We still need to talk about racism in South African schools

You silence we amplify

On the 3rd of June 2020, in solidarity with movements against racial injustice in the United States of America, a group of past pupils of Herschel Girls School started an Instagram account to provide a platform for staff members, past pupils and current learners to share their experiences of institutional and interpersonal racism at the school. They named the platform YouSilenceWeAmplify to reflect the way these concerns and experiences had been dismissed or silenced before. Within a matter of days, this platform had made national headlines and people from across the country and a variety of schools were submitting their stories.

At the end of June 2020, a Cape Town based organisation called the Restitution Foundation decided to amplify this conversation. As an organisation invested in youth-driven mobilisation for racial and economic parity, the Foundation, heard the outcry by past pupils, staff members and current learners. The Restitution Foundation hosted a series of online dialogues (named after the YouSilenceWeAmplify platform), to ensure that this important conversation continued beyond the ever-changing news cycle. The Foundation curated five online dialogues focused on the experiences of alumni and experts in education across four different provinces.

In the Western Cape schools dialogue, one of the panelists asserted the necessity of these discussions. Alex Isaacs, a journalist and Herschel alumni, spoke of the racialised bullying they had experienced as a teenager and stated that the response of the school leadership had made it clear that the non-racialism espoused by the school was not in fact a . In the dialogue, Isaacs states that “this experience and many others is why I wanted to be a part of this conversation…without having conversations like this that are tough and make people uncomfortable, there are lots more children like me that will experience trauma until they can’t bear it anymore”.

In the KwaZulu-Natal schools dialogue, Durban Girls’ College alumni, Wangui Ngotho spoke about the importance of school alumni coming forward with their experiences to protect the generations that come after them. She provided the testimonial of a grade 5 learner who was told that the group she wanted to join was “for white girls only” as an example of why she has been so outspoken about this issue.

Another experience widely spoken of throughout the dialogues was the issue of belonging. In the KwaZulu-Natal schools dialogue, Lukhona Mnguni, a Social Science lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, argued that black students in private (independent) or former Model C schools are always dealing with a struggle for belonging and are often treated like outsiders. In the same dialogue, fellow panelist, Wangui Ngotho, spoke of being the only black girl in the entire grade until she was 12 or 13 years old. She understood that she was experiencing racism but did not have anyone to validate her experience or provide language to describe what was happening to her.

Lukhona Mnguni also pointed out that school codes of conduct can be vehicles of exclusion. Wangui Ngotho added to this by indicating that Durban Girls’ college had a social media policy to police what learners shared about their experiences but no policy that directly tackled racism and discrimination. Ngotho also indicated that the school’s hat policy had landed many black girls in detention because it did not consider their natural hair – the hat would not fit on an afro. On the issue of black hair, Ngotho also stated that after the Pretoria Girls protest in 2016, the school had disallowed black girls from gathering in more than groups of four because they feared that that it would foster unrest in their institution.

The impact of the Pretoria Girls protest was mentioned again in the Eastern Cape schools dialogue by Athambile Masola – former high school teacher and University of Pretoria lecturer. However, she made the point that issues at private (independent) schools and former Model C schools such Pretoria Girls often make the news whilst there is less willingness to spotlight problems such as broken windows and non-functioning toilets at under-resourced schools. Fellow panelist, Athenkosi Sopitshi (Head of Province at Equal Education) affirmed this point by speaking about the experiencing of heading up an organisation that mostly works with quintile 1 – quintile 3 schools – which represent the group of schools in the province that cater for the poorest 60 % of learners.

Sopitshi argued that anything that inconveniences predominantly or historically white institutions is what grabs the attention of the country and the world. She stated that we have begun to open up dialogues about the trauma that exists in historically white spaces but this only scratches the surface of the collective trauma that has been passed down to black children. Sopitshi is clear that the way in which teaching happens and what is taught needs to change. For her, intervention needs to go way beyond school policies. She calls for political education to be a part of what is taught across all the quintiles. An education that would be able to explain to the 5-year-old who asked why it is that they see the black communities around them suffering – economically and pyscho-socially.

In the KwaZulu-Natal schools dialogue, former Deputy headmaster of Durban Highschool Roy Hellenberg explained that the public mostly hear about former Model C schools and private schools because these schools occupy powerful socio-economic positions in the country. He goes on further to say that learners from these schools often have access to the resources to amplify their voices. However, He warned against completely redirecting conversations about inclusion away from race. Hellenberg indicates that in his experience as an educator and inclusion workshop facilitator he has often seen people try and move the conversation away from race because they do not want to deal with its complexity in South African history and their complicity in that continued oppressive legacy.

An issue that is constantly brought up by the panelists is the lack of accountability when it comes to schools tackling the issue of institutional racism. In the Western Cape dialogue, Stephen Langtry (a member of Parents for Change) contends that “schools have learned how to say the right things but not how to do the right things”.

In the Gauteng schools dialogue, Sarah Nuttall (Director of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research) asked a key question: what would an anti-racist school look like? For her, one of the answers, is an environment where there would be the capacity for learners and staff members to speak out. Where she would know that bystanders would call out racist behaviour. Across all the dialogues, panelists called for interventions that focus on the diversification of teaching staff, continued dialogue within schools and externally, a progressive re-imagining of the curriculum, a social justice driven re-education of parents and school governing bodies as well as consequences for those who refuse to comply.

As 2020 came to a close, Brackenfell High dominated national headlines when a Cape Town dad wrote a Facebook post detailing a private party that had been reportedly attended by only white matric learners. This party was meant to be a replacement for the school’s matric dance which had been cancelled due to the COVID 19 pandemic. It was reported that black pupils and learners of colour had been excluded from the event.

In January 2021, the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) released a report detailing their investigation of the matter. The report was critiqued for the investigators’ exclusion of the voices of current learners as well as alumni. This is particularly alarming as many current and past pupils had taken to social media to share their experiences of institutional racism.