Two recent incidents of racism in the Free State reflect the ongoing impact of race on our society and on us as individuals – both black and white. It would be easy to write the story of the Supreme Court decision in the Prinsloo case as an example of the resilience of a black mother and her two daughters, or the story of the Wilgehof Primary School as a story about the courage of two young white students and their father. And indeed it is. But these are also stories about the disempowerment and the violation of the dignity of black people. It is in many ways, the story of our nation.
In a case dealt with by the South African Human Rights Commission involving a racist teacher at a primary school, two students aged 11 and 13 decided to speak out about what they had observed. When they first reported the matter to their father, he refused to believe them. “It’s true,” they insisted. The story was chilling. They told their father about a white teacher who walked around the classroom holding up a mirror to black students. The teacher would ask: “What do you see?” When the child replied, “I don’t know, sir,” the teacher responded by saying, “A baboon… you see a baboon!”
In our investigation of this case, 81% of the children we interviewed indicated that they had informed their parents about what was taking place. They told their parents about the old South African flag in the front of the classroom. They told their parents about the corporal punishment being used by their teacher. They told their parents that they were being called “kaffirs.” The parents did not act.
When the Human Rights Commission conducted interviews with the parents, many of them stated that their children were used to being called derogatory names, that it was a joke, and that they did not take the complaints from their children seriously.
So what made one parent decide to listen to his children and lodge a complaint with the Commission? In a school in which the overwhelming majority of teachers are white and the majority of students are black, it was the white parent of the white children who decided to take up the matter.
Black parents of black students who were targeted by the racist teacher remained silent.
This case can be contrasted with the recent Supreme Court decision in Prinsloo handed down on 15 July 2014. In this matter, a black mother was dropping off her two daughters at the University of the Free State when they were referred to as “fucking kaffirs” by a white man.
The court found in favour of the mother and her daughters confirming the Magistrate’s Court decision of crimen injuria and assault, and the sentence of a R6,000 fine or twelve months’ imprisonment, suspended for five years.
It would be easy to write the story of the Supreme Court decision in Prinsloo as an example of the resilience of a black mother and her two daughters, or the story of the Wilgehof Primary School as a story about the courage of two young white students and their father. And indeed it is. But these are also stories about the disempowerment and the violation of the dignity of black people.
In the Prinsloo case, the court noted that when the black parent was asked how she felt after being referred to using racist language, “she responded that she felt naked, worthless, belittled, dirty and that she felt like something had been taken away from her”.
It is therefore understandable that the black parents of students at Wilgehof Primary School remained silent.
The Human Rights Commission is called upon every day to deliberate on complex issues of race, gender and class in South Africa. We do so, recognising that even in contexts where we expect egalitarian relationships to flourish – in our places of learning like schools and universities – there remain deep historical wounds that must be factored into our findings. DM
Kayum Ahmed is the Chief Executive of the South African Human Rights Commission.