As a new mother, I spend a lot of time obsessing over the future, I wonder what my daughter’s speaking voice will sound like, whether she will be stubborn like her mother or kind and generous like her father. I think about what career she will choose and agonise over how best we can prepare her for a world that will inevitably be unlike anything we could ever imagine. Well-meaning friends remind me constantly that the first step to doing this is to secure her a place at the country’s top schools. They warn me that I should not leave it until too late, that there already exist waiting lists at some of the very best schools for 2019, and that I risk being faced with the prospect of having to settle for my local state school if I do not put down the baby and pick up the phone.
My husband and I, already feeling like we had failed as parents by not having had the foresight to register for a “top school” before her conception, set about to remedy our folly by scouring the internet for these so-called “top schools”. As we sat in stunned silence, quietly clicking through the websites that showcase the playgrounds of the country’s elite, my mind began to flood with flashbacks of my own experience of being a black child at such schools. We didn’t get very far with the search, the tuition costs were overwhelming, and it was unclear what exactly we would base our choice of school upon, that they offer lessons in playing Great Scottish Highland bag-pipes or that they arrange frequent exchanges with schools in Europe?
These anxieties reared their head again, when I, alongside many other shocked South Africans, read in the papers in early February that the Curro Foundation School in Roodeplaat, (an independent school that forms part of the Curro Holdings group, a company that prides itself on being the sole provider of private Afrikaans school education in South Africa), was separating black and white learners in classrooms, using apartheid-style arguments, such as “children are able to make friends with children of their culture” to justify their unconstitutional policy of segregating learners along racial lines. When the story hit the country’s headlines, radio stations and twitter went ablaze, and the school and its racist policy was swiftly condemned by white and black South Africans alike, just as it should be.
However as the Curro school debacle fell further down our headlines, and the country’s tweeters focused their attentions on #Sona, #Budget 2015, I thought of those black (and white — because no child should be exposed to such) children at Curro Foundation School Roodeplat who would have to go back to that once caught, now apologetic (but for how long?) school. Again I was confronted with memories of my own, of being one of a handful of black children at a white school, the only black child at birthday parties, on the school stage, in photos — tolerated, but reminded constantly to rein in the vulgarities that I was told are inherent in blackness. But that was over a decade ago, surely we have progressed from there? My heart went out to their parents too, working hard to secure for their children a fighting chance in a society where the youth unemployment rate sits at over 60% and state sector education, for the most part, evokes little confidence.
My daughter was born in the UK, we are living there as I complete a PhD at the University of Oxford. She is the only black child at her day care, we are among only a handful of black people in our flat building, at my college, in my department, on the streets, in the shops and on the television. But all of that is to be expected, we are after all in the UK. The challenges of being a foreigner (especially a black foreigner) in the UK are well-documented, and although frustrating, don’t consume my day to day, because quite frankly, it is not my home and I have no intention of staying there very long. But what does really consume me, what I really do struggle with, is having to grapple with those very same challenges right here at home, that in a black-majority country one continues to feel like a minority, especially in the spaces of privilege. Now that upsets me. That my daughter, if she is fortunate enough to have the perceived privilege of being one of the few black South African children that gain entry into these so called “top schools”, will spend the next 18 years of her life, apologising for who she is and working very hard at being deemed acceptable for assimilation into whiteness.
Was it not Steve Biko who said “The basic tenet of black consciousness is that the black man must reject all value systems that seek to make him a foreigner in the country of his birth and reduce his basic human dignity”?
Where are our African scholars, intellectuals and businessmen and women and why are they not opening up schools for our children? Schools that are steeped in and celebrate our African heritage while simultaneously provide for our children a world class education. Schools where our cultures and traditions are not a thing of curiosity, schools where you don’t have to apologise for your mother’s poor command of English, where Latin mottos that nobody can pronounce or understand are considered an absurdity, where you don’t have to settle for being referred to by your initials to accommodate lazy tongues, where learners are not preoccupied with having to save for a Persian weave, where reading Adichie, Mda and Ndebele is the rule and not the exception. Surely there cannot be such a poverty of ideas and thought capital in our communities that we have to subject ourselves to the humiliation of begging for entry into schools that clearly do not want our children there?
I expect some will accuse me of hypocrisy; I am after all living in the UK attending an elitist university. Let it be clear, I do not seek to discourage, and in fact am a great enthusiast of giving young South Africans an opportunity to step outside of their contexts and enjoy a multicultural experience. That is not what went down at Curro Foundation School Roodeplaat, and it would take real creative genius to describe it as such. And while I am pre-empting any misconception, let me also use this opportunity to address those who like to pull out the “oh but that is reverse-racism” card whenever black South Africans cry out for justice. Let it also be clear that I am not calling for exclusively black schools either. That kind of thinking has no place in the South Africa we are trying to build.
I am calling for schools that are truly South African, not schools that welcome black children as long as they leave their blackness at home, but schools that genuinely reflect our shared South African heritage, our rich and beautiful languages, our music and literature and our role in contributing meaningfully to an Africa that we can all be proud of. How else will we ever solve our continent’s problems if we do not teach our children that, above anything else, who and what they are is all they need to be?