Racism at schools

File picture: Independent Media

A FEW hours after a Matric pupil at Selborne College in the Eastern Cape had sparked a storm of protest across the country by spoofing Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph of a dying Hector Pietersen on a logo for an Old Boys invitation, a group of (presumably) white adults participated in a Facebook conversation about this matter.

The gist of their discussion said so much about where we are as a country. But more than that, it highlighted the fact that our education system is still locked in the apartheid policies of the past, and that the half-hearted attempts by national and provincial education authorities to extricate themselves from this past have largely been unsuccessful.

The views that were exchanged among the adults were sad and depressing. It began with a post by Khuluma Africa, a closed Facebook debating forum which claims to concentrate on matters of Africa….

Showing a photograph of the Selborne Old Boys invitation, the Khuluma Afrika poster, wrote: “Racism test. Please see this picture and describe what you see as racism.” The response to the post by Penny Hansen, Brenda Crooks, Sarah de la Pasture, Adrian de Melo, Ann Correia, Antoinette Kokot and Mary Cassidy McDonald was mind boggling.

This is what they said….

Penny Hansens: “Nothing”.

Brenda Crooks Group Admin: “Insensitive”.

Penny Hansen: “What am I missing here?”

Penny Hansen: In my usual manner I simply picked up a spelling error, but racism or even insensitivity? Please explain it to me so that I don’t inadvertently make some racist comment.”

Sarah De La Pasture: “Penny, look closely. Look at the picture.”

Penny Hansen: “Sarah De La Pasture I did. Two dogs holding an empty school uniform (symbolising, I imagine the fact that the matrics are now ‘old boys’). I am sorry, I simply don’t get it.”

Adrian de Melo Group Admin: “Please don’t give it away…”

Sarah De La Pasture: “de Melo, you are just so bad …”

Sarah De La Pasture: “Trying really hard not to laugh at you, get back in the dustbin!!!”

Sarah De La Pasture: Stupid, silly insensitive boys. Too much testosterone and dopamine, not enough oxytocin.”

Ann Correia: “Eish!!”

Antoinette Kokot: “Oh puleeeese!”

Marianne Cassidy Mc Donald: “At 1st glance, I thought it was something to do with the 1976 Sowetp riots, and, Hector Pieterson.”

Penny Hansen: “I am still totally at a loss, and I genuinely want someone to explain to me.”

Adrian de Melo Group Admin: “Be patient….”

Penny Hansen: “It looks to me like a mother and a father holding their son’s school uniform and feeling sad now that he’s grown up and won’t be needing it any more (which is how I felt when my children finished school).”


Penny Hansen: “Okay, now I see, but racist? As Sarah said, insensitive yes, but where does racism come in?”

The mind boggles at this show of ignorance. The first thing that sprung to mind on reading this post is the ignorance around which this conversation was wrapped. It hammers home the point that an iconic photograph of a family’s pain during one of the seismic events in the fight against apartheid means nothing to some people in South Africa.

This ought to raise serious concerns about the way white South Africans view their black compatriots – and the enormous gap between South Africa’s still advantaged and still disadvantaged communities. Moreover, what does this say about reconciliation?

Here is something that all of us need to be reminded of repeatedly – and which cannot be denied: The only changes democracy brought about in the lives of black South Africans have the vote, RDP houses (with electricity that most poor people cannot afford), taps and flush toilets.

Thirty-million South Africans – the overwhelming majority black – live in poverty. By contrast, after the defeat of apartheid, white South Africans were not called on – nor were the majority of them – prepared to make a single sacrifice towards building a new South Africa.

All they have done is claim Nelson Mandela, the first president of a democratic South Africa as THEIR contribution to reconciliation. This is why an 18-year-old from a privileged background can make a mockery of a seminal event in the lives of black people in this country. And this is why so many adults – parents of such 18 year olds – fail to see anything wrong with such actions. As the anti-apartheid cleric Allan Boesak has noted, South Africans have not dealt honestly with centuries of colonial oppression, slavery and apartheid.

“In a self-inflicted process of what I have called ‘unremembering’, we have sought refuge under a thinly-veiled selective and national political and social amnesia as we entered our reconciliation process, and ever since, we have been struggling with the moral amnesia that has produced,” Boesak wrote in his book, “Pharaohs on Both Sides of the Blood Red Waters”.

On Mandela, Boesak wrote in the same book: “He is all the justice South Africans did not seek or work for; all the hope of the poor we refused to be; all the warm human inclusion of the uncomfortable. Other, we have continued to treat with such heartless carelessness. We have made him the dream of reconciliation and unity we, in hot pursuit of our own interests, otherwise regard with such scorn.”

 Whatever the government says about its education policies – and on who (because of the demographics of the country) gets the lion’s share of the budget, black children, especially those living in the townships, have drawn the short end of the stick.

In fact, black children’s hunger for education has been betrayed by the government’s inability (to be generous) or unwillingness (to be decisive) to dismantle apartheid spatial policies. There can be no doubt that the quality of education is dependent on the wealth or the poverty of a community. By and large, black communities are poor – and this means that the standard of education their children receive will generally be substandard.

One of the most disgraceful aspects of continuing spatial apartheid is that South Africa still has two parallel education systems, 23 years after the advent of democracy. The one, consisting mainly of all the previously white schools, is able to offer education that will enable pupils to move successfully into and through tertiary education. The other, consisting of mainly black schools, can offer nothing better, generally, than Bantustan-quality education.

There has been a selfish determination by former Model C schools, through their governing bodies, to keep their schools as white as possible – or if not, as institutions for the well-off. This has been made possible by governing bodies cynically insisting that prospective pupils living within a 5km radius of a school should get first preference for enrolment.

It is a policy designed to keep out the poor – and it has. How many poor people live within 5km of an affluent area? But there have been slivers of hope for those who genuinely seek change – even though most times the wheels of progress move slowly. In Gauteng, at least, this rule was challenged last year by the provincial education authorities.

The matter went right up to the Constitutional Court, which ordered schools and school governing bodies to re-examine their admission policies. Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi described the outcome as “having finally broken the backbone of apartheid planning.

“Today, all our schools belong to all our children, NOT the privilege few,” he said.

Tim Gordon, national chief executive of the Governing Body Foundation said the ruling would, in time, have an impact, particularly on “our high-income, generously-resourced and selective-intake schools.

“Some of us have perhaps become a little too self-centred and selfish over the years, and we will need to learn to become more generous, more public-spirited and more transformational in all we do,” he said.

“We will also in some of our wealthiest schools have to learn to do more with less. But that can surely not be all bad in the big scheme of things.” And yet, this year, when the Basic Education Department served notice of amending the Schools Act, to enable the state to take over some of the duties of governing bodies, including admissions policies, among others, there was an outcry, mainly from white schools, and the DA in the Western Cape.

But it is something that has to be done. South Africa cannot afford to have former Model C and private schools being run like white enclaves, where the history of the majority is disregarded

If action is not taken quickly the country will continue having to contend with racist incidents at schools such as Selborne College and others.


Dougie Oakes has been a journalist for more than 30 years, specialising here and in the UK in sports writing, politics and features