Commonly, if one were asked about the relevance of black and white in relation to schools the fitting response would be to associate it with chalk and a blackboard. Not in South Africa.

Racism in South African schools has to be understood from its historical context. The Apartheid era conditioned schools to restructure society in terms of class, gender and race. Despite the changes that South African school systems have undergone since 1994 including the legislative end of racial segregation, it is evident that the wheels that carried the racism wagon and other forms of oppression are still slowly turning. It is as if the tree was cut down but underneath the roots still maintain their ideological existence.

Section 29(2) of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution states: Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in the public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable.

The storm started stirring when a concerned parent complained on a public platform that her child was facing segregation at a Curro School in Johannesburg.

In the wider context, the concept of schools was meant to alleviate inequality. The idea of school uniforms was designed to establish a homogenous platform that allows all students to feel a sense of equality and togetherness.  However, the on-going problem in South Africa is the lack of a learning community that equips learners with the ability to effectively engage in and operate within a multiracial democratic society.

In a recent event earlier this year, a private school in Roodeplaat; the Curro Foundation School, separated pupils in classes according to race. Investigations by MEC Panyaza Lesufi revealed that Curro School split pupils because white parents threatened to remove their children.  “The majority of parents are predominantly white and they wanted to pull their children out of the school. The institution gave in to the pressure and I told them that it’s racist.”

The white students were placed in classes that were taught in Afrikaans while the black pupils were placed in English speaking classes. Although the school initially denied the allegations they then consequently apologised for their actions by stating “the different races were kept apart as a way of ensuring that children made friends with others who shared their culture and didn’t feel isolated.” The out-dated method of schooling had already sowed seeds of discontent among the South African public sphere, evoking responses such as  “I’ve heard of keeping minority groups together to protect their culture before. Wasn’t it called apartheid?”

The situation is a cause of concern as it strongly mirrors one of the factors that led to the Soweto uprising of June 16th, 1976. To elaborate, the Soweto uprising occurred more than three decades ago and was triggered by the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in local schools. Thousands of students took to the streets in protest and several lost their lives as martyrs for the unjust rule. Similar to the Hiroshima nuclear attack, the effects of this event are still being felt by the later generations such as the pupils of Curro Foundation School.

June 16th is now celebrated as a public holiday in the country in commemoration of a sad day in the history of South Africa but what is even sadder is that policies similar to those that students in 1976 fought to be abolished are still being practised around the country today.

Schools have opened up their gates but have not changed their attitudes. A majority of private schools only offer English as the first language and Afrikaans as the second language on the curriculum. What about the other nine official Nguni languages? Already, this is a form of continued segregation as a Zulu-speaking learner who wants to learn their language will have to go to a different school that offers his/her language as a subject. Why is it acceptable that a black child attending a private school is not given the opportunity to learn their home language and all it brings beyond the conversational level in a school setting? Why are they alienated from their historical cultural groups because the school they attend only instructs in Afrikaans?  

Reports show that on both tertiary and private school levels, the ratio of white educators in comparison to black educators is shockingly 1:4, meaning that for every one black teacher/lecturer there are four white counterparts. It is said that educators’ attitudes and perceptions have a profound impact on learners’ perception and academic performance, self-concept and beliefs. Therefore, to have a predominantly white teaching staff whose values are those still dipping into the segregation cup might prove to be unfavourable towards the education of the black minority pupils.

In the Mail & Guardian, WR Terblanche (a teacher himself) wrote in an opinion piece titled Racism in schools: a teacher’s perspective that, "Instead of empowering educators to enlighten the youth, the leaders of tomorrow, we are allowed to teach - each one of us - with our own preconceived ideas of humanity, spreading falsities, prejudice and stereotypes at will".

That said we cannot ignore the positive steps that some schools have made in a bid to right the historical wrongs. However, at the Pluralism in education conference in 1996, psychologist Metacalfe presented that the problem is that: “They have not begun to fully engage the challenge of creating a new identity”.

The creation of a new identity that is not influenced or shaped by past prejudices is what led to the recent bid by the University of Cape Town to remove the Cecil John Rhodes statue that has been a part of the campus for 80 years. Rhodes was one of the first settlers and was a pioneer of colonisation in Southern Africa. His actions were instrumental in the creation of apartheid in South Africa. Several weeks ago the students argued that the statue is a symbol of a time gone by and an era that this country is still struggling to get over and in their opinion had no place in a place of learning that was inclusive and representative of a new South Africa.

It has been argued that in South Africa, racial transformation is often packed away into policies that have no tangible outputs and have no impact on society. If these policies were practical, racial transformation would see the inclusion of more black teachers in the role of educators and we would not see separate dormitories based on colour at the University of Free State.

We would not give rope to institutionalised racism that allows schools to divide students according to race or any other forms of segregation.

The protesting students have since won their battle through a vote conducted by the University and the statue has been taken down. However, the fact that it took someone smearing human excrement on the statue and several days of protests to place the notion into consideration symbolises how change is a song that many South Africans are still to learn the words to.

The misconception created is that schools that are desegregated view the opening of their school gates to learners of other racial groups as an act of automatically declaring their non-racist and non-discriminatory stance. This equates to opening up your meat-serving restaurant to vegetarians but you do not change your menu to accommodate them.

What happens beyond the school gates directly and indirectly influences the context in which the school will operate. Therefore, the blame is not only pointed towards the education system but the society as a whole. This consequently sheds light on the lack of an institute that is in place to monitor the activities of schools. Where do the students go and complain about this? Who investigates matters of segregation? Who will make policies and enforce them?

WR Terblanche added, "The education department makes it illegal for schools to refuse learners based on their race. I suppose this is done in good faith with the intention of providing learners the opportunity to learn where they want to and to encourage integration. But besides this, schools are left to their own devices. No one is taught, supported, or empowered on how to handle this integration. There is no human rights education for educators. Instead we are overloaded with nonsensical administration. We must make portfolios and fancy rubrics and work according to strange work schedules"

In May 2013, Children at the Dr Viljoen combined school in Bloemfontein alleged that staff called them racist, derogatory, and belittling names, such as "kaffirs, baboons, monkeys, and little black bitches". To this day, no appropriate measures have been taken against the allegations. The school was only encouraged to put in place policies that counter racism which meant that the same racist teachers had to put in place policies that would make their racist attitude less controversial.

Following the Curro School incident Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi announced plans to convene a summit of all private schools where a transformation charter would be presented to principals and school governing bodies. We hope this will result in change but until then we have some thoughts:

  • To remove layers of oppression, schools will have to wilfully implement difficult programmes and policies to allow educators and learners to work through their own prejudices.
  • An external body needs to be established to make policies, monitor the activities and enforce policy at the schools.
  • Learners need to be motivated to query inequalities in society and work towards structural change to enable a fair and equal learning environment. For example, the protest against the Rhodes statue by students at the University of Cape Town.
  • Teachers that are accused of being racist must be fired. This shows that the behaviour will not be tolerated.
  • Change is not only due in the predominantly white schools but in the South African schooling system as a whole. Racial geography has resulted in desegregation only happening in a minority of schools.

The school is a single entity and schools are a mirror of society and therefore a mirror of the nation. The segregation in schools becomes an extension or a by-product of segregation around the nation as it adopts the culture surrounding them.