Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo elected into Congress

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Camila Vallejo’s fight for better education mirrors South Africa’s own cause for change.
Two weeks ago Camila Vallejo, the main spokesperson of the Confederation of Chilean Students (Confech) and the most visible leader of the 2011 Chilean student protests, was elected to Congress.

The 25-year-old woman, a member of the Central of Committee of the Communist Youth of Chile, was elected on November 17 and will take over next March as the Deputy of the Chamber of Deputies for the 26th district.

The unconventional leader–a woman in her twenties, who rocks a nose ring and just finished her degree in geography–turned to Twitter after hearing the news: “We’re going to celebrate our triumph on the streets of La Florida,” referring to Santiago.

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If you haven’t heard of Vallejo, here’s a rundown: Her rise as an influential, political leader came in the heat of the Chilean student protests. For three years thousands of students, including Vallejo who was head of the University of Chile’s student body, participated in marches, sit-ins and other protests in an effort for free and improved education. The protests were covered nationwide by The Guardian, The New York Times, and other publications. Vallejo said it was the key to breaking “the cultural hegemony of the neoliberal model imposed on Chile during the military dictatorship.” It also shaped the 2013 electoral campaign: Michele Bachelet (Chile’s first female president and current leading nominee) promised, if elected, “to implement tax reforms to finance an overhaul of education.”

“We were elected because Chile changed,” Vallejo told foreign correspondents in a meeting held last last week. “Given the result of the elections, we have a majority that allows us to make structural changes.”

Vallejo got involved because education wasn’t just a student issue; it was a symptom of what was wrong with Chile.

Can the same be said about education in South Africa? Twenty years after the end of apartheid, South Africa still remains the hub for unequal education, between white, black, and coloured people, and between affluent and poor areas.

“Transformation in schools such as infrastructure and quality education is a painstakingly slow process and the school children suffer the most,” explains Lusisipo Piyose, a SANGONeT Volunteer. “This is especially true in township and rural schools where little has changed since the apartheid regime, and not just in terms of school resources but in the quality of the education students receive.”

A recent report by the Council on Higher Education (CHE) released on 20 August, titled, A proposal for undergraduate curriculum reform in South Africa’ found that less than 5 percent of African and coloured students in higher education complete their studies whilst on average white students’ completion rates are 50 percent higher than African students. The report also highlights that over 50% of first year entrants do not complete their studies.

Even The World Economic Forum’s competitiveness index for 2012–2013 ranked South Africa’s overall education system at 140 out of 144 countries, and its maths and science education at 143 out of 144.

“It is an uncontested fact that there are vast disparities in the quality of education provided to children at different public schools in South Africa,” states Pierre De Vos’ in his article, “Unequal education: The Problem with Providing Learning for All. He continues, “How to address this injustice has become one of the most intractable but emotionally laden issues in South Africa.”

edukashionSouth Africa and Chile may be in the same league in regards to education, but if Vallejo represents a change for Chile, who is the equivalent for South Africa? Are there any?

There are non-governmental organisations such as Equal Education that promotes the right for students to have access to equal quality education regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds. The organisation comprises of community members and students.

But what about student-based organisations? Within schools are Student Representative Councils (SRCs), which are elected by the students and are supposed to represent any grievances made by the students. They are usually in the forefront of student protests in their schools.

Contrary to media reports, protests are usually the last resort for students when they have not been heard by teacher or the school governing bodies, according to Piyose.

One organisation that has seen progress through protesting is the South Africa Students’ Congress (SASCO), who strives to achieve a non-sexist, non-racial, working class biased and democratic education system. Mirroring Vallejo’s own efforts, last July, SASCO embarked on a nation-wide march across the Republic of South Africa. The march began with campus protests in all SASCO branches in the country, followed by provincial marches in all provinces. The national march, initially directed to the Department of Higher Education and Training (DhET) head office in Pretoria, to get the minister of education Angie Motshekgwa to attend to the Norms and Standard Act for infrastructure in schools, was post-posted.

The marches remained peaceful with students singing and cheering. In various articles, the two names mentioned to represent the group was SASCO provincial secretary, Sello Nkatho, and deputy secretary-general Luzuko Buku. Nkatho told Times Live that it was unacceptable that higher learning institutes increased their fees between eight and 12 percent every year.” These two student leaders have the potential to cause as much buzz as Vallejo has.

“South African students need a vibrant national student organisation that is visible and resourceful, that I don’t think is found with SASCO. One that will effectively deal with student grievances in primary schools and high schools,” suggest Piyose.

Nkatho has joined student leaders in other debates for better education, including UCT’s DA Student’s Organisation (DASO), which is made up of 18-22 year-old students. In a debate in March 2012, on UCT’s admission policy, DASO and SASCO fought for students with a similar background and education to be able compete on the same terms for a spot at UCT. UCT’s admissions policy uses race as a proxy for classifying students as disadvantaged.

”Too often student organisations are not given the power to address their issues resourcefully or even get access to relevant government bodies,” says Piyose.

The government has recently made an effort to change that. In October, the Minister of Higher Education, Dr Blade Nzimande sent out a press release explaining the launch for the South African Further Education and Training Student Association (SAFETSA), which has the potential to fill the gap between students and government. Their hope is to limit student protests in the sector and to provide a platform for students to engage on issues in a more civil scenery.

Piyose thinks its too soon to tell if SAFETSA will be effective for students: “I do hope that this is not a one-off occasion but one that remains a permanent body as this will improve communication between government and stake holders which will also improve education policies and education in general.” She continues, “Hopefully this will be a platform where students get to be heard and not be intimidated by bureaucratic government structures.”

Vallejo’s seat in congress not only represents the significant impact she’s had on Chilean citizens, but the Chilean citizens decision to vote in a radical direction. The nation-wide coverage that made its way to America, Europe, and South Africa, showed people just how much a new generation will work for the next generation’s future. (Besides Vallejo, three other 20-year-old students from student organisations have been elected to congress.)

But what can South Africa do? Vallejo told foreign correspondents that “social movements are pressuring many sectors that were not in favor of change before and that have now changed their mind.”

Is the answer to South Africa’s education problem a need for stronger social movements? If Vallejo’s success has showed us one thing, it’s that a strong voice and national recognition are powerful tools. After all, the world is rooting for progress.

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The Garden Route

Remember that time I made a blog and promised myself to write in it once a week? That was like pre-government shutdown times. Does anyone even remember that? New York Magazine redesigned their website and Apple put out the new iOS7 in the time that I said I would blog once a week. Among other things have happened, of course. What have I been doing with my life? Oh wait. Well, I am back and ready to write what has happened (or rather what I remember).

After my first week at Rolling Stone SA (which was and has been everything I had hoped for in an internship here), I went on a 4-day trip down the Garden Route, which goes along the south-eastern coast from the Western Cape to the Eastern Cape. I went with 6 girls in my program and we traveled in a van with a tour guide, provided by the travel agency we booked the trip with. This was my first trip outside the city, so I was very excited to be exploring different parts of South Africa, passing through towns like George and Jeffrey Bay. However the Garden Route is bound to be touristy as it involves doing many touristy African activities. Our trip included going on the Big 5 Safari (where you see wildlife animals such as giraffes, zebras, hippos, cheetahs, etc.), visit the elephants at the Elephant Addo Sanctuary, lion sanctuary, go to an ostrich farm, and bungee jump off of Bloukrans Bridge Bungy: the world’s highest commercial bridge bungee 709 feet above the Bloukrans River.

Though there has been criticism for these activities: from people at home and local South Africans, even the people who I actually went with, it was important as a cultural learning experience to see what what we as tourists and Americans will pay for to get the “truly authentic African experience” and to see what South Africans think is acceptable to do for money. But that’s for another blog post. For now – my trip and my experience bungee jumping.

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The group on our way back to Cape Town

On the first day, we left Cape Town at 5am and drove 4 hours to the Big 5 Safari. As I mentioned above, the safari was basically a game viewing, where we all got in a jeep and drove around the land looking for different animals, observing them eat, sleep and live. It was a nice introduction to the trip, we weren’t necessarily close to the animals but we saw them from a distance. Actually the giraffes were pretty close, which was probably my favorite part. We learned about the conditions that the animals face outside the Game Lodge, as well as how the money that people spend to go to the game lodge goes to saving close to endangered species, like the black rhino. It was definitely exciting to see, despite knowing the animals were brought from their actual habitats to be in this fenced in field. One elephant who walked alone was a male who lost his partner and their child when the mother died giving birth to the baby. He walked alone in the field while we took pictures. This idea of ‘something doesn’t seem right’ was a recurring feeling we had as a group. And yet we continued.

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After the Big 5, we went to a Lion Sanctuary where we interacted with two lions: Mufasa and Lila. We walked with them, pet them and stood next to them to take pictures. Besides the ostrich farm, this was the phoniest of the activities we paid for. Though it was shocking to be around actual lions without getting hurt, it was mostly because we were holding a stick and were instructed in how to use it when standing near them. It was scary at first, until you realized that the stick was more controlling than it appeared to be. The lions were totally trained by it. The whole thing ended up being a walk, stop, pose, take a picture, repeat with the lions in different, cool areas. It might as well have been advertised as Glamour Shots + Lions. I guess that’s what you should expect when you’re on the Garden Route.

Similar to the lions, we went to the Elephant Sanctuary in Plettenberg Bay, where we walked with the elephants by putting the front of their trunks in our hand. We also learned about each elephant’s history prior to coming to the sanctuary, and heard stories about how they’ve gotten to know one another, and become a family. One of the elephants was saved after her tusks were ripped off by poachers, which is a huge issue for elephants because it helps them protect themselves. We were able to look at the bottom of their feet, the tail, feel their skin and then eventually ride them. The elephants, to me, were the most comforting of all the places we had visited. The instructors were convincing that even though these animals were in this space, they were living a fulfilling life with other elephants. The riding didn’t seem so fake at it did with taking pictures with the lions. Though I’m sure in both pictures below, I look ridiculous.

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We stayed in three different hostels for the three nights we were out. Each hostel was better than the next and all of them were next to the beach so we were always by the ocean. The first one was a Backpackers hostel in Jeffrey’s Bay where we had seriously delicious pizza, celebrated a friend’s birthday and met fellow Garden Route travelers from Norway, Germany as well as America. The atmosphere was definitely calmer and more relaxed compared to being in Cape Town. I guess one could say that about going from any city to the beach, but it was a necessary trip in this case. Cape Town has made all of us a bit on edge, with the street crime, theft and weather. We all were in need of a break (which is a bit ironic since Cape Town is essentially a break from home in America).

Other things I enjoyed about the hostels were the African dance entertainment and the ostrich braai. In our second hostel, a group of kids performed African dance moves, while wearing beaded anklets and skirts. At the third, the ostrich braai (barbecue) included grilled ostrich, on a stick, like kebabs, potatoes and grilled veggies. It was delicious and I really enjoyed that we ate something different — not too thrilled that it happened hours after we visited an ostrich farm, but hey, what can you do?

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On the last day, we visited the Cango Caves, which are located in Precambrian limestones near the town of Oudtshoorn. The caves were discovered in 1780 by a local farmer named Jacobus Van Zyl. I did the adventure tour which explored the caves on a more difficult level. There were three trails, where you either had to pull your body up or down through narrow paths and climb the rocks while being in a really enclosed space. It was hard but I had a lot of fun.

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While we weren’t on tours or riding animals, we were in the van driving from the Western Cape to the Eastern Cape. The scenery was probably my favorite part of the whole trip. There was no traffic and you were just driving down these winding roads that overlooked mountains for miles. The views were breathtaking. We drove through the desert at one point. Since this was only a couple of weeks in since I first got to South Africa, it was a joy to experience life outside of Cape Town, even though most of it was touristy. The in-between time: driving around, being at the hostel, gave us a look at more of South Africa.

(Note: I also DID go bungee jumping at the highest bridge in the world! But I’m making a separate blog post about it once I get my photos for it. It really was a different kind of experience, separate from the trip, so get ready for that too!)

Thanks for coming along for the ride everyone and I hope you’re still enjoying what you read. Please feel free to follow my instagram – @mars_baars or click on the pictures on the right side of this page.

Till next time,
Mara