Black social capital should not be wasted

Rhodes>History>Latest News

IT IS a fairly common complaint in my circle of young black professionals that we do not have the kind of networks and social capital that our white counterparts have to help them get ahead.

In these conversations, it is common to talk about the "Emmas" and "Adrians", our white mates who leveraged their networks to get ahead professionally, despite their average academic performance in high school or university.

In fact, the other day I was wondering what happened to my black peers who went to the elite boys’ private schools in KwaZulu-Natal. "What happens to black old boys?" I asked my Twitter community. I asked because I was thinking how social capital is built up or accessed.

For black kids, our parents know we will get a good education at elite schools, so they pour their hard-earned cash into sending us there, even taking out loans if they have to. Aside from the education, posh schools offer the prospect of opening up the networks that are supposed to give one future professional advantage.

However, when I posed the question about "black old boys" on Twitter, the answers I got implied that the most one can get as a black child going to a posh school is the good education (and "the accent", some joked).

It appeared my fellow tweeters were sceptical about any further social capital that you can access from elite schools as a black child.

Indeed, some felt elite boys’ schools can damage some young men because they have to fit into archaic hypermasculine school cultures nostalgic for the days of grand imperialism which, especially for black boys, means suppressing the history of being part of the indigenous people dispossessed by the colonial cultures these elite schools celebrate.

Well, I use the posh schools as a point of reference to understand what this thing called "social capital" is and how we think it can be accessed.

It seems to me that regardless of how much money you pay to send your child to school with the economic super-elites, one can remain outside of the "social networks".

It is fascinating to observe how especially black old boys simultaneously become the greatest advocates and critics of posh South African schools. Many I know have love-hate memories of their school days, holding a narrative of how they loved their traditionalist ethos but feel that they succeeded in spite of how the school culture alienated them.

Aside from learning to speak "good English", these black old boys suggest their success in life was forged from rebelling against the norms of their schools, from recognising they would never fit into the social networks of the "Adrians".

They say that while it can count as an advantage in a job interview to say that they attended "elite school X", that never breaks them into intimate dinner-table conversations, where their "mates" are groomed to understand the intricacies of the economy.

I thought: "Well, if the poshest schools cannot buy you social capital, we need to think quite strategically, as black professionals, about how to create our own."

There are three forms of socio-intellectual capital we possess as black professionals: political networks; nuanced social and intellectual insight into the lives of the majority; and affirmative action and black economic empowerment.

For 20 years, we have squandered these three advantages because we treat them as paths for individual career mobility, as personal currency, not common black capital.

We need to form professional communities whose combined skills and networks access these three forms of social capital and start to get bold and take risks in using this capital to enable black majority participation in the economy.



Article by Nomalanga Mkhize

• Mkhize is a lecturer in history at Rhodes University