Geographies of spaces and of our minds

This morning I am musing over photos on my smartphone. I am struck by the contrasting worlds the photos show. The first batch is of five year old smiles, curly hair, colourful dresses, and baggy shorts. Photos show the children singing along with their teacher: all are showing promise in the art of play, of singing and of play-acting. The young teacher, as I learn from a discussion with her, fully comprehends the challenges of engaging young minds, of being a mentor. She is in the moment, vivacious, engaged & this time for those children will be part of their lifelong learning experiences. Middleclass, South Africa: suburbia. The future is, in a cliché, shining brightly. Or will it?

2014-09-14 12.28.52_resizedThe other photos are of children replanting their door-sized vegetable patches with cabbages. The setting is one amidst the litter, barbed perimeter fencing of the garden and sights and sounds of its context, the Jika Joe informal settlement crouching on the side of the N3 highway which shuffles its cargo of cars, trucks, and a siren shattering ambulance clattering by. The children are aged from 6 to 16. They are children of what we can call a ‘marginal’ community, of an informal settlement. The garden area is a hive of activity: digging, composting, planting, mulching, watering; a rambling jungle gym is home to yet other children, breaking from the nurturing of food to engaging in the joy of play. Overseeing the quiet chaos and progress of the morning activities is a minister, his salary paid by donations, his work with the children covered by charity, and his vision tied to prayer and a steadfast faith. His attitude and demeanour is positive, in the moment, engagement with this mosaic of children. City officials have okayed the area to be covered by the gardens but given little else. Should they be doing more, one asks? It’s a common refrain in debates, in newspaper headlines, in closeted discussions at dinner tables where friends meet and inevitably veer into the political highway of ideas to deepen the dinner experience….

However, let us return to the garden photos for a moment. They are of children given an opportunity to be part of a community of practice, as it were. Their future is one shrouded in doubt, hazy vistas in front, and nimble paths to jobs, security and safety a highly unlikely scenario. Or is it? Team leaders have emerged from among the children and their regular leaders meetings are held each month in the board room of one of the businesses in the City. The really great thing about this manoeuvre is that the garden leaders have a chance to experience the touch, tastes and sounds of a different surrounding. One of those is at a law firm and one of its members explains to the group the contents of the books that line this quiet, imposing place. The children’s world view expands beyond the informal settlement.20140816_090545_resized

So, I have posed two questions. Will these two worlds remain separate forever? What struck me about the two sets of photos this morning is that we as a nation have crept into an era of greater democracy, miraculously, given the spatial engineering and abuse of power of the apartheid era and its rulers. We were bound in the apartheid era by our physical geographies. We are no longer bound in the same way. We have the opportunity to transcend those boundaries. Nevertheless, while the geographies of our people are no longer dictated by a concept of separate development dependent on race, our biggest challenge is to untie the conceptual boundaries which still hold us fast. We have living spaces which still talk to the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Think of doctors without boundaries and the critical work of Gift of the Givers. They transcend our geographies. It is perhaps a crucial time for us to consider transcending the boundaries of our thinking and reach out to the ‘have nots’ with a similar courage to those doctors. As our Minister of Education has pointed out, we have over 8 million young people who are between the ages of 16 and 24 and unemployed or not seeking work opportunities. It’s a lethal geography. Government cannot sort this dilemma alone. They need to define the vision through a policy framework that must be conceptually strengthened and streamlined. But the critical issue is that to answer the questions I have posed, we need to help reach that vision with actions to make new physical geographies as well as geographies of the mind a reality. Without that change neither of the geographies of children put forward here is safe-guarded. Take the opportunity to trespass into the other geographies of our City. It is a reality many of our Municipal officials know and dedicated workers in Non-government organisations traverse as a matter of course. As ordinary citizens we perhaps are less mobile across the wealth spectrum. Join us to learn about the ‘possible worlds’ of our City and how we can be part of implementing greater equity across this landscape.

Written by Professor Robert Fincham (MIDI Director) – 21 October 2014