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