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17 December 2017 16:06 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

Racist schools: Merely fulfilling their design

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

Institutionalised racism in our education system is confidence-killing and soul-destroying. Twenty years after the end of Apartheid, our schools still breed white superiority and black inferiority.

“Six classrooms, six teachers, eight hundred pupils. This was the situation of Makana Higher Primary School in Gugulethu. There is nothing particularly noteworthy about it for this is how it was designed to be… All this was in keeping with the government’s three-tiered system of education whereby real and sincere attempts at education were made only for the white child, with the child classified ‘coloured’ getting consolation fare and the African child trained to be a human bonsai; dwarfed in mind and soul…”

The collection of stories in which Sindiwe Magona wrote these words was published over two decades ago, in 1991. This week, as the Human Rights Commission (HRC) found Leonard Mackay, a teacher at a Free State school, guilty of racism and hate speech, Magona’s words were on my mind.

Mackay called his black students monkeys and kaffirs, displayed the old South African flag in his classroom, and put pictures on his classroom walls that depicted black people with ape-like faces.

While Mackay’s acts might seem extreme, as Malcolm Gladwell famously illustrated in (his annoyingly popular bestseller) Outliers, dramatic events (like plane crashes) are seldom random. Instead, they represent a set of multiple failures, which culminate in a media-grabbing headline.

The egregious nature of the racism at Wilgehof Primary School is only possible because of the broader culture that supports it. Wilgehof points us to deeper problems of institutionalised racism within our schools. Being outraged at one racist school will not shift the structural problem, which is that our schools were designed to be thus.

There is, in Magona’s words, “nothing particularly noteworthy” about Wilgehof. Mackay’s behaviour forces us to look at the ways in which the current education system in South Africa continues to affirm the white child and to insist on an “African child trained to be a human bonsai.”

We all know that bussing students into rich white communities and providing more subsidies to poor township schools has done nothing to change the intended design of schools in South Africa. Our model of education - and this is not to deny the incredible efforts that have gone into revising curriculum and trying to create a single school system – hasn’t changed much since the Apartheid era.

The schools that our children attend today were designed – in terms of both infrastructure and ideology – for the white child. They were made to affirm the white child, to teach the white child that he is gifted and precious, that she is worthy of love and respect, and has a place in society.

These same schools were built to instil the opposite in black children. They were built to teach them that they are stupid and troublesome, that they are undeserving of love and attention. Our schools were erected as places where black children would learn that there was only limited space for them in South Africa.

When South Africans began to review the education system in the mid-1990s, we were in the throes of a national process of reconciliation. Indeed, the earliest years of the post-Apartheid era were heavy with emotion. As such, we seldom used the word ‘desegregation.’ So firmly fixed were we on the notion of unity that we chose to speak of reconciliation and forgiveness rather than of desegregation.

To talk of reconciliation is to talk of friendship, it is to forge common ground where some thought there was none. In the South African narrative, freedom has always been about love and redemption. But desegregation is about systems and structures and the tearing down of these things. It is about the mechanics and meaning of moving bodies from one location to another. This is not about love. At its heart, desegregation is about making claims of the entitlements some have grasped as their own.

In Model C schools that haven’t experienced wholesale white flight, and in the exclusive schools we call ‘private’, white learners have the opportunity to learn alongside black students. Their experience of multiracialism has been on their terms: in their neighbourhoods, with their teachers, using their cultural bases as a starting point for learning. They have benefitted from ‘diversity’ because the system as a whole is geared towards them even as the presence of blacks in their schools has allowed them to participate in a ‘reconciled’ system.

On the other hand, most black students have continued to attend segregated schools. The fact that theoretically a white child (or teacher) might wander into their school one day doesn’t change the reality that a black school is a lesser school.

We have accepted that theoretically, separate can be equal, but we seem not to have provided any evidence to back it up. Work needs to be done in their regard, but we do know that mixed schools aren’t great places for black kids in the new South Africa. As Wilgehof demonstrates so starkly, our school system remains true to its original purpose.

Concretely, in the last decade, a number of important and detailed studies have sought to understand teacher-student relationships through the lens of race.

These studies tell us that in mixed race schools, teachers are overwhelmingly white, coloured or Indian. They tell us that these teachers overwhelmingly favour white children. They nod in approval as white students speak. They encourage them by leaning in close to give them instructions. They remember small details about their families. They switch between English and Afrikaans when necessary, to help them better understand concepts.

These same teachers shout more often at their black students. They seat black students at the back of their classrooms. Where desks are attached in pairs they almost always pair same-race learners together. They almost never ask black students to be team leaders, and they often stop them from speaking African languages to one another on school grounds (forget as a secondary medium of instruction).

The Free State racism case and the data point to the same evidence. Access to education within schools is as grossly unequal as access to education across schools. Black kids in formerly white schools get a raw deal racially. They (and their white peers) continue to learn today what the system was designed to teach them; that real and sincere attempts at education are made only for the white child. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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