'What did you do today?' 'I ate'

13th June 1997 at 01:00
South Africa. Nkosinathi Memela is a six-year-old South African and very cute. He is a grade one pupil at Sanzville primary school in Edendale, Pietermaritzburg. He would like to be a bit older, but generally likes himself, has lots of friends and does well at school. For some reason, he thinks his parents see him as a failure.

Food is clearly an important factor in Nkosinathi's life. When asked what he did the day before, he replies simply: "I ate."

Nkosinathi is one of 1,600 South African children, of all ages and race groups and across all kinds of schools, who are the subject of a fascinating 10-year survey by Professor Tessa Marcus, of the Community Agency for Social Enquiry, and 30 part-time researchers.

"We are looking at the formation of social identity in the next generation coming through the education system - how children will grow into the different people they will be," she said. "We are looking at kids' perceptions and understanding of the world and, over time, how problems and conditions influence their lives."

Understanding what affects South African children both positively and negatively could have profound long-term policy implications.

Some initial impressions are that young children do not know much about apartheid - although many other children tell racist jokes - that all children swear a lot, and that many children (especially black) have personal experience of violence, in the form of abuse against themselves or physical hurt to family members.

The language development of private school children was also found to be far in advance of those at state schools. Rural children are eating too many sweets, urban children are spending a lot of time in front of television, and the school feeding programme (where it is happening) makes a visible, positive difference.

Professor Marcus's survey, which is funded by the Human Sciences Research Council, covers children in grades one, four, seven and nine in eight institutions including historically white and black government schools, a private school, urban, rural and farm schools.

It has found big social differences between whites along class lines. "In formerly white state schools, kids rattled off jokes without a problem. In the private school, the children tended to intellectualise, asking us lots of questions and finding it hard to capture jokes. And, of course, they expressed their feelings about race and racism differently."

There were very clear differences in lifestyles too, with division between urban and rural being as distinct as between black and white. Questions about daily routine revealed that urban children watch television a lot. White children spend more time playing sport, while black children are fairly heavily burdened by domestic tasks and rural children spend a lot of time walking to and from school.

"What was very clear was that for black children school is very often a breathing space in a quite difficult life," said Professor Marcus. "Whatever they may be learning, school is a haven of stimulation and organised activity in an otherwise hard world."

She is a sociologist, but the study is trans-disciplinary and is being conducted by a team of specialists in psychology, sociology and dietetics.

Under Professor Marcus's supervision, the data is being gathered by a group of 30 mainly black fieldworkers, who are visiting schools and interviewing the 1,600 children.

The survey used 14 exercises ranging from physical measurements and food patterns, aimed at discovering how diet affects growth and development, to a battery of questions about attitudes and feelings, racial and gender perceptions, education, daily life routines and experiences. Older children are asked to write down jokes they have heard and produce essays about their experiences.

The youngest will be followed at intervals throughout their compulsory school years, so that after a decade the study can measure their progress and show how their circumstances have influenced how - and what - they turn out to be.

Professor Marcus is struck by dietary differences between children in urban and rural areas. Rural children seem always to be sucking on sweets. She believes it is because they have little money, so the only thing they can buy is a lollipop or sweet.

She has observed a marked difference, too, in the condition of rural children in schools with and without the school feeding scheme. For example, although physical conditions at one particular school were far worse than at another, the children at the former - where there is a feeding scheme - look healthier and are able to concentrate better.

Fieldworkers found much residual racism among white children, with some white pupils feeling uncomfortable about being interviewed by black people.

"Many were openly racist," said Professor Marcus.

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