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SA’s racist schools: An opportunity for a deeper reflection on race

Yonela Diko is currently the Spokesperson of the African National Congress (ANC) in the Western Cape. Prior to assuming his role in the ANC, he worked in various companies in the private sector. Between 2007-2009 he worked for one of the Leading Retirement Fund Companies, NBC Holdings as an Employee Benefits Consultant. After that he joined the Corporate Strategy and Industrial Development (CSID), an Economic Research Unit housed under the School of Economics at Wits University. He did his BCom degree at the University of Cape Town majoring in Economics.

School segregation in South Africa, like everything else, was created by people who believed that biologically and culturally, white people are superior to black people and black inferiority was stamped from the beginning. After 60 years of apartheid and 350 years of colonialism such long-held historical ideas about black people, which had been turned into policy and law, could not have been miraculously expunged in one day, on 27 April 1994. What is needed is real and genuine reconciliation, and not one done for self-interest and preservation.

Post-1994, clear-cut long-held racist ideas, as has happened elsewhere after black legal subjugation, have been replaced by what many scholars call assimilationism – a subtle shift to less overt segregation of cultural and class superiority, so that in some way, black people must be made to believe that by doing certain things, by being a certain way, attending certain schools, belonging to certain societies and cliques, adopting a certain speech pattern, they will somehow attain this cultural and class superiority and finally deal with this cultural and class superiority as they attain its loftiness.

So when a geography teacher at St Johns College tells a black child that he is on his way to attaining white intelligence, the teacher is advancing a widely held view by a huge section of the population, including some black people, who after years of pounding, have come to accept this cultural superiority and go to great lengths to spend their hard-earned rands trying to attain it. During apartheid and especially after, there has been this growing number of black middle-class parents who have thought that by doing certain things, taking their kids to certain schools, encouraging them to adopt certain behavioural patterns, pushing them to attain this higher cultural being modelled in white, they can get the keys to success in a world that promotes white and disdains black.

Ibram X. Kendi, author of one of the most consequential books on race ever written, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas, published in 2016, is extremely critical of this idea of “uplift suasion”, the idea that blacks have to be model people to disprove racist ideas or be seen in a better light by whites.

Black South Africans, as they did during apartheid, are supposed to trip all over each other knocking on white private schools doors, which like everything else, they consider the best schools, no matter how they are treated. In South Africa, we have over 23,000 schools and just above 1,650 private schools. These schools are so sought-after by blacks, most of them have long waiting lists with kids not even born yet already enrolled for 2030.

This desperation by black parents, which is very evident to white principals and teachers, can only lead to one thing – the conviction by white people that maybe their culture is superior and even if they abuse us, we will come back for more, because we want to be them. You can do anything to a desperate person who thinks you hold the keys to their greatness.

Here are the facts, as empirically collected by University of Florida’s Kendi. Racist policies were created out of self-interest. And so, they have usually been voluntarily rolled back out of self-interest. The idea that post-1994, anti-racists and activists have steadily educated and been persuaded away from their racist ideas and policies sounds great. But this is not supported by any evidence or observation. White people became part of the political contract of 1994 out of political and economic self-interest – not because of educational or moral awakening. The Constitution did not spell the doom of racists and their ideas. The racist policies simply evolved. There has been a not-so-glorious progression of racism, and educational persuasion has failed to stop it, and we have failed to recognise it.

Kendi dismisses the strategy that has been used by racial reformers of educational persuasion. The idea that ignorance and hate lead to racist ideas, which lead to racist policies. As a strategy for racial progress, educational persuasion has failed, because it has been predicated on the false construction of the race problem: In fact, self-interest leads to racist policies, which lead to racist ideas, leading to all the ignorance and hate.

How can it be then that proud black parents would trample over each other to put the future of their children in the hands of people committed to racist policies, or people who sail with the wind of self-interest. Do they think being in those schools may give white people a change of heart about their cultural superiority and black inferiority?

The more black people think they are uplifting themselves by chasing after the white establishment, the more they will find themselves on the receiving end of a racist backlash. Uplift, as a strategy for racial progress, has failed. Black individuals must stop worrying about what other people may think about them. Black people are not responsible for those who hold racist ideas.

Activists, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have requested or demanded that white South Africans sacrifice their own privileges for the betterment of black people. And yet, this strategy is based on one of the oldest myths of the modern era, a myth continuously produced and reproduced by racists and anti-racists alike: that white people would lose and not gain in the reconstruction of an anti-racist South Africa. It has been true that racist policies have benefited white people in general at the expense of black people (and others) in general. That is the story of racism, of unequal opportunity, in a nutshell. But it is also true that a society of equal opportunity, without a top 1% hoarding the wealth and power, would actually benefit the vast majority of white people much more than racism does.

The first thing that must happen then is that white people must accept that they have not really changed their views save out of self-interest, especially for self-preservation in 1994 when they did a 180-degree, which over time is unravelling, showing their deep-seated beliefs and entitlements of cultural superiority and black pathology. If we can accept that, we can then begin the real and lasting journey of transformation. A denial of racism by white people, while showing a gulf of an emotional disconnect when a person of colour articulates their experience, as with the principal of St Johns High who decided to protect his geography teacher by dismissing and reducing the black experience, until a black MEC intervened, shows that in fact self-interest, which is their only guide, cannot connect with the actual lived emotions of black experience, even for those whites who may claim to fight for a black cause.

The self-interest and self-preservation however go beyond the schooling environment. Right in the honeymoon of our miracle, Thabo Mbeki, then Deputy President, in 1998, suggested the country have a “solidarity tax”, a transfer of resources from the privileged side of our country to the other side. This would be akin to what happened in East/West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. West Germany, richer and well-off decided to transfer billions of resources yearly over to West Germany in what was termed “Solidarity tax” in order to help East Germany catch up in development and standard of living. This did wonders for Germany both economically and to hold together a society previously divided. The suggestion was objected to and was ultimately abandoned. It was seen as unreconciliatory and against the spirit of the time.

What is needed is real and genuine reconciliation, and not one done for self-interest and preservation. Without this, we are going to experience a growing number of racist incidences over time and without a doubt, there will be one incident that will burst the tinder and it will be too late then to ask for genuine reconciliation; the opportunity would have passed.

At the end of that journey will be a moment when South Africans will realise that the only thing they thought was wrong with black people was that they thought something was wrong with black people. DM


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