Are our schools teaching racism?
We are fighting an epidemic of covert racism that excludes instead of oppresses and hides behind cultural differences, allowing children to learn self-hatred, writes Panyaza Lesufi.
Johannesburg - Author and philosopher Edward T Chambers reminds us that until we die, we live in a struggle between two worlds, “the world as it is and the world as it should be”.
For centuries, leaders of conscience, from John Dube, Sefako Makgatho, Harry Gwala, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, Helen Suzman, and Helen Joseph to Nelson Mandela, were painfully aware of the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be. And when these two worlds collided, leading to death and destruction, they led us to a fierce but also deadly struggle to fight and defeat apartheid.
Two decades after the end of constitutionalised racism, one of the greatest challenges facing us is to continue fighting for the world as it should be, fighting a new form of racism, which is far different from the racism that reached a climax through the Struggle, but far more difficult to fight and overcome.
We’re not talking about the obvious racists. We are talking about a silent epidemic of hidden or covert racism. The type of racism that declares segregation to be a thing of the past. The type of racism that led black parents to pen a petition against Curro Holdings, the parent company of Curro Foundation Schools, expressing their unhappiness that their children were in one class, and white children in another.
The regional manager of Curro Holdings, André Pollard, denied the school was racially segregating its pupils. “It is not because we would like to segregate the whites, it is just because of friends. Children are able to make friends with children of their culture,” he told Eyewitness News.
As a nation, have we made gains in fighting racism? How sad it was to discover an ugly truth: racism is alive even in school halls and grounds. It’s racism that excludes instead of oppresses. It’s a racism that is gentle on the surface, but unrelenting and horribly damaging at its core.
It’s racism disguised as cultural differences. White pupils, particularly Afrikaans pupils, are culturally different from black pupils. But Zulu, or Ndebele, let alone Sotho pupils, are not culturally different from Venda, Tsonga or Xhosa pupils.
If that is not racism, then I don’t know what the definition of racism is.
According to academics, philosophers and psychologists, racism includes, but is not limited to, feelings of hatred or dislike for individuals because of their race or ethnicity. More broadly, racism includes support for and/or co-operation with laws, policies, and practices that put groups at a disadvantage because of their race or ethnicity, even culture.
Essentially then, racism has much more to do with the power and position of an individual’s group in society than with just attitudes toward an individual who happens to be of a certain race or ethnicity.
With that in mind, researchers say it should be easier to see how certain groups can get away with things for which members of another group would be severely punished. It becomes easier to see how people of certain groups can secure and retain wealth more readily than those of another group. It becomes easier to see how groups with the power use the educational system to build up or tear down groups based upon race and ethnicity.
Unfortunately, this quiet, hidden and overt racism continues today because we are not forced to confront these uncomfortable truths. Too many of us have chosen by default to ignore them. Why? Because too many good-minded South Africans are too busy with their lives and their careers to notice it, let alone do anything about it.
I am troubled by what I saw and heard when I visited the Curro Foundation School in Roodeplaat, north of Pretoria. As MEC for Education, I am not going to ignore this kind of racism. I hate racism with a passion. I’m addicted to non-racialism. I will not allow a Grade R pupil or any other pupil whatsoever to be reminded of apartheid. I will not allow any child to be reminded of where we come from.
Fortunately, the Curro School embraces and accepts it has made a mistake and will rectify it. Several changes will be implemented at the school, including the introduction of African languages as a subject and the hiring of black teachers.
The point is that, as parents, we should ask ourselves whether our children are learning racism at school. Are they learning self-hatred? Are they learning it from their teachers?
I believe that children don’t know that they are ethnically diverse. They don’t know races, so they don’t know racism. They don’t know that there is a lot of racism in the world, but they begin to feel it when teachers and other adults make the differences obvious.
Schools, from the teachers to pupils, must be a representation of our society, an example of our rainbow nation. We must get the truth to the teachers. If we have an honest dialogue with our children, they will recognise racism and feel free to tell us about it. When they do, as parents, we should talk honestly with the teacher or teachers. If they do not listen, we should take it up with the principal. Take it as high as you have to, including my office or the ministry, to get results.
I understand that as parents we cannot monitor every moment of our children’s day. It is imperative we prepare our children for the inevitability of racism. As parents, we should never forget that we are the first teachers. We need to prepare our children for the world they will inhabit as adults.
Everyone has an interesting heritage or an interesting mix of heritages. Take pride in each one, but not the kind of pride that puts other people down.
A true respect for other cultures and peoples has to start with respect for where we came from ourselves.
Blacks and whites need to continue talking. That’s why I’m asking everyone: Don’t argue, just go out and have a nice conversation about race relations.
Everyone has the burden of winning every racist over, and every racist has the burden of dismembering racism within themselves.
There are several things that can and must be done.
First, are people admitting they are racially prejudiced? Nobody is entirely free of racial prejudice.
Next, after everyone has admitted to the problem, as Curro School has done, there must be talks and discussions about racism in the area, held at a location where everyone would be able to attend.
As we are doing at Curro, a battle plan for easing the tensions and apprehensions must be worked out at the meeting. The plan must be realistic and equitable for all the parties involved.
Finally, to be effective, the plan must be carried out by everyone involved.
The truth is that problems and racial challenges will not immediately disappear. It will take time. But interracial relations will improve.
Something must be done to solve the problem of racism wherever it surfaces, whether at schools, in the workplace or in any other part of our society.
The struggle between two worlds, “the world as it is and the world as it should be”, continues.
There is a long way to go before all forms of racism disappear from all spheres of our society, including schools.
Some say this is a dream; but to achieve this dream, we must start somewhere.
* Lesufi is Gauteng MEC for Education.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
The Sunday Independent