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Tackling racism in South African schools

On 16 June every year, South Africa remembers the high school learners in Soweto who faced off against the apartheid security forces to demand that they be taught in their mother tongue. Twenty-six years into democracy, some schooling practices in South Africa still carry a “subtle racism” that discriminates against black learners. Mduduzi Qwabe and Mark Potterton offer practical suggestions of how schools can embrace diversity and promote true racial integration.

Structural racism and white privilege remain real concerns in the world and in South Africa.

Gary Younge’s Another Day in the Death of America is a brutally honest book is about 10 American children and teenagers killed by guns in a 24-hour time-span. Younge investigates how the deaths are normal by American standards in that none made national news, but not normal by common-sense standards. In it, the father of Samuel Brightmon,  — one of the boys killed in gun violence — talks about how little the rest of America cares about the death of children like his son:

 When it’s a black child shot, it’s a flash,” he says. “Like a flash of lightning. You see it and you’ll be like, was that lightning? That’s how it is when a black child gets murdered or gets killed. No big news… in the end result, you are still living in a white world. And we’re still thought of as less than. And basically, they’re saying we don’t matter. But if it was their child, they want the world to come to a halt.

another day in the death of america – Gary younge

The stories that Younge searched out are not exaggerated. African Americans are six times more likely to be incarcerated, twice as likely to be unemployed, and almost three times more likely to live in poverty than whites. Younge condemns a system that renders the poor and the dark in America invisible.

Institutional racism still holds black students back

When Trevor Manual launched the national Planning Commission’s report in 2011, he told the story of an African 18-year-old matric pupil – Thandi. Because she was black and a female, she only had a 4% chance of getting into university Financial and other barriers forced her to remain at home and there was only a 4% chance of her getting a job. In fact, she only got her first job five years after finishing school. Little has changed for people like Thandi since then.

Racism is the belief or attitude that the colour of a person’s skin determines their intellectual capacity. There is blatant racism which is direct and can easily be named as such. The other type of racism subtle and not easily articulated. It is very difficult to discern because it is indirect. It is normally more obvious to the recipients than it is to the perpetrators. It is difficult to name is because it is explained away as something other than racism.

In a 2015 newspaper column, Professor Max Price, the then University of Cape Town (UCT) Vice-Chancellor, reflected on what had transpired during the #RhodesMustFall protests at the UCT. He admits that initially, he couldn’t understand where the students and staff members were coming from when they started the protests, as he had thought that UCT had been an example of racial equity and redress. He, however, after reflecting very deeply – came to a realisation that there existed at UCT a subtle kind of institutional racism that had developed over the years, prompting many students, mostly black African to feel like outsiders who were just being tolerated.

Max Price came to a realisation that there existed at UCT a subtle kind of institutional racism that had developed over the years, prompting many students, mostly black African to feel like outsiders

He explains that as he revisited the symbols, statues, photos, and certain practices within UCT he could see why a young African student would feel a sense of hurt and even humiliation. In the photography work intended to depict apartheid for instance — black people are shown “in the wastelands of the Bantustans, in desolate squatter camps and the dehumanising grip of the migrant labour system, while White people were portrayed ‘as powerful, privileged overlords”.

It did not help that UCT also had the statue of Saartjie Baartman – the Khoisan woman who was shipped from Africa for her body to be exhibited as a freak show for perverted Europeans during the times of colonialism.

Price tells a story of how he observed that white students were more confident and able to relate to lecturers compared to their black counterparts. White lecturers saw this too they did not offer any comfort or extend the same courtesy to the black students.

This kind of subtle racism has permeated the schooling system since the dawn of democracy. Many South Africans question the need for this type of conversation so many years after the supposed demise of apartheid. The reality remains that racial discrimination stubbornly occupies every facet of South African life; especially and more worrying in education.

When one looks at the triple cocktail of unemployment, poverty and inequality – there’s no price for guessing which racial group is the worst affected. The Children’s Institute Child Gauge (UCT) of 2019 contends that over two thirds of black children live in a household with no working adult. The same document states that 65% of black children live in poverty compared to 31% coloured; 16% Indian, and 3% white children. 

Racism in South African schools

In July 2017 St John’s College, one of South Africa’s foremost elite Anglican schools, found itself embroiled in a race crisis that made national headlines. A senior teacher was found guilty of misconduct in an internal hearing about a racist attack against South African black, Indian, and Greek students as well as foreign students. He was given a final written warning but remained part of the school personnel.

Many parents were furious and said he has merely been given a slap on the wrist.

Black parents felt helpless. ‘I feel so very helpless,’ said one parent noting that she felt the school had closed ranks around the teacher. ‘Everyone pretends the school’s perfect, but it’s not,’ said another parent, who contended that racism was rife at the school.

This kind of subtle racism has permeated the schooling system since the dawn of democracy.

The St Johns incident was not an isolated story as black pupils bear the brunt of racism in many other situations. In 2016, Pretoria Girls High School faced anger from South Africans after its pupils revealed how the school’s code of conduct suppressed black pupils from expressing and being themselves in terms of their hairstyles. The reality is that many school based their codes of conduct on the white experience, principles, and values despite the fact South Africa is a constitutional democracy with rights.

The experience of Catholic schools

Catholic Schools in South Africa educate about 175 920 learners. An initial look at the racial profiles of schools reveals 93% are black (Africans, coloured, Indian and Asians) and 7% are white – which closely parallels the national demographics. However, when one takes a closer look at the schools’ racial profiles one sees a worrying trend – the disparities between rich and poor are glaring.

Many of the wealthy upmarket schools are mainly filled with white pupils and some have purely white teachers and governors. The majority of black pupils remain in poorer schools. In certain middle-income schools and wealthy schools, black staff members are mainly non-teaching staff and this the case even when black pupils might be in the majority.

This situation cannot be left unchallenged and if critical reflection is part of our ethos in Catholic schools – then our integrity is on the line if the status quo remains. The religious congregations and the SACBC in the heyday of apartheid, under difficult circumstances – decided to open all schools to all races – and we believe that this places more responsibility on Catholic schools to take the lead and reaffirm that stance.

Pretending that racism is non-existent in racially diverse contexts is not helpful and is an insult to the values of diversity enshrined in our Constitution. Such an attitude is both dangerous and short-sighted.

These approaches seek to perpetuate an undesirable historical, and segregated status quo – to appease the traditional parent race of the school. A familiar refrain from many school practitioners is that integration must be natural, slow, and not forced. Many schools fail in this regard because they do not reflect deeply on their situation and practices – opening themselves up to negative perceptions from the public.

Pretending that racism is non-existent in racially diverse contexts is not helpful and is an insult to the values of diversity enshrined in our Constitution.

Schools must go out of their way to mirror the values of non-racialism in their everyday activities. Research shows that stereotypes are learned and can, therefore, be unlearned. If schools were to consciously engage children of all races in activities and conversations that challenge these discriminatory beliefs – it would go a long way in building the kind of desegregated society envisaged in our Constitution.

Affirming identity and embracing diversity

In a post-apartheid South Africa, we cannot still be stuck in discussions of racial diversity and multiculturalism. We must look again (and again) at race and class inequality. White privilege has been a refrain we have heard a lot in recent weeks and must be considered very seriously. White privilege is an advantage, head start, opportunity, or protection from systemic mistreatment, which whites generally have and which black people do not.

Recognizing this white privilege allows us to to better understand the elements that contribute to inequality driven by race. Hard work may be part of the reason why some people succeed, but privilege is also part of the explanation. Just as many whites have worked hard, so have millions of people black people. However, the discriminatory barriers and fewer connections mean that they their chances of overcoming the challenges of their environment are harder to overcome.

White families have accumulated their professional credentials and wealth in a system that restricted the ability of black people to do so. White people may have worked hard, but have also been given preference in employment, housing, and schools.

A different approach is needed

The approach that schools must must accept and respect the identity of children within the school and embrace diversity. What does this mean in practice?

Policies: Schools need to reflect and determine whether their policies and practices reflect the diversity that is desired in our society. Some school policies still subliminally perpetuate racial stereotypes e.g. hair policy.

Racial integration: How racially integrated are the staff? Does it mirror the demographics within the population e.g. a 95% black pupil population with 95% white teaching staff, 100% black support staff somehow perpetuates the stereotype that black people are only good for menial jobs.

School practices: What holidays; awareness days do we observe? What kind of pictures/statues do we display? What books can be found in the library? Are there any African authors?

Invited guests: When inviting guest speakers at school do we ensure that there is a racial mix or do we always go with one race?

Debate: Do we encourage children to teach others about their culture so they can appreciate the good in the other? The debates or discussions that we encourage in school must include uncomfortable topics like race.

School outings: The excursions that the school undertakes must also include sites like Vilakazi Street, the Apartheid Museum, Voortrekker monument, etc. to name but a few.

Learning names: Lastly, are teachers encouraged to know the children by name and avoid making excuses about certain names/surnames being difficult? Teachers must make a considerable effort to know the children beyond school and recognize that their background forms part of their identity.

Steve Biko was at pains during his life to explain that the situation black people found themselves in during the apartheid era was a deliberate act of white supremacist leaders. It would therefore seem to us, like it did to him, that we need to make deliberate efforts to eradicate racism in our society beyond mere policy pronouncements. We have a prophetic responsibility to do so and we dare not falter.

Oliver Tambo said:

The demon of racism must be uprooted in its totality. It brutalises people, destroys persons, warps the process of thought, and injects into human society, foul air of tension, mutual antagonism and hatred. It demeans and dehumanises both the victim and the practitioner.

Oliver tambo

The title of a novel by Chinua Achebe reminds us that we should be ‘no longer at ease’ with the status quo.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.