Schools must be transformed

Vilakazi Street in Soweto. Picture: Matthews Baloyi

JUNE 16, 1976 – and on the corner of Moema and Vilakazi streets in Soweto, 13-year-old Hector Pietersen is lying in a crumpled heap – dying.

As police gunfire echoes through clouds of teargas, he is picked up by Mbuyisa Makhubo, and with Hector’s panic-stricken sister, Antoinette, at his side, he races towards photographer Sam Nzima’s car. They bundle him into the vehicle. Journalist Sophie Tema jumps behind the wheel and the car speeds off to a nearby clinic.

But they are too late. Pietersen is pronounced dead on arrival. Nzima’s photograph of the vain dash by Makhubo and Antoinette Pietersen to save Hector is recognised throughout the world as an iconic piece of the history of the fight against apartheid.

Except, that is, at a school for the sons of rich, mainly white families, in the Eastern Cape….Last week, 41 years after Pietersen was gunned down, Nzima’s photograph was spoofed (some would say desecrated), and used in the logo of a Selborne ‘Old Boys’ invitation, which depicted Makhubo and Antoinette Pietersen (now Sithole) as dogs, and Hector as a Selborne College blazer.

The invitation reads, in part: “After 12 years you have finally been released from the halls of academia. The Old Selbornian Association invites you to celebrate this auspicious occasion. The transition from school boy to old boy. The Old Boys Club. 27 November. 5pm. Bring your parents.” Not surprisingly, this act of gross insensitivity sparked angry protests – and let’s be clear about this – mainly from within black communities.

Selborne College’s school governing body quickly issued an apology. “We recognise the iconic nature of the image which reflects a turning point in the painful history of South Africa and its people,” it said. This is not good enough. There are myriad questions that need to be answered. Questions about where our country is as a nation, about how we see ourselves, about our interaction with each other, about what democracy has come to mean to our different communities.

There are some observations that must be made too – and these should be brutally spelt out. It’s time for the bullsh*t to end.

Many white South Africans have expressed their horror at what happened at Selborne. But many too have tried to excuse the ‘artwork’ of the 18-year-old pupil (who has not been named) as ‘being in poor taste’, but ‘definitely not racist’.

It IS racist. Those who say it is not, form part of a mindset built on arrogance, superiority and stupidity. Thirty-million, overwhelmingly black, South Africans live in extreme poverty. Poor black South Africans were told to be patient after apartheid was defeated.

But 23 years into democracy, they are still waiting. And all the time, our Gini Coefficient – the gap between rich and poor – has grown to become the widest in the world. Quite simply, the poor of this country have been betrayed.

During negotiations for a new South Africa, white people were not asked to make a single sacrifice, not even a commitment, to work towards the building of a non-racial society. Saying how much they admired Nelson Mandela means nothing. Using Mandela as part of an argument to claim that black people are racist is dishonest.

The vast majority of white South Africans have been more than happy to live their lives like they did during apartheid. This must change – and it must change quickly.

In recent times, with ‘state capture’ ensconced in this country’s political lexicon, it has become fashionable to speak about South Africa having a parallel economy – one, normal and struggling, and the other run by thieves.

This parallelism is as comfortable a descriptor for the makeup of our society – of which one part is largely white and affluent, and the other overwhelmingly black and poor. And they exist in separate worlds. This is the reason an 18-year-old from a rich family can, quite frankly, piss on the history of the black struggle for freedom and dignity – and then say he didn’t mean to be racist.

What happened at Selborne College – and there numerous other examples of smug brats doing and saying unthinkable things – should put to bed one argument regularly made by opponents of employment equity: ‘Don’t punish our children. They were not even around during the apartheid era.”

Well, yes. But, seemingly, many white youth are being taught very well about apartheid and apartheid behaviour – by their parents, and by others with whom they interact.  Sadly, many youngsters are finding it compelling to continue old apartheid practices.

Another key question revolving around this sorry episode is: what is in the high school history syllabus? And how is it being taught? If Soweto ’76 is not being covered in classrooms around the country, something is woefully wrong with our education system. And if history teachers are unwilling to take South African history seriously, they should reconsider their calling as educators.

And here’s another issue: it is palpably clear, in fact, that many of the private schools are being run like white enclaves, with white principals and predominantly white teaching complements.

It has nothing to do with quality. Therefore, it is a situation that must change. Schools must be transformed. There are enough excellent black educators in this country to ensure that this process occurs smoothly. But for this to happen, the makeup of school governing bodies has to change too. This is why it is so important for changes to the Schools’ Act to be implemented quickly.

One of the proposed changes is for the Basic Education Department to have a greater say in the makeup of these governing bodies. Although this proposal, among others, has been met with fierce opposition from the DA, it is important for the sake of our youth – white and black – that it gets pushed through as soon as possible.

And with regard to South Africa’s youth, Antoinette Pietersen (now Sithole), remembering Soweto ’76, 40 years later, said: “Losing my brother was something else… It was painful. As emotional as it was, I still honour that day because it was the turning point of my life and will always be important.”.

Pointedly, she added that an important lesson young people of today could learn from the ‘Class of 1976’ is to have the courage to fight for change.

“The courage the youth of that era displayed proved to us that it was possible for young people to bring change in our country.”

There’s a role for white South African adults in trying to build a more equal, inclusive society….

Just as they were inspired to march all around the country to call for the removal of Jacob Zuma as president of South Africa, so they should be inspired to march against principals and governing bodies who by their inaction, and by their reluctance to transform teachers’ corps at their schools, condone racism.

Selborne College would be an ideal place to start – but there are other schools in every province in South Africa who are in need of a shakeup.

This is what active citizenship is all about.

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