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Are our schools as accommodating as our constitution?

This essay came second in the 2020 Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s Youth Essay Writing Competition Against Racism

We pride ourselves on being a rainbow nation, a society that enjoys the rights to freedom, dignity and equality among many. A nation that has managed to overcome its bitter past of apartheid and come up with one of the most accommodating constitutions in the world. 

However, are schools as accommodating as the constitution? Is it possible that some schools are still left with the bitter aftermath of apartheid, which is racism, even after so many years into democracy? This essay seeks to critically discuss whether racism and racists exist in South African schools or not. This will be done by looking into the concept of racism, unpacking the forms in which it has presented itself as well as measures that could possibly vanquish it.

One would define race as a socially constructed concept that categorises people based on physical appearance which may include their skin colour, hair texture and eye colour. Racism, as defined by Jerome Joorst on The Conversation Africa, are beliefs, thoughts and actions based on the idea that one race is better than others. A racist is a person who behaves in a discriminatory manner and believes a certain race is superior to others. Racism can be overt, meaning it is shown openly, or covert which is quite subtle, but similarly problematic.

“Historically, overt racism is a creation and product of white supremacy. Characterised by blatant use of negative and/or intentionally harmful attitudes, ideas or symbols and actions directed at a specific racial group or groups deemed nonwhite or colored, overt racism persists in many forms throughout contemporary society.” (Elias, 2015)

One of these ideas in South Africa was creating a different and inferior education system for non-whites, the Bantu Education. Now, post-apartheid, with more inclusive multiracial schools one would assume that all races are being treated equally, but are they?

It might not be openly shown but racism is still rife in most schools, especially ones that were previously for whites. Although they pride themselves in inclusivity and transformation, some policies in such schools have not been amended to accommodate all races with their differences. One of these is the policy on hairstyles. There have been several reports where black girls felt oppressed by the rules on how they should wear their hair. A pupil from Pretoria Girls High, among a significant number of others, is a victim of such racism. Her afro was deemed untidy by her headmaster and she was told to straighten it. Another one was denied writing exams because she came with her natural hair. That is not only simply racist but it disregards the presence of beauty in a black child, imagine what that does to their confidence. This contributes to the ideology that some races have to fit certain white criteria in order to be deemed worthy to attend some of the most prestigious schools. This leads to erasure in culture and further hides racism under covers while proving that racism exists in schools through racists who are in these schools.

In June of this year in an interview on eNCA, a former Durban Girls College [learner] made such a comment on racism in schools:

“My experience at Durban Girls College was similar to the many girls of colour and of diverse cultures who have been speaking up lately, and it was just one of overt and covert racism. The overt racism was students saying and doing racist and discriminatory things to other students with there being no repercussions or any follow up on that. Teachers saying and doing racist things and discriminatory things, targeting girls for their hair, religious practices and wearing religious symbols like isiphandla or a red string and forcing girls to cut them off.”

Such has also occurred when a first day class photo circulated on social media showing a pre-school teacher who grouped children according to their races. While many people were enraged, and rightfully so, this is only one of many undocumented cases.

Instilling the idea that a child’s natural hair texture, religion or culture is not acceptable and the other is more acceptable is undoubtedly racist. This goes beyond the amendment of school rules and policies because they are ineffective if the person who is responsible for their implication does not understand them. When these previously all white schools underwent transformation and were open to other races, there is little evidence that the teachers and school staff were given training to be more accommodating and be against racism. Maybe that is where we should start, make teachers aware of what is racist and not assume they already know how to behave in the new South Africa.

Racist behaviour does not only come from the teachers but pupils too, that is where you, me and the whole society get involved. School is the first place where children get to experience and interact with the diversity of this country, let us not let them go there narrow-minded. Let us teach our children about the different races, that we are all humans worthy of respect and dignity regardless of the differences. Teach them that it is okay to interact and play with children of other races and that it is wrong not to just because they have different skin colour. Teach them to call racism out the moment they see it so that even if a teacher is being racist, they will correct them. In this way we will grow a society that understands that the code to a peacefully coexisting society is tolerance and dignity of difference.

Racism has been existing in our schools for a long time. However, what happens in schools reflects what is happening in our societies. How we behave and treat people in front of children is how they will behave and treat each other. We are all responsible for changing what we see is wrong, so let us start now, where we are and do even the smallest things to teach each other that we are all humans worthy of dignity and respect. Not yet uhuru!

The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s Youth Essay Writing Competition Against Racism attracted the attention of over 400 young people from across the country who shared their thoughts and views on the topic of racism. The overwhelming response from young people once again shows us that people are speaking about and even experiencing racism 

Author

  • Sinqobile Wandile Dlamini is a student studying towards a bachelor's degree in philosophy, politics and law at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She has a strong interest in African issues (social and political),cultures and languages, art and fashion