First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
This Youth Month has begun with yet another report of deeply entrenched racism at an elite South African school. Singo Ravele, a pupil at Cornwall Hill College in Pretoria, a school previously described as prestigious but which is in fact dubious and regressive, stood at the school’s own podium and emotionally relayed the racism she has suffered at the school from the time she was in Grade 4.
In front of the Gauteng education MEC, Ravele shared a testimony that no child should have to share, on the real price of admission to Cornwall Hill College. We attend these schools hoping they will take us as far as they have taken white people. We hope these schools will not only change our lives but the lives of our children’s children and their children thereafter. The pursuit of quality education promises a quality life and esteem in society.
I have no doubt that if I walked around the Cornwall Hill College campus I would find all the silent ways (never mind the overt racism spewed by careless teachers) in which black children are alienated and demeaned. Spaces which testify to the alienation of its black students. The silent racism of a school’s physical design, its uniforms, its school song, its art, and its food is just as suffocating as the overt racism. It is truly tragic that the path to a supposedly better life is the same path that first has to dominate you, break you down and disappear you until you are as close to white as possible.
When black children are left in the hands of uncaring institutions, what is the impact not only on their psyches but that of their families, communities and generations to come? What is the price of admission? Our esteem, our health, our wholeness, our confidence, our ambition? Ravele and many like her should be stressing over maths homework, an overwhelming but compelling extracurricular programme, and frivolous high school gossip. Instead they are navigating the treacherous obstacle course that is institutional racism. She and her peers deserve so much better than that. My deep sense of sadness evoked by these realities is that of having to helplessly witness a loss of childhood. Instead of speaking up from that podium, what else could Ravele be pursuing that her white counterparts have the luxury of pursuing and securing? What has Cornwall Hill College robbed Ravele of? It can never be quantified.
Ravele’s story is not an isolated incident, as shown by the 15 black parents who held a silent protest at the Pretoria Country Club over the lack of transformation at the private school. I doubt that I will ever stop being appalled by schools that fail to protect children and which also fail to realise that they are located in a majority-black country whose history demands of them reformation. At this point any school accused and guilty of what Cornwall Hill College is guilty of cannot claim ignorance. The School’s transformation and diversity committee was only established in 2020, coincidentally the year of reckoning for elitist schools. Was the committee only established in reaction to the global Black Lives Matter movement triggered by the murder of George Floyd? In the light of all the desperate testimonies we have heard from black pupils across the country throughout the last 25 years of our constitutional democracy, we can ask: What took so long? And why is it still taking so long?
Our historical and social context has everything to do with the current state of these elite white South African schools. I believe change is possible, but I believe you have to want to change because it is the right thing to do, not out of fear of retribution. Every day I try not to grow more doubtful that these institutions really are capable of changing beyond merely exploiting the presence of black pupils as evidence of their supposed transformation while simultaneously punishing them for their blackness. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.
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