South Africa

SCHOOL EQUALITY

Instagram is the digital street of Black Lives Matter protests in South Africa

File Photo:Private school rules on what is acceptable for Caucasian hair has been an issue for as long as black learners with natural hair made their way into formerly white schools where Western rules of school styling still dominate.

Top private and semi-private schools are named in a new anti-racism account on Instagram as global protests for equality and against violence take on digital form in South Africa.

The Black Lives Matter protests have hit South Africa, not on the streets, but on Instagram. Hundreds of private school learners have sent in accounts of alleged racism at their private and Model C schools to an Instagram account which is amplifying their messages. 

The Instagram account “yousilenceweamplify” (You silence we amplify) had 138 posts and more than 9,000 followers within days of being opened on June 3. It was a response to the international protests against the killing of George Floyd which started out in the US, but which fanned across the globe. 

“While many accounts that are sent through depict overt racism, such as derogatory name-calling, physical altercations based on race, et cetera, most involve subtle racism that occurs in a very nuanced manner,” said the collective in reply to questions from Daily Maverick sent to the email address set up to take media queries. The account was set up as a space for current and former students of Herschel Girls High School in Cape Town, but it quickly spread. 

“At first, it was Western Cape-specific as the response initially only constituted Western Cape-centralised institutions. However, as the account has exponentially grown, we now receive experiences from current and former students in all parts of South Africa on a daily basis,” the collective told Daily Maverick

In Bristol, UK, the statue of slaver Edward Colston was toppled while in Belgium, protesters tried to do the same with statues honouring King Leopold II, the Belgian conquistador who claimed the Congo as a personal fiefdom and prosecuted what is regarded as a genocide there. 

Digital fists

By comparison, South Africa’s protests are digital with fists in pixels.

They are similar to the 2016 protests about transformation at some of the country’s top schools which began when Pretoria Girls High learner Zulaikha Patel made international headlines for protesting her right to wear an Afro. 

Four years later, hair is again a central metaphor for the racism young people say they continue to experience. In addition, key themes emerging on the account are the low numbers of black teachers at private schools, language (and how African official languages are treated), ability equated with race and the sense generally of being alienated and feeling like outsiders.

“Floyd’s killing has ignited underlying issues in South Africa,” says Lebogang Montjane, the executive director of the Independent Schools Association of SA (Isasa) adding that “institutional cultures take a long time to change”. Isasa represents many of the schools named in the Instagram account.

He said that since the 2016 protests progress had been made, albeit slowly. Schools including Bishops, St Johns and St Andrews had diversified their boards. “I say to the schools, ‘if you don’t have black people and women on your boards, you will miss important conversations at your school’,” says Montjane. 

“It makes my heart sink,” says Montjane about the latest protests, adding that (racism) “is so endemic. We need to do better and we cannot be complicit”. Montjane cited the positive example of a head of a school who had dismissed a teacher who would not apologise for telling a learner that she read “like a Cape coloured”.

But he said that in recent days he had also fielded complaints from a parent who said that although her son played provincial rugby he still only made the second team at his school; another parent found it strange that at the annual prize-giving not a single black learner was awarded. Montjane said the association was working to ensure that quality assurance systems included both transformation and governance as key indicators to inform prospective parents in search of good schools. Many schools had begun transformation and diversity training, said Montjane.

Blackface, the k-word, the n-word…

In one post, a learner said: “I can’t stop thinking about the fact that an openly racist teacher called me a “k….” in class and is still allowed to teach/work in a boarding house.” The post said the teacher had been suspended for a month. Another post related how common it was to hear the word “nigger” spoken by white fellow learners.

“Another time I was around the same girl working on a school project and she sang the ‘n word’ multiple times even after my friend and I called her out on it.”

Accents as a differentiator and subject of derision came up often in the posts.

“Teachers and pupils would make ‘jokes’ about coloured people, say words in a ‘coloured accent’ and laugh about it when reprimanded – ‘you are making a big deal out of nothing’,” according to a post. 

Another post showed how a flippant statement can stay with young people for a long time.

“The geography teacher referred to Varanasi (an Indian holy city) as ‘very nasty’ in front of the whole class. She laughed.”

Another post revealed:

“I was mocked for my accent and my religion on numerous occasions. Racism is constantly having to justify your existence to others, and I had to do that way too many times here, unfortunately.” Another post revealed that a practice reviled around the world is still common in South African schools: “Students who did blackface faced no consequence.” 

One student related how she went to the beach and her friend remarked: “Why are there so many black people here, I’m scared” and they left and went to the friend’s home. The friend told her mom about the “large amounts of black people comparing it to Boxing Day… her mom and her laughed hysterically.”

Another post reveals the walls of stereotype that still imprison South Africans. A young man wanted to date a fellow learner but could think only of a comparison of black people as serving him.

“There was this white student who would often, in attempts of flirting with me, compare me (one of the only black girls in our grade) to his domestic worker. One time he even brought his domestic worker to school and introduced her to me.”

‘I really enjoyed having my afro out’

Private school rules on what is acceptable for Caucasian hair has been an issue for as long as black learners with natural hair made their way into formerly white schools where Western rules of school styling still dominate.

In 2020, the issue hasn’t gone away. One post says:

“I have always been really insecure about my hair for the longest time. But on my last year of school, I really enjoyed having my afro out. One day I was walking to my desk and he (the teacher) turned around and gasped and said ‘Are you scared?’ He later explained that I look like a cat that got scared. At other times he would say that I only combed my hair like that so that it would look bigger than it is.”

And another young woman posted this shocker:

“Grade 8 was a horrible year for me. I remember this one time, I was playing pool in the games room and a Grade 9 boy said to another boy in my grade that my hair looked like pubes. I was embarrassed and ashamed of my hair and at that moment, I hated being black.”

From another young woman: “I remember when I was in Grade 8 I did braids (which a lot of people would call rope thingies btw – by the way) and my head of house called me in and told me to take out my braids because the color (sic) wasn’t part of the school uniform. My braids were ombré blond and I remember how so many white girls had dyed the ends of their hair blonde, pink or whatever colours they desire.”

Multi-religious South Africa – mono-religious private schools?

As people of colour have become more socially mobile and schools have opened up, mono-religious schools have accepted learners from other faiths. But do they reflect the Constitution’s multi-faith vision in South Africa? The jury is out both on this question and whether teachers are sufficiently literate about living in a diverse country.

It appears from the accounts and from incidents through the years, that Christmas is still the only religious holiday recognised by many schools.

Said a Hindu learner:

“A few years back Diwali took place on a school day when we had a science test. We were having Diwali lunch with a number of family members who had flown down from Durban to be there. I asked my teacher two days before Diwali if I could miss school to attend lunch.” The teacher refused and the youngster had to miss her family and lunch to do the test. 

There were numerous examples of this. A Muslim learner posted:

“During the month of Ramadaan, a teacher asked me ‘why my religion tortured me into fasting while writing exams’.” 

“I was in Grade 7 attending open days at two high schools. This was 2014. Both schools’ principals told me I wouldn’t be allowed to wear a scarf at their school because it wasn’t part of uniform. After my parents made a big deal about this, I received rejection letters from both schools saying I didn’t meet the requirements. I was a top student and sportswoman at my primary school,” wrote a young woman.

Numerous courts have found that wearing hijab is within the constitutionally granted rights of South Africans.

“In my matric year, our grade photo was taken on an Islamic religious day. We complained and the school said the photographer had been booked. Muslim students including our deputy head girl were not in the photo,” posted another learner.

Say my name: names, language and accents

Allied to the theme is pronunciation and knowing people’s names. One learner posted about a teacher who had struggled with her name after years but who had made a concerted effort to tell a pair of (white) identical twins apart. Another said:

“I’ve become one of 3 people simply bc (because) we’re all of colour and our names begin with K.” The learner said she had got into trouble several times because the teacher could not tell the three learners apart.

“On numerous occasions I’ve been shouted at for things I have not done because she has mistaken me for one of two other girls.”

Numerous studies have shown that the teaching complement at private and Model-C schools has not shifted as the demographic of the schools has shifted. Often (but not always), the pronunciation of black, Muslim or other names is beyond the tongues of teachers used to only typically Western or Afrikaans names. 

And several posts also referred to the shaming of black teachers for their accents, sometimes in WhatsApp class groups.

A theme that came up several times in the posts on the Instagram account is of learners being told not to speak their home languages or being told to speak quietly.

“Staff were instructed in a staff meeting that black learners should be reprimanded when speaking their home language as it was considered to be rude,” said a post.

Spatial apartheid

One young learner related how he/she had been voted on to the students’ representative council. The story is heart-breaking but also an indicator of another trend in the posts.

Spatial apartheid, the lingering legacy of group areas legislation, as well as racial income disparities can still put young people of colour at a disadvantage to their peers in private school settings. 

“Meetings are at 7am on Friday morning, making it impossible for a poc (person of colour) taking a 40 min bus ride, (a) 10 min (minute) train ride and 15 min walk to school meaning I would have to leave home at 05h30. The following year I was told I COULD NOT run for prefect because of my attendance at SRC meetings,” the post reveals. 

While black people are a majority in South Africa, the proportions are inverted in school settings and from the posts, it’s clear some teachers are reflecting an exasperation with demands and protests for equality.

Several posts are about teachers mocking national equality measures like employment equity and black economic empowerment (BEE). Twenty-six years after apartheid ended, this reflects a broader societal withdrawal of support from equity measures. 

“When I was in matric, a white history teacher told gr9’s that apartheid is just a conspiracy and that it never happened. Teachers would constantly say that BEE was a scam and that it was unfair for POCs to get a benefit over ‘hardworking white people’.” 

A post from a Johannesburg learner says: “I was the head girl at ****. There was a white Grade 8 girl who required disciplinary action for something she did. The teachers suggested that I shouldn’t be the one to talk to her because she wouldn’t be able to relate to me as a short, brown girl who didn’t look like her.”

These are just some of the posts which reveal the inequalities that mock equality in certain school settings and make them such ignition points of race conflicts.

Private and Model-C schools are cauldrons of the great South African experiment, but the recent history of protests show and the Instagram account, reveals that equality and harmony remain notional visions still. DM

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