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"You Can't Oppress Yourself": Negotiating the Meaning of Opportunity in Post-Aparteid South Africa

by Janine Bempechat & Salie Abrahams - 1999

This investigation examined how black South Africa adolescents conceptualized their outlooks on the past and the future, taking into account their intrapersonal, interpersonal, and social-historical perspectives. This paper reports an analysis of themes which emerged in relation to achievement issues. Qualitative analysis of in-depth interviews showed that, despite having come of age in a society that was designed to oppress, these students were committed to high educational goals, determined to seize the opportunities that they perceived were now available to them, and held generally positive views about their futures. Results are discussed in terms of the intersection between achievement motivation theory and cultural psychology.

This investigation examined how black South African adolescents conceptualized their outlooks on the past and future, taking into account their intrapersonal, interpersonal, and social-historical perspectives. This paper reports an analysis of themes that emerged in relation to achievement issues. Qualitative analysis of in-depth interviews showed that, despite having come of age in a society that was designed to oppress, these students were committed to high educational goals, determined to seize the opportunities that they perceived were now available to them, and held generally positive views about their futures. Results are discussed in terms of the intersection of achievement motivation theory and cultural psychology.

Once, for example, my father and I went to work in Stellenbosch, on campus, at the dorms of the students. My father was working for this white man, a student. This is the first time that I saw something like this. Like normally when a child grows up he thinks his father is very strong, nobody can overcome him. That is what I thought. This young university student was swearing at my father and threatening him. This really hurt me. My father could not stop him because he wanted the work, so he had to swallow a lot. Either take the insults or let your family starve. Then I thought, this is not right—my father could have been his father. He was a young man learning to be a white lawyer. He swore in very ugly terms at my father in front of me and my brother-in-law. We were repairing and replacing the ceiling, and according to him, we were making too much dust. He then threatened not to pay us, despite the fact that the work was already done. The swearing really hurt me. My father is a man of the church, a religious man, and he gets treated like this by a white kid! And I felt I could do nothing because I did not want to undermine my father, and maybe we won’t get paid because of what I say or do. I also thought that should we, I beat him up then we will be in very serious trouble with the police, and that is something that you avoid. You don’t beat up a white man, especially an Afrikaaner white boy learning to be a lawyer at Stellenbosch.

— (Andre, 17 years of age)

Andre, like most black children in South Africa, has been subjected to extreme, officially sanctioned, institutionalized apartheid, expressed, among other ways, in consistently underfunded schools with few or very poor facilities, and very little or no chance for educational advancement and career opportunity (Abrahams, 1995). For example, recent estimates show that, prior to 1994, the government typically expended at least ten times more for the education of white as compared to black children (Abrahams, 1988). Educational disadvantage is but one way in which the culture of apartheid has created a hostile environment that threatens healthy psychosocial development.

According to achievement motivation theory, this history might lead one to expect black South African children to develop beliefs and behaviors about achievement that are maladaptive for learning (Weiner, 1985; see Dweck & Bempechat, 1983). For example, the literature on teacher expectancy effects has shown that teachers who base their opinions of children’s intellectual ability largely on external characteristics, such as race or social class, act on their beliefs in ways that indirectly influence children’s performance in the classroom. Specifically, teachers who believe that poor or minority children are not intelligent can communicate this belief by withholding opportunities to learn (e.g., not calling on them when they raise their hands, assigning non-challenging tasks; Rist, 1970). Over time, children treated in this manner may come to expect less care and attention in the classroom, relative to other children, and as a result, are more likely than others to underachieve in their schoolwork (Brophy & Good, 1974). This “self-fulfilling prophecy” is particularly pervasive in teachers whose negative beliefs are consistent and rigidly held (Rosenthal, 1994; Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1969).

John Ogbu’s (1994a) work on achievement in African American students has shown that the experience of racism and prejudice leads some students to develop an approach to education that is in opposition to mainstream American culture. For example, Fordham and Ogbu (1986) argue that African American students, being members of a caste-like minority, do poorly in school because they experience “inordinate ambivalence and affective dissonance” regarding academic success. That is, because whites historically refused to acknowledge black intellectual ability, blacks began to doubt their abilities and view achievement as the province of whites only. Fordham and Ogbu have argued that blacks have developed an “oppositional frame of reference,” and have documented ways in which peers actively discourage one another from doing well in school, behavior that is considered “acting white” in the American context.

According to Ogbu (1995), this oppositional attitude to education leads many students to have difficulty surmounting what he calls the “cultural boundaries” at school that would help them learn. While there may be comparabilities between African Americans in the United States and South African blacks, of course there are enormous differences between these two social contexts. African Americans are a minority in a white culture, but are “officially” equal; opportunities for achievement exist in a context in which institutional barriers are more subtle (Ogbu, 1994b). With this distinction in mind, we consider, in this paper, the possibility that some parallels may exist in the achievement experiences of blacks in these two cultures.

However, to assume negative outcomes for all children who grow up under extreme circumstances is problematic. We do know that, under such conditions, some children emerge seemingly psychologically intact, having developed effective coping mechanisms (Garmezy, 1985; Garmezy & Neuchterlein, 1972; Rutter, 1987). Researchers have documented a variety of protective factors that appear to serve as buffers against psychological risk, of which apartheid is but one example. These mitigating factors include: (1) self-understanding, or the tendency to reflect on oneself and the events in one’s life as well as thoughtful action consistent with one’s reflections; (2) close relationships with adults and peers with whom one can share thoughts, feelings, and experiences; (3) role models who are supportive; and (4) dedication to a cause (Beardslee, 1990; Cohler, 1987; Garmezy & Masten, 1990; Kimchi & Schaffner, 1990; Werner & Smith, 1989).

Interestingly, in the South African context, schools throughout the 1980s became important sites of the struggle against apartheid. Many black students used schools as a place where they demonstrated their collective action (i.e., through “stayaways,” economic boycotts, and defiance campaigns). Whereas schools had been used as instruments of dispossession by the state, they were “repossessed” by students and became instruments of both political and psychological empowerment (Bloch, 1988; Bundy, 1985). It is possible, then, that students who were involved in the struggle, by virtue of their active participation, have developed adaptive beliefs about their personal efficacy. In other words, it could be that, for some students, individual resiliency may have been facilitated by their social context. We make no distinction here between individuals and their social context (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).

The purpose of this study was to examine the achievement beliefs of adolescents who grew up under apartheid, and to explore the ways in which they negotiate the meaning of opportunity in the new, post-apartheid South Africa. Specifically, this paper explores students’ beliefs about achievement and schooling, and probes the ways in which they talk about the relationship between education and the future.

Recent political developments place us, the researchers, at a unique point in the history of South Africa. Adolescents who grew up under conditions of apartheid are now members of a newly democratic society. This affords us the opportunity to examine how they make meaning in the context of political and social change.

In this research, we integrate the social cognitive approach to achievement motivation, with its focus on beliefs about learning (i.e., attributions for success and failure) with cultural psychology, which focuses on culture and context as central constructs in the development of meaning making. Our goal is to extend our understanding of achievement motivation by focusing on achievement cognitions in context. That is, in this work, we recognize that cognitive processes and factors in the cultural and social environment are not independent; one cannot separate the individual from the context (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Haste, 1994; Vygotsky, 1978). Given our purpose, it is important that the theory that underpins this work incorporate both individual cognition and an appreciation of the social and cultural context.

In this regard, our methods are based on the theoretical work of Vygotsky (1962, 1978), which has been expanded by Helen Haste (1994; Bruner & Haste, 1987) and Barbara Rogoff (1990). Vygotsky argued that the cultural and historical context of individuals plays a significant role in guiding the development of their belief systems. Haste argues that, if we take Vygotsky seriously, then we must acknowledge that individual meaning making is influenced not only by the cultural and social-historical context, but by the social interactions through which meaning is negotiated, as well as the individual’s cognitive capacity.

In her interpretation of Vygotsky’s work, Rogoff (1990) argues that the culture and its institutions, such as schools and economic and political systems, shape our thinking and provide the values and the standards for our thinking. In the process of development we are always subject to the social and environmental context that fashions our reasoning and shapes our thinking. Rogoff finds that there appear to be local relationships between school practices and specific cognitive activities (Rogoff, 1990). This notion has been eloquently noted by several nineteenth century sociologists, such as Marx and Durkheim. However, sociologists have leaned towards a macro analysis of these issues, and have tended to treat individuals as relatively passive and molded by society. In contrast, cultural psychologists such as Rogoff focus on the ways in which the individual’s interactions with the immediate social context and linguistic practices create this relationship between schooling and cognition.

Thus according to Rogoff, the cultural context shapes children’s thinking and ultimately plays a crucial role in determining the content as well as the nature of meaning making. Rogoff further argues that the social context should not be seen as influencing or not influencing development. The social context, from her perspective, is part of the developing child at all times, and context cannot be separated from meaning making.


Specifically, Haste proposed that meaning making must be understood in terms of three dimensions: (1) the intrapersonal, which is the personal cognitive process of constructing, reflecting, and consolidating; (2) the interpersonal, which is an area where the individual participates in social interaction and negotiates meaning; and (3) the social-historical or cultural, where the individual encounters cultural norms and culturally defined expectations, which have a long social history. Following Haste, we call this approach the “Vygotsky triangle” (Abrahams, 1995), which can be conceptualized as in Figure 1.

Given the above, our goals are best served by using qualitative research methods, with open-ended, in-depth interviews, which have the potential to provide deep insights into adolescents’ meaning making in context. Further, data analysis through categorizing and coding allows us to examine how students think and helps to explain the origin of what is salient and what is appropriate to their particular cultural context.



This study grew out of a research project on adolescents’ conceptions of justice and morality under apartheid (Abrahams, 1995). The second author, a black South African, who was born in Cape Town, was a community worker, educator, and researcher involved in the struggle against apartheid. The first author has conducted extensive research on motivational factors in learning, especially in poor and minority students in the United States. This combination of strengths was particularly helpful in the analysis and interpretation of the data. The strength of this analysis lies in the fact that the student interviews were very rich in achievement-related issues. Data analysis was not done selectively. That is, no interviews (or parts of interviews) were excluded in the analysis. Further, because the students were not consciously thinking about the interviewer’s expectations regarding their views on achievement, we may expect that their responses were more spontaneous than they might otherwise have been (Maxwell, 1996; Miles & Huberman, 1994).


In this research, 11 students out of a pool of 40 eleventh graders agreed to be interviewed (6 males and 5 females). The students, between 17 and 18 years of age, were enrolled in the eleventh grade in one of the three high schools in Manenberg, a township near Cape Town. The township’s high schools are similar in their demographic makeup of both students and teachers. Each school has approximately 40 eleventh graders. Interviews were conducted during the summer of 1994. The second author was given access to all the eleventh graders at the target school. In an introductory meeting, he explained the nature and purpose of the research study. Students each participated individually in three in-depth phenomenological interviews (approximately 60–90 minutes in length), in which they responded to open-ended questions (Seidman, 1991).

Manenberg is a poor, underdeveloped area, built to accommodate 40,000 individuals; its population now stands at 80,000 people. All the participants live in rented tenement housing of very low quality. Houses are constructed of brick and mortar, and built on what was once a lagoon, so that homes are perpetually damp. The area is often lacking basic services, such as electricity and running water. At the time of the study, unemployment was at 60%.

We deliberately chose 17 and 18 year olds to participate in this research because they represent the generation that organized protest against apartheid. They were born after the first historic nationwide student uprising in 1976, and were part of the second student uprising in 1986. Further, they lived through the severe oppression of the 1980s, and witnessed the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1990.

Permission to interview the students was obtained, first at the school level, and then at the student level.


In keeping with Haste’s (1994) conception of the Vygotsky triangle, the three interviews were designed around each of the three dimensions described. According to the theoretical model, it is not meaningful to distinguish categorically between each of the three dimensions, as they are embedded within each other. However, in framing the interview questions, the focus of the interviews differed and was directed to each dimension. The first interview was focused around individual experiences, which represented the intrapersonal aspects of students’ lives. The major research question that guided the analysis of this interview was: (1) “What do these students, as individuals, think about education, achievement, and opportunity, and how do they speak about it?” The second interview focused on their social interactions, which are the interpersonal dimension of their lives. The analysis of this interview was guided by the following major research question: (2) “How do these students negotiate meaning about education, achievement, and opportunity among their peers, parents, and teachers?” The third interview explored how the cultural context in which students lived influenced their meaning making. The analysis of this interview was guided by the following research question: (3) “How do culture and social setting influence meaning about education, achievement, and opportunity?”

Data analysis was guided by the search for emergent emic concepts. We first read the interviews vertically to get a sense of what each individual student was expressing—his or her emic concepts. We then conducted a horizontal analysis to search for recurring themes across the interviews. We used open coding and pattern coding to categorize responses to the interview questions. We also developed narrative summaries and profiles for each student. Coding was done to produce “concepts that fit the data” (Strauss, 1987, p. 28). Words that the participants used frequently and spontaneously were used as native (emic) concepts to analyze the interviews. Codes were generated inductively and emerged from the adolescents’ descriptions of their achievement experiences. After coding and initial categorization were completed for each question, the categories were grouped into general themes. These themes were developed, for the most part inductively, from the analysis of the relationships among categories (Miles & Huberman, 1984).


The analysis of the interviews revealed three major themes in which achievement issues were salient: education, opportunity, and the future. These three words are emic concepts, in that they arose spontaneously and consistently from the students’ discourse. Each interview was analyzed in a manner consistent with our theoretical paradigm. That is, we focused on how students were making meaning from an intrapersonal perspective, how they negotiated that meaning, and how that meaning was influenced by the social-historical context in which they lived. The three themes are discussed below.


As researchers, our etic assumption as outsiders looking in was that these students would experience schooling as oppressive. When these students reflected on their schooling, their emic notions showed that they did not find their daily educational experiences per se to be oppressive. In the ways in which they talked about education, it became clear that they adhere to a variety of beliefs about learning and achievement that are considered to be adaptive for later positive life outcomes. Their comments consistently reflected a sense of persistence, determination, and resilience to hardship. Further, they willingly delayed gratification, and spoke passionately about the importance of individual responsibility, as Kingsley explains:

Yes, now everything is possible, but to make that possible, we have to work for it, work hard for it. It means that you can now be what you want to be. It all depends on you. You can’t blame apartheid anymore. You can only blame yourself if you do not succeed. That is the challenge that faces us. That is why I have very high ambitions now. So, if you can write and speak Xhosa and Sotho, that is all to your advantage for the future, and nobody would have thought that. So, now I speak many languages and that is good for my future. . . .

In recalling their failures in school, both Tania and Mark are very self-critical of their wasted time. They show a strong determination to never repeat the pattern of behavior that resulted in failure, and renewed commitment to hard work:

The time I failed grade 10 and had to repeat the whole year. I was so disappointed, heartbroken . . . I had bunked [cut] from school a lot that whole year because some teachers were really getting on my case. I then decided that is the first [and last] time I will ever waste a whole year again. I will never fail at school again, no more failing. Now I am learning and studying hard, very hard, to pass and make a success of my life to go in a business direction and run my own business.

I once decided to drop out of school. Then I stayed home for a few days. But then I decided to go back to school because I then understood that even though school gets boring, you are going to need it one day . . . if I had not gone back to school, I would have had a totally different kind of life now.

The students spoke eloquently about their bitterness over the injustice that was apartheid, and the effects that that failed policy had on their education. For example, David conveys a deep sense of hurt over students’ having been denied educational and career opportunities simply because of the color of their skin:

Even right here at this school we’re being oppressed. We have no textbooks. How can you study without textbooks? The old government did not want to give us books because they did not care. It was just racism. The whites don’t have any problems. Like we live in the desert and they live in heaven. The whites get the best—new textbooks, writing books, pens, pencils, microscopes, anything. They got the best. We got nothing. It was bad.

It is in this context that the students maintained what appeared to be a very powerful belief that education is the only way out of poverty and oppression, and engaged in active strategizing on how they could attain their future goals. They recognized the importance of individual responsibility in goal attainment, and were adamant that it was inappropriate to blame apartheid for failure; to do so would be to “oppress oneself,” as explained by Mark:

Yes, my education is important, but I know I don’t work hard enough on it. I catch on easily, so sometimes I think it’s easy so I don’t do things. Then I don’t revise things. But I should not rely on my ability to catch on fast. I should work more so that I am better prepared for the future, especially when I go to university. So, hard work at school means a good future. So first the hard times, then the nice times. If it’s the other way around, then you would not know how to handle the hard times when they come your way. Then you know what it is to suffer. If you work hard, what you put in you get out . . . that is a good rule to have, because it works most of the time, especially when it comes to schoolwork and study.

This commitment to become highly educated and to delay gratification in the pursuit of this objective was embedded in the culture of the struggle. When David personally reflects on his role in the struggle, he is also communicating the discourse of the culture, that is, the cultural resource available to him for meaning making:

Like last time we marched we were organizing a strike against the state for better facilities, we had no books, etc. The majority of us want better books. We know what we want to be one day. So we have got to protest against the government if they are so unfair, giving everything to the whites and crumbs to us. We have to stand up, even if we lose out on our schooling for a week or a month or a year. Otherwise the government will get the upper hand on us. You can’t oppress yourself, you know! So teachers and students need to stand together. . . . It’s our chance to lay the foundation for the future.


Despite the bitterness over past injustice, all students talked eagerly about their perceptions that, since the election of Nelson Mandela, there are many more educational and job opportunities for them now than ever before. This observation went hand in hand with the belief that everyone in South Africa is now equal, and that university admissions policies and job entry will be based on qualifications, and not race. The experiences of the adults in their lives motivated them to strive for a better life, and they strongly felt that their generation owes it to the previous ones to take full advantage of new opportunities, as David states:

Yes, many things [have changed]. We now have a better chance to get things right, to do things right. Because seeing that apartheid officially, totally is out, we can now have the opportunity to have our chance. We can’t be afraid anymore. We must take the opportunity because we have been oppressed all these years. Now is the time to stand up for justice and our rights. We don’t have the big government jobs. Our generation can one day sit up there, even though we come from Manenberg. I feel that my mother and my father have been oppressed so much. They too had dreams and ambitions, but they were severely oppressed. We now have the opportunity and we must use it. We can’t let it go. We owe it to our parents, and the many people who have sacrificed their lives for the struggle. We can’t let this pass. An opportunity like this does not come again. It only comes once.

In vivid terms, Mark describes a hypothetical situation that shows how the injustice of apartheid robbed previous generations of the chance to fulfill their goals and reach their potential:

As a small child you can’t just say “I knew nothing of apartheid.” We were born under apartheid and were victims of apartheid, but a victim does not mean we were defeated. Some children were born to be a genius, black, colored, or Indian. But in many places in South Africa today that genius is an old man who did not get the opportunity to develop his talent. The opportunity was taken away from him. Therefore he wasted his talent. He did not have the opportunity to study. If he had been white, he would have been developed, he would have been given a bursary to develop his talent and he would have been famous today. But today, he is an old man in Manenberg. That same man, if he went for a job interview when he was young and said he was from Manenberg, even while he was a genius . . . they would ask him, “where do you live?” . . . Manenberg . . . then you can see by the expression on the person’s face that they are not interested in you. . . . They don’t see the genius, but we know better, we actually know.

Thus, in speaking future opportunities, these students expressed their views of the injustices inherent in their larger social context. Their understandings of persistent educational inequalities fueled their sense that the institution of schooling was an oppressive one.


In initial discussions, all students revealed a very positive outlook for their future. They felt that the unfairness that had characterized life prior to the election could now be considered as part of the past. Life for all, they believed, is definitely improving, as Kingsley states:

We see a new future now. We live more in peace with ourselves now. At school you feel like you’re working for a real future now, not the apartheid future. And that, that makes such a difference when you don’t see apartheid in front of you anymore. You feel like you are something now, somebody who can do things. You feel good inside . . . Our whole thinking has changed. You feel proud of yourself now. You see new things happening now, people talking to each other. You see the new buildings and you feel it’s all for you now. But in the past, you knew it was all for the white man.

Invariably, however, all the students later revealed some doubts about their futures. None expected things to change quickly. They acknowledged the many ways in which their day-to-day lives were the same—they were still living in substandard housing in underserved townships, and still attending dilapidated schools with few textbooks and still fewer facilities. These students did they not expect things to change quickly, and some revealed their fear that apartheid, or a system like it, could one day return. This fear prompted them to believe that now was the time for action. Opportunities available today might not be there tomorrow. Samorah conveys his sense of urgency over taking advantage of new opportunities:

I feel that I must get to work very quickly. I must get to university to take my chance, my benefits now, while we still have a black president. I must try to take my opportunities quickly, work myself up quickly, while the chances are still there. I feel that we may not have the assurance that there will always be a black president. The white man is very clever. We did not have the chance to lift ourselves up yet. He could easily turn around things and oppress us again.

All students discussed a variety of goals they had for their future and made it clear that they rely on one another to make sense of their plans and strategies for the future. Among the young women in particular, this interpersonal negotiation of meaning was centered around the prevention of early and unwanted pregnancy. Caroline expresses her understanding that she and her friends cannot possibly fulfill their plans for the future if they have children at this point in their lives:

We talk about school, boyfriends, about all sorts of things, even sex. Whether we will do it before getting married or if we are going to get babies or if we are going to wait until we finish school. The girls decided that they will all study first, finish school and wait, first become what we want to become. We help each other bring each other right, motivate each other, make sense to them. We talk about, what if you get, if you don’t finish school? Who is going to look after you when you have that baby? What if the father does not want you and the child, what if they don’t support you? No, you will have to finish school first, and become what you want to be so that you can at least look after yourself. Accomplish your dreams first, then you can think about children.

All the students discussed their educational and career goals. All aspired to professional careers, such as doctor, lawyer, nurse, social worker, or teacher, and explained, in very personal terms, the meaningfulness of their chosen careers:

I want to be single still when I am 30, if I can reach that. People have a hard time with men and their children. A lot of women complain that men do not want to work and how they rule and boss their women around and do what they want to do with the women. A lot of girls have babies when they are very young. My dream is to drive a Ferrari (laughter). I want to have a good job and I want to study. I am interested in computers. I want to be many things. I want to have my own business, like a bakery. (Tania)

I want to be a teacher. A lot of people think I am crazy to want to be a teacher, but . . . I want to be there for children, because my teachers were always there for me. I want to be more than a teacher. I want to involve myself in their lives and feel that whenever I need to do something or correct something that I will do so and that I will help them and that I will become a person they can look up to. (Shaheema)

Jerome expresses similar beliefs in his personal understanding of the meaning of schooling and education, which for him meant breaking the cycle of poverty through determination, hard work, and active strategizing in the service of school success:

We will get opportunities to go and study. . . . But I think most of the teenagers into study, study because they do not want to live how their parents lived and grew up. So, they don’t want to come in to a house with no food, no bread, no tea, no coffee, no sugar, no food. So, they want to come into the house, have a cup of coffee, have food afterwards, make a late night snack. . . . So, for me it is just about putting your mind to your work. So only for a few more years now and maybe four or five years at the Tech or the university. A few years of your life and then you can live happily and take the opportunities. . . . Sacrifice that, then for the rest of your life you are comfortable. Just set your mind to study.

Andre recounts a particularly trying time for him and his family, when he came close to dropping out of school. His determination to have a better life, to give his children a better life, and to be a good role model for his siblings played an important role is his decision to persist. He does not blame the stressful circumstances for his poor performance:

I will not like my children to be placed under the same kind of pressures as I have been. We have had great difficulties that I have felt . . . that I should leave school. For example, the day they cut our electricity, it was during the exams, so I could not properly study with candle light. Just before the exams we did a small job, we built a garage. So we could afford to have electricity again. I wanted to leave school, but then I had second thoughts. I have come so far, the furthest of all our children, and they all look up to me to finish school and to go and study further. Then I thought it would not be a good idea to leave school now. But, during this exam—I won’t blame the circumstances for my bad performance in the exam, but under those conditions, you can’t learn very much . . . I failed very badly. I will try to do better next time.


In this research, we have integrated the social-cognitive approach to achievement motivation with the cultural psychology approach to meaning making to paint a rich portrait of achievement in the face of institutionalized oppression. We have examined students’ beliefs about education, opportunity, and the future through the theoretical lens of the Vygotsky triangle, which takes into account not only intra-individual cognitive capacities, but also the inter-individual and cultural contexts in which beliefs evolve and meaning making takes place. We have shown clearly that adolescent meaning making around these issues is negotiated with significant others in context, and that their understandings of education, opportunity, and the relationship of these to the future cannot be separated from the social-historical context in which they have struggled. We underscore that each of these themes represents a broad, macro-issue. Yet, all the students dealt with the impact of each of these issues on them personally. Through their own meaning making, we are seeing the manifestation of these macro-issues in individual lives.

In this discussion, we focus first on the limitations that traditional motivation theory would impose on our interpretation of our findings, and show the degree to which our understandings of students’ schooling experiences are enriched by Vygotsky’s theoretical model. We then demonstrate how each achievement-related theme (education, opportunity, future) can be understood in terms of this model.

The Vygotsky triangle, as conceptualized by Haste (1994), provides us with new ways of understanding the influence of motivational factors in learning and achievement. Traditional achievement motivation theory emphasizes individual cognitions, those “in the head” factors such as confidence in one’s abilities. Relying exclusively on attribution theory (i.e., Weiner, 1985) or goal theory (i.e., Bempechat, London, & Dweck, 1992; Nicholls, 1989), it would not be unreasonable to expect that black South African students might be justifiably contemptuous of an institution (i.e., school) that steered so many hurdles in their path to intellectual attainment. Instead, we found that these students held their contempt not for the school as an institution, but rather for those who engineered such a blatantly racist system of education. As an institution, the school was seen as the only path to advancement—a path that had to be embraced to achieve success and black progress.

We would be on sure psychological ground in predicting a myriad of motivational factors that have been shown to hinder academic achievement, such as low confidence, low expectancies for learning, and low aspirations for the future, all of which are associated with the tendency to succumb to learned helplessness in the classroom. Quite to the contrary, however, our findings suggest that these South African students, born into the culture of apartheid, developed adaptive survival strategies reflected in their resilience to hardship and their determination to overcome obstacles. Their individual meaning making around issues of schooling and opportunity, negotiated in the social setting and the cultural context, reveals a strong self-perception of ability and a deep commitment to personal sacrifice in the pursuit of long-term goals. How did these evolve? To be sure, we cannot know the degree to which the students’ adaptive approach to life was fostered by individual temperamental characteristics, the school, the family, the peer group, or the social-historical context. It would be highly problematic, however, to attribute students’ meaning making to one or more factors, to the exclusion of others. In keeping with our integrative approach, it is most likely a combination of all these factors.

Further, these factors are representative of those protective buffers described by scholars of risk and resiliency. The students’ descriptions of their coping strategies demonstrate self-understanding as defined by Beardslee (1990)—that inner reflection on themselves and events in their lives, coupled with measured actions of protest that were consistent with their reflections. Their meaning making was supported by strong interpersonal relations with peers and adults (Garmezy & Masten, 1990). In addition, they had strong role models (see Kimchi & Schaffner, 1990) who were supportive of their actions and to whom they could look for strength and guidance—primarily their mothers and Nelson Mandela.

From an intrapersonal perspective, we see that, despite having come of age in a system that was designed to oppress, the adolescents in our study have maintained a very positive outlook on education, opportunities, and their futures. It is important to reiterate that intrapersonal meaning making is not the same as individual beliefs. These students shared a set of cultural beliefs about the history of apartheid, hard work, persistence, and the like. However, they “own” certain beliefs; they affirm them as their own, and as being a powerful source of motivation. They told stories and articulated answers in which they communicated a clearly integrated worldview that relates to their own identities and their own ideas about education, opportunity, and the future. Their involvement in the struggle against apartheid and their bitterness over past injustices seem to have given them a sense of purpose and strengthened their resolve to better their lives and the lives of those around them. Despite their personal knowledge that their schools were at a severe disadvantage relative to schools in white areas, these students generally spoke positively of their learning experiences, their teachers, and their schools. Their descriptions of their individual meaning making about their approaches to learning and education highlighted a strong sense of hard work, determination, and persistence, not only in their day-to-day schoolwork, but also in their pursuit of long-term personal goals.

These students not only learned to live through the severe deprivation that apartheid produced, but also adopted delay of gratification as a way of life. None wanted to drop out of school in order to work (although money in the home was sorely needed). They all recognized that the short-term gain would be quickly outweighed by the long-term loss. For the young women, their personal resolve to better themselves emerged in the context of their thoughts against early and unwanted pregnancy. All were clear that such an occurrence would result in early school departure and would most likely derail their educational and career futures. Indeed, this would place them on a negative trajectory from which it would be difficult, if not impossible, to rebound.

From an interpersonal perspective, we underscore the fact that interpersonal influence does not imply peer influence in the traditional sense. The former concerns the negotiation of meaning, and how meanings and accounts are legitimized by one’s interpersonal relationships with parents, teachers, and peers. It is in this sense, then, the negotiation of meaning was expressed both explicitly and implicitly. Clearly, it was influenced by ongoing and explicit negotiations with family members, teachers, and peers. In addition, those who had struggled against apartheid provided these students with an implicit understanding of both the pragmatic and affective consequences of apartheid on their education, opportunities, and futures. The implicit meaning of this collective experience seemed to give rise to what sacrifice, persistence, determination, and hard work entailed. Further, the students seemed to be embracing for themselves the lessons they had gleaned from the people in their lives—that success in any endeavor will ultimately result from sacrifice, hard work, and resilience, even in the face of major obstacles. Through their ongoing interpersonal negotiations, it became clear to these students that the journey from educational disadvantage to intellectual fulfillment and self-actualization would not be an easy one.

The young women negotiated explicitly their meaning making about early pregnancy with their teachers, mothers, and peers. It became clear, however, that peers were the most influential group with whom they implicitly negotiated their understandings of the consequences of unplanned pregnancy; friends supported one another in their determination to avoid early and unwanted pregnancy.

The students shared common beliefs about opportunity and education that appeared to operate at three levels—past, present, and future. Clearly, the unique timing of our investigation made this possible. The students often described, in remarkably similar ways, their bitterness over past inequalities of educational and career opportunities, their present determination to seize the opportunities that were newly available to them, and their strategies for achieving their future goals. Their commitment to become highly educated and to delay gratification in the pursuit of this objective was embedded in the culture of the struggle.

From a social-historical or cultural perspective, it is important to underscore the singular timing of our investigation. The students in our study are entering young adulthood with unprecedented promises of educational and career opportunities. In a sense, the struggle against apartheid became their cultural inheritance, and a cultural resource available to them for meaning making. Indeed, these students were born into a culture of protest that evolved into a culture of promise, in which they could, with optimism, look forward to a future society rife with equal educational opportunity. Their present notions of optimism operated at two levels. A long-term optimism, sparked by the election of the ANC, appeared to go hand in hand with a short-term realism, fostered by unchanged day-to-day living conditions.

The students seemed to understand, however, that while the systemic obstacles have been officially eliminated, they still face the psychological obstacles that are the legacy of apartheid. This is reflected in their notion of “apartheid in the mind,” as David explains:

Some people still have apartheid in their minds. We will have to teach the whites that they are not superior, that it is not so. But we will also have to teach ourselves that apartheid was a stupid idea and that you can’t oppress yourself.

Should “apartheid in the mind” prevail, and these students find their efforts at advancement nonetheless thwarted, to what degree will they be able to maintain their sense of optimism and willingness to work hard to achieve their goals? What messages about learning and opportunity might they then communicate to their own children? This is clearly a question for future, longitudinal research.

In sum, this investigation has shown that at the meeting point of social cognition and cultural psychology lies a deeper appreciation of the ways in which students conceptualize schooling and achievement. By taking into account individual cognitions, the social setting, and the cultural context in which children develop, we shed greater light onto adolescent meaning making. This approach has allowed us to see the ways in which, despite the extreme conditions of prejudice and oppression, the South African adolescents in our study showed remarkable resilience, personal efficacy, and a sense of purpose. This outlook is perhaps best reflected in the words of Andre, who seems to have come full circle since the day when his father was so ill-treated by a conservative white law student:

Yes, wow I felt so cheated. We do the high road, they do the standard grade. It makes you so angry. And they have the best facilities, everything. But that is all changing now. So, that same dorm at Stellenbosch, where my father was treated like a dog, we can go to that dorm now. We will overcome them there, we will outnumber them at that place. That is why I want to be a lawyer. I want to go to that dorm and show them who I am. No, there are not many changes here in Manenberg. The land [country] might have changed, but things here are still the same. . . . No changes have taken place yet, except that we do have a democratically elected government. It’s like this . . . I still have holes in my shoes . . . look (points to his shoe) but . . . (points to his head) my mind has changed!

A portion of this article was adapted with permission from Against the Odds: How “At Risk” Students Exceed Expectations, by Janine Bempechat. Copyright 1998, Jossey-Bass, Inc., Publishers. The authors wish to thank Helen Haste and Gary Natriello, as well as the anonymous reviewers, for their thoughtful feedback on earlier drafts of this manuscript.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 100 Number 4, 1999, p. 841-859
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10344, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 3:35:34 PM

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About the Author
  • Janine Bempechat
    Harvard University
    E-mail Author
    Janine Bempechat is assistant professor of education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She studies achievement motivation in children and young adults. She is particularly interested in ethnic and cultural differences in the socialization of achievement. Her present research is focused on the motivational aspects of learning in poor and minority children.
  • Salie Abrahams
    University of the Western Cape
    Salie Abrahams received his Ed.D. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He recently served as director of the Grassroots Educare Trust, a national organizaion that delivers early childhood education to underserved communities in South Africa. He is presently Director of Research and Content for Sesame Street South Africa. Dr. Abrahams also serves on the board of the National Children's Rights Committee of South Africa.
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