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The problem with being previously disadvantaged

“But we’re not previously disadvantaged … we’re not underprivileged” my students tried to reason with me recently. We were talking about school issues and the issue of the school’s identity came up. I teach at a fairly new school in Cape Town which has been dubbed as a maths and science-focused school for students from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. Basically a school for black and coloured children in the suburbs. That’s very crude given the complexities of what it means to live in Cape Town if one is not white and/or middle class.

I joined the school in its second year of existence and it’s been interesting watching how a school culture is created. More importantly, it’s been interesting watching teenagers come to understand their culture and how their ideas about who they are fit in with what the rest of the world thinks about them.

There seems to be a tension among my students: while some are from genuinely poor families and communities and the opportunity to be in a somewhat low-cost school in the suburbs is a life-changing experience, others see through the cracks of labelling the school as a school for “previously disadvantaged” children. What happens when someone doesn’t want to identify with the label “previously disadvantaged”? As I have seen many of my students balk at the idea. Many wanted to go to the previously all-white schools nearby but because of archaic, apartheid-esque policies about zoning (the idea that if a child lives in Newlands, they should go to a school in Newlands and if a child lives in Khayelitsha, they should go to a school in Khayelitsha-which obviously limits choices for parents who don’t want their children to go to a school in Khayelitsha) their applications were rejected by certain schools but fate stepped in and my school was created around the same time.

This seems like a simplistic way of explaining the policies that govern school admission in Cape Town, more especially, the privileged enclave of the “southern suburbs” in Cape Town. Many of my kids who were rejected by the schools in the southern suburbs still don’t understand why they were denied access to schools they know their parents can afford or at least would like to be a part of. And so they were lumped together into a school for “previously disadvantaged” children, even though they don’t think of themselves as “previously disadvantaged”.

In their minds, previously disadvantaged children go to schools without windows, teachers who are chronically absent and where there isn’t enough furniture and infrastructure. Our school has a computer lab, a small library, smart boards and projectors in every class and not a single broken window. Teachers are mostly available to supervise children if a subject teacher is absent. The system works. So why is it tagged as a school for “previously disadvantaged” children?

The incident with my students is significant because it highlights the politics of (mis)representation we all participate within as we walk around with racialised bodies. In Cape Town, if one is black and coloured they carry a certain baggage and history of lack, slavery and oppression: “previously disadvantaged”, whether they like it or not. And for my students, who do not want to be seen as “previously disadvantaged” they are part of a system, a school system that potentially misunderstands or assumes to understand who they are.

An unintended consequence has been that instead of addressing the wrongs of the past, the crude race and class discourse is reinforced, where one can only ever be “previously disadvantaged” if a special school has been created especially for “previously disadvantaged” in the southern suburbs.

An extension of that unintended consequence has been the kind of behaviour and demeanour students will take on because they are at a school where “previously disadvantaged” are. One student (the bad apple in the crowd) even voiced out that if there were more white people at the school her behaviour would be very different, more positive. I was surprised by this: a 14-year-old had internalised that whiteness and blackness have different codes of behaviour and the presence of white people has the ability to change or dictate the behaviour of the black people coming into that system. In other words, for this student, in order for black people to behave, that would happen to be in relation to assimilation, because the white gaze is that powerful.

Why does this matter? People are convinced that “born-frees”, whoever they might be, don’t see race. But that’s a lazy and superficial way to think about what it means to be young in South Africa. Young people see race and with that they also see and understand the labels and the extent with which class privilege operates in a racialised South Africa when others are “previously disadvantaged” and others are not. Since I started teaching, my understanding of race and class (and other intersectionalities not raised here) has been complicated.

Let’s face it: kids do see race and the complexities of class. They know what it means to have and not to have. They understand that we all live in a classed system that we can challenge or simply accept. I hope they will choose to challenge the label “previously disadvantaged”.

Author

  • Athambile Masola

    A teacher in Johannesburg.Interested in education,feminism and sometimes a bit of politics (with a small letter p).