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Pretoria Girls High: A microcosm of what’s wrong with South Africa


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

Pretoria Girls High, like the turmoil across our country, is a symptom of a bigger challenge we face in South Africa.

“The school was founded in the earnest hope that here girls of different races and different denominations might meet in that commonwealth of letters which gave Erasmus and Shakespeare to the world.”

Edith Aitken, founder of Pretoria Girls High School, 1902.

What would Pretoria Girls High founder Edith Aitken say about black pupils being ordered to chemically straighten their hair, more than a century after she said this, and 22 years into the democracy in which we believed we had buried racism?

Make no mistake, today this is an upper middle-class school catering for the daughters of our elites. The students here are designed to be the crème de la crème of our future society. But what happens when the old and new cultures clash?

Pretoria Girls High, like the turmoil across our country, is a symptom of a bigger challenge we face in South Africa. We negotiated a peaceful transition because we had the opportunity to turn away from a scorched earth of a racial civil war that would have cost the lives of millions of our people, both black and white. It was the right choice. But racism has never died in South Africa.

While the political transition was nothing short of a miracle, the economic transition and the land issue have remained unresolved and still deeply entrenches the racism and white privilege of the past. Black economic empowerment has delivered too little, to too few.

And even in this microcosm of an exclusive girls’ school of the “new South Africa”, there’s a push back to mould our country in the image of the “old South Africa”. It is this built-in racism that the Fallist movement is fighting, this crushing realisation that the old system has co-opted us into accepting their rules and codes of conduct that come with forced poverty, inequality and racism towards the black majority.

Racial hate is a real issue in South Africa. We have not shed the hate of successive colonial regimes of the Dutch in 1652 and then the English, in the latter part of the following century. All were highly racist and exclusionary. Cecil John Rhodes, the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, was a bigoted robber baron who famously captured this ethos:

“We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labour that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories.”

Only now, the system needs a class of trained local apparatchiks and an education pattern that continues to replicate this economic model that they rule us through. That is the new apartheid that divides the haves – the 1% – from the majority, the 99%. There is a momentum for us to conform.

I grew up in racist South Africa. I was angry. I was humiliated. I felt inferior. I was almost broken. I was defined as a non-white, an inferior person, in the lexicon of apartheid. The tragedy is that I indeed felt inferior to white people, just as many people of colour still feel, even today. I wanted either to fight those who were doing this to us, or to give up and drift on to the inevitable path of social delinquency that many hopeless souls seek so often.

And yet, a bigger part of me wanted to do neither of those things; instead I dreamt of changing the matrix, altering the system.

I was fortunate. As a teenager I met Steve Biko and he changed me. He inspired us as the 1976 generation. We had nothing to lose but our chains.

We live in a world trapped by an economic system of neoliberalism that not only enslaves us, but also has brought the world we know to the edge of an ecological precipice. The imposition of “white western culture” as the norm perpetuates this economic system that thrives on our subjugation. White people are sophisticated. They have straight hair. That’s the norm. Only white people have blue eyes. That’s cool.

Racism is a huge distraction from challenging the injustice of this system. We spend so much time proving ourselves to those who regard us as inferior. Ask Caster Semenya. Even the widely respected New Yorker argued that she should be disqualified from the Olympics because her testosterone levels are too high. It’s always about our hair, the size of our nose, the colour of our skin. To ask to straighten one’s hair is exactly like asking you to scrub your skin because it’s too dark.


A few months ago I had to queue for my passport in Johannesburg. I love joining queues. You feel the pulse of the nation. With a great bunch of mainly young people (albeit all of colour), we were having an animated discussion on the state of the nation. One was a dancer who had trained in New York, another was a psychologist at Chris Hani Hospital and the other a personal banker at a major bank.

All of them asked, “You can go to the front of the queue, why don’t you?”

I responded, “I am very happy to stand here with you. And I learn so much about our country. Anyway, I am just a citizen now.”

As it was late in the afternoon, an official came out and warned us that they would stay open an additional 30 minutes to cater for the long line, but that was a cut-off point.

A white woman just behind me, already an earful of complaints piercing our rich discussion, deliberately raises her voice, “This country is going to the dogs. I have flown from London to come and pick up my passport. You are hopelessly inefficient.”

At which point, not knowing better, but happy at the level of service, I said, “Well, madam, if you don’t like our country and believe all has gone to the dogs, why do you want a South African passport?”

If eyes could shoot daggers I would have been dead on the spot. Ignoring her, I went into the offices, continued my conversation with the earnest young people, and picked up my passport. As I was leaving I was surrounded by a group of white women she had mobilised, who, spewing vitriolic racial abuse, shouted:

“Go back to Bangladesh. Go and die there you f***king ***.”

These were middle-class whites. These were angry, affluent women in fancy cars. In South Africa, just scratch skin deep and the vile explodes.

So one has to ask, where does this deep-seated concept of race come from?

We know today that homo sapiens is the only existing subspecies of hominid alive today. Collectively, all 7.3-billion of us as human beings have more in common than we have as differences. In fact, we are genetically 99.9% identical. As a concept, race had to be socially constructed because scientifically it doesn’t exist and especially cannot be read in the human genome.

It is cultivated in our heads, shaped by society and not born in our genes. In scientific terms, there is only one human race.

It was in this so-called period of “European enlightenment” of the 18th century, emanating from a cabal of white men posing as “philosophers”, that the pernicious introduction of race became accepted as a fact. It attempted to justify why people of European origin were superior and why they had the right and responsibility to civilise the rest of humanity as they saw fit.

It provided Europeans with the intellectual and moral authority for slavery, colonisation and a genocide against indigenous cultures. Its moral and religious proposition insinuated that those from western cultures could treat those who were not white as inferior, using them as commodities to be traded, used and abused.

That’s why I am attracted to the the political narrative on “decolonisation” advocated during the student uprisings in South Africa.

We are forced to discard our ancient knowledge, culture, language and history that we should be proud of. As Africans, we are made to feel inferior. We want to be Americans, Europeans, anything but who we are and yet we live in a continent that is the cradle of all humanity. We define ourselves as French speaking, English or Portuguese speaking. We embrace a learning system designed to delegitimise our very existence, our belief systems, our languages, our cultures, our cuisine and even our relationships with nature.

For us to deal with racism and its exclusion of the black majority we have to tackle this head on. In school governing bodies, in business, on the factory floor, on the farms, in universities and in public and private spaces. The solutions will not come from government or even parents. It will come from the next generation.

So I support the outrage that young people feel. You have to find your voice, your struggle and the future you want. But it needs a painstaking organising of our people so that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. And the only path to our total liberation has to be building a disciplined nonviolent movement of citizens which is unafraid to challenge the abuse of power from anyone.

The turmoil in our townships, universities and schools reflect the reality of our country. The majority of the next generation are restless and angry. Our current political leadership is out of touch. As the political centre implodes, the rise of an angry, young, unemployed underclass will make today’s protests look like a Sunday school picnic.

We cannot solve education without putting all of what is the root cause of the turmoil on the table for an honest conversation. And our starting point has to be the Constitution. Dikgang Moseneke, speaking on this as the Deputy Chief Justice, articulated brilliantly our dilemma, “Decolonisation is the total eradication of colonial legacies; this cannot be done on a judicial level. We merely uphold the Constitution. The work [of decolonising] will happen through the grassroots empowerment of South Africans.”

But we have to build a social consensus on that vision of the future.

So how do we build a new process of dialogue that will open the way to a road map on the contentious issues facing us as a country? How do we build trust? How can we listen to each other?

For those who love our country it means a return to the basics:

To my generation, learn to listen.

To leaders, learn to listen, to listen very carefully to the voices of the next generation.

For us as citizens, coming on the back of a local government election that shocked our political class, let us go back to our people. To organise them and to demand accountability and a leadership that serves our citizens and not the stomachs of a bloated predatory elite.

Should we fail in this, will the next shock be ours? DM


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