White Schools in postapartheid South Africa

"Former" white schools propose color blindness to tackle racism against its new black students, invariably leading to alienation and discomfort on the part of the latter.

Image by Sean Jacobs

It’s a little over two decades ago that South Africa’s Whites Only schools began to ‘welcome’ Black students (meaning: African, Coloured and Indian) students into their classrooms. Guided by the official principles of multiculturalism and equality, many a White teacher witnessed his or her classroom diversify. In response, many of them adopted the rhetoric of ‘color blindness.’

Ever since, the media has exposed various incidents that showed that (surprise) color-blindness was neither real, nor desirable. Race, it turned out, was quite a real thing in the average Rainbow classroom. Examples of violent incidents abound.

In 1999, the country’s Human Rights Commission, for example, raised alarm bells about widespread physical violence and death threats faced by black newcomers in formerly white public schools. Later, a bunch of white Limpopo parents literally barricaded their school gates. More recently, one teacher in Bloemfontein was suspended for using the racist “Kaffir” slur (the South African equivalent for “Nigger”). Another white teacher compared black people to demons. Late last month the Human Rights Commission announced that it was wrapping up its investigation of another school in Bloemfontein, where teachers not only called pupils baboons and monkeys, but also told them to go back to their township schools instead.

Pupils at the school in Bloemfontein said teachers told them to go back to the black schools in the townships because their parents could not afford to pay school fees, and that they would never succeed in life and would end up like their parents who work in chain stores.

The ways in which white parents (through governing bodies) and schools’ leadership structures resist racial integration and uphold white superiority in former white schools is one of those things that everybody knows about and only a few will deny or talk about. A 2010 study on South Africans’ attitudes to social integration in schools observed: “It is widely believed that not many white parents feel comfortable letting their children share the same school with children of other races, especially African children.”

In most former white schools, however, racial hierarchies are not so much maintained and reproduced by the extreme physical, vile and verbal kinds of violence that we encounter as ‘incidents’ in the media. Instead, white superiority is more commonly inscribed on students’ identities in more subtle, implicit and ‘every day’ ways, through race, class, language, hair, style, culture, sports as well as by the refusal to hire more Black teachers. It’s the type of assimilative push towards whiteness, a symbolic kind of violence, which may be more difficult to recognize as a human rights issue, but one that’s institutional and that affects thousands of Black South African children every day. Yet compared to the ‘baboon’ and ‘barricade’ type of racism, you got to dig much deeper to read about the experiences and effects of symbolic violence.  What it feels like when your mother-tongue is forbidden, your culture fetishized or when your hair style and accent deemed too Black. Or what it’s like when you know your teacher considers you less smart than you are, just because maths (in your second or third language) takes you a tad longer to digest.

When white middle class superiority is woven into the fabric of the institutions, you can hardly blame white students for adopting similar attitudes. In this 2004 study by Battersby, one Black student lamented that:

there are certain, few black kids that are accepted by the white kids in this school. You know what I’m saying? And the rest are just another black kid that you walk past in the passage, that you don’t give a damn about. And no one says it, but it’s just there. And no one will say it.

And in this 2010 study, Ndlangamandla quotes a student as saying

the fact that eh, only one Indian person is doing Zulu in the … is really bugging me because you know, eh, a lot of black people are doing Afrikaans. We are trying to adapt to eh, white people’s ways, but they don’t wanna learn something new or learn our language and that makes me feel bad, because I am proud to be African, you know.

As the sociologist Crain Soudien argued in his 2012 book, without other forms of support, students are likely to leave such assimilationist environments “with feelings of alienation and discomfort.”

More books and studies on the topic can be found here, here and here.

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