

As the familiar teacher-centred approaches of the past were rejected in favour of radical new freedoms for the learners, confusion reigned and there was loss of discipline in many schools. The transformation was too rapid, confusing and bluntly implemented. Teacher morale took a pounding.

The fundamental literacies of languages and number deteriorated further to become matters of secondary importance. Yet these critical, symbolic domains of learning still inevitably constituted the means by which all other meanings of the ‘empirics’, ‘aesthetics’, and synoptic ‘subjects’ were conveyed.

A confusion of policies

Teachers already struggling with quite simple teaching methods in the midst of harsh conditions were overwhelmed by the constant shift in a confusion of policies and requirements as these evolved, transformed and sometimes disappeared without trace. Since for six years I offered training within the SETA system, I became aware that in the early stages the officials administering the system were often far less informed about its nuances that we who were already widely experienced educators.

Now, in the second decade of the new millennium, the government is trying to rectify matters through the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS). This document could remedy some of the more obvious deficiencies of the past, but it has brought yet another set of requirements to be negotiated, digested and implemented by teachers. The sometimes weak 2014 results are blamed partly on CAPS. It is fingered as something imposed without adequate preparation.

One longs for a time when the National Education Departments will have approved, settled curricula, with syllabi within it nuanced and modified only as is necessary. That would avoid the morale-destroying massive curricular revolutions that make teachers feel that everything done before was a mistake and waste of time.


Typically, we who served at Edgewood were committed professionals who made their vocation a central part of their lives. But however we express it, we tended to be shielded from the most debilitating experiences.

To lecture and teach was a rare privilege, something to be nurtured, nourished and valued beyond most other things in life. We were there to serve the children of this country, not ourselves. And many of us worked steadily towards a non-racial society free of prejudice. For a few of us, salaries were things you received at the end of the month with gratitude, because such an astonishingly special profession went with it.

But we, and many other educationists working ceaselessly in privileged environments were not heroes; just professionals doing a reasonable job.

The real heroes

To put things in perspective, more worthy than any of us at Edgewood are the teachers who served truly impoverished communities with commitment and resolve, under the difficult conditions brought about by apartheid. Some endured unmotivated and faltering leadership, others worked in decrepit crumbling buildings. Yet others suffered from the generational transmission of illiteracy from poverty-stricken parents with no resources to offer their children, while others interacted with parents who had no interest whatsoever in their offspring’s education. The teachers who wrestled in the front line with these problems and never gave up are the real heroes.

Deep-seated flaws

In thinking through some of the errors of the past, we need to engage with systemic (and systematic) thinking, especially with some of the so-called ‘archetypes’ or fatal flaws that have dogged the emerging structure. As pointed out, many can be traced back to the burst of euphoria and emotion, not rationality that emerged after 1994.

Negative perceptions

It is clear from the plethora of articles, reports, and anecdotes that have emerged during the past couple of decades that there were, and still are, many in service within education who remain a source of shame to their colleagues. Many are apparently comfortable with an existence in which they remain uncommitted, lazy, unimaginative and poorly trained. Some are content with their now comparatively indulged and protected lives. Indeed, these factors have been identified and stated publicly by senior officials within a week of the time of writing.

Although it is understandable that some might relapse into unproductive comfort, in a sense it is a betrayal of trust in a country that has come a long way towards an equalisation of educational opportunity. The syndrome has been destructive of our nation’s most precious possession, our youth. The 2005 Human Sciences Research Council report Educator workload in South Africa (Chisholm, L., et al.) paints a picture of teachers’ effort tailing off during the working week, with some teachers only spending 46% of their time actually teaching, and some as low as 10%.

Other time is given to administration, union meetings, and so on. In some schools, one understands, unprofessional behaviour has been identified by education authorities. Currently, cheating has held back the dissemination of results, with 58 matriculation exam centres indicted in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. At the time of writing, 5 300 matriculants (1% of candidates) were being investigated for cheating (Mercury, 9 January). Government is to be commended for investigating and declaring the figures so openly.

We have seen a drop in pass rates of the 2014 matriculants for mathematics, science and second language. There are especially dismal performances in some cases, with the products of the formal state education system in South Africa rated low in Africa and the World. Teacher absenteeism and general non-commitment to the bigger vision is sometimes blamed (Mail and Guardian, 8 July 2011). Where, then, is the much-vaunted ‘ubuntu’ towards our youth?’

Teacher training

Teacher training has also been fraught with difficulties. A great loss of teachers to the system occurred in the early years, when many left after the installation of a new government in 1994 brought perceptions of ‘reverse’ racial discrimination and stalled careers. Since that time there have been periods when far more teachers have left the profession than entered it. The integration of colleges of education and teacher training colleges into universities has also, arguably, lowered the standard of teaching, as the unique focus on education and teaching rather than content knowledge was lost by this move.

The way forward

The following suggestions are made in an effort to move a faltering system forward.

  1. Principals must give sound, informed, committed, ethical and inspiring leadership, with the pupils and their parents placed centrally before any other considerations. Principals need to confer on the concept of professionalism and then lead the way in demonstrating it in practice. Your role is too crucial to the success of our country. There can be no Plan B.
  2. Teachers must re-commit to professionalism, with the pupils and students at the centre of your professional lives. Being professional implies valuing one’s  knowledge and experience, focusing on service before self-interest, following a meaningful Code of Conduct, building on initial training by pursuing one’s  own scheme of further service training, and submitting to moderation by a professional council of peers. One might also pursue lifelong learning and a course in cognitive enhancement.
  3. If a teacher has the capacity, they might retrain for the critical subjects the country needs, such as mathematics, sciences and language of the economy.
  4. All educators must display professional conduct in the discharge of their duties. They must at least:
  • Have a commitment that pursues service and not a comfortable existence.
  • Be punctual.
  • Master the curriculum components, or syllabi, that they must teach.
  • Prepare and teach a range of lessons, including approaches that depend on at least learner-centred question and answer and discussion, the use of group work and individual assignments, as applicable.
  • Treat children with absolute propriety and respect, while ensuring a disciplined environment.
  • Simplify their administration yet maintain quality, and make basic teaching the priority.
  • Follow one’s individual conscience rather than the crowd.
  • Evaluate and assess learners’ work systematically and meticulously.

5. Teacher Unions should support and indeed lead a move to promote teaching as a full-blooded profession in which service to the pupils and their parents is given equal weight to concerns with salaries and service conditions. Expressed differently, union officials need to see the promotion of teachers’ duties and responsibilities as equal in importance to the support for teacher rights.

6.  Business should have a far more powerful say in education, giving government a lead as to what attributes and skills are required for success in industry and business, from time to time. Business should be cultivated as an ally of government in the fight for a sound education system, and not a hindrance or even oppositional force.

7. Every student in South African schools should at some time engage with a course in entrepreneurship, including how to run a small business and how to fit into a variety of enterprises.

8. A system should be put into place to hold teachers accountable for their personal performance. In fact, if all government officials had to place their children in state schools, it would hold them more accountable too.

9. Greater devolution of authority should be permitted. There is as much intelligence nestled in peripheral areas as there is at the centre; and there could be more creative thinking and positive ownership besides.

A better future

I remain intensely interested in education in South Africa, hence the disappointment inherent in this piece of writing. I will not accept that, while we have made enormous strides in developing a non-racial system (a desperately difficult task in the presence of so many contested political interests), we have regressed or at least shown little progress in some core areas. I expected better.Were my wife’s and my long careers in education wasted? No. And there is no bitterness. Through teaching, my wife and I have left useful ideas with numerous school and college students as well as our Zulu family. Tens of thousands of other committed educators and educationists of all races have done the same; and no doubt done it far better than we.Correcting matters is a national endeavour. Or else, we sink as a nation. Effective teaching is the core requirement of the entire educational edifice. All else is subservient to it. The teachers of this country hold the future in their hands. It’s time they began to lead the way to a better future for all South Africans. But they needs the tools and support to do it.

How to Solve Problems

How to Solve Problems

New-6 (3)


Be a problem-solving whizz-kid

Would you like to be a problem-solving whizz-kid? So would we all! Although whizz-kid status might be some way off, it is possible to improve your problem-solving capabilities greatly by simply studying and following a few guidelines or ‘heuristics’.

Most people have no doubt often thought about how to solve specific problems as they arise, but it seems that few have ever thought seriously about the principles, processes and methods they might use in solving all or most of the problems they have to tackle.

Yet such principles and processes do exist, and they are worth examining because if you get them right, they can empower you. Come with me to explore a few of the principles.

Perceive and define the nature of a problem

  • An ability to identify and define problems precisely helps any problem-solver to select and structure the mental operations and processes that follow. It affords the person the best tools for tackling and remediating a wide range of problems (disjunctions and incongruities) appearing in the real world.
  •  A good starting-point is to have a critical and focused attitude at the outset. This means being open to irregularities and incongruities that might show the presence of a problem. One can then start the process of investigation of the data field to seek the core or ‘locus’ of any problem.
  • One must try to locate and identify specific gaps, disjunctions, incongruities, confusions, inconsistencies and irregularities in phenomena and data. These are what make the problem. One then strives, almost reflexively, to achieve equilibrium via a good solution.
  • Also start with an appropriate mental approach. Avoid emotional states that might interfere with logical thought. Become intensely focused, and avoid disruptive distractions. In short, concentrate! Use objective accuracy and logic that can be re-tested by others, rather than egocentric interpretations of the problem. Be positive and optimistic to ensure motivation and morale.
  •  Listen carefully to any verbal instructions or advice, and maintain objective accuracy as you do so. Read any written instructions precisely. Identify good labels and the correct conceptual vocabulary by being very specific and precise with terms and definitions used.
  •  Study observed or illustrated (drawn or photographed) evidence carefully. Visualize, simplify and clarify the main requirements of the task. Identify key elements of the problem. Ask; where is the imbalance, gap or irregularity? Understand any model given for comparative or guidance purposes. Define and understand the problem and decide what the outcome should be.

Collect and systematise information

  • Collect and systematize the relevant information, and set aside that which is not sound. Collect further information to help find solutions. Use multiple sources of pertinent evidence. Seek key ‘cues’ and obvious ‘clues’. Seek causes and effects, and especially determine the cause of the problem more accurately.
  •  Start to create possible solutions. Create one or more hypotheses for testing “If I do this, then what…” Start to test hypotheses. Use tentative inferences and generalizations.
  •  As you work, understand whether you need to converge on a single best solution (convergent thinking) or diverge to a range of options because innovative, fertile and fluent thinking is required (divergent thinking).
  •  Usually with big complex projects, you’ll find both approaches essential. Even when you think you’ll need linear thinking where one thought after another follows logically like a long chain, it’s wise to restate your purpose in many different ways, devise several tentative solutions, assemble various resources, and generate creative ideas to extend your range of possibilities.
  •  It’s probable that we use the left side of the brain too much in tracking ideas along a deep furrow to one time-worn, best solution. We need always to be alert to wider possibilities and options that can lead to a range of innovative and creative solutions.

Carry the work forward

  • Use appropriate tools and methods for carrying the work forward. Organize information into meaningful entities that reflect relationships, hierarchies and progressions. Compare spontaneously and frequently as you go. Analyse and deal with fragmented elements in parts, then synthesize into integrated wholes.
  •  Create a diagram or model (Venn, diagram, table, continuum) to aid you. Use personal and cultural (external) spatial or time concepts accuracy. Observe the constancy principle where appropriate.
  •  If you are stuck, ask an expert; or work in a team if appropriate. Survey the field, and use fresh written resources. Use other, appropriate tools or technology. Perhaps apply a theory and use deduction (general rule to specific instance).
  •  Use the scientific method of induction (study specific instances of a phenomenon to create a general rule). Use mathematics if it helps; perhaps use a formula, or use syllogisms in logical reasoning.

Draw to a conclusion

  • Bring the work to a conclusion and stage where implementation is possible. Persist through the tough parts; do not give up easily. Select the best solution from amongst options. Implement a good solution.
  •  Verify the solution; reaffirm it. Question prior assumptions about it: be open to perspective change, and redefine if necessary.
  •  Continue to avoid egocentric interpretations that dictate a solution you personally want to see, yet which might not be the best. Persist until completion.
  •  Communicate the solution accurately and clearly.
  •  Work on other thinking strategies that interest you. Above all; be a thinker.

Give writer’s block the chop!

The dreaded block

Give writer’s block the chop!

What is it?

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, be aware that there are ways to avoid it, although for many writers it’s a tough adversary. For a few it’s torture. And it can come on you without warning.

From what one hears, writer’s block troubles a great many people who depend for their living on producing written material. Often these people have to produce material on a daily basis and occasionally the wellspring of creativity runs dry.

The effects of writer’s block

When writer’s block strikes, the tendency is for the writer to sit staring at the blank sheet, the mind devoid of ideas and in anguish. Sometimes the victim gets up to divert their attention with some other chore. Some don’t return to the writing.

How to avoid the block

For some decades the present writer has been blissfully devoid of this debilitating condition. All eight of the books on the website www.alexeducational.co.za (look under Alex-books) were written in a year.

This is how I have avoided ‘the dreaded block’.

The main problem seems to be fear. It’s no doubt the same sort of fear one might have felt in an exam room as a child, driven by great hope yet faced with an exam paper that gave little encouragement. The remedy seems to lie in (a) long-term preparation through researching and experiencing the subject very well to ease the act of writing, and (b) using comparatively short-term strategies that one can adopt when faced with the immediate task.

Long-term strategies

In the long term, one needs to build up a good command of the language to be used. There is little doubt that a fair or good command of vocabulary, concepts, paragraph and sentence construction, spelling and the other requirements of fluency are a great advantage when you have mastered them. They can be a brutal master where there is insufficient competence. So, work constantly to build your language and writing skills. If necessary, use a thesaurus or any help your computer can offer.

Know your topic

Further, become thoroughly familiar with your topic. Your ‘mental library’ can benefit from experience gained over many years. If you’re into novels, it’s best to have ‘lived a bit’. I’ve hiked through a desert in a kilt, sailed rough seas in a small boat, assisted at a disaster, negotiated a way through warring factions in the Middle East, and taught an inner city school class in London where tensions were high. You know the sort of thing.

Do detailed research

In 2012 I wrote eight books.

“How can you write eight books in a year?” I’ve been asked. “That means one every six weeks.”

“It’s not that easy”, I recall replying.  “I spent fifty years researching the stuff.  The writing was pretty easy when I came to it”.

Short-term projects

On the other hand, with more manageable topics one can build on experience by employing research done over a month or week, or even a couple of hours. Google is of course helpful, but often not enough. Deeper research and experience are required. That means work. Sadly, it’s something many people are not prepared to do. The result can be writer’s block.

In the shorter term, one can strategize means to get started. Perhaps write down random ideas imaginatively in no special order, and then start to cluster, categorise and sequence them to build up a reasonably logical sequence. Make a broad outline of your piece of writing, using simple labels as you proceed.

‘Go easy’ at the start

Don’t trouble yourself too much with quality at first, or you won’t start at all! This implies not troubling with precise critical thinking in an attempt to achieve a finished product at the outset.

Think in phases

So; your first draft, or few early drafts, can be done quite roughly to ensure that you at least make a start. With a book of 200 pages, I have been accustomed to write five drafts in this manner, with simple clusters of labels for chapters.

These become more refined in the middle drafts, but are not yet quality- assured. Much broad revision and correction can then be done, with content corrected, modified, adapted, reversed, erased, expanded, reinterpreted and so on.

Perfecting and polishing the work occurs only in the final drafts. Here you focus on the nuances of language, suitable choice of words, punctuation, and elimination of overblown passages. Don’t forget searching for ‘le mot juste’, the one true word. Hemingway would approve.

Give it a go

Armed with the above information, give it a go! To summarise: at the start just get a framework down. Flesh it out, and then polish it.

If you find you simply don’t have the tools for writing extensive works, perhaps you should do something else. Without language built up over time, and sufficient experience of a wide range of contextual challenges, some themes will no doubt prove unsuitable. Do, preferably, tackle themes that you have experienced and understood.

On the other hand if your wish to write remains an obsession, by all means employ the ideas and strategies outlined in this article. And in that case, I wish you inner strength. You will need it.

And, I wish you better quality than I have offered. With grit and insight into your subject, that’s perfectly possible.

Community Empowerment Through Enhanced Literacy

Community Empowerment Through Enhanced Literacy

Writing sentences


For some years an adult literacy programme called Masifundisane (Zulu: ‘teach one; teach all’, or ‘teach each other.’) operated in KwaZulu-Natal under the provincial Department of Education. It was headed by Mrs Cynthia Mpati. And it was a brilliant enterprise, worthy of emulation elsewhere in many parts of the world.

It incorporated thousands of people. And while it operated it held out great hope for the most impoverished to better their lives and achieve dignity. Many of the elderly people who engaged with it had seen their opportunities for a sound education evaporate during the apartheid era. The programme set out to redress these discriminations.

Initial planning

The approach was planned in such a way that it was driven by impoverished local communities themselves. Therein lay much strength. Communities didn’t depend on external resources because these agencies might not adequately address their needs. The originators did not wish to impose a process from the “top” down, but rather mounted a democratic initiative that would grow upwards from the grassroots community level. For years it succeeded admirably, and therefore has great relevance to many parts of the world where deep-seated poverty holds sway.

Study in Cuba

In 2006 several senior members of the Masifundisane team visited Cuba and spent two weeks there. They listened carefully to the advice given. They discussed issues with a wide spectrum of people, conversed with every literacy stakeholder available and generally sought insights from people who had promoted literacy in Cuba from the grassroots up. It was an exciting experience and the team returned fired with enthusiasm from a visit that had proved stimulating and challenging. It held great prospects for the democratization and spread of education and training in the province and indeed, possibly all of South Africa.

Objectives of the programme

Within a few days of their return, the findings from the research visit had been thoroughly discussed and brainstormed by members of the unit driving it.

The strategic plan that emerged after the Cuba visit reflected five objectives, namely to:

  •  Provide easy access to the programme for illiterate adults
  •  Create partnerships with various parties who could add critical resources to the initiative
  •  Create relevant curricula
  •  Train facilitators, and monitor and evaluate the programme effectively
  •  Develop institutional capacities

Early actions

Copyright issues were considered and care taken to ensure compliance where any external material was to be used. At this early stage a clear picture of the incidence of illiteracy was also gained. Particular attention was given to rural areas, and the density of unemployment, poverty and consequent illiteracy figures was identified and clarified.

The trend of persons attempting to escape poverty in rural areas by flight to the cities was understood as a major problem, since it often simply drove poverty-stricken people from one area to another without improving their prospects. It was resolved to try and address rural conditions through the programme so that people would be reaffirmed and developed as self-sufficient and productive citizens where their home communities had emerged historically. There should be a re-establishment of pride and competence. People should be proud of who they are and have their self-images and cultures reaffirmed.

South Africa 2001 statistics were perused in detail and colour-coded maps were obtained that showed the incidence of illiteracy in all districts of KwaZulu-Natal. Projects could then be mounted in various areas on a firm empirical basis. Owing to the ease with which illiterate persons could be drawn into political issues, an attempt was made to remain outside any political controversies to ensure that people were defined fundamentally as people and not as adherent to any political persuasion.

Accordingly, the selection of areas to be the focus was dependent on the actual literacy requirements and the other needs of the people living there, and not political persuasion. In this regard, attempts would be made to address such other matters as health including AIDS, TB and malaria, with developments in health also achieved through the literary focus of the programme.

Community involvement

From the outset, communities were drawn in to give their opinions, advice and ideas. The ‘community mobilisers’ went into the field and invited peoples’ contributions with the words: “Talk to us”. Curricula were designed around the idea of “safe” topics” that could be evocative yet non-ideological. It was a matter of selecting topics for literacy promotion across diverse but always real-life contexts, with the meeting of personal needs as a prime emphasis as they were experienced in the real world. The thrust would be to unify communities and not divide them.

Main buzzwords were therefore to ‘affirm people’. This implied the reaffirmation of individual significance, and the recognition of the full humanity of each participant. Every effort was made to avoid patronization. A further important factor was to gain insight into how the experience of facilitation reaffirmed the humanity and worth of the facilitators themselves. Indeed the term Masifundisane means “We learn together”. Yet another rallying cry was: “each one, teach one”.

A firm problem-solving methodology was reaffirmed for the literacy programmes, with a powerful social context; yet in the midst of community affirmation the team never lost sight of individual needs.

Matriculant facilitators

The selection of matriculants as facilitators could be seen as hugely important for these young people, since there is no quicker way to learn that to facilitate learning for others. The improvement of their chances of entry to further study in colleges or universities could not be stressed too strongly. It created hope for a lost generation. It also gave them work, and thereby began the address of a major problem in South Africa, namely the provision of employment for school–leavers whose certification might not have brought employment. It helped them to go beyond the dead-end that many of them had encountered.

Matriculant facilitators were supported by a stipend. Their entry to the programme was made easy by a simplification of bureaucratic entry requirements, while the weaker aspects of current training were avoided. Advantage was taken of helpful legislation, and in this regard the National Qualification Framework was seen as an instrument to free the project from the disadvantages of sometimes rigid institutionalized learning.

A great effort was made to ensure that learners “learnt how to learn”. The teacher-centred approaches were therefore rejected in favour of a ‘constructivist view’, and in general the approach worked very well. Communities had a choice of who would be recognized as a facilitator; a factor that made the best candidates step forward to prove themselves. The implications for improved social stability and the address of negative activities involving young adults within communities were clear.

A novel approach

The existing ‘Adult Basic Education and Training’ programme was seen as productive in some senses, yet perhaps too focused on the constraints of institutional education and training. It was therefore felt to be defective, since it didn’t look at real and actual needs as they were being experiences in living communities. It was also constrained by rigidities of the academic ladder, and lacked the flexibility to react as needed.

Although incorporating mother tongue, the existing Adult Basic Education and Literacy programmes were regarded as too biased towards reading and writing English, which has been allowed to carry a considerable weight of Western cultural concepts. Admittedly, the use of mother tongue in learning mathematics has been experienced as difficult because the mother-tongue concepts are sometimes alien to the needs of mathematics literacy and other subjects. The language of mathematics is more attuned to the rich concepts carried by English.

Local community themes

Local community themes formed the curriculum. This concept was dependent on research and the careful investigation of community needs. If there were no clinics, for instance, the purification of water would be part of the curriculum since it carried with it skills that were crucial to the welfare of the particular community that had identified the lack of clinics as a pressing need. Facilitators were taught how to mobilize communities and draw from them what their needs were on an ongoing basis.

As a starting point, within four months people could learn to read in their mother tongue, with 128 hours spent on the programme. To consolidate their literacy they had to produce such documents as a report of some event, a letter, and a personal biographical profile. They could even eventually read with insight the Ilanga Lase Natali newspaper started in 1903 by the famous educationist John Langalibalele Dube at Inanda.

Motivation was assisted by telling people that, in a sense, they could read; that they did have a starting-point. Problem-solving, games and visual literacy (achieved by showing interesting pictures and discussing them so that they could eventually record their content in written form) were all important There was much on which to build.

A simple methodology

Learners didn’t need to be shown how to hold a pen exactly; it was generally sufficient to simply ask them to do it. Just find a way! Start with circles and straight lines when forming letters, and use them to reproduce the shapes. Don’t drown in technicalities. Go from what you know to what you don’t. Get early success. Read and write as you hear and see things. End with a syllable and not a letter. Work with what people do.

So the workbook of 178 pages included about 23 lessons, each of which was pursued until completed. Topics came from the local curriculum as revealed by the community needs analysis. The three main categories of learning outcomes were pursued, including skills, knowledge and values/ attitudes. At the end of each lesson a check was made to ensure that each of the three had been addressed well. Knowledge and skills were actively used in context.

Lessons were often introduced by a story or discussion, and exercises were evaluated by encouraging feedback. Lots of formative activities were done on a regular basis.

Group work was used for building words and eventually writing sentences, describing the events in pictures and encouraging free thinking about such topics as home industries, domestic violence and substance abuse. Self-motivation was encouraged.

Community mobilisation

‘Community mobilisers’ facilitated access to opportunities, checked the illiteracy densities of district maps, and made a concerted effort to ensure that strategies were accurately linked to the meeting of community needs.

Local and district stakeholders were identified and incorporated into projects wherever possible. It was clear that the formal institutions of the Department of Education could not achieve all goals. There was a critical need for the flexible Masifundisane programme.

District Councillor support was encouraged since recruitment was facilitated thereby. With District Councillors on board, wards and lesser components tended to fall into line more easily. There was then a uniform understanding of processes.

Churches such as the Shembe and those affiliated to the South African Council of Churches were also significant role-players. Many people were drawn to these programmes very strongly if the churches supported them. The same presentation was given everywhere. Recruiting church members as facilitators was helpful since they were seen as upstanding and in tune with community needs. They could network well. The beliefs and culture of the churchgoers were reaffirmed. The introduction of outsiders simply didn’t work because of distrust. A further advantage was that church members gained useful employment. Churches often then made available such facilities as venues.

The fact that a facilitator could recruit twenty people for literacy programmes was powerful evidence that they enjoyed credibility in the community. In a sense, learners then comprise an informal ‘community appointments sub-committee’. Most people were very perceptive and could identify suitable candidates. Such communities of learners had emerged from amongst believers, workers, citizens, communities, government workforces and educational institutions.

Because of a lack of management support, probably due to a lack of approved work-time and other constraints, programmes did not emerge substantially from within factories and industries. Workers tended to be reticent about revealing their literacy status. They felt that it made them vulnerable to stigma and even ridicule.

Even dining rooms and garages were used as venues in the rural areas, and schools, clinics and halls were other available options. An attempt was made to find facilities in close proximity to communities because of threats of poor weather as well as other dangers. Venues had to be acquired by facilitators at no cost.

Red tape was limited, with only an insistence on the fact that there must be a Matriculant facilitator who was unemployed, had recruited sufficient learners, and who had a venue available. Entry was also user-friendly, with a one-page entry form in English or Zulu.

Trophies were awarded to districts with the greatest recruitment, and another trophy was awarded for the greatest monthly growth in numbers. Some special meetings were held to plan and organise graduation. Despite set dates and times for training and graduation, recruiting was ongoing and relentless throughout the year. Dates and timing were set by facilitators and their learners.

Classroom work

Monitoring the programme

A check was made prior to the establishment of a learning class, of the facilitator’s matriculation certificate, identity document, application form, name lists and availability of the expected twenty learners, and venue. In some cases where conditions mitigated against a full complement, less that the specified number were accepted. Groups as low as two or three, were accepted in special cases.

Broad-based monitoring was carried out by recruited community members, who gave assistance and support without any financial recompense other than a modest travel allowance. They met once a month at district level, with an exceptionally high rate of attendance evident at meetings. Minutes were kept to record their insights. Every three months a provincial level meeting was held, with major issues discussed and resolved in a democratic way.

Monitoring tended to involve a random sampling of sites, with recommendations made to facilitators and supervisors. Where necessary, Head Office looked into issues raised. Where the approval of the Superintendent General was needed, issues were channelled via the General Manager. With twenty monitors in each of twelve districts, there were two hundred and forty monitors. Each district had two co-ordinators, one of whom would chair meetings while the other took minutes.

Some further principles followed

 1. Supportive environment

One can’t readily instruct people formally and directly to become fluent speakers of a language. No one can really teach a language directly with much success; one can only present the conditions under which it can develop spontaneously in its own way. So, foster an environment in which effective language learning can develop. Develop and consolidate personal mental representations and therefore meanings


Capture interest early by using the learner’s needs and objectives. Discover and nurture springs of motivation in each learner. Assist as motivation waxes and wanes. Students are responsible for their own learning as they work on weaknesses and insufficiencies.

3.Normal activities and tasks

Use language for normal purposes, not artificially. Ensure that it operates close to real communication, with creative expression of meanings and not imitation. Encourage participatory activities that are student-initiated, purposeful and task-oriented. Some may be peer- peer, others done in small groups that co-operate on a task demanding language. Language learning must be allowed to penetrate other cultural activities. Culturally probable situations and real-world community activities are most productive.

4.Non threatening atmosphere.

Really think and feel naturally. No emotional threats must be allowed to surface, and peers and teachers must help. People must be comforting, interested and respectful of each other. Take risks, with no fear of failure. Teach each other. While we teach we learn

5.Rules of usage

Rule-governed (phonological, syntactical, semantic, pragmatic) subsystems are covered in an interrelated way. Don’t fossilize permanently into errors by ignoring a firm structural framework. But rather perform rules actively; don’t memorize or discuss them. Use them.


Use a wide range of modalities, including physical response, drawings, aural input, spoken output, reading, writing, word puzzles, manipulation of objects, pictures, song, dance, music, acting scenarios, gestures, facial expressions and making things.

7. Tests

Tests help learning. Don’t find errors and omissions as a first concern; rather allow learners to display their learning experiences. Reflect course objectives and student Interests in what you explore, and don’t let things be too rigidly timed. Above all, avoid over-testing

Public verification

During the terminal phase of the project I attended a graduation ceremony at the Pitermaritzburg showgrounds in Natal. Thousands of mature students were present, each decked out in the colours of the region from which they had been transported. They sat in a massive tent the size of a football field. In turn, each region was acknowledged, and a number of certificates were handed out. Recipients ranged from 19 years to gogos (grandmothers) in their 90s. Some danced for joy, expressing their delight at being accredited as sufficiently literate to read a newspaper in Zulu or English. One elderly matron, not present, was reputed to be 101 years old.

Some conclusions

The Masifundisane project held enormous potential, and is worth pursuing as a model in many other parts of the world. In South Africa it seems to have been seen finally as a single, historically-located project set up to alleviate the deficit caused by apartheid.

The process continued under the banner of the prevailing Sector Education and Training Authority system and national grid of qualifications. These offered ongoing, alternative literacy programmes under the Adult Basic Education and Training curricula.

In the author’s view, while it functioned for some years the project was one of the finest anywhere in the world. The principles of care and nurturing were brilliant markers in an otherwise fundamentally uncaring environment. It is worthy of resuscitation in my own country and wherever in the world illiteracy is widespread.

How to Think Creatively

Be a Thinker!

Do you ever ‘think about your thinking?’

I’m sure you have creative thoughts many times a day, but have you ever ‘metacognised’ deliberately about your creative thoughts? That means going ‘beyond cognition’. In effect, have you ever thought deeply and analytically about the processes and skill involved in creative thought?

If not, I’ve set out some of the points you might consider below. You’re invited to dip in and become a deeper thinker.

Creative thinking

The term ‘creative thinking’ of course refers to the ability to form new, useful ideas or innovative new combinations of ideas to fulfil a purpose or need, or to get original and innovative results in a task. This means the generation of fluent and novel ways of tackling problems or creating things and of organizing and systematizing data.

It also relates to divergent thinking in which a variety of creative solutions are envisaged that deflect away from the mainstream, as well as the early stages of hypothesizing where several tentative, alternative solutions can be framed to solve problems.

 The human brain

The Neanderthal forerunners of human beings are reputed to have had larger brains than modern humans do, yet they were apparently less intelligent than we are. Modern human brains evolved to incorporate more convolutions of the grey matter, with a continued development of the neo-cortex, and the vital frontal lobe in particular. But, having a big brain capacity is not enough to predict intelligence; it’s largely how one uses it that counts. So it’s not the size of the engine that counts, but the creative horsepower it can generate

A possible effect of schooling

A person’s schooling is sometimes to blame for stodgy, routine thought dominating. In South Africa, for example, we have perhaps suffered for too long from an over-dose of examinations that can lead to linear thinking as we converge on exam requirements at the expense of risky, exploratory creative thinking.

Teachers within the schooling systems in many countries stand accused increasingly of not teaching learners to think well; yet intelligent, creative thinking is precisely what formal schooling should foster. In studying, young people often try to get as quickly as possible to a routine way of doing things, repeating a procedure or habitual method of action without thinking of alternatives. Routines can be very useful indeed, but should remain open to improvements or even abandonment.

In following the directions of unimaginative teachers, learners and students often try to master the process of internalizing ‘spoon-fed’ knowledge without concerning themselves about how to gain the knowledge themselves. They also want to get to a familiar procedure and use it to generate more mental security and reassurance in an often-threatening environment.

There is usually nothing wrong with that for some parts of a curriculum, but it is not enough! Sometimes this ‘feeding in of information’ is all that a teacher or lecturer wants to achieve. It runs counter to what your brilliant brain actually wants to do, or should yearn to do; which is to exercise vigorously and creatively as it works things out for itself.

A sadder truth yet, is than many learners and students carry the pattern of dependence into adulthood. They have no larger vision; nor do they have the tools to implement creative, divergent, innovative thinking.

Brilliant un-creativity

Remember that, because for security and certainty the brain might have trained in formal institutions to be ‘brilliantly uncreative’, if we are to be creative our minds need to wean or even startle themselves out of their set routines. To consider such critical skills (processes) as ‘assessing priorities,’ ‘seeking alternatives’, ‘forming hypotheses’, generating new ideas’ we sometimes need to jolt ourselves a bit to get away from the single-solution approach. We must sometimes cross an emotional barrier.

So do investigate your own attitude of mind. Is it sufficiently determined to be brilliantly proactive in the wider world, or at least open to a divergence of ideas? Force yourself to seek alternatives if necessary.

A starting-point

In seeking creative solutions, perhaps first find the easiest, most obvious ideas and solutions and set them aside and out of the way. Then try for difficult-to-emerge alternative solutions, and seek amongst them for those that present ‘practical possibilities’. Do brainstorming to generate a range of ideas. Force yourself past your inhibitions if you must. Preferably, work in a supportive context free of criticism.

Some processes to follow

If creativity is the obvious context to your thinking, try the heuristics (recommended steps to follow) below.

  • Prepare for creative thinking by pondering the issue or domain of concern to identify and clarify the nature of the task or problem. If possible, create a supportive, non-threatening human and natural environment free of criticism. Enjoying a lack of criticism assists one to generate initial ideas freely.
  • Break any chain of sequential linear thought, to move sideways and think laterally.
  • Incubate the theme by mulling over it and freeing the mind from sequential thought so that lateral and divergent thinking can emerge, perhaps at a subconscious level.
  • Look for diverse concepts, structures, processes, relationships and solutions that might assist the task in hand.
  • Add to your idea bank, subtract irrelevant ideas from it, reverse your thinking, look in very different domains, worlds, cultures or categories for answers, put ideas to varied uses, modify them, erase bad ones, complement them with additions and adapt the ideas to a variety of uses.
  • Suspend assumptions and defer judgment as you alter your perspective often. Restate your problem many times to get the most productive statement. Especially if you are conservative by nature, overcome any feelings of fear or embarrassment when seeking creative thoughts; just go for it. Think fluently and generate many ideas to have many options and become a creative thinker.
  • You might express your thoughts by such means as diagrams, mind-maps, illustrations and so on. See new and fresh links, relationships and connections. Look in distant places for fresh ideas and examine all sides of an issue. Use analogies, humour, absurdity and unexpected outcomes.
  • When working with ideas that seem most useful, try to rearrange and modify them.
  • Communicate openly with ‘interested others’, perhaps working in a group.
  • Do role-plays if they seem useful. Ask what, why, when, where, how and who questions.
  • Allow time for your ideas to incubate. Await or provoke inspiration or illumination, which typically comes in a flood of useful ideas.
  • Change perspective, pick up another track or even juxtapose ideas that are apparently unrelated to each other.
  • Generate a variety of creative hypotheses or novel, tentative solutions. Verify the solutions by perhaps testing them very methodically.
  • Define and pursue problems demanding creativity. Read widely, brainstorm ideas, and use mind- mapping.
  • Also use inductive reasoning (build up a principle or concept by considering the common features in many different examples related to it) and deductive reasoning (work from a principle to find things that it applies to)
  • Then instead of using convergent thinking that leads to a single conclusion, use divergent thinking that explodes out to many original conclusions or ideas.
  • And what about lateral thinking that leads into obscure byways you can explore by thought?
  • Analysis (taking something apart) and synthesis (putting parts together) are also very usable to generate fresh new ideas.
  • Finally use comparison, and see fresh, unusual relationships between apparently unrelated things.

Now, if you’ve never tried metacognition (that is, ‘thinking about your thinking’), i’s never too late to start. And, it’s great fun when you get into it. Above all; be a thinker! 

Design and write a business plan

Design and write a business plan

is this post for you?

Are you in the process of starting a new, small business in South Africa or elsewhere? Or, would you like to just throw around a few ideas that could relate to a newly-established business, to see if you can improve or revise things? If so, this blog could be for you.

At work

With very wide differences in histories, cultures, economies and types of businesses in almost every country, business plans differ greatly. The entrepreneurs to whom the present plan is directed could have quite specific needs that differ from those of others. Research these thoroughly. And see the following suggestions as a broad guide to writing a business plan.

With needs differing so much, the ideas given below should be adapted, modified, supplemented, amplified or altered to match the type of business for which the plan is required. In short, they provide only a starting point for further refinements, and should be read in conjunction with other approaches you might come across. You might like to replace items, add to or subtract from them, modify, adapt, or merge sections, rearrange components, or reverse the thinking to suit your needs.

Executive summary

  • Write a brief overview of your proposed business. What is the vision? Explain in broad terms what products and services you will provide. What type of business is it? What will you sell, and/or how will you serve your clients or customers? How will your company provide and monitor quality and efficiency, and what gives you an edge over the opposition? Make it catchy and interesting. Keep it simple. Detail can follow.

Business objectives

  • What are your five or six main business objectives, and how do you intend to ensure that they are clear and achievable? How is ongoing quality to be ensured? How have you created criteria (instruments for evaluation) from the objectives to ensure quality and effective operation? How will you exceed expectations?

Business concepts and methods used to achieve the objectives

  • How will your objectives be achieved in practice? Will your business be product-based, or relate to the provision of services? Is your business structured correctly within its appropriate legal framework? What buildings and staff will be needed? Also consider such practicalities as equipment, supply sources, labour issues and capital outlay.

ResearchAre your employment practices fair?

  • Has research been done into laws, regulations, constraints and rules that apply to the business? Has a plan of action been devised that provides a sequence of strategic activities to be completed? Will the plan of action ensure that all rules and regulations are complied with? Is the business registered with all necessary bodies? What precautions need to be taken to assure protection of the environment? What precautions need to be taken to comply with occupational health and safety laws?

Products and services

  • Has research been done into markets and products or services? What is the specific range of products and/or services? How will you “package” them to make them most appealing? How will you ensure smooth delivery, storage and distribution, and after-sales services? How will patents be registered and protected, and how will you build a quality brand identity?

Marketing plan

  • Is there a sustainable market for your envisioned product? Have you researched it to ensure a clear picture? Who is (or are) the exact target(s)? What is the potential for growth? What trends are evident? Where are the outlets located geographically? Are seasonal strategies needed? What are the best channels for marketing? What is the structure of pricing? Who will do the marketing? What capacity does the competition have? How can you compete best?

SWOT analysis

  • What are your Company’s strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats?

Infrastructure and resources

  • What is needed in the short and long term, and what expansion of resources will be needed? Do you need premises, owned or rented, and what staff are required? What training and development is needed? What systems and controls will be needed, including contracts and operation manuals? How will good communication be ensured, with effective use of technology?

Budgets and financial plan

  • What budgets will be needed, and what financial resources are available? How are they to be best used? How will capital expenditure be financed? What financial procedures and rules are required to ensure optimal income, cash flow, financing and reserves? How will financial security be ensured, with correct, approved procedures in accordance with the business type? Will additional training be required?

Staff structure and organogram

  • What staffing is required? What resources are readily available to ensure sustainable operation? Who will do what duties? What further training is needed, especially where services are offered?

Environmental impact assessment

How will any impact on the environment be avoided or softened? What costs are likely to be incurred in achieving compliance?


  • Has a monitoring system been put in place to ensure that the achievement of objectives is monitored and reported, with a feedback and action loop??

Pre-opening checklist

  • Has a business plan been completed?
  • Is the company registered with the appropriate, legal authorities?
  • Is it fully compliant with their regulations?
  • Is the name acceptable?
  • Are brands and logos registered?
  • Is registration complete with the industry association?
  • Are venues and equipment in order?
  • Are staff roles and contracts in place?
  • Is there sufficient budgeted capital, and are bank accounts available?
  • Are budgetary and financial security controls in place?
  • Are standard working procedures written down and available to staff?
  • Has sufficient marketing been done?
  • Are product/quality quality checks in place?
  • Are tax requirements met?
  • Are telephones faxes and email services available?
  • Are documents, letterheads and stationery in order?

As mentioned, the above general proposals and suggestions need to be amplified by further strategies related more specifically to your business. So, take what you can, but be aware that it provides generalities rather than specifics. Get advice from as many informed sources as you can; and do be thorough and meticulous.