It is understandable but limited to be moved by stories of exceptional individuals overcoming incredible odds to achieve world-class feats. Four such stories have been on my mind over the past week.
The first involves our much-loved Springbok captain, Siya Kolisi.
In 2007, the young Kolisi had to watch the Rugby World Cup final in a tavern in Port Elizabeth because he didn’t have a TV set at home.
It is statistically unlikely that someone living under such conditions of relative deprivation could, within a short space of time, become a national rugby player about to lead his team onto the field in a Rugby World Cup final.
Your chances of doing that are much higher if you grew up with an abundance of resources, and had access to opportunity and the best coaches, from very early on. In Kolisi’s case, the inspirational message is that excellence and flourishing are possible end-goals within anyone’s reach regardless of the circumstances of your early childhood. That’s a seductive lie.
A second example involves the story of Dr Vuyane Mhlomi who is running a couple of excellent start-up companies that try to be game-changers in the health and education sectors. He also grew up under conditions of poverty, in Cape Town, and successfully managed against the proverbial odds to get into the University of Cape Town (UCT), eventually graduating as one of the top three medical students of his cohort, before successfully completing both a doctoral degree and an MBA at Oxford University on a prestigious international scholarship.
At a recent dinner, where he told a truncated version of his biography, there was heartfelt applause from guests after his compelling account of how his UCT degree was so important in the context of family striving, that that journey was not just about personal achievement but about guaranteeing that his family would be able to move from conditions of poverty to middle-class status.
He reflected, very insightfully, on why the praise he gets for what he has achieved needs critical reflection. Was he an exceptional poor black child whom others should emulate? Is the moral of his story missed by sincere audiences who are moved when they hear of what he has had to overcome? I think the latter.
A third story involves a black child from rural KwaZulu-Natal who worked as a trolley pusher and a cashier at Shoprite before being a brilliant law student in South Africa and in England who is now pursuing a career as a lawyer. Ntokozo Qwabe’s story, too, is moving because the statistical odds of his younger self overcoming the violence of structural inequality and poverty were low. Yet he did exactly that.
But is being inspired the only way we should respond to his story? I think not.
It is this brilliant lawyer, Qwabe, who highlighted a fourth example a few years ago that has stayed with me. Every January we are moved to tears by stories of exceptional children who get brilliant marks in maths or science or across their matric subjects despite having attended poorly resourced schools, perhaps without parents at home or studying by candlelight.
The media parade these poor achievers with an uncomplicated narrative that has a clear subtext and often an explicit moral: sheer hard work and a positive attitude can guarantee you success in life regardless of the structural conditions under which you live.
But is that the best way to read these inspirational accounts of exceptional children from deprived neighbourhoods beating the odds?
Being inspired by the overcoming narrative isn’t something we should feel bad about. But if we only feel moved and do not also think critically about these stories, then we will miss some important insights about the limits of these stories.
Mhlomi is right that his story is double-sided. It is a story that shows that one’s familial circumstances do not need to fix one’s future outcomes. The problem, however, is that no one should have to be a statistical outlier, which is why there is another side to his story.
No poor child should have to be almost superhuman to break the curse of intergenerational poverty. That is an unfair and immoral burden to place on millions of black South African children who cannot reasonably be expected to pull themselves up by their boot straps, which they were not issued with when they were born into circumstances not of their own making.
So even if it is not our intention, we must be careful to not imply that sheer hard work and positive mindsets alone can guarantee success. Society, and in particular the state, must eliminate the structural injustices that explain why many other would-be Mhlomis will never reach their potential.
If we parade Mhlomi in front of the cameras every other month, it can also give the impression that failure is a choice on the part of the deprived child who never became a medical doctor.
This uncritical narration of the overcoming biography is shortsighted when it isn’t supplemented with a strong and urgent insistence that unequal distributions of resources and opportunity are injustices that must be smashed.
The same is true of Kolisi’s and Qwabe’s stories. I have seen almost no discussion raising the question of why Kolisi did not have a TV set at home. I have seen no reflection on what it means for a boy from a township in Port Elizabeth to attend an elite school in that city where his rugby prowess would have been exploited by the school’s PR machinery. He would still have had to grapple privately with the psychological challenges of being an outsider who didn’t belong to a cohort of mostly middle-class Grey High children whose families had enough money and wealth to afford annual holidays, more than one TV set, and good nutrition and other goods, which gave them the edge when competing against a Siya Kolisi from the township.
We are so busy wiping our tears of inspiration that we dare not disrupt the moment by paying attention to structural analysis that complicates the inspirational narrative.
The same is true of Qwabe’s story. How many attorneys and advocates in Sandton were cashiers at a supermarket? How many partners at law firms had to beat such odds to end up in the top leadership structure of the companies they run?
It is tempting to ask a Qwabe to inspire children in under-resourced schools with a message that says, “You too can be like me.” But that is irresponsible if the story isn’t appropriately bounded. No one should have to survive schools with pit latrines, classes under a tree and no library and science laboratory.
Qwabe and Mhlomi are not exceptions. They are two of millions of talented South Africans — but two who defied the logic of an antipoor and antiblack society by ending up in successful careers, not because of their brilliance (even though they are brilliant). They notched up these achievements despite the structural violence designed to choke their innate potential. This is true, too, of the matriculant in Limpopo who gets 100% for maths and science despite having no maths teacher and no science laboratory.
It is okay to be inspired by people’s stories of defying the odds but the more urgent duty we have is to be appalled that they even face such odds to reach their academic potential.
In my immediate family, I was the first to finish school, let alone attend university. Now I live a flourishing life as a writer, analyst and broadcaster. But any potential self-congratulatory impulse that rears its head is quickly nipped in the bud when I recall the words of one of my primary school teachers. Mrs Strauss told me that even though my marks were good in grade 3, they were not as good as my sister’s when she was in her class two years before. My sister didn’t complete school.
It is not true that I was more determined to excel or more talented than my sister. No child, including my sister, should be expected to do the heavy lifting that the state and society should be doing to ensure all children have a chance to reach their potential.
Kolisi was lucky. Mhlomi was lucky. Qwabe was lucky. I was lucky. We also worked hard. But luck and hard work aren’t mutually exclusive. Luck needs to be supplemented with a caring society that gives every child the opportunity to achieve. That is why we should be aware of the limits of inspirational stories.