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Responding To The Nieuwoudt et al (2019) Study On Coloured Women

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

Adele Smith

Adele Smith, entrepreneur, leadership consultant, business owner and proudly coloured woman, responds to the authors of a controversial study that claims coloured women in South Africa have an increased risk of low cognitive functioning, owing to low education levels and unhealthy lifestyle behaviours.

The study, which was published last year by a group of scholars from the Stellenbosch University, titled Age- and education-related effects on cognitive functioning in colored South African women, received a strong backlash by many who labelled it racist and offensive.

By: Adele Smith

I'm a 45 year old coloured woman, born and raised in Idas Valley (yes, the historically 'coloured' side of town), Stellenbosch. I am also a coloured Matie graduate, and proudly so, despite this most recent ridiculous research paper to surface from the university and what most certainly cannot be Maties' finest hour.

Both my late and younger brother, Duke, and I attended our home town university and went on to graduate in the 90's, an era of dramatic change and transition.

Our parents, both well respected teachers, leaders and game changers in the field of education and our community, ensured (with much personal sacrifice I might add) that Duke and l got the best education possible.

We both attended the spectrum of primary and high schools during that time, from coloured government schools to model C and private schools, good schools, great schools, recipients of numerous academic scholarships and bursaries.

Nothing Inferior Over Here

I must add that Duke, though "male and coloured", was also a Mensa member - 'membership of Mensa is open to persons who have attained a score within the upper two percent of the general population on an approved intelligence test that has been properly administered and supervised'.

And though I don't have the Mensa membership bragging rights I too have a track record of both academic and cultural achievements and honours throughout my schooling career.

Cognitively and intellectually, I'm happy to report that this coloured female has nothing "inferior" to report, quite the contrary, U.S. research team.

The choice and benefit of private schooling in the 80s and 90s was not a simple one, nor was the decision our parents took one without harsh and immediate consequence at a time of disruption, heightened tensions and political unrest, especially in black and coloured high schools.

Youth protest action, the burning of tyres, setting the innocent Dairy Bell "milky van" alight in the streets of Idas Valley and disrupting high school exams and classes was the norm back then as we led up to 1994, the dawn of a new democratic era.

It was never smooth sailing for a girl like me growing up. I was (probably still am) called a 'coconut' and sell-out by members of my own community because of the (English) schools I attended and the way I speak English, my accent was funny and downright weird in a place like Die Vlei at the time.

Today it's a non-issue since English and Afrikaans accents have crossed and broken down old barriers and stereotypes; Blacks, Coloureds and Whites now all play and have fun with language.

Isn't it just so liberating and refreshing when you hear a white person say "Awê", or similarly, coloured and black kids speaking Afrikaans so 'suiwer' and sweet, you do a double take and just enjoy the moment as you realise how far we've come since the 80s?

When returning home to Idas Valley from boarding school on weekends, I quickly realised who my true and loyal friends were (we are still friends today). Some parents made it very clear, far and wide, that fraternising with kids attending 'the white man's schools' would not be tolerated. Families like mine were sadly and wrongfully seen as abandoning "the struggle".

I try to understand this perspective, I get the anger and resentment, I felt it too. But I fail (and refuse) to this day to believe that perpetuating prejudice and hatred helps the cause and pursuit of liberation, equality and Ubuntu. Anything but.

We - my parents, my late brother, immediate family and close relatives, including my incredible activist godparents now living in the US - we too stood up for what was right, we too sacrificed, we too suffered, we too were ostracised and overlooked, we too were interrogated, ridiculed, arrested and jailed, we too felt the deep sense of loss and separation of family and friends having to flee the country we all love, we too were uprooted and displaced, we too felt homeless in a country we called our home.

Thinking In Colour

This study (titled Age- and education-related effects on cognitive functioning in Coloured South African women) albeit ridiculous and bizarre, is so well-timed, welcome and a necessary shock to the system I believe.

For me, it highlights the sheltered, privileged (and more often than not, white) ignorance that is sadly alive and well in our communities today, even though we celebrate 25 years of democracy in 2019.

This study lifts the veil and opens the kimono of a sickening prejudice, alive and well, everywhere. And yes, prejudice from all sides, our dynamic rainbow nation can be a harsh and vindictive conundrum at times. We are a nation that can't help but to think in colour given our history.

So now, the cold hand of prejudice has been revealed. The university and the team of researchers have folded, apologised and retracted the absurd study. But it's out there - the words are out for the world to see and hear.

And we as coloured females (and others) are left shocked, outraged, hurt, disappointed and reeling. To a coloured woman, or any person of colour, this is certainly not new, in any way foreign or unheard of.

This particular Matie incident happened to make the headlines, but there are many other such incidents, every day moments and realities in this coloured woman's life that never do.

I'll share 5 examples from my own life story, there are many more. (I'm always open to meet over coffee for more #ColouredFemaleChronicles just shout!).

1. I was told by a manager in one of the first jobs I had (in Stellenbosch), "Ag Adele, soms vergeet ek jy's nie wit nie" - I still don't know whether this was an insult or compliment to this day. #sticksandstones

2. The rebel girl that I am, I had a fleeting fling with a white guy in Stellenbosch after graduating from U.S. (bear in mind that dating white guys wasn't completely weird for me since I had been exposed to and met a few good men, including solid white Afrikaans okes and English gents while growing up).

Though marriage was never on the table (ever), his dad felt it appropriate to leave us both with this nugget one afternoon at a braai, "julle twee moet mooi verstaan, 'n leeu stoot nie 'n tier nie". Go figure. #junglefever

3. Today I'm an entrepreneur, strategy and leadership consultant and business owner, incl. two restaurants. I find it amusing when (white) customers often ask me or my husband "if the owners are in today".

We usually choose to have fun with it and refer them to one of the white waiters on duty. If it makes you happy, right? #colouredbossbabe

4. Having spent 20 years in corporate, I can confidently say this coloured chick, as an executive and company director scaled the corporate ladder in no time because of her ability, competence, potential (I have probably done every psychometric assessment known to man), tenacity and grit.

I've had to work harder and faster as a million proverbial stones got rolled in my way from day one.

Directors often shared their concerns about EE and their frustration about the absence of transformation at the most senior levels, positions that in many corporates are reserved for people who can handle so called "big jobs" i.e. younger or non-white candidates and incumbents were (and are still often) seen as 'inferior' unable to handle "big corporate jobs".

White employees, in general, are more likely to get promoted, more often, quicker and with far less forensic-like interrogation or objections from the pale male peanut gallery. Stereotype or jump to conclusions much? #wakeupwhiteprivilegeisreal

5. When my late brother transferred to an all-boys high school in Stellenbosch from an all-boys high school in Rondebosch in the 90's, my parents attended the customary parent teacher meeting in the first term.

What I choose to believe was a well-meaning Maths teacher, tried to reassure my parents and explained that they need not worry, she understood and considered it completely normal that "kids from previously disadvantaged schools would take a while to adapt to the Model C system". She got to know my mom and female hero that evening! #haliha #colouredMensamind

25 Years On

25 years on and we are still getting to know each other as South Africans, our history, our background, our upbringing, our contexts, our flavours, our realities, our fears and our paradigms. What a wonderful and scary thought.

I find myself as a mother of 2 beautiful daughters, wondering whether they'll be more fortunate and embraced than I was when it comes to growing up in a democratic and free SA as confident, coloured females. To them, Nelson Mandela was always free and Michael Jackson was always 'white'.

Their challenges may be different than mine, yet may also be very much the same. We visited the Apartheid Museum as a family last year, the girls (9 and 13 at the time) were more intent on getting to Gold Reef City next door than listening to their mother talk about what it was like growing up with "Whites Only" signs on beaches or "State of Emergency" experiences in the late 80s.

This is an era that they simply cannot imagine, I realised. Apartheid (thankfully) is simply too ridiculous a notion for them to conceive. "How could anyone even think that, Mommy" said my youngest.

As a Matie, I am angry, disappointed, gobsmacked and outraged. But so too, I'm grateful for this Matie debacle. I embrace the learning to be had.

I welcome the debate, dialogue and discourse about real race, gender and discrimination issues and truths that often lie dormant, hidden and buried simply because 1994 was 25 years ago and we're urged 'to get over it', 'move on' and fickle 'can't we all just get along' platitudes.

No. We can't just move on, get over it or simply all get along with a debilitating virus like Apartheid lying dormant in so many South African hearts and minds 25 years on. We can't.

So we need these painful dramas and debacles to remind us that there's much work and healing to do, that black, coloured and white (ALL) lives matter, that Ubuntu, democracy and radical transformation demands courage, raising one's voice by speaking up and speaking out with radical candour and truth.

To the Authors

To Sharné Nieuwoudt, Kasha Elizabeth Dickie, Carla Coetsee, Louise Engelbrecht and Elmarie Terblanche, the students and authors of this ridiculous paper - I don't know you, we've never met but I know many people like you (and for the record, not like you at all).

I urge you to open your minds, broaden your perspective and engage with coloured women, like me. Let's get to know one another shall we, before jumping to any conclusions? I know it's scary. But let's.

To the University of Stellenbosch's Professor Eugene Cloete, deputy vice-chancellor for research, innovation and postgraduate studies, I accept your apology, as a proud Matie who addressed more than 300 amazing Matie students from all walks of life last year in a jam packed auditorium (and proudly coloured female).

There's even a Stellenbosch University YouTube video of my 2018 talk. Now fix this mess. Please. Eradicate the cancer and supremacist rot that so evidently remains in the Stellenbosch University system. It is time to stand up and stand out. This is not your finest hour.

No. Coloured women are far from inferior!

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