Panyaza Lesufi, MEC for Education in Gauteng. Picture: Oupa Mokoena
Our society is a mosaic of differences in culture, skills, religion, skin colour, ethnicity, thinking, communication styles, language, education levels, talents and goals. That is why we are called a Rainbow Nation.

In order for us to successfully capture the benefits of these unique qualities, and for communities to flourish, we must learn to take advantage of these differences to create a culture that encourages diversity, accepts differences and makes us a true Rainbow Nation.

This mosaic of differences was articulated in the St John’s College racism incident in which a teacher allegedly told black pupils in his class the only reason they got good marks was because they sat next to white students; parents and communities around Klipspruit West Secondary School who have protested against the appointment of a black principal and want the appointment of a coloured principal; and pupils at Kempton Park’s Windsor House Academy who were allegedly kicked out because their African hairstyles were deemed unacceptable by the principal.

As a country we have tragically received many recent sad reminders that the poison of racism and discrimination still exists in our nation.

While it is hard to be optimistic about race in our country in the face of constant reminders that all is not well, we need to energetically promote civil rights and diversity in our schools and the education sphere and avoid more St John's', Klipspruit Wests and Windsor House Academies.

In terms of cultural diversity, South Africa is as varied as any area in the world. In race, jobs, culture, income and education, you won’t find a population as wide-ranging as ours with diverse genetic profiles and cultures.

On a normal day, we tend to get along, but that does not to say we don’t have problems.

The openness of our society - brought about by freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the ability to disseminate information - has served as our eyes and ears, bringing injustices to our attention.

Lest we forget that segregation of residential areas and services, including education, was legally enforced in South Africa. Restructuring this geography in the face of massive inherited inequality and widespread poverty has posed formidable challenges in housing, settlement planning, location of economic activity, welfare services, and, not least, school and education.

Though legally imposed racial residential segregation has been eroding since 1994, apartheid has bequeathed a social geography of neighbourhood inequalities.

But while school desegregation has also been occurring more rapidly than residential desegregation, pupils continue to live the townships and attend schools intended for their race group under apartheid.

That is why diversity in schools and in education - in whatever form, whether whites teach in black schools and blacks teach in white schools - provides powerful examples of how minds and hearts are opened by virtue of engaging meaningfully with diverse peers both inside and outside the classroom.

Promoting diversity in schools and education is, and should be, part of nation-building. Why?

Because talking about race should not be taboo. It should be an opportunity for us to learn more about each other. We can’t embrace what we don’t know.

More importantly, we can’t leverage the benefit of our diverse groups if we don’t allow their voices and opinions to matter. Some people feel they can offer more. Some feel they are stereotyped and stifled as Klipspruit West residents felt. The truth is as the ethnic diversity of society accelerates, in Gauteng and nationally, conscientious citizens recognise there’s much more to be done.

Students in diverse environments learn something different, something more, than what they would learn in a school without racial and ethnic differences.

Racial diversity is a fact of life. Our schools, public or private, must be proactive about increasing diversity. To do so is to create an enriching educational experience that prepares pupils for a complex and diverse world.

Advocating a diversity celebrates the diversity of different ethnic groups. Gauteng and each province’s challenge is to be a good home to each resident through their years, and circumstances.

We need to encourage diversity because we each have unique understandings of the world.

As a friend of mine reminded me, we come from different cultures, ethnic backgrounds, we eat different foods, attend different churches and many other social activities.

Our country’s challenge is to be guided by the greater wisdom that comes when unique experiences are brought together.

Embracing diversity helps us raise fully-fledged children. Our children need unconditional love and acceptance; affirmation of the value of their unique gifts, talents, and needs; and, the courage to persevere when things are tough, like we saw in St John's, Klipspruit West and other schools once engulfed in racial incidents.

It is important for us to respect the self of the child and to advocate for appropriate and challenging education in a diverse and safe environment.

Our children need to know and understand differences and diversity because these guide them in recognising and nurturing a person’s gifts and talents, which helps us to bring out the best in the person.

We and our children must learn not to be threatened or frightened by differences.

Instead, it is important for us to look at, acknowledge, and respect our differences; to know our biases; to see value in every individual; and to recognise that every individual contributes to, and strengthens, the whole.

It is important to be aware of our own feelings, and also to look at other people openly and honestly, without falling victim to myths and stereotypes that interfere with respect and anyone’s civil liberties.

It is also important to know and celebrate our own uniqueness, for that helps us to understand and appreciate the uniqueness of others.

Promoting racial harmony is good, promoting fear through untruths is bad, and will accomplish nothing.

Being treated equally is a right we all at the Gauteng Department of Education are working hard to achieve.

If we can open the doors to embracing diversity, we can get closer to being an inclusive and integrated and non-racial society. These relationships will allow us to work closer together toward getting what is truly most important to all of us: an integration where everyone feels good.

The benefits of embracing diversity in education and schools are enormous.

Our society will have more access to talent. Schools will have richer learning experiences. Neighbourhoods will be closer and more transparent. Community service efforts will better understand how to reach and touch a wider range of people.

* Lesufi is Gauteng MEC for Education.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent