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Knowing how to navigate South Africa’s inequality is a superpower, says Elle Williams

Our founder delivered the address at the Andreas and Susan Struengmann Foundation’s Students for a Better Future 2019 Matric farewell dinner, where she discussed the role the SBF scholars can play in building a more equitable South Africa.

Good evening everyone and thank you so much for inviting me here. I’m very excited to be speaking to you all tonight, especially our Matrics of 2019.

That’s because 21 years ago, I was you :).

Like some of you, I went to Rustenburg Girls High School, where I was part of the graduating class of 1998.

Which means I started high school in 1994. In a very different South Africa to the one we live in today. Freshly free and giddy with Madiba magic.

So I grew up on the Cape Flats in Montana, which is next to Guguletu, but very different from it, and I went to primary school in Athlone, where my mother was a school principal.

She was very serious about education obviously so when the schools were desegregated in the early 90s she insisted on sending me to Rustenburg because it was one of the best and that’s what she wanted for me because I was smart and I did very well at school.

I wasn’t happy to be going there because nobody I knew at the time was going to that school, and I wanted to go where my friends were going, which was mainly to schools like Garlandale and Livingstone etc.

But my mom insisted, so off I went. And it was strange for me. 

Rustenburg was a major shock at first because here I was, suddenly immersed in a culture and an environment that was totally removed from everything I’d been accustomed to.

I don’t know if you can relate – can anyone relate? To the feeling that you’re straddling two worlds? The world of your home and community, and the world of your school. A 15 minute drive but an entire universe apart.

I felt that way throughout my schooling journey.

But you know, now that I’ve had 20 years or so to process it, I’ve realised that the ability to straddle these two worlds is actually a superpower, especially in the context we live in right now.

You see the problem in South Africa is extreme inequality.

We hear the statistics all the time, from the World Bank and others, about how we are the most economically unequal society on earth. And in real life, that translates into people inhabiting very different worlds here. Which often don’t overlap.

If you grow up in Bishopscourt, you don’t really have much reason ever to spend time in Nyanga. Why would you?

The closest you would come is probably a trip to or from the airport. You can live your whole life, you can literally travel the whole world flying in and out of Cape Town before you have to navigate a day in Khayelitsha – which is right next to the runway.

Similarly, if you grow up in Guguletu, or Hanover Park, or Delft, you may not have a way or a reason to ever find yourself familiar with the way day to day life feels in Newlands, or Constantia, or on the Atlantic seaboard.

Because the way our country and our cities are built, that overlap doesn’t happen organically.

But it has happened for you. You are familiar enough with what goes on in both worlds. And you’ve already demonstrated an ability to navigate each of them, because that’s what you’ve been doing every day for the past five years. 

And that’s both an advantage for you and an asset to our nation. Because we need more people with that insight in our boardrooms and our higher education centers. We need people like you there, to help influence the way that other decision makers look at things.

Because we have to bridge this divide. It’s not sustainable. And you guys play an integral role in building that bridge.

So if you find yourself struggling with questions of who to be and which side of your experience to represent, I want to urge you to show up proudly and boldly as exactly who and what you are – i.e. products of a “hybrid reality” that gives you an invaluable perspective on our society.

To the parents, guardians, and loved ones here tonight I want to really thank you, and validate you, for your foresight and vision in applying to this program for your children in the first place. And for taking on the sacrifice and commitment that it takes to raise a young person from birth to the point where they matriculate from one of the top schools in the country. It is not easy. But you did it. And we thank you.

And of course, I would like to honour and thank the founders – Dr and Mrs Streungmann – the board and the staff at SBF. For putting your resources, your time and your energy into building a bright and hopeful future for our youth and for our country.

I’d like to ask everyone to look on your tables – each one of you has a little rock at your place setting. This is Rose Quartz, it’s a semi-precious stone that we find in pretty significant deposits here in South Africa.

I’m going to read to you from a website that describes what Rose Quartz is. It reads as follows:

“Rose Quartz is the stone of universal love. It restores trust and harmony in relationships, encouraging unconditional love. Rose Quartz purifies and opens the heart at all levels to promote love, self-love, friendship, deep inner healing and feelings of peace.”

Which is exactly the kind of energy I think our beautiful nation needs right now. 

Now, you may be wondering what you’re supposed to do with them. Let me offer a few tips :).

Unpolished Rose Quartz can be quite sharp and if you’re not careful you or someone else can be cut with it (this has happened to me). It’s also quite hard, so you can use it to break glass, or chip away at softer substances.

Or, you can take these raw gemstones and shape and smooth them by the process of tumbling them with other hard rocks that chip away at their rough edges, so they can be polished and reveal their inner luminance.

Either way, each of you has one, which is yours now, and you can make of it anything that you want.

So it is with your life. 

Your life is yours, and you decide what it’s going to be, and what it’s going to mean to those around you.

I’m so proud of all of you. I’m rooting for you, and I appreciate the opportunity I’ve had, to speak to you tonight.

Thank you.