On 9 November 2020 we witnessed ugly clashes outside Brackenfell High School. The violence ensued between parents/residents and the EFF. The EFF was protesting against alleged racism at the school after reports of a privately arranged masquerade ball/matric farewell attended by only white matric pupils.
You can Google to read all the allegations and counter allegations that make up the list of disputed facts.
I do believe however, that beneath the disputed facts, there lies truth that invites our reflection and action if we ever hope to live liberated lives in this country. I name four for you to consider:
The first truth: Racism is real
Regardless of whether the organised event was a masquerade ball or matric farewell.
Regardless of whether the organised event was privately arranged, or not.
Regardless of whether the school knew anything about it, or not.
Regardless of whether the invitation was open to all, or not.
Regardless of whether the invitation was open to 100 pupils due to Covid-19 limits, or not.
If it is true that out of 254 students, the 42 learners who attended were all white, it is as troubling as it is revealing. Whether by exclusive invitation or not, this points to a fractured and divided community based on the colour of one’s skin. It boggles the mind to even think that after sharing five years of high school together, and all that that entails, that a group of 42 students can get together who just happen to form a homogenic racial group. This is surely true regardless of the reason for the gathering.
In our country and with our history it would be an act of profound delusion to suggest that this occurrence is a mere coincidence and not rooted in explicit or implicit racism. This is especially true for a previously white-only school because as is often the case, even though the student body may have changed, the systems, staff and spirit of the school may not have changed at all. In other words, the culture of the school continues to demarcate white space.
For this reason, white people in particular are encouraged to walk humbly with a willingness to stop, listen, learn and grow, when challenged about institutional racism. No different to how men are encouraged to walk humbly in relation to the reality of sexism in society.
The second truth: Denial delays healing
For the school to say that “it is not racist” is denialism. In this country the most truthful starting point is that racism is present, not absent. We may not want to be racist. Our rules and regulations on paper may not be racist. Our motto and value statement may even be written in rainbow ink, but still the reality of racism in our institutions is real more often than not. In other words, it is more honest to assume that racism exists within the institutions of our society. This includes all institutions be they: education, religious, business, sport, entertainment, etc.
This assumption that various levels of racism exist is not prejudicial. Instead, it is no different to assuming that children from a broken marriage will have various levels of inner trauma. Surely this is the logically responsible place to start. If there is no evidence of such trauma, then of course we rejoice and welcome the exception, but always knowing this is an exception.
Most importantly, what counts is not whether the governing body declares the school free of racism, but whether the black learners attending the school declare the school to be free of racism. Their voice provides the reality check. And their voice via social media declared that racism is real and so is the school’s denialism.
The liberation and healing of the school will depend on how they wrestle with this truth. I can hear an echo from 2,000 years past saying: “Truly if you want to save your school you will lose it, but if you are willing to give your school away to the truth, it will be given back to you stronger and more beautiful than ever.”
The third truth: Freedom to protest, protects freedom
The EFF is correct to highlight every instance of racism. We all need to be doing this. People may call them opportunists or worse, but people turn to them for a reason. People trust that the EFF will bring attention to their grievance of racism. We need to ask why other parties and institutions do not have this reputation. At best we may write a press statement condemning this or that racist act, but the shameful truth is that many of us seldom put our feet on the ground in protest to stop racism in its tracks.
The right to protest is a fundamental human right. Our freedom depends on it. This is true regardless of who is protesting and for what. Therefore, people’s right to protest must be protected. This includes creative acts of non-violence aimed at exposing the systemic violence of injustice. It may be disruptive, yet it should always remain free of threat, intimidation and violence.
The fourth truth: Violence breaks down what it promises to build up
The moment protest becomes violent, it diminishes the human dignity of everyone involved – victim and perpetrator. It says, “our issue is more important than your life”. Violence also deflects from the essence of the issue being protested. It provides a reason for people not to listen to the grievances and greater reason for people to stand in opposition. It offers an easy excuse for a violent retaliatory crackdown (violence begets violence).
Further, anything that may be achieved through intimidation, threat and violence will have to rely on intimidation, threat and violence forever to be upheld. This is not sustainable. Violence, therefore, sows the seed of its own destruction. Ultimately violence fails to create a peaceful and just future as it promises, for violence cannot chase out violence. For these reasons, threat, intimidation and violence will be the undoing of any who rely on such means. To put this another way: the moral arc of the universe bends away from violence.
The EFF’s modus operandi often includes threat, intimidation and violence yet interestingly, it has, within its own history, examples of how futile this is as well as how fruitful creative non-violence is. For example, in April 2011 Julius Malema arrived at court surrounded by bodyguards sporting red ties and carrying semi-automatic rifles. It did him no good. It simply confirmed his loose-cannon status and justified the quest to silence and discipline him.
Later that same year, however, on 28 October, Malema together with about 1,000 followers walked from Johannesburg to Pretoria to protest for economic freedom. It was a disciplined and peaceful protest and all the more powerful for being so. The issue of economic freedom was kept sharply in focus. There was nothing to distract the world from the message that the violence of poverty and inequality must be urgently dealt with. This protest action instantaneously won Malema praise and renewed respect from even his harshest critics.
The violence from the residents/parents of Brackenfell was ugly, immature and self-defeating. Their violence exposed the truth of their character. Their violence added validity to the very allegations they were so vehemently in denial of. Any case they may have thought they had, eroded the second they landed the first punch and threw the first stone. That is what violence does.
Violence robs the violent of any moral authority they may have had. While promising victory, violence seals defeat. While promising security, it makes one vulnerable. While promising to build up, it undermines. The parent’s shameful violent behaviour now completely overshadows everything. They have lost all credibility that they may have had. What they thought would make people listen to them, is now the reason why they will not be listened to.
Finally, violence by its nature cannot easily be compartmentalised. In other words, if people turn to violence to solve problems in the streets then it is likely that they will turn to violence to solve problems in the home. Once we endorse violence somewhere, we end up endorsing violence everywhere. There is an intersectionality between all forms of violence. And children who witness their parent’s resorting to violence in search of a solution (as some of the matric students of Brackenfell did last week) are sadly more prone to do so themselves. In this way violence passes from generation to generation like a bloody hand-me-down. DM
"We are surrounded by story." ~ Alice McDermott