Defend Truth


Hard lessons from Hoërskool Jan Viljoen: The past is never dead. It’s not even past


Nontobeko Hlela worked as a political science lecturer at the then University of Durban-Westville, as an intelligence officer at the then SASS, and as the First Secretary: Political at the High Commission of South Africa in Nairobi from 2010 to 2014. She currently works as a Researcher for the South African office of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, a Global South think-tank with offices in Johannesburg, São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Delhi.

After all these years of democracy, we still have generations of children who are growing up in a white world, where the only voices of friendship and authority are coming from people that look like them.

The ongoing fracas at Hoërskool Jan Viljoen school in Randfontein is a reminder of just how far we still need to go as a country. This is not the first nor will it be the last occurrence of its kind. Almost 28 years since the end of apartheid racism still festers, and sometimes explodes. We should not be surprised. The US, where anti-black racism was birthed in the late 17th century, and from which South Africa suckled, is still one of the most racist countries in the world.

The passing of time is no guarantee that racism will magically disappear. Slavery was abolished more than 150 years ago, and almost 60 years have passed since the Civil Rights Act was signed, but racism still rots the American dream.

There was a time when it seemed that history was steadily moving towards enlightenment. But in the last decade, there has been a decisive movement towards greater chauvinism in many countries, including India, Brazil and the US. In the US a newly energised right-wing movement, led partly by Donald Trump and the conservative evangelical churches that supported him, made it acceptable to be a white supremacist. It enabled racists, anti-Semites, and all manner of bigots to emerge from the private realm and spew their bile into the public sphere.

The great American writer William Faulkner famously said that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This observation seems painfully true for black people when we are told that slavery, colonialism, and apartheid are over and that we must just get over it, stop complaining and move on. These kinds of attitudes ignore the fact that there has never been material restitution and that the everyday fabric of society continues to be woven in ways that make black people “the other”.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Despite the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust being within living memory, anti-Semitism is simply not acceptable outside of the lunacy of far-right circles. In Germany, there are all kinds of public monuments to remind people of the Holocaust, school children are all taught about this history and any expression of anti-Semitism or fascist ideas is illegal.

In South Africa, we never did the kind of work that was done in Germany after the Holocaust. We went to bed in apartheid South Africa and woke up in a democratic country. We were suddenly told that we were living in a “rainbow nation” and that “social cohesion” rather than justice and understanding would mean that the past would really be the past.

It is extremely frustrating for black people that while some forms of oppression are taken seriously, the same recognition is not extended to us and that in white-dominated spaces we are so often told to “get over it and move on!”

No one should tell black people to forget about racism and “move on”. Unless you have the emotional scars and the inherited trauma of generations that have lived in a world that didn’t see them as fully human, you do not have the right to tell people to “get over it”.

So, when children say they are experiencing racism at school, our duty as a society, and as parents is to listen to them with care and kindness, and to hear what they have to say. Our first instinct should not be to simply deflect, refute and excuse. We should understand that racism is not always a matter of deliberate intention. Sometimes what is meant and what is received can be two very different things, especially in a society where many people with power in certain spaces refuse to put themselves in others’ shoes, to feel their pain, understand, and truly appreciate what they have been through.

One of the many failures to reckon with race after apartheid was the continued indulgence of Afrikaans-medium schools. Given the history of this country and the role that Afrikaans, originally a black language, came to play as a language of oppression during apartheid, this was a tacit nod to continue the exclusion of certain people.

It was a means to allow racism to continue to flourish unchallenged under the guise of “linguistic diversity”. Most Afrikaans-medium schools have very few if any black children in the entire student body. Almost all the teachers and support staff are white. The only black people at most of these schools are the ground staff, cleaners, and security personnel. In this context, the informal curriculum is clear: white people have knowledge; white people are important, while black people are only here to perform menial labour. This is the essence of Verwoedian racism.

You have white Afrikaans children, with white Afrikaans parents, going to a white Afrikaans school, with other white Afrikaans children, being taught by white Afrikaans teachers and playing with white Afrikaans children. On weekends you go for braais and playdates with other white Afrikaans children and their families, and on Sundays, you go to a white Afrikaans church. At home, as at school, the only black people in this life are on the periphery, menial workers who are ordered in Afrikaans to do this or that.

After all these years of democracy, we still have generations of children who are growing up in a white world, where the only voices of friendship and authority are coming from people that look like them. Their entire world looks nothing like the South Africa in which they live and in which they will one day have to participate. In IsiZulu there is a saying that says ukhuni lugotshwa lusemanzi, childhood is when you instil the values and teach children.

If we miss the formative years of our children to foster an inclusive and democratic South Africanness and for our children to learn about each other and be at ease with each other, how do we hope to ever be rid of the stench of racism? If we do not learn from the German model and very proactively build a culture of anti-racism, how will we stop racism being passed on generation after generation?

This is not to say that Afrikaans or Afrikaans-medium schools are the only contributors to the maintenance of the status quo. A lot of the English-medium former Model-C schools now have many black children. Some are all black. But at their core, many of these schools have not fundamentally changed. As has been argued before, black children may be a numerical majority but remain a cultural minority. Black children at these schools must assimilate to the dominant culture or they will have a difficult time.

This can be seen in the numerous ways in which black children, especially girls are policed at these schools. Black and white girls can wear their hair in the same way, yet only the black girls will get into trouble. The black girls will get red-carded for a brand-new school dress or skirt and told it’s too short or tight — with no regard given to the fact that their bodies may be different. Black women often have wider hips, bigger bums, and breasts but they are expected to conform to a stereotype of a flat chest and bums and straight hips, which is assumed as the norm, a norm required to wear the uniforms correctly. This is not only embarrassing for the children but also leads to black girls being ashamed of their bodies. This is not just a South African phenomenon; the US is rife with the same policing of black girls.

Black people who have been able to study, become professionals and contribute to society find that success doesn’t allow them to escape racism. This is not just a matter of the relentless burden of Black Tax. Our community and estate WhatsApp groups constantly interrupt our private space with pings signifying the next dose of casual racism.

People feel that it is correct and proper to, in 2022, ask for recommendations for “a kitchen girl” or “a garden boy”. People see nothing wrong in talking about people in their neighbourhood who might be having a traditional ceremony and need to slaughter an animal as being “barbaric”, yet the same people see no contradiction in having a braai at their home. It is assumed that black people are “suspect” — WhatsApp groups are full of warnings of “bravo males”.

For many white people, there is no reason to change their institutions because that is how things are and have always been. It is assumed that it is incumbent on black people to change and fit in. There is no sense that black people are being asked to wound themselves, day after day, simply to get an education. The institutions that were designed with the specific purpose of excluding black people seldom show a willingness to change on their own volition.

One reason for this is that racism is learned behaviour. Nurture is the determining factor. Children are not born racists but learn it at home and in their communities. The state cannot intervene in this private space, but it certainly can and should intervene in the school system and, perhaps learning from the German model, entrench anti-racism as a core principle of schooling and other aspects of public life.

Just as an isiZulu or seSotho speaking family, or the growing French-speaking communities in Johannesburg, must educate their children in English and participate in the real South Africa so too must Afrikaans-speaking families. The reality is that outside of the Western Cape, Afrikaans-medium schools are and will remain white or white-dominated schools. This is not acceptable. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Coen Gous says:

    Just wonder if you’ve been to this school, spoked to children of all races, and count them for that matter. How many are White, and how many are Black? How thorough was your research? Whom started what? This article of yours is nothing but an article of blatant racism against Whites, regardless of their believes. Just wonder why you did not bring in the other two races, Indians and Coloureds. Or maybe you just a Malema supporter, who will hate anything that is not African Black. Lady, despite your education and your experience, you have learned nothing.

  • Craig B says:

    Racism will become a bigger problem as the other social problems keep growing as they have been. People need to insulate themselves from it and not engage it in any shape or form. Best to avoid all public places and gatherings that could evolve into violent outbreaks and withdraw children from any such places.

  • David Bristow says:

    There is no doubt that racism is “alive and well” in many white South African circles, even communities. and it is sad. However, it is now being fueled by the runaway government corruption that has rendered nearly every municipal and state structure broken. So the old idea that “they” could not run a beer festival successfully, are taken as case proved.

  • monica haddad says:

    Maybe if we scrap the word Racism and start using Cultural Diversity peace will follow

  • Hans Wendt says:

    It get soooooo tiring having to read the same cliches over and over again how black people have to suffer and live under the yoke of White/ Afrikaans oppression. If there are communities who want to live, work, pray in a certain cultural way, let them. And if the schools in that community don’t believe in the tokkaloshe, slaughtering goats and cows on the lawn, or do ancestral worship, then send your child to another school That’s what democracy is all about.
    If you travel through SA, most people of all races just want to get on with their lives and work together to create a better future for all. Then there are those who have to keep stirring the cauldron of hate, of division. They are usually the racists, the bigots, the destroyers. Just at those politicians of the ANC, the EFF and a whole bunch of uptight political “scientists”.

  • Martha Errens says:

    Well written article. It is true that racism is taught or copied at home. There is no real understanding about privilege and that even a poor white child has privileges. Yes it is difficult today with mass corruption which I cannot understand and unfortunately that does not help with the argument. I think, a starting point will be, if we can just have respect for different cultures. The only point I question is the part where the writer claims that Afrikaans was a originally a black language. I think maybe she should read up on that fact

  • Martha Errens says:

    Well written article.
    The only point I question is the part where the writer claims that Afrikaans was a originally a black language. I think maybe she should read up on that fact

  • Paul Zille says:

    ‘…. there has never been material restitution and …. the everyday fabric of society continues to be woven in ways that make black people “the other”.’

    I should have stopped reading right there.

  • Judy-Marie Smith says:

    Exellent article, thank you. Many children, when they grow up, will not thank adults for handing them the burden of having to see the world in the racialised way that their parents were taught to see it. Children truely don’t see the world like that – not to say that they are ‘colour blind’- it is just not an issue for them. We steal from their humanity by teaching children to start to ‘Other’ people – and it is not something that can be undone. If they don’t just accept it, they will spend the rest of their lives checking themselves, analysing the many ways in which they express the unconcious bias. This is a big part of what anti-racism is about for a white person, and why this article is helpful and important. White parents should take note: children don’t want your bias and prejudice, they don’t enter the world that way – it is terrible gift to receive.

  • Neil Parker says:

    There is a tendency for articles such as these to be a little one-sided. In my area I personally know there are rabble rousers running around inciting all sorts of nonsense in what – hitherto – have been well-run successful schools. White teachers in such schools are very tired of being abused (by school children) as racist, colonialist and , and , and … Maybe give it some more careful thought/balance and quit painting everything bad as white, white , white! We’re all in the ‘soup’ together and if perhaps you suddenly ‘woke up’ in a rainbow nation , now is your chance to actually craft it with wisdom and understanding.

    I take your point on America but we are not America and in fact I believe we are actually way better than America in terms of race relations in general. We can and should set the tone for the world but instead we too have regressed with politicians banging their drums as loudly as possible over race-related incidents whilst corruption rages unabated.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Interesting that there has been no detail on what actually happened. There seems to be an automatic assumption that white children were to blame. This victim culture propagated by a minority of pseudo intellectuals perpetuates a sense of inferiority in some black South Africans. Focus your energy on fixing a broken government rather than stirring up emotions to no good end.

  • Antonette Rowland says:

    An important article about a serious issue, but a much deeper insight into the history
    including of the particular area would shed more light on the way forward too.

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