South African schools must do better


An independent hearing has found that a St John's geography teacher victimised pupils based on their race.

An independent hearing has found that a St John's geography teacher victimised pupils based on their race.

When I was in high school, we had a biology teacher. Let’s call him Mr Jones. He was a fine specimen of old school oke-ness. He batted with an imaginary cricket bat to punctuate whatever lesson he was teaching us. That’s if he was in a teaching mood. If he was not, he would instead get up to all sorts of tomfoolery, which should have made him popular with the school kids, but it didn’t – not to me anyway.

One of his favourite jibes was to have a go at me because of my Portuguese heritage. “Does your father own a fruit shop?” he’d ask. “Does he sell plumsh and pearsh and applesh?”

I responded by blinking in surprise mostly. I had not often been overtly discriminated against in my life – I was white in apartheid South Africa – so I didn’t know how to deal with this. I didn’t even know how to begin pushing back against an authority figure who made it his mission to demean me.

He would also offer to let us off class if all the girls would let all the boys give them a kiss. This was slightly better, because it was less personal, but also far, far worse, because now that I understand these things better, I can comprehend that this was sexual coercion. The power play inherent in this compact – making the girls provide a sexual favour to the boys, making us out to be “bad sports” or even “frigid” if we didn’t follow through with the deal – is a hugely problematic way to teach girls their place in the world.

Mr Jones was not my favourite teacher, clearly. But at the time, he was just a part of the clutter of unpleasantness that school represented for me: rules, authoritarianism, unreasonable adults, pressure, judgement from peers – it was not a happy time in my life, and unfortunately a little prejudice against my heritage and sexual harassment just became a part of the coarse fabric that threatened to suffocate me for all those years.

Today, when I hear about the racism that St John’s students have suffered at the hands of another oke-ish teacher who has now been forced to resign, I am so pleased that my children are growing up in a generation where authority is not considered to be absolute, where adults can’t get away with being unkind and cruel to children without some comeuppance.

This is not to detract from the immense bravery that it took for the St John’s boys to stand up to their teacher and follow the procedures for bringing about a dismissal – especially when the school initially closed ranks around one of their own. I salute those boys, each and every one of them, for standing up against a system that did not prioritise their safety and self-worth. I am proud of them.

Thank goodness that we now live in a society where enough people will speak out in support of their cause, and it’s possible for our government to step in to apply the right sort of pressure when racism has taken place (I hope they act as swiftly about stories within government schools and not just privileged white ones). If this is where political correctness has gotten us, then I am all for it.

Another story of racism erupted within schools this past weekend (just imagine the stories we don’t hear, every day…). This story was of a Wynberg School pupil – a young black boy of only seven – who was sent home because of his hairdo and told to fix it before returning to school. This story, when circulated on social media, was accompanied by a photo of a gorgeous young lad, tidily dressed, immaculately groomed, with a hint of a step cut into his hairline.

The school has issued a statement that the step – rather than the boy having hair while being black – was the problem. Without a proper analysis of the school, its rules and the boy’s hair, I can’t say whether this is or isn’t the case. There has certainly been enough policing of black hair for not behaving like white hair in schools in general that my sympathies tend to lie with the boy and his family, but even so, I think there’s something to be said about the broader principle here.

Sending a young boy home from school for a small misstep or possibly even challenge to the rules is not constructive. That hair could in no way have interfered with his work, his ability to take part in school activities, or his peers’ ability to do their work.

If the school must really rule against a style element like this, the boy didn’t need to be humiliated and sent home, with the question of racism rattling around in his head. A simple request to remove the step over the weekend, citing the relevant section of the school rules would have sufficed – as long as the policy was universally applied, and the cultural significance of the hairstyle had been discussed with the parents.

Taking the high-handed authoritarian approach has done nothing for the boy and nothing for the school. What it has done is contributed to that suffocating rough fabric I’ve spoken about – the fabric that weighs upon children and possibly prevents them from speaking out when they are insulted, sexually harassed or hurt, because their school years are all about not being supported or heard. That young boy has been shown who’s in charge so he’ll think twice next time…

South African schools, you HAVE to do better. You have to do better at implementing rules in the right way and for the right reasons. You have to do better at creating safe spaces for your students, and safe channels for dealing with problems they may encounter. And you have to act when you are presented with information that you would rather wasn’t true. And all of this, you have to do with extra sensitivity and care because we live in a racially charged environment and there is a great deal to question and a great deal to change.

Your authoritarianism serves no one – let it go.