The incident brings up the issue that discrimination is alive and well in South African schools. Picture: Independent Media
Discrimination is rife in South African schools – and it’s becoming a problem that is getting hard to deal with, writes Marchelle Abrahams.

"I'm so offended right now. F***ing k*****s don’t know how to pronounce my name. Yoh they going to get it from me on Monday. You don’t dare put me on that (sic)”.

This is one of the audio recordings that went viral recently. The incident took place at a prestigious KwaZulu-Natal school. The unnamed girl – purported to be a Grade 11 pupil at Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High School – repeatedly used the K word while referring to someone who spelt her name wrong.

The #RacismAtPmbGhs hashtag started trending hours after the story broke, with many Twitter users deploring the incident.

One user tweeted: “Heart broken to hear that stress is an excuse for racism at my old school!!! #RacismAtPMBGHS #GHSDefendYourGirls When will things change?”

Another said: I hope something is done about the racism, that girl deserves to be suspended, and the girls who exposed her – protected. #RacismatPMBGHS”

“There is an inherent problem with Model C schools and racism.As old boys/girls we were and still are TIRED #RacismAtPMBGHS #GhsDefendYourGirl,” tweeted @DukeOfPhakalane.

The incident brings up the issue that discrimination is rife in South African schools – and it’s becoming a problem that is getting hard to deal with.

Last year, teachers at Pretoria Girls’ High School were accused of calling black pupils “monkeys” and making them straighten their hair.

And earlier this year three Rondebosch Boys’ High School pupils got into trouble for producing a racist song.

Many parents believe that sending their children to private schools shields them from social inequalities, but it could have just the opposite effect.

Lizelle Josias, a human resources manager, still bears the emotional scars of being the victim of racist comments while attending a prestigious private high school in Mossel Bay. One incident in particular still haunts her.

“My school principal approached my friend and me – we were the only two students of colour in our biology class – and said we weren’t going to make our grade. We were shocked because we studied really hard and were model students,” she says.

Looking back, she says the decision was based on discriminatory factors, and she feels that she had to study even harder and put in the extra work because of the colour of her skin.

“There was also this overall feeling at the school that coloured people were looked down on because we came from lower-income families.”

Because of the exposure to what she calls “small-town mentality”, Josias is adamant that she won’t be sending her children to a private school. “It’s not even an option for me. No, never.”

Mail & Guardian journalist Faranaaz Veriava wrote a commentary piece on private schooling in 2015.

In the article she questioned whether these institutions operate below the laws that enforce the principles of non-discrimination applicable to government schools.

She then referred to the Curro school saga where 30 parents signed a petition in which they accused the Curro Foundation School in Roodeplaat of racially segregating pupils into different classes.

The track record for public schools doesn’t fare that well either. Mom Mel Munien describes the day her son’s primary school phoned her to say there had been an accident on the playground.

“Darrien was 11 or 12 years old at the time. He said one of the kids was playing rough, came from behind him and tripped him. He broke his wrist in two places that day.”

She was appalled by the way the school treated the incident, saying they had told her she wasn’t allowed to hold them responsible and claim back for medical costs.

“They didn’t even inform the other boy’s parents. To this day I didn’t receive a phone call or anything from his mother apologising,” she adds.

But she says the bullying didn’t stop there. Throughout his primary school career, her son was bullied. Munien believes he was a soft target because he was the only child of Indian decent at the time and because of his calm, non-aggressive nature.

Advocate Priscilla Jana, the national deputy chairperson at the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), believes that because of our history of apartheid, racism will always be institutionalised.

Part of the SAHRC’s mandate is to monitor, advocate and promote non-discrimination, says Jana. She insists that parents and teachers have a duty to educate children on racism, and that is why she is insistent that all schools across the country should institute a non-racism policy.

“People don’t understand what racism means,” according to Jana. “It rests on understanding. We need to foster a culture of respect and understanding among people – it’s about mindset, respect and attitude.”

“We live in a society that is far removed from other groups. The only contact some children have with other races is on a servant level. We have to instil in our children that there is dignity in labour.

“Basic human rights need to form part of our attitude. We live in a multicultural nation where we should teach them to respect other cultures,” she adds.

Counselling psychologist Diane Mallaby believes that racism is something that is learnt. “It is not innate, and stems mostly from role-model behaviour,” she says.

“I think parents’ and caregivers’ core values and attitudes around race form the foundation of what your own values become.”

She adds that racism is sometimes influenced by a bad experience, and this could develop into negative feelings.

Mallaby has a few tips on how to teach children about race:

* Expose your children to others from different races and cultures from as young as age 4.

* Educate them and normalise the experience once they come into contact with other children from a different race for the first time.

* Don’t use labels such as “black”, “Indian”, etc.

* Don’t make an issue of race. Rather explain to your children to be aware of their differences, but also to be comfortable with it.

* Open-minded parents are role models because they don’t make children aware of race, so it never becomes an issue.