High school in Durban challenges whitewashing racism claims by learners
School claims that pupils using racial slurs ‘did not fully understand’ the connotations of the words.
A high school in Durban has denied any attempts to sweep under the carpet a racial slur incident involving pupils. Although the school became aware of the incident in May, it was recently brought to public attention by media reports and mounting dissatisfaction among pupils regarding the school’s response.
The incident involved a private WhatsApp group in which pupils at Hillcrest High School used the k-word and n-word multiple times in conversation with one another.
The school became aware of the matter when screenshots of the conversation were posted on social media platforms earlier this year, according to a letter by the school governing body chairperson Byron Creed. The letter was posted on the school’s Facebook page on 10 August.
Daily Maverick has seen screenshots of the WhatsApp group messages that were posted to an Instagram account, “exsposed_._”. The account no longer exists.
Among the messages are those stating: “So then u not confident in your understanding as u therefor are k*****”; “I will kill a k*****”; and “but when n*****s f*** n*****s they can’t come because you know when”. The messages are dated between May and October 2021.
School and student response
“Students in general are pretty horrified,” said Grant*, a pupil, on the learners’ body’s response to the incident. “People are really outraged about it.”
Some of the outrage is because pupils involved in the incident allegedly still received awards from the school after it knew about the incident, according to Tom*, another pupil.
“When I think of a repeat offender in the school, I think of the boys in that [WhatsApp] group,” claimed Grant. “It’s a bit of a gang of thugs. Most of them play first team rugby. Most of them have been in a lot of incidents in the past, especially with bullying.”
Some learners protested on 11 and 12 August. “It came out that the school had covered it up, and people were getting really pissed about it. And so there was a lot of tension,” said Grant.
However, Muzi Mahlambi, spokesperson for the KwaZulu-Natal Education Department, said there was no cover-up. The school’s management staff and behaviour officer started an investigation once the issue was brought to their attention, and a disciplinary meeting was held with the school governing body’s discipline committee and parents of the pupils involved.
In the disciplinary hearing in June, the learners “expressed their remorse as they did not fully understand the connotations of the words and the history of these words [that] they had written in their private WhatsApp group chat”, Creed said in his letter.
“The learners’ parents also apologised profusely for their children’s actions and pledged to educate their children further on this issue. A positive group discussion was had with a lot of interaction between all who were present at the meeting,” he said.
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Six boys were involved in the incident, one of whom had since emigrated to the US, according to Mahlambi. The boys were suspended for seven days. This was not disclosed to the school body, staff or school governing body as it was “confidential information”.
Hillcrest High contracted a company called BizSkills to run a workshop on “diversity and transformation in the classroom” for educators on Friday, 19 August, according to Creed. Workshops will also be run for grade 12 learners, grade 11 monitors and the school’s Representative Council of Learners.
“Hillcrest High School has arranged further workshops with the Durban Holocaust and Genocide Centre to present several talks to our Grade 12 learners,” Creed said.
Learners were told they would be attending a seminar in the next week, to discuss the racial slur issue, Grant said.
“It’s good, it’s what they should be doing, but I mean obviously it’s a bit … late. The fact that they only do this stuff when they get called out in a news article is a bit problematic.”
There have been other incidents of racism at the school, according to Grant. As recently as last week, a teacher allegedly described himself as a racist.
“It was during one of my lessons that he teaches us … they were talking because … we did have an assembly on the racism that has been prevalent, recently,” said Tom. “Basically, he admitted that he was a racist, which in my opinion is … just him digging himself a hole.”
Grant claimed that he had heard the same teacher refer to people of colour as “darkies”.
Mahlambi said the teacher had never had a problem with ethnicity and had never been heard to address pupils using the offensive term.
In a separate incident earlier this year, a teacher allegedly asked a disruptive student if he was skinny because he was poor, before later calling him a “black rat” and telling him to leave her classroom, according to Grant.
After this incident, the teacher was absent from school for more than a term, on what learners were told was sick leave, he said.
Mahlambi told Daily Maverick that this incident was dealt with severely, and that a slightly different version of events had been put forward by the teacher.
“These comments are taken out of context,” he said. “But they have been dealt with and everything is running smoothly with the teacher and the learners.” Daily Maverick posed all allegations from Grant and Tom to the school, but the school referred us to Mahlambi to answer all questions. DM168
*Grant and Tom are pseudonyms ascribed to individuals who chose to stay anonymous for fear of retribution.
The scourge of racism in schools
The racial slur incident at Hillcrest High School in Durban is among several instances of racism and discrimination in South African schools that have come to light this year.
Matric pupils at Good Hope Seminary High School in Cape Town held protests on 16 and 17 May after an alleged altercation between two learners, wherein one called the other a racial slur, according to an eNCA report. Protesters claimed this was among several instances of racism and discriminatory comments directed at black pupils.
An educator at Fish Hoek High School in Cape Town was suspended after allegedly using racist terms during a lesson on 23 May, according to a Daily Maverick report by Victoria O’Regan. It was brought to light by an Instagram account, set up a day after the incident, detailing learners’ experiences of racism and discrimination at the school.
The annual sporting derby day between Michaelhouse and St John’s College was cancelled after a racial slur incident on 27 May. During a first-team hockey match, a Michaelhouse player allegedly used a racial slur against a St John’s College opponent, according to a News24 report.
A teacher had to be escorted from Fred Norman Secondary School in Johannesburg on 15 August, after parents forcibly tried to remove her for allegedly telling a pupil’s grandmother that she did not like coloured people.
The confrontation between the grandmother and the teacher was captured in a viral video, according to a TimesLIVE report. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.