‘You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good-bye.
Teach your children well,
Their father's hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams’
(Graham Nash, 1969)
The values of the post-millennial post-apartheid Republic of South Africa, as enshrined in the Bill of Rights of its 1996 Constitution, are not universally shared. This we know from the conflicts which play themselves out between citizens every day, and between officials and departments of state and the citizens themselves. We are far from having a solid social contract at the heart of our polity.
The latest sign of this fracture in South Africa’s social fabric has marked itself among the wealthiest of South Africa’s elites, at one of the most endowed private schools in the country. This was not a spat about racism in the lower-middle or middle classes. A teacher is alleged to have verbally abused students with the crudest, most vulgar forms of racist insults, and apparently on several occasions. Worse, the school is affiliated with the Anglican Church.
How does the teacher’s white supremacist professions stand in relation to the moral vision of the religious organisation with which the school is associated? And how does the tolerance or enabling of such views work in relation to the educational project?
Of course, the spectacular horror of this particular teacher’s statements and treatment of pupils is too often taken as the only sign of racism in our society. Crude and crass professions of black people’s inferiority are seen as the only way to judge whether or not racism has occurred. It must be an estate agent comparing black people to monkeys, or an enraged white woman using crude expletives to insult black police officers at the roadside.
In South Africa, many habits acquired in the past have not been unlearned. The views of the world celebrated before 1994 remain in place for many people. The valuing of specific speech patterns, the preference for certain dress codes, and diseased understandings of the world bred and inculcated in colonial and apartheid South Africa live on, powerfully, in many of the institutions in this country, and the unspoken values they uphold.
Zuleikha Patel’s defiance ought to have alerted all of us to just how much of the toxic past continues to live on in the present. The fact that she had to object to having her body policed by norms steeped in the colonial racist gaze, and fight an entire system in which the adults and organisations were hardly in full support of her, says much about how imbalanced power dynamics are at the local level in this most unequal of societies. Earlier this year, at various schools in the country, we were reminded how teachers and school governing bodies implement and police uniform codes which violate not only the rights of pupils guaranteed by the Constitution, but also the Constitutional Court judgments handed down on these very issues. As research by scholars like Richard Dyer, Peggy McIntosh, David Roediger and George Lipsitz show, these rules and regulations are not formulated and implemented in the absence of ideas about "race" and difference.
Many people assume that above a certain economic level "race" no longer matters. The events at St John’s College in Johannesburg have proven such assumptions not only wrong, but foolish. Private schools in that bracket shepherd the sons of the elite to be the next generation populating the ruling classes. What values are being taught to these boys on their way to manhood? What are the lessons being given to those primed to be our future leaders?
It is reported that when the principal of the school announced the initial sanction on the racist teacher, he was greeted with applause. What does this say about the values of those teachers, who seem to think a slap on the wrist is an appropriate response for the vile racist actions? What are they teaching their charges? The attitudes and beliefs about the world professed by those charged to teach our children are lessons in themselves.
We ought not to be surprised that racism exists in these elite circles in South Africa. What does surprise is the inept handling of the issue. Transformation isn’t only about changing the population in the photographs, but it cannot even be said to have begun if the photographs remain the same now as they were during the height of segregation and white supremacy in colonial and apartheid South Africa.
It is past time to reconceive of racism beyond crude epithets and overt insults. White supremacy thrives in institutional cultures which confine their ideas of racism to such. Who is hired to teach is as important as who is accepted to learn. The Anglican Church in South Africa, an organisation home to Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Emeritus Demond Mpilo Tutu, has better tools available to it to deal with white supremacy than this incident has shown.
Angela Y Davis reminded us in 2013 that "[o]ver the last few decades we have had to unlearn racism, and not only white people. People of color [sic] have had to unlearn the assumption that racism is individual attitudes to be dealt with through sensitivity training …". White supremacists must unlearn their old habits, and should they fail to do so, face the social and economic sanctions which will discourage the behaviour in others. And black people need to learn to assert their right to be themselves in South Africa: we are the majority and ought not to have to accommodate ourselves to white supremacy.
We all have unfinished business in South Africa, across all the class divisions, which themselves must be undone as well. The texture of freedom is compromised if we protect, reward, excuse, or explain away the conduct of white supremacists, and it is worse when their repellent conduct is visited upon children.
We are a deeply sentimental society: if we cannot do the right thing for politically principled reasons, perhaps we ought to do it "for the children". After all, as Malcolm X, quoting Jean-Paul Sartre, once told us, in 2017 our duty is to defeat white supremacy "by any means necessary".