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Opinionista

#yousilenceweamplify has opened a vital space: But let’s talk about class, as well as race

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Leah Nasson is a Canon Collins scholar pursuing a PhD in Education at the University of Cape Town. She holds a BA (Hons) in History and Italian, an MA in Italian literature and a PGCE, all from the University of Cape Town. She currently works as a curriculum specialist, and served as Head of History at two independent schools over the course of her teaching career. She is on the editorial board of the journal Yesterday and Today and is a member of the executive board of the South African Society of History Teachers. Her research interests include teacher identity, social justice and the role of the state in the construction of national histories.

When we talk about transformation in schools in the leafy suburbs of Cape Town or other cities, do we talk about why it is that they remain so racially homogenous? Do we say what needs to be said: That equal access to education in a market economy can never result in e(quality) in education?

It was a deliberate decision, the decision I took – or rather have taken thus far – to sit quietly on the sidelines as #yousilenceweamplify has gained increasing traction. This has not been due to ambivalence, indifference, or selective amnesia. The irony of the public act of solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement shown by a number of elite schools on social media platforms recently was not lost on me, and neither should it have been on the institutions or individuals who opted to share that seemingly anodyne black square without anticipating some form of a response. It was, nevertheless, a deliberate decision, the decision I took – to remain silent.

Do not, for a moment, revere my silence as a political act, assuming that I respected where exactly my voice belonged. No, the answer is far more simple than that: I didn’t know what to say. As the comments started to stream in in response to the initial Instagram post, I could hear the familiar cadences of those (your?) voices, now white letters against a stark backdrop to a social media page. I could see them (you?) in the blue school uniform, standing up on the stage. Searching for a sense of the intimate and individual among the instrumental, I could conjure up images of their (your?) handwriting across a feint-lined page. No, it is not selective amnesia. 

I remember the memorandum, the early morning meetings, the facilitated discussions and the workshops. I remember (don’t we all?) the courage of a 17-year-old from Mitchell’s Plain, who stood up and narrated her journey from her home to school each morning during a discussion on race at a camp towards the end of 2018. As she performed her spontaneous piece of spoken word, freshly typed on her phone at the back of the hall, her daily dislocation on her way to the southern suburbs of Cape Town was mirrored by a change in the inflections of her voice: her vowels became clipped, her expression restrained, her adolescent slang anglicised. Yes, I remember it all.

On Tuesday evening, the messages started to come through. Ms Nasson, have you seen the comments on the school’s Instagram account? Have you seen what x wrote?? They’re naming and shaming! Are you going to say anything, write something at least? What do you think?   

We seem to do this a lot: ask each other what we think, before considering what it is that we feel. Perhaps it is time to start by first asking each other what we feel. Feelings, unlike arguments or debates, do not need to be subjected to the laws of scientific rationalism in order to be valid. Neither, too, do they need to be considered as fixed. Just as I am more than my feelings, so too are the young people on Instagram, forcing themselves to be heard in a public sphere. And so, too, are the teachers more than just their feelings, and more than the institutions in which they work, and more than the alleged actions of their colleagues – past and present. Just as I stand alongside some of my ex-students, I stand in equal solidarity with many of my ex-colleagues for whom the very fact of being on a particular staff body has resulted in the instrumentalisation of their individual agency to serve an – albeit just – political end.

Teachers are human beings. When individuals are “named and shamed”, as they have been over the course of the past week, a structural protest about institutional racism is immediately personalised. When a structural protest becomes personalised, the “staff” or the “executive” can no longer be used in its generality as representing omniscient power. This is an important, but oft-neglected, detail. On that “staff” or on that “executive” sits a teacher with whom you (and I) – speaking directly to all activist voices on the #yousilenceweamplify platform – may have had a particular relationship; whose crazy outfits you have looked forward to seeing every day; who once gave you a reassuring glance; or in whose presence you felt the closest to being free. Anonymise and you can weaponise. Call out people by their names and then you need to include me too.*

In his “Prison Notebooks”, written between 1929 and 1935, the Italian neo-Marxist philosopher and political theorist, Antonio Gramsci, wrote that, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” In elite ex-Model C and elite private schools, the old has been dying since the hair protests of 2016, and its death was already then long overdue. Just as has been the case over the course of the past week, it was young women, and not young men, who initiated the protests, which in 2020 seem to have taken a Covid-friendly turn.

Within 72 hours, it was a 24-page document written by the matric group of an elite all-boys Cape Town school which was being circulated and celebrated; the demands in that document are, I need to stress, not new. They have been written in memoranda and policies at a number of schools over the course of the past few years, a large proportion of which have been all-girls or co-educational institutions. Why, then, particularly at this moment, are the community Facebook pages of Cape Town’s southern suburbs commenting largely on the courage of young men?

Let us be conscious of whose voices are actually being heard in the #yousilenceweamplify movement, and whose voices are being oppressed. Let us acknowledge how cultural, linguistic and social capital defines the boundaries of this discussion. Let us qualify our nouns, and be wary of the very assumptions we seek to avoid. Not all ex-Model C schools serve as bastions of the Anglophone middle classes; similarly, not all private schools serve the wealthy. By conflating one with the other, we continue, as the late historian Tony Judt would have said, to be a society in which “we tell pleasant lies about ourselves”. And that “pleasant lie”, as we edge closer towards our third decade of democracy, is the belief that we can continue to talk about race and gender and marginalisation in schooling without ever addressing class.

As it is, elite ex-Model C and private schools play far too influential a role in the national consciousness of the middle class in this country. The very fact that, when hiring a car with my father – then over 60 – in Britain a few years ago, he was asked by a fellow South African of a similar age group in the queue (a self-confessed “Bosch Boy”) which school he attended, bears testament to this. You can only imagine the puzzled look on our compatriot’s face when his response was “Livingstone High on Lansdowne Road”. 

This tendency is more than just a curious cultural phenomenon, a fact of which as I am sure a large number of us are tacitly aware. That these schools can continue to occupy so much space in public interest, when their fees make them so inaccessible to the majority, is worthy of deeper reflection. When we talk about transformation in the leafy suburbs of Cape Town or their equivalents in other metropoles, do we talk about why it is that they remain so racially homogenous? Do we say what needs to be said: that equal access to education in a market economy can never result in e(quality) in education?

So, then, to go back to the question I have been avoiding all week. What do I think?

I think that schools, ultimately, should just be schools: playgrounds, teachers, assemblies, school plays and sports days. With tuck shops which sell fruit – and maybe, every now again, some Nik-Naks. I think that the library should be the centre of a school, not the Astroturf or the multi-million rand pavilion. I think that schools should cater for the 4+ to 18 or 19-year-old charges in their care until such time that a final examination is passed, and it is time for a student to move on. I think that schools should be sites of learning and discovery, where the values of integrity, social responsibility and community can be explored. I think that schools should be just schools.

I do not think that schools should be function venues for networking luncheons or cocktail parties. I do not think that schools should be weekly sports bars, where alumni and parents can order a subsidised Windhoek Draught while watching the U14B rugby team play their arch-rivals on a Saturday morning. I do not think that schools should be travel agents, organising overseas tours which regularly cost in excess of R50,000. I do not think that schools should have coffee shops offering chocolate croissants, mango smoothies and skinny cappuccinos. I do not think that schools should be wi-fi hotspots, or the most valued customer of the local iStore. And I definitely do not think school shops should have the monopoly on uniform sales, although I do appreciate the irony of price controls on blazers so they may be immune to the free-market principles of supply and demand and, no doubt, to the economic recession that lies ahead of us.

I think the #yousilenceweamplify movement has the potential to open up a space for a broader, and more rigorous reflection on schooling in South Africa. I think, for as long as we keep our focus on race and race alone, and on elite schools and elite schools alone, we are committing an act of symbolic violence on the majority who cannot speak, not least because they are usually unheard. For as long as the powerful voices – including my own in this piece – control the narrative of the debate, there will be no transformation in elite schools in this country. And – this may be a very bitter pill to swallow – for as long as institutions, non-profit organisations, and generous benefactors do not explore the potential that scholarship programmes can inadvertently do more harm than good, we risk, in five years’ time, rehashing the same argument again.

Another decade will pass, and we will continue to ignore the plight of the working class.

When, then, can the new ever be born? DM

*It must be acknowledged, however, Amaarah Ebrahim, one of the organisers of the #yousilenceweamplify movement, immediately responded to my questions that were raised about the need for anonymity and new protocols were put in place.

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