Archive for January 2014
Many times I’ve turned off the TV in disgust, promising never to waste my time watching sport again. It famously happened during the first innings of the 438-game, when Ricky Ponting was discarding Roger Telemachus to all corners of the Wanderers. I couldn’t bear to watch how my beloved Proteas were – again – suffering at the hands of our fiercest rivals. So I turned off the TV and tried my best to forget about the game. Never again will I watch cricket, I told Helanya, it was just too humiliating. It was only much later that day, when I walked into a restaurant with the final over of the match about to start, that I realised what was happening: that we were about to win the greatest game in the history of cricket. I vowed there and then to never waver in my support again.
I don’t think I’m unique in my love for how sport can excite the senses: the thrill of the chase, the tension of a crucial point, the suspense of a fightback. There are those who disagree (see cartoon), and to be honest, sometimes I do envy them: after watching a 6 hour Saturday rugby and football marathon on TV, there are often regrets. But what the sport atheists often don’t understand is that sport is more than the on-field battle: as South Africans would know, sport has this amazing capacity to build and unite. The 1995 Rugby World Cup, and South Africa’s eventual victory against the Jonah Lomu-inspired All Blacks, is the textbook example of sport’s capacity to bring people closer together. And don’t discount the impact of the 1996 African Cup of Nations too; that was my first experience of football, for example. Following these events, Nelson Mandela would famously say: “Sport has the power to change the world…it has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers.”
Like the incredible story of the Somalian bandy team. Today, the Bandy World Championship kicks off in Irkutsk, Russia. Bandy is a mixture of ice and field hockey: it is played on ice but on a field the size of a normal football or rugby field. And instead of a puck, a small, pink ball is used. To get a sense of what it’s like, have a look at this goal. Understandably, it is a sport dominated by countries in the Arctic regions: Russia, Sweden and Finland. The US, Canada, Kazakhstan, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway and a few smaller countries in Eastern Europe also participate. And, for the first time this year, Somalia will join that list.
Somalia? A country with no government and, more importantly, no ice? Yes. Much like Jamaica (who, incidentally, will have their bobsleigh team back at the Winter Olympics in Russia in two weeks’ time), Somalia is not a country one would associate with the Winter Olympics. Yet that has not prevented a group of 2000 Somali immigrants to the small town of Borlange to start a bandy team, and enter the World Championship under the Somalian flag. Patrik Andersson, team manager of Somalia, explained how the ethnic divisions in the town forced him to find a solution, and what better way to unite than through sport. “If we are going to have to live together we are going to have to talk to each other to make Borlange a good place to live in. I’m doing it for me and my children. I want to stay in Borlange. I want this to be a nice place.”
The contribution that sport has made in integrating immigrant communities in much of Europe and elsewhere is probably understated. English premiership team Arsenal fielded a team of four German players on Friday night. Of those, Lukas Podolski was born in Poland, Mesut Özil is a third-generation Turkish-German of Kurdish descent and Serge Gnabry’s father is from Cote d’Ivoire. (Per Mertesacker was the fourth.) A fifth German player was used as substitute: 16-year old Gedion Zelalem (pictured), whose parents are Ethiopian, who was born in Germany and who spent all his teenage years in the USA. He is eligible to play for all three countries and, as he celebrates his 17th birthday today (with a professional Arsenal contract looming on the horizon), he is likely to add England to that list in the next few years.
Zelalem is already a magician on the field: this highlights package of his pre-season tour should convince you of that. But if he realises his immense potential, he is likely to be a magician off the field too, bringing the world closer together.
I’ve had countless conversations with accountants, inside and outside the profession, about their jobs, and specifically about the training they receive at universities across South Africa. I’ve also written about it before, and received positive as well as critical and dismissive feedback. There I basically argued that an Accounting degree should not be the default option for most of South Africa’s brightest kids.
Others have echoed my sentiments. Here’s Sizwe Nxasana, CEO of FirstRand, saying that Chartered Accountants (CAs) need to improve their problem-solving skills: “They sometimes have a narrow view of the world and are unable to deal with high levels of complexity.” (He said this at the SAICA – the South African Institute for Chartered Accountants – conference.) Nxasana claims that the current Accounting syllabus does not allow students to develop the skills necessary for top-level managers.
So, without labouring the point, my advice would be to carefully consider your options when choosing a degree. There are many for whom Accounting is a passion. They enjoy technical challenges and have the ability to remember copious amounts of information. Let thou go forth and become Accountants! But there are many, many kids who study Accounting because they are bright and want to make a lot of money, kids who see Accounting as a stepping-stone to something bigger. This is where I think there are other stepping-stones worth considering. Take the road less-travelled, I say, a road that will allow you to aim higher, go farther, and enjoy the journey a lot more. (There’s also this from Political Scientist Chris Blattmann on whether you should study accounting. And the short answer is at the bottom of this post.)
But it is not only students that need to reconsider. I think Accounting departments in South Africa are perfectly positioned to help deliver students capable of thinking outside-the-box. Some of the most brilliant South Africans arrive at their doorstep, eager to be filled with knowledge and scholarship and all those wonderful things universities offer. But the reason that Sizwe Nxasana complains about accounting students’ “narrow view of the world” is that the accounting profession strictly follows a narrow rules-based compliance philosophy in education, whereas universities generally follow a broader principles-based approach. There is a good reason for this: Accounting departments in South Africa are heavily influenced by a professional body, SAICA. An excellent paper, The accounting profession’s influence on academe: South African evidence, by two accountants, Elmar Venter (University of Pretoria) and Charl de Villiers (University of Waikato, New Zealand), shows the heavy-handedness of this body on academic Accounting departments across South Africa. To sum it up: SAICA runs Accounting departments. They set the syllabus, they determine the criteria necessary to be employed, they even pay the salaries. The authors cite interviews with heads of department (HODs) which state the following: “It doesn’t help to resist them (SAICA). They have a complete stronghold on what happens at universities”, or “I would say that 90% of my focus is on the CA (SAICA) programme”.
This was not always the case. Until the 1950s, accounting education was offered mostly by technical colleges and correspondence. In an agreement between universities and the profession, accounting was introduced with examinations accepted by SAICA. South Africa’s apartheid isolation meant that international professional bodies were unwilling or unable to compete with SAICA – which is also the reason that SAICA affiliation today is not really helpful abroad. According to Venter and De Villiers, “the incorporation of CA education into universities’ programmes was initially controversial in South Africa, because vocational training had no academic standing at the time. Nevertheless, the profession was successful in moving its professional training into universities and thereby taking advantage of state-subsidized university training.” And later they note: “The legal status indirectly given to SAICA to accredit universities resulted in the creation and maintenance of new rules and structures within academe.” These rules and structures limit what Accounting departments can teach, and even who is allowed teach. If Accounting departments veer away from what SAICA wants them to do, they lose their accreditation. “This means that all Accounting departments follow the SAICA syllabus to the letter and emphasize technical aspects, virtually ignoring any broader, research-led, fundamental, or conceptual accounting issues.” One Accounting HOD even said: “Students are trained like race horses”.
Why don’t scholars in Accounting departments resist this influence? Why don’t they set their own course content and research programmes? Why don’t they heed Sizwe Nxasana’s call and change the curriculum?
Because SAICA pays. Here’s Venter and De Villiers on the subject:
SAICA’s education fund also provides direct subsidies (called subventions) of academic salaries to assist universities in attracting and retaining lecturers. These subsidies are not available to academics who are not involved in the CA programme. Hence, CA academics who are involved only in non-CA activities in a department, such as graduate programmes, supervision and research, do not receive any subvention. The education fund is funded through levies from training providers, mainly the “big four” accounting and auditing firms. At each university, a committee that includes a SAICA representative decides on the distribution of the subventions to individual CA academics. Although subventions are not part of the employment contracts between the universities and academics, CA academics are well aware of this incentive and the fact that they are entitled to it.
Venter and De Villiers’ paper is enlightening and terrifying at the same time. SAICA is the reason generations of accountants will be trained without a broader understanding of complexity, problem-solving or trends in the global economy. SAICA is the reason that accounting scholars have little incentive to do research, even though they may be keen and capable, and the contribution to society would be much greater. SAICA is the reason that there is an unnecessary tension between Accounting and other departments at South African universities, a tension that arise because academic freedom is butchered for the benefits of the Big Four.
This academic interference may have severe consequence for the accountants of tomorrow. Expanding the range of academic choices for accountants – providing the skills Sizwe Nxasama and other decision-makers demand – may be increasingly necessary not only for their success in the job market, but also for their survival. New evidence published by The Economist this week suggests that accounting degrees may be less sought-after in the future. Above I copy a table which ranks the jobs that are least likely to be replaced by computers over the next two decades: spot the accountants and auditors just above the telemarketers at the bottom of the list. To interpret: there is 94% likelihood that some accounting jobs will be replaced by computers or robots. Add to that the fact that many accounting jobs in developed countries can now be outsourced to poorer regions – like Zambia, who pays their British-qualified accountants a fraction of the South African equivalent – and there is the serious possibility that the demand for South African auditors and accountants in future may decline. The only way to remain competitive, for accountants and many other professions, is to begin to add value in areas where computers are useless: strategic thinking, creativity, in short, thinking outside-the-box.
The situation is not yet dire, but it would require academic accountants, like Venter and De Villiers, to take a stand and reject the status quo. When the status quo also pays the salary, change seems unlikely.
Firdose Moonda, a journalist for ESPN Cricinfo, published an extraordinary piece on January 10 about a black South African cricket player moving to England because of a lack of opportunities in South Africa. Siphe Mzaidume claims that, because he is black, he was never given an opportunity to play in the South African provincial franchise system, and therefore moved to England where he will qualify to play for the national team in June. The same article appeared in the Business Day, written by Moonda’s husband, Telford Vice. Both were published widely on social network sites, including getting a retweet from Helen Zille, saying: “So sad”.
There are two reasons I think the article is extraordinary: Firstly, how, when Jacques Kallis retires, Moonda celebrates his career by considering his remarkable statistics (13289 test runs at an average of 55, 292 at an average of 32, and 200 catches) but neglects to mention Mzaidume’s statistics? In short: Mzaidume has not taken one wicket at provincial (or county-cricket) level. In fact, the only first-class cricket he has played, according to Moonda’s own Cricinfo, is an U/19 match representing Border in 2008, where he took 0/27. Reading through the comments on the article, more information about his whereabouts and performances are forthcoming. According to cryptq1, Mzaidume has played only 3 games for Phoenix in the Irish League in 2012: “From there he ‘progressed’ to Holmesdale where he has been playing for the last 2 seasons. That’s in the Kent 3rd Div, yes, 3rd Div. He took 24 wickets in 24 games for Wollaston at 30.63 with a SR of 41.88. Not to shabby but also nothing to get excited about. His figures for Holmesdale in the 3rd Div is quite impressive but obviously not good enough to impress anyone in a higher league. Over the 2 seasons, he’s taken 84 wickets at an average of 15.45, SR 26.17, Economy rate 3.54. Looking at the SR and ER it would appear that he bowls many wicket taking balls interspersed with a lot of loose balls.” Then he adds: “I feel sorry for this man. The quota system led him to believe that he is much better than he really is. Bit weird complaining about opportunities in SA when he’s playing in a lower league in Eng than he did in SA.”
Cricket is great like that: its stats provide an objective measure to assess the quality of an individual’s performances (especially if the sample is large enough). And while context must always inform statistics, there is no doubt that Mzaidume’s performances were and still are not sufficient to warrant a place within the South African provincial system. To put it differently, in the four years plying his trade abroad, Mzaidume has failed to impress on coaches and selectors in England and Australia (where, according to him, “everything was just judged on performance which made it easy for me to progress through the ranks”) that he has the ability to perform at the county level. The reason Mzaidume is not playing in South Africa is not because he is black, but because he is not good enough.
But the piece is even more extraordinary for the obvious undertone that Siphe Mzaidume’s story is the reason there aren’t more black cricketers playing for South Africa, that black cricket players are not given the opportunities they deserve.
Marius Roodt, a blogger on CricketWeb.net, wrote the following response on January 7, which I think is worth repeating at length:
In South Africa there has been much debate around the lack of players of African origin in the national cricket side. Since South Africa’s return to the international fold in 1991 only one player of African origin has been a regular in the Test side, Makhaya Ntini. He served the national side with distinction, playing over 100 Tests and taking nearly 400 wickets. He also has the best match figures by any South African in a Test and is the only South African to take ten wickets in a Test match at Lords. However, apart from Ntini, those of African descent (called black Africans for the purpose of this article) have been a rarity in the national side.
Only four other black African South Africans have played Test cricket. These are Thami Tsolekile, Mfuneko Ngam, Monde Zondeki, and Lonwabo Tsotsobe. Victor Mpitsang, Loots Bosman, Thandi Tshabalala, and Aaron Phangiso have also all played for South Africa in limited-overs cricket.
Firdose Moonda, ESPN Cricinfo’s South Africa correspondent, writing after the announcement that the former national cricket coach, Gary Kirsten, was not renewing his contract, said that one criticism of his time as national head coach was that he had failed to transform the national cricket side sufficiently, by not fielding a black African in the Test side . She said that this was proof of Kirsten lack of commitment to the transformation, especially ‘Africanisation’ of the national side.
The Sunday Times also recently said that the country’s Test XI should not call itself the national side until a black African was picked (implying that the 10 million South Africans of Asian, European, or mixed-race descent are somehow not South African).
Nearly twenty years after the end of apartheid it is indeed a poor state of affairs that only one black African has been a regular in the national side. However, the national side, apart from the lack of black Africans, is relatively representative of South Africa as a whole. In the current Test team Hashim Amla, of Asian descent, is a regular. Alviro Petersen, Vernon Philander, JP Duminy, and Robin Peterson, of coloured, or mixed-race descent, are also all regulars in the current Test side.
Why is there a relative paucity of black Africans in the Test team? To begin with the number of black Africans playing at franchise level is low, making the available selection pool small. In last season’s Sunfoil Series, the six franchises used 109 players altogether. Of these 109 players only 14 were black Africans, and of these players only nine played in more than half of their franchise’s matches.
Of the top run scorers in last season’s Sunfoil Series, the only black African in the top 10 was Themba Bavuma, of the Lions, while two black Africans were among the top 10 wicket takers in the competition (Ayabulela Gqamane of the Warriors and Ethy Mbhalathi of the Titans).
In the current season there have only been four games, with 92 players selected. Of these players 15 are black Africans (already an improvement over the previous season) but once again Themba Bavuma is the only black African amongst the top 10 run scorers. Eddie Leie of the Lions is the only black African among the top ten wicket takers in the series to date.
It is thus clear that the pool of African players is relatively small to pick from. In addition, the current Test side is, apart from the recent retirement of Jacques Kallis and questions around who should be the first-choice spinner, a settled unit.
Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Thami Tsolekile are the two black Africans that are probably closest to the national Test side. Tsotsobe plays relatively regularly for South Africa in limited over internationals. However, he probably lacks a yard of pace to be effective at Test level and there have been questions raised about his work ethic and commitment. In addition, he has not played a first-class match in two years, meaning in that he is unlikely to be ready for the rigours of a Test match. Furthermore, the selection of Kyle Abbott in the last Test of the previous summer against Pakistan shows that Tsotsobe is not in the selectors’ thinking at the moment. Other seamers, such as Chris Morris, Beuran Hendricks, and Rory Kleinveldt are probably also above Tsotsobe in the national fast bowling Test pecking order.
Thami Tsolekile has been unlucky to have not been given a Test match. He is a nationally-contracted player but has not been selected. He is probably technically the best keeper in South Africa and has, in recent years, been in good form with the bat. In the current season he is averaging 121 (although this is boosted by only having been out only once in four innings).Last season his average was somewhat lower, at 30. In previous seasons he has regularly averaged over 50. However, the current form of AB de Villiers behind the stumps also probably means he is unlikely to be given a game soon, especially with a testing series against Australia coming up. Tsolekile is also on the wrong side of 30, making it likely that if and when De Villiers is relieved of his keeping duties he may be overlooked in favour of a younger keeper.
It is clear that the pool from which selectors can pick is limited. Black African players are not making it to franchise level. However, there is certainly not an agenda in the South African first class game against players who are not white. In last season’s Sunfoil Series 22 players of mixed-race origin turned out, as did seven players of Indian descent. The current season reveals similar figures with 19 coloured players and four Indian players being selected. There is obviously no ‘anti-transformation’ agenda in South African cricket.
How is it possible that such a small proportion of black Africans (who make up more than 80% of South Africa’s population) have made it to the top of the sport in South Africa? Firstly, apart from parts of the Eastern and Western Cape cricket has never been a popular sport in black African communities. In most of South Africa’s club competitions, black clubs are a relative rarity.
However, there is no reason to think that this will not change. Cricket in South Africa used to be almost the sole preserve of white English-speaking South Africans and Afrikaner cricketers were uncommon.
In the final series that South Africa played against Australia before its banishment from Test cricket in 1970, there were only two non-Anglo white South Africans that played. These were the Jewish Ali Bacher and the Egyptian-born Greek, John Traicos. In that series not one Afrikaner played for South Africa (it should be remembered that only whites could be selected for South Africa at the time). Fast forwarding to the 1980s the situation had not changed very much. In the 19 unofficial Test matches that were played in the 1980s by South Africa versus various ‘rebel’ teams, only four Afrikaners were ever picked: Adrian Kuiper, Corrie van Zyl, Allan Donald, and Kepler Wessels.
However, in the 1990s, there was a veritable explosion in the number of Afrikaners playing cricket for South Africa. Five Afrikaners (Kepler Wessels, Hansie Cronje, Adrian Kuiper, Allan Donald, and Tertius Bosch) played in South Africa’s first Test against the West Indies at the end of the country’s exile in 1991. During the 1990s a number of Afrikaners, such as Fanie de Villiers and Cronje, were fixtures in the side. In the current side three Afrikaners – Morne Morkel, Faf du Plessis, and AB de Villiers – are regulars in the Test side and there are numerous Afrikaners playing franchise cricket and on the fringes of the Test side. In fact, since South Africa returned to the international game in 1991, an Afrikaner has always been in the Test XI.
Why were Afrikaners a rarity in the game before the 1990s? White Afrikaners were not, in general, interested in cricket and there are probably two reasons why this is so. Cricket is often seen as a quintessentially English game. Tensions between white English-speaking South Africans and Afrikaners were high for much of the 20th century which may have contributed to Afrikaner disdain for the game (ironically Afrikaners embraced another English game, rugby union, with gusto). In addition, South Africa was the Bangladesh of world cricket for the first half of the 20th century. Winning teams are teams that are well supported. Once the country began to become competitive in international cricket (for South Africa this was restricted to games against the ‘white’ Commonwealth of England, Australia, and New Zealand), Afrikaner interest piqued. Afrikaners would have begun attending matches, following games on radio, and in the press, and most importantly begun playing the game and began to encourage their sons to play the game. Instead of passing a rugby ball to his young son in his garden, an Afrikaner father would perhaps begin bowling to him. As Afrikaners began playing the game in the 1950s and 1960s there was an explosion of Afrikaners into the South African game thirty years later. This is not a sound scientific explanation but speculation. However, it is unlikely to be far off the mark.
Perhaps we will begin to see a similar explosion of black Africans into the game as they begin to see the Proteas as a side for all South Africans, and not an extension of white supremacy as the cricketing and rugby-playing Springboks were previously.
I would add another explanation. To obtain the necessary skills to play at the highest level requires a level of commitment and resources that most black South Africans simply cannot afford. Cricket is expensive – good batting equipment (the bat, pads, helmet, shoes, etc.) could easily amount to R8000 which, let me remind you, is about the same as the per capita income of black South Africans. (Is it a coincidence that most black South Africans that play at franchise level are bowlers?) Moreover, developing the correct batting technique requires hours of training in nets with good (expensive) coaching. Parents must be in a position to drive kids to practice sessions and matches.
As I’ve said before, Afrikaners increasingly participated in cricket because they could afford to do so. White wages increased significantly during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Still, it took several decades for them to make their mark at the international level. For black South Africans to prosper on the cricket field, black incomes need to rise significantly.
Here is Rasimione, also in CricketWeb.net:
I am a black African and live in what we call a township, in the North West province. I’m 29 years old and I have personally never faced or experienced naked racism. However, the Apartheid structures remain and will take years to dismantle. As a young person I could only play football because it was the only sport available to me because of lack of facilities. Just a few kilometres away white kids had tennis courts, cricket pitch, rugby pitch, you name it and they had it and it was reserved for only whites. The fact that coloured and Indians are more represented in cricket circles is not really a coincidence. It mirrors how our society is without a shadow of doubt.
People talk of Ntini and the like. If those guys were not given bursaries to study at formerly exclusive white schools, you and I would never have witnessed them playing for the Proteas. Why is that? The reality of the situation is that an African parent earns way less than white South Africans and the other race groups and has to make serious life or death choices. Faced with a hobby for your child or food to survive what would you chose?
My solution is simple. Ensure that each and every school, black, white, coloured and Indian has facilities and that school sports is played religiously. From then on create Academies say in metros that will ensure as much representation as possible. Whites with the know-how could be of great help by donating time to teach black coaches the ropes which in time will create black African players. Like the OP said it will take time but that IMO is the way to go.
I could not agree more.
Firdose Moonda and Telford Vice are correct that most South Africans would love to see more black cricketers prosper. But to use the case of Siphe Mzaidume to argue that black South Africans are stifled in their progress by the selection policies of cricket franchises in South Africa is not only lazy and sensationalist journalism, but dangerous too. The problem is much deeper, complex and important.
Thousands of students will arrive at campuses across South Africa in the next few weeks. It’s an exciting time for most: out of reach of over-protective parents and the disciplines of high school, the lure of freedom can be an academic and social nirvana. But it is also a time when tough decisions with telling consequences must be made: Should I study literature or engineering? Should I play cricket or join the student newspaper? How will I balance the many demands on my budget? Many students struggle to cope with such hefty decisions. These decisions cannot be avoided; ignoring to answer them immediately is also a decision, and probably the worst one. So I’ve decided to put together a short list of simple things first-year students can do to make their lives much easier, and give their future careers a jump start. You’re more than welcome to add suggestions in the comments section:
1. Consider your options
A university degree is not for everyone. Less than a third of students enrolling at South African universities this year will graduate by the end of 2016, and less than half will actually ever earn a degree. Don’t enrol because 1) your parents force you to, 2) all your friends do it or, worse, 3) you feel as though you don’t have alternatives. To study is expensive; to fail is even more expensive. If you are uncommitted, the costs of failure are severe, not only in financial terms but also psychologically.
Consider your options. There are several excellent training colleges around South Africa that specialise in a variety of trades such as gastronomy, carpentry, fashion design, nursing, welding, and graphic design. It’s not uncommon for students qualified in these fields to find jobs more easily than for students who leave university with the bare minimum. And if you have no idea what you’d like to do after school, why not take a gap year? Find a part-time job. If you can afford to, travel. It’s far better to use this year productively than to suffer the consequences of a rushed decision to enrol at university at all cost.
2. Do your homework (no, not that homework)
There is a famous story of a first-year student who arrived at the registration officer (when this was still done manually in the admin offices) on registration day. When asked what he intended to study, his reply was brief but memorable: ‘What do you have available?’ That’s not how you should make one of the biggest decisions in your life. Do your homework about what you want to study. There are many ways to do this, but often students (and their parents) go to great lengths gathering information that is at best trivial. Career councillors can provide helpful advice, but their advice can sometimes be very basic; they can help you distinguish broadly between medicine, engineering, or languages, but they’re not necessarily the best experts on subject choice and combinations. Instead, why not visit the university open day, talk to the university recruitment officers, or even make an appointment with a lecturer in the two or three programmes that interest you (see next point)? Another option is to have a beer with students that have just completed their studies, and ask them about their experiences. Or someone who has just entered the job market. Google and Wikipedia can help too. So too can blog posts, like my own one here. I’ve heard too many stories of students’ decisions being influenced by friends or family who later regret they didn’t spend more time asking advice from experts. I’d value the advice of a couple of lecturers and university administrators, or recent graduates, much higher than your well-intentioned father or friend who’s heard something from someone somewhere and whose opinion may be biased by their own experiences or priorities.
Oh, and after a few months, if you realise that another programme fits your interests and abilities better, make the switch. It is far better to take an extra year to finish something that you will enjoy doing for the rest of your life, than to force yourself to finish a programme only to please a parent.
3. Don’t follow the crowd
There are certain programmes where your choices are strictly limited: medicine, accounting or engineering, for various reasons, have a fixed course list with little room left in the programme for extra subjects. But in most other programmes, you will have a range of subjects to choose from. My advice is to not follow the crowd. Choose a combination that works for you, but that also challenges your comfort zone: if you’re studying B.Comm, why not enrol for Philosophy or History or Ethics? Or if you are a Physics major, why not also do Economics, or Geography or Spanish? If it’s not available within your programme, consider taking it as an extra subject. There are several reasons for doing this: 1) it’s fun to do something that challenges a different part of your brain, 2) the subjects can often be complimentary, and lead to deeper insights in your primary areas of interest, 3) you get to meet new people in different networks (see bullet 7), and 4) most importantly, after three years, you, together with hundreds of your fellow students will (hopefully) walk away from university with the same piece of paper. Except, yours will show that you’ve invested more, and have obtained a different skill set that distinguishes you from your peers. An employer would be far more likely to appoint someone that has shown initiative to expand their horizons and to think outside the box.
4. Go to class (and ask questions)
Usually a week before exams start, students begin to arrive at my door. It’s often the first time I see these students outside class and although I’m happy to help, I am hesitant to repeat things I had emphasised in my lectures. More shockingly, for some of them, it is the first time they see me, having not attended one single lecture throughout the semester. That’s not the way to make a success of your academic life. Class attendance is critical; studies undertaken in our department show that students who attend class regularly attain significantly better marks than their compatriots who don’t (controlling for observable things like high-school marks, degree choice, type of accommodation, etc.). Think of it this way next time your alarm goes off and you’re too lazy to get out of bed: every class you miss knocks about 1.5 percentage points off your final mark. Miss 10 of them, and instead of earning an honourable 65, you may struggle to pass.
Once you’ve made the effort to attend class, participate. Universities are places of inquiry. Thus, inquire. Your lecturers are not there to repeat what’s in the textbook, but to expand your horizons. And the only way you can expand help them to do so is to push them to the edge of it. Ask questions until you have the answers.
5. Meet the profs
But you can do more than to simply know who your lecturers are. I still remember the few students who, after our first class, have come up to me, introduced themselves and said that they look forward to a semester of interesting lectures. I also remember many of their names (and I’m bad with names). It just makes an excellent impression, and I would be very happy to help them should they need assistance later in the course. I’m not saying you should become BFFs. But a friendly introduction and a casual chat every now and then with your lecturer will show you (disappointingly, perhaps) that they are not as formidable or fearsome as they appear in class. And that they sometimes have interesting ideas (outside of the textbook). And that, surprisingly, they are also interested in your interesting ideas. Also remember that after three years you will probably be required to obtain reference letters for things like job, bursary or graduate study applications. It helps if your referee can actually identify you when a recruitment company calls.
6. Become a lecturer
What? Yes, you – give a lecture. We all have different ways of studying, and that is a good thing. But in my experience, there is no better way to learn than to teach the stuff yourself. Find a roommate, an imaginary friend, a distant relative or a pet, put them in front of a computer screen, open PowerPoint, and walk them through your lectures or old exam questions. Even if you cannot find a willing helper, one of the best ways to learn is to say your answers out loud (don’t do this in the library: you’ll get some unwelcome glares). Do the same with essays; there is no better way to identify your own bad writing than to read it aloud. More formally, university’s often offer tutor programmes where students can help mentor younger students. This is a great way to relearn what you’ve forgotten, and earn some extra money.
7. Build your networks
There is truth in the saying that it’s not really what you know, but whom you know. Universities are wonderful places to meet interesting and talented people, and there is never a better time to meet them than in your first year. In fact, nearly all social activities are designed to make it easier for you to do so. Take advantage of this, but be warned: not all networks are ‘good’ networks. We live in all kinds of social networks: close and extended family, friends you grew up with or went to school with, girl- or boyfriends, friends within your new university living quarters (in your hostel, apartment or even carpool), classmates, team mates, and drinking buddies. All of these can be ‘good’ in the sense that they broaden your horizons, exposing you to other individuals that share your passions and preferences. But it is also quite easy to get sucked into one of these networks, where all your time, energy and resources are devoted to a single group. Networks established at university can be extremely useful later in life. It’s best, therefore, to nurture wide networks, especially during your first year. As you grow older – and hopefully grow wiser – those networks that particularly appeal will become denser, and your friendships will grow deeper.
For some, meeting a lot of new people in a short space of time is the easiest thing in the world. Some of us are extroverts and find comfort in large social gatherings. Others will find this a frightening prospect; introverts would often rather enjoy the company of two or three intimate friends. For introverts, linking up to one or two extroverted friends can be a useful strategy to expose yourself to new networks. For extroverts, if you want lifelong friends, be nice to the introverts. (For a discussion on the varying roles of these two personality types, read Susan Cain’s Quiet – or listen to her TED talk here.)
8. Explore the neighbourhood and connect with its people
Don’t be afraid to explore parts of campus that are ‘off your beaten track’. I’ve heard of students who spend their entire university life in one of three buildings: their residence, the lecture room, and the study centre. Yet universities offer much much more. I’ve visited most South African campuses, and on each there have been wonderful museums, art galleries, architecture, boutique shops and sports infrastructure to explore. And go further: In Stellenbosch, where I teach, the town centre is about a 5 minute walk from campus, yet few undergraduate students ever take the trouble to explore its hidden gems (beyond the bars).
Getting to know your surroundings is an important first step, but I’d like to encourage you to also get to know the people in your new community. It is easy to live your years at university in a perfect bubble, isolated and blissfully unaware of what is happening on the ‘outside’. While this isolation is not always a bad thing – sometimes we need quiet to gain focus – it is vitally important to engage with the ‘real world’. Somewhere during the three years, you will have to confront the question: Why am I doing this? Why did I decide to study Political Science, or Geography, or Chemistry? It is difficult to answer these questions from within the bubble, because that world is radically different from the real one. Engaging regularly with life outside university allows you to maintain perspective.
But more than that, community engagement tends to have a positive influence on your studies. At the end of my first year, I joined a society that helped build houses around Cape Town. These experiences gave me new insights into the South African situation beyond the Economics textbook of the day; when every second person in the township would stop to ask for a manual labour job, I suddenly understood what a 25% unemployment rate meant. In fact, I’m pretty sure that these experiences influenced my decision to study Economics at the graduate level, and to select development economics as my initial area of focus.
There are many formal and informal ways to become involved in the community. Explore campus or the neighbourhood on your own or with a group of friends. (A pub crawl is a good start, but you can do more.) And join a residence project, or a church group, or a university society that is actively involved in the local community. There are many of these on all South African campuses, and it’s a great way to build a new network, have fun, and make a difference.
You will never again have the long, unfettered holidays that you will have as an undergraduate student. Use them. Travel.
Do it at least once a year. And I’m not thinking of a Contiki tour of Western Europe (although they can be fun too, if you can afford them). Instead, head north across the Limpopo and see more of the continent. Go ultra-cheap and use public transport (you can do a four-week holiday with less than R2000). Swim in Lake Malawi, safari in South Luangwa National Park, scuba in Mozambique, or trade in the markets of Dar es Salaam. (Cheap flights to Dar have recently been introduced, so if you’re really fussy about public transport, there are alternatives.) Or why not find a part-time job in Angola, Kenya or Ghana? South African companies eyeing African markets are increasingly in search of employees who have ‘African’ experience.
Or explore our diverse country. Get a group of friends together and take a road trip to Namaqualand, Nkandla, Newtown (Johannesburg) and Naboomspruit. I don’t remember much from my second-year, but I do remember an epic road trip with four friends through the Northern Cape. (Read more about why I travel.)
Universities across South Africa increasingly offer international exchanges, often for third-year or graduate students. Try to do at least one of them. Not only will they distinguish you from the crowd (see point 3), but you will return a more inspired and patriotic South African.
10. Leave a legacy
As a student, you will have ample time to devote to meaningless things. Don’t just spend it watching series or playing games. Instead, start something new. Why not start a movement, a novel, a new tradition, a trend?
Or a business? The close proximity of like-minded individuals with exceptional skills makes universities a hotbed of innovation. Find these people, tap into their knowledge and networks, and do something great together. It is no coincidence that many of the fastest growing companies of the last two decades were founded by undergraduate university students ‘wasting time’ together. Some of my friends are now working in very successful start-ups that they founded when they were in residence together. Not all ventures last, of course. But the fresh ideas and touch naivety of a first-year can be a powerful antidote to the hubris of the real world. Take chances. Fail. Adapt. Learn.
Nearly everyone that qualifies for university has the ability to graduate within three years. That should be your primary goal. But by itself, that little piece of paper you receive at the end of your labours is really just that: a sign that you have achieved the minimum of what is required. To really benefit, you need to extract more from what universities have to offer academically and socially. See your first year as the foundation of your future, and build it as strong as possible. Don’t waste chances to connect wider, to investigate deeper, to explore further. It’s an exhilarating ride. Make it a meaningful one too.