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Friday, April 24, 2020


(This article was revised on April 30, 2020)

Submitted by Durban University of Technology Drama and Production Studies HoD, Prof Deborah Arlene Lutge

From ivory tower education to entrepreneurial roots to alleviate poverty and unemployment through an idealistic “I have a dream…” methodology.

The dilemma in academia during the South African Covid-19 national lockdown inevitable lies in the institutional confusion determined not by the lack of policies and procedures but primarily by the lack of precedent. Nothing now relates to business as usual. As CEO of the Gauteng Market Theatre Ismail Mahomed said in an April 22, 2020 email to me: There is a need “to re-imagine” the reconfiguration of our futures. He adds: “In our time of despondency, despair and confusion it is from idealism that we may find some direction”.

Politics and economics have become key features in all aspects of industry and reach far into an educational system struggling to bridge historically inherent economic distress and the politics of educational inclusion in respect of those traditionally socially excluded from the privileges associated with ‘ivory tower’ education, namely: in respect of access to technology, devices and data. Therefore South Africa finds itself at an educational cross roads dictated by four pathways.

First it is important to understand the percentage of the student population with NSFAS funding and the percentage of this funding allocated to educational resources that may not in the present COVID-19 situation facilitate long-term sustainable internet access. Second it is imperative that we test transitional pedagogy in the transfer of practice-led arts campuses to remote learning virtual channels and platforms by retraining staff and students during a year of uncertainty and possible continual rescheduling with the promise of a 50% unemployment rate and a final Higher Education year that is less than satisfactory for the student who opted to learn via a completely different contact methodology. Third it is necessary to consider how residences, formerly representative of improved learning environments for many South African students, as isolation rather than communal living spaces, presuppose possible mini COVID-19 epicentres as in the current situation the prevention of visits home is untenable. Proposing family separation at a time of crisis becomes an isolation crisis of inhumane proportions rather than a distancing tool requiring resolution. Finally the possibility of a suspended year with government projects employing students under retiree mentorship, offers a gap year in order to guide the building of sustainable cities ‘for the people, by the people’. These cities potentially provide employment, alleviation of poverty, ownership of the future, achievement with dignity, industry with reward, and finally a working environments for all by building a Covid-19 city where co-conspirators, the potentially unemployed and an already poverty driven informal settlements work to uplift communities.

As an academic practitioner, engaging in conservatory-styled training in ‘live performance and theatre directing’, this opinion piece is framed as the final idealistic proposal/pathway, and thus it is in the transmutation from shanty to mini metropolis in which I invest my argument. Students that are living in cramped environments with unemployed family, frustrated by their inability to access university communiques, teaching and learning; accompanied by the struggle to afford to feed whole families on NSFAS loans, keep abreast of fast paced technology affecting future employment possibilities; and the challenge of bridging two worlds that levy unparalleled economic demands and urgent academic stresses, may find this option potentially life changing in that it allows for a positive option, driven by the promise of a regenerated future.

One of the detracting features of current sustainable cities is that high rise buildings are built with little consultation. Further inhabitants are provided with no skills development or socializing context that would allow for a deeper understanding of the functional needs, responsibilities and invested accountability of full communal engagement. The end result therefore does not equip the end user to become a positive, invested, contributing citizen, readjusted to accept a future derived from the final legacy of this community re-making. If the three biggest elephants in the room are unemployment and poverty and property then this proposed model addresses all three.   

In 2007 Dr. Kenneth Netshiombo our former FAD Executive Dean requested consideration be given to teaching classes in Lesotho. As my field is ‘live performance’ and there was at that time no equivalent Department at the Lesotho University with which the exchange was proposed, I looked further and found what I thought to be the closest link in a course in civilizations offered by the Humanities Faculty. This was the catalyst to begin thinking in terms of the effective governance in the ancient Greek polis studied in Drama History with its confined population numbers, responsible citizenry, and effective community engagement. This connection brought with it at the time notions on how disenfranchised environments could be positively impacted via an eco-friendly sustainable polis facilitating and facilitated by emerging research, and how a community after the initial development might ‘pay it forward’ ad infinitum to the next informal shanty town occupants, who would in turn ‘pay it forward’ in the same manner.

So my first thought was what would a city polis need? A small town municipality in charge of infrastructure affecting light, water, rates; schools; a bank; protection or policing to apply polis community rules; a clinic; a community arts centre catering to after-hours homework prep, extramural activities and aftercare facilities; IT experts assisting with access problems, call centres and laboratories; a civil and family court advocating a justice system; a mall or business centre focused on African entrepreneurship with an innovation centre and offices for professional accountants, architects, lawyers, medical practitioners, insurers, etc.; a hardware warehouse with offices above it for a plumber, a repairman/builders; a park or garden centre dealing with florists, botanists, gardeners and nature lovers; a small enterprises park housing crafts and markets at the very least.

Second, how will this enterprise prove empowering? In The Great Depression roads such as the Durban esplanade were built by qualified professionals so if we combined the drive of those paid to use their newly acquired qualifications, seasoned retired experts, those in tertiary training and those willing to work, evolve and develop skills for a permanent place in the polis, then this combination may well be the collaborative jelly. Recent surveys have highlighted high unemployment rates in graduates. So is there a logical solution offered in career guidance testing with an initial questionnaire to ascertain the interests and potential areas of individual development needed or the appropriate polis training required, thus enabling informal sector inhabitants to be assigned to the appropriate skills development teams? A marginalised economically disempowered community, working under retired town planners, town engineers, business magnets, and educators, facilitated by students and graduates training or trained in these areas, would thus be trained to lay out the infrastructure of the polis assisted by retirees and research departments. The community may consult on the architectural framework of the polis which may be: Ndebele designed buildings with flat roof gardens; or comprised of contemporary concrete glass and chrome frameworks; or embrace an African Kingdom polis resplendent with columns of large tusks and metal wild life sculptures of rusted tin. The untrained builders, plumbers, electricians, carpenters and artisans would learn a trade under retired previously registered Master Builders, craftsmen and artisans. Further, registered SABS approved plumbers and electricians would train informal sector workers in laying down polis sewerage works and systems, polis electrical infrastructure, with construction teams building brick or concrete factories - perhaps made from reconstituted plastic bricks as well as constructing residential developments, buildings and hardware stores  - all built with experts specializing in waste materials and repurposed products. Some of the marginalized informal community would then be assigned to learning tools related to building this sustainable eco-friendly polis from the ground up, embracing fields such as architectural design centred on reconstituted waste materials or learning bricklaying skills with plastic bricks or how to fit electrical wiring. This could include areas from laying pipes to water distribution and redistribution, from becoming plasterers and painters with a knowledge of eco-friendly materials, to eco-farmers accessing communal gardens or individual roof-top gardens. In this eco-focused polis garbage collection sites would become repurposing sorting sites for say interior designers creating design notions informed by economic viability and environmentally sustainable considerations and fertilizer bagging companies would collect door to door using residential earthworm farms from which to create export fertilizing businesses – therefore all areas would run through environmentally friendly wind driven, solar powered, cost effective options: an example of which would be trash collection incorporating municipal delivery to recycling plants and residential worm farms where scraps would be collected in blocks and turned into a creative produce for a fertilizer bagging company rather than employing current quick fixes by dumping waste in landfill sites. A further field would train a group of financiers and accountants or bookkeepers to address production costs and balancing of the polis books who might later be assigned to municipalities, banks and business help-centres.

How would this be funded? The government after securing appropriate land would fund the initial project by paying trainees and learners a living stipend to turn zones of unemployment and poverty into a thriving, motivated, eco-friendly mini metropolis with an employed populace filled with dignity and respect, as these learners would be training a created job market in order to pay forward to the next informal settlements’ inhabitants, through the skills learned under the guidance of the original trainers and researchers assigned. Thereafter the initial incubator polis would make a living from operations conducted within the polis, contributing as rate payers to a mini-municipality and as tax payers to a national economy. How would the polis function with the initial trainers withdrawn? The community would vote in their experienced police chief, qualified judge, trained municipality workers and schools governing bodies for 5 years with re-election possible every five years so as to hold leaders accountable to the people they serve, minimize corruption, reinforce community-centred interactive ownership of the polis, and ensure sustainability.

How would community based organization facilitate the polis? Community Arts Centres would house galleries, private arts studios, theatre and sports complexes and facilities, school rooms and laboratories so once pupils finished schools eco-friendly transport would collect children and drop them at the Centre where homework would be completed under qualified teaching assistants. Thereafter pupils would select from a wide range of activities or classes offered in any of the following areas, including: sports; dance; theatre; fine arts; crafts learning hobbies; IT labs; etc. in order to fill in the rest of the afternoon until home-time when parents are transported through this same tram transport system to collection points for each activity. Once a semester the centre would hold a parent weekend to showcase work covered and keep the affirmation of the youth entrenched. This means parents do not worry about children while at work. The arts centre provides a structured activity academy, manned or controlled by graduates in the arts, sports and other fields. This might also house a mini clinic with graduates from medical fields to ensure safety for young people. Further graduates would be assigned to facilitate these community centres or health facilities, while engineering, science, and IT specialists as well as commerce students assist in annual municipal upgrades and in small business centres, malls, hospitals, banks etc. facilitating new applications and developments or driving youth programs in the Community Centre once at the end of tertiary training. This proposal enables people to return to their communities with the latest information and serve in these communities as a conscripted national service where graduates work for a stipend with the rest of the government pay-package used to pay back the student loans. After this initial undergraduate tertiary qualification the interns after a year of national service in their communities, would be free to study further or enter the appropriate field as a taxpaying citizens free to move nationally wherever employment calls. The polis would be surrounded by a ring road with taxi ranks catered for at points in the ring road, however internally there would only be eco-friendly transport that is offered free by the municipality who earn their wages from the polis tax compiled through monthly rates.

In this short opinion piece we have merely skimmed the surface of all the possibilities from international research funding and contributions from wealthier corporate bodies with a perceived conscience. It is my hope that thirteen years after the initiating idea and breakdown, this paper will prove as interesting to read as it was to conceptualize back then. Perhaps the notion of shelving 2020 while working on a productive proposal such as this might go a long way to moving forward a more equitable South African society. The past is gone. Long live the future.

Professor Deborah Arlene Lutge - HoD, Durban University of Technology Drama and Production Studies.