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Lesson to learn: Questions on transformation can be prejudice disguised as intellectual debate


Lwando Xaso is an attorney, writer and speaker . She is the founder of Including Society. She is also the author of the book, ‘Made in South Africa, A Black Woman’s Stories of Rage, Resistance and Progress’. Follow her at @includingsociety.

The reason the question ‘Why is transformation necessary?' is problematic is that it fails to question how schools were complicit in contributing to the inequality that haunts our country.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Every now and again, I get requests from schools to speak on transformation. This has been more prevalent since the global Black Lives Matter reckoning of 2020, which sparked a localised iteration on our shores, Black Student Lives Matter, against elite private schools.

Not too long ago I received such a request to speak at a private school. The theme that was provided was “Why is transformation necessary?” I could have suggested my own theme to the school, as I sensed their openness, but I decided I wanted to respond to the theme as it was presented. My first question was: Who is asking why transformation is necessary? Is it the school management or the parents? What is the colour of the voice? Is it an individual or communal voice asking the question? Is it a voice assuming responsibility and accountability? Or is it an obfuscatory voice? Can the person who has to ask the question be trusted to undertake a self-directed course of change? What values are reflected in the question asked? And, more concerningly, what impact would the question have on the listeners, especially the black children attending the school?

The question I was asked to respond to reminded me of a lunchtime lecture I attended when I was a student at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, in the United States. A very white school in a very white town in a very white state. The theme of the lecture was “What is the virtue of diversity?” This question was being asked in connection with a case that was going to be heard by the US Supreme Court of Appeal on affirmative action, which in the United States is largely underpinned by diversity.

In this case, the voice asking the question was white, Federalist and Republican. And the majority of the listeners venturing an answer to the question were white. I was one of two black people in the room and upon hearing the question and the ensuing dialogue, I was saddened to tears.

The thought that struck me was that if they are arguing against the virtue of diversity, they are in fact arguing for separate but (un)equal. Personally, I felt that if diversity has no virtue, then by consequence the presence of me and those like me had no value.

To me, the question was antagonising because it was prejudice disguised as intellectual debate. Contrary to the white voice that asked the question, I do not think, and most African-Americans do not believe, that affirmative action is justified by diversity. From the black perspective, affirmative action is about “the compelling interest in remedying past discrimination and/or in addressing the present social condition of unsustainable inequality” – not about diversity. And certain rationales for diversity and inclusion can serve white interests in the manner in which they can enable change in small and palatable doses.

As with affirmative action, we need to always historicise transformation. If one is steeped in history then the question answers itself. The reason the question “Why is transformation necessary?” is problematic is that it fails to question how these schools were complicit in contributing to the inequality that haunts our country.

The more interesting question is what history parents and schools are passing on to their children. Transformation is necessary because we made a constitutional pact to rebuild our country with a more ethical imagination underpinned by the African value of ubuntu.

The question I left my attentive audience with is: What future do you want to live in? If we grow in the questions we ask, then in what direction is your school growing? And are you dedicated to creating a world your children will applaud? DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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  • Stephen T says:

    Very fancy way of saying:
    – you must feel guilty for a crime you didn’t commit.
    – you must feel guilty for a characteristic you cannot change.
    – you must feel guilty for daring to even think of questioning why you are made to feel guilt.

    I don’t buy this drivel. Those championing the “diversity is strength” narrative never seem to be able to prove anything beyond their feelings, lived experience (whatever that means), or that there are insidious forces hiding in the shadows waiting to oppress them at a moment’s notice. Paranoid much?

    Nonsense. That which can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

    • Bridget Henderson says:

      Interesting that was your takeaway.
      I appreciated Lwando’s perspective and experience which is different from mine. Her considered questions of “who is asking” etc are thought provoking and probably challenging to those asking the question.
      To me that’s a good thing.
      Maybe it’s time to ask yourself why you responded so strongly.
      Don’t shoot the messenger!

      • Stephen T says:

        Questions like “who is asking” or “what is the colour of the voice” tells me that all she is doing, without hesitation, is defaulting to her pre-existing prejudices regarding certain races or groupings. It is much easier to invoke guilt (and thus silence) by attacking only a generalised collective rather than any one individual. Attacking an individual is very likely to meet with resistance and rightly so, but attacking them by proxy through things they cannot change (like skin colour) is a devious way to “win”, and very much a characteristic of the radical authoritarian Left wing.

        It seems that in her view, there must always be a race, colour, or ‘type’ behind every interaction because her line of argument is totally dependent on a very binary thing: either you agree with everything she says or you are her moral enemy. There can be no neutral questions. There is no grey area. Again this is very typical of the radical authoritarian Left wing stance.

        Her line of reasoning in this particular article is disturbingly similar to a certain Socialist Worker’s Party in Germany in the early 1930’s.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Hard one.

    Freedom of association versus regulated integration.

    Sunday braai. Will the braai work better if every braai has an enforced attendance composition? My question applies as much to a Soweto braai as a Houghton braai. Would forcing the ‘black’ braai to have two white guests make the braai better for everybody?

    I do get that a great many people need to live in more shoes in other to be better adjusted people.

    Forcing the issue will however never work. It works better when life creates the gap where Sipho’s parents have to get used to Sipho’s girlfriend Annemarie’s family. And hey – they’re actually nice people!

  • Wilhelm van Rooyen says:

    Why is transformation necessary? Because there are people who will in their minds never consider themself equal to others, who will always have this victim mentality. They will forever require some or other support. I have a deep feeling of pity for them – it must be terrible living life in this way, waiting for the next handout.

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