The departure of a St John’s College teacher found guilty of racist behaviour is the latest in a string of such incidents affecting both private and government schools in South Africa. Twenty-three years after the advent of democracy, it appears that racial tensions continue to roil many educational institutions. Rows over pupils’ hairstyles may seem relatively trivial, but reflect a persistent unease with the multicultural realities of schooling in 2017. Is government doing enough to address the problem? By REBECCA DAVIS.
When Geography teacher Keith Arlow left his position at St John’s College last Friday, the elite private school may have hoped that the door had conclusively shut on a racism scandal which had drawn a flurry of media attention.
Arlow, who had allegedly made racist remarks to pupils over an extended period of time, departed the school in what was framed as a mutually agreed resignation. Had intense pressure not been brought to bear on the school by both the public and Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi, however, it is likely that Arlow would have continued to teach there indefinitely.
Despite being found guilty of serious misconduct following an internal investigation by St John’s, the school had already opted to allow him to stay in his post as a result of “mitigating factors”. Reports – denied by the school – had it that the staff applauded when it was initially announced that Arlow would not be fired.
Wits Professor Sarah Nuttall, a St John’s parent, has since written of her struggle to persuade the school to take racism seriously. In place of Nuttall’s proposed anti-racism policy, a school official attempted to persuade her that a charter on equality which did not single out racism would be more appropriate.
“You have no anti-racism policy,” Nuttall wrote. “No breakdown of what racism is, how a boy should proceed if he is a victim of racism or if he witnesses a racist incident – where does he go, who does he report it to, and what action will be taken?”
Nuttall’s tone reflects her sense of disbelief at the school’s inertia in this regard. But St John’s College is by no means alone. South African schools in general lack not just anti-racism policies, but any strong strategy for ensuring that learners are not on the receiving end of racism from staff.
Asked by Daily Maverick if educators are expected to undergo anti-racism training, Department of Basic Education spokesperson Elijah Mahlanga replied: “The basis of our curriculum is understanding diversity and fostering coexistence among people of different backgrounds. We do not have specific anti-racism training because diversity teaching is built into the curriculum.”
Mahlanga added: “Teachers know that discrimination of anyone is not allowed, unacceptable and punishable.”
Yet the persistence of racist incidents at South African schools suggests that such assurances lack meaning in reality. What happened at St John’s may have been particularly newsworthy for its blatant nature, but education advocacy group Equal Education maintains that discrimination also continues to manifest itself in schools in more subtle ways.
One such contested arena is that of hair. The latest school to be exposed for discriminatory hair policies against black learners was Windsor House Academy in Kempton Park in July, following a string of similar reports from other schools in 2016.
The prejudice embedded within the institutional culture of some schools is as disturbing as instances of crude and blatant racism, Equal Education spokesperson Mila Kakaza told Daily Maverick.
“Racism and other prejudices are present in schools’ codes of conduct, in admissions and fee exemptions policies, and in management practices. Diversity training alone as a means to address this is insufficient – learners must see themselves represented in the school staff body and in textbooks and other learning materials.”
But South African schools are a microcosm of society, and racism within them is not restricted to school staff or management.
In July, angry parents at a Gauteng school shut down teaching in protest at the appointment of a black principal in a predominantly “coloured” area. The protest was reportedly spearheaded by members of the school’s governing body.
Like teachers, the members of South African school governing bodies do not undergo specific awareness training on racial sensitivity. Rather, says Mahlanga, they receive a general training “on all aspects regarding the welfare of learners and teachers alike”.
There is also no specific requirement for diverse racial representation on school governing bodies, and not much in the way of a proactive policy from government to ensure such diversity.
“Election into SGBs is based on the fact that one needs to be either a parent or guardian of a learner going to a particular school,” Mahlanga says. “We consistently urge parents to participate actively in SGBs.”
The challenge of dealing with racism in South African schools is not new. A report by the South African Human Rights Commission as far back as 1999 describes a situation which still has uncanny resonance for some schools in 2017: “Educators exhibit little or no commitment to constructing a learning environment free from discrimination and prejudice. Too many prefer to deny the existence of racism or presume a superficial tolerance. Some prefer to have their schools as laboratories for cultural assimilation where black learners are by and large tolerated rather than affirmed as of right.”
That 1999 study found that there was a “policy vacuum in the area of racial awareness and sensitivity” in South African schools, and recommended a number of ways to plug the gaps.
One was to prioritise “anti-racist training” for district officials, governing bodies, teachers and learners. Another was to address factors that might prevent black parents from participating in school governing bodies – “such as the lack of transport, the holding of parent meetings on days and at times which are not suitable, the language used at the meetings and the general atmosphere of the meetings”.
A decade and a half after the report was authored, many of its recommendations do not currently find expression in formal policy – yet, depressingly, may still be needed.
If racism could not be satisfactorily addressed in South African schools, its authors warned back in 1999, “our country will pay the price”. DM
Photo: A learner walks past school bags on the first day of school at General Alberts Primary School in New Redruth, Alberton, Wednesday, 9 January 2013. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA