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Amy Hiss On The Struggle For Africanised Identities At Formerly White Schools

Author: Nicklaus Kruger

What does it mean to be African in a formerly white school? How do learners use online spaces to express themselves? And how is this affected by language and policy? Amy Hiss tackled these topics and more - earning her a Master’s in Linguistics from UWC.

(Published - 5 April 2019)

South Africa is a country of great potential - but it’s also a country struggling to overcome its past, where there is sometimes an intense power struggle for the realisation and implementation of Africanised identities and language in former white spaces. University of the Western Cape Linguistics student Amy Hiss investigated how one such struggle played out at a Cape Town high school - earning her a Master’s in Linguistics at UWC’s April 2019 Graduation.

“It’s an emotional feeling to graduate,” says Amy. “Walking across the stage for me is not only about the challenges that I have overcome, but how those challenges have shaped and strengthened me, and helped me understand that I am capable of achieving the things I envision for myself.”

Her thesis, A multimodal discourse analysis of bodies-in-protest on Twitter: case of Sans Souci Girls High School, investigated the censoring and erasure of African language, hair and comportment that emanated from the learners in protest.

“My research was situated within the era of Fallism and decoloniality in pedagogy in South Africa,” she explains. “It’s about the protest of young black female learners at a former model-C school in Cape Town.”

She paid particular attention to the school’s code of conduct, other documentation and the online protest of the black learners - and how racism was perpetuated within the discourses of the school’s policy.

“My study revealed a great deal of symbolic references to the imposition of a Westernised identity on black learners,” she explains. “This was found by banning the use of African language, namely IsiXhosa, black girls’ hair, and general behaviour at the school. These issues pointed to ongoing practices of exclusion and deficiency of African language and identities in the pedagogical arena in South Africa. ”

Of interest in her study was the role of social media as a forum of online protesting, the exposure of erasure voiced during the protest and the positive outcome of online protesting in the corporeal world.

“Online spaces have become a significant tool in which students and learners are able to express their emotions and receive gratification for their experiences, which is not necessarily awarded in the corporeal world.”

Her research exposed key problem areas within a South African pedagogy that continues to edge towards transformation.

“My work has also allowed me to realise that in South Africa, identity and language is one of the tools that will enable a more successful and healthy society,” she says. “If my research can contribute to the realisation of this, then we are one step closer to changing the narrative for future generations in South Africa.”

Living Life Linguistically: A Long Journey

Amy Bronwyn Hiss was born and raised in Elsies River, and had a fairly typical childhood (“you could even say I was a bit spoilt”) until her parents divorced in her early teens.

“I had to raise myself from then on and learn from early on that I was in charge of my life and that whatever lies ahead of me is something only I have the solutions to. I also learned that I needed to always see things in a positive way even when I experienced hardship and dealt with pressure.

Getting into UWC wasn’t easy, thanks to less-than-stellar final matric results - but she was accepted into the four-year year B.A programme.

“The first year bridging programme was a time of reflection for me, as I had time to think about what really interest me,” she says. “I was very drawn to all the modules as they gave me insight into determining that I was interested in studying human beings at a social level. The programme also allowed me to determine that I enjoy expressing myself through words and reading about important societal issues. ”

Her time as a student opened her eyes to the reality of privilege - including her own.

“I never really experienced the financial difficulties that other students experienced, and having a father who’s a professor here kind of made the higher education experience less stressful,” she says. “I realised that I could either allow this privilege that I have to be my greatest downfall or that it could be the greatest tool that I had in allowing me to grow academically and as an individual.”

Another thing that helped her grow: being the best mother she could be to her two children (“I have to keep them entertained, and that’s almost a full-time job”).

Now Amy belongs to a team that mentors and teaches soft skills to post-graduate students at UWC, guiding them through workshops, a Facebook page and YouTube channel, Amiena Inspired. The team focuses on EQ techniques for students who find it difficult to cope with all the emotions that arise from university life.

“We want students to realise that life doesn’t always go according to plan - and that’s okay,” Amy says. “We’re steering students away from constantly focusing on the negative and taking charge of their studies, inspiring them to live the life they dream of.”  

That kind of inspiration is something that’s very important to her.

“I’ve never really lived by admiring or envying other people’s lives,” she says. “The most important thing in life to me is knowing myself, so I live knowing that I will get the best out of my life as long as I am the one edging towards my own greatness.”


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