On 19 January 2016, I made a speech on race and racism in South Africa, in which I committed to holding a series of dialogues, entitled Stand Up, Speak Out, involving South Africans from all walks of life.
The purpose of these dialogues is to talk about the persistence of racial inequality in our country, and the racism it engenders – in churches, communities and schools. If we are to have any hope of finding each other again, and healing our national wounds, then this is a conversation we have to have.
I don’t have all the answers, but I know the answers exist. The puzzle pieces are scattered throughout our society and through these dialogues I hope to bring many of them together to formulate some concrete solutions.
One such dialogue was with a diverse group of school principals and teachers. I came away convinced that schools can play a leading role in tackling racism. School children have wonderfully open minds and open hearts and there is much that schools can do to model our unity while celebrating our diversity.
There was strong agreement that affecting this mind-shift requires a deliberate, active approach on many fronts. Our discussion identified five key levers: historical context, language, diversity, instruction and affirmation.
It is critical that schools give children the historical explanation and context for the racial divisions in our society. If children understand our past, they will understand why our society is economically and spatially divided along racial lines.
Many white children from privileged backgrounds do not see the extreme inequality in our society as particularly abnormal or worrying. This is a reflection of a failure to educate them about inequality and the legacy of apartheid. No child should grow up in our society thinking that the things they see around them are ‘normal’. They are not. Every child should have a basic understanding of how we got here, and our shared responsibility for building a fairer, more inclusive future.
Likewise, many poor black children still grow up thinking their socio-economic circumstances are ‘normal’. Some grow up with a deficit of social capital and a subconscious acceptance that ‘this is the way it is’. These perceptions are incredibly damaging to our national psyche and to race relations.
It is vitally important in this country to make our children aware of the history of apartheid and how it systematically deprived black people of ownership, work and educational opportunities.
Otherwise, children look around them and make their own assumptions about why most black people live in shacks and in poverty, while most white people enjoy relative abundance.
The second lever is language. The ability to communicate with each other is essential to bridging the racial gap. But beyond that, it also enables an understanding of and a sensitivity to cultural differences.
Learning even just the basics of someone’s language shows acknowledgement of and respect for their culture. White children should be encouraged to learn an African language, and all children should leave school proficient in English, equipped to confidently participate in the knowledge economy.
The third lever is to give our school children greater access and exposure to racial diversity. It is vital that children have the opportunity to interact with people of different races, cultures and traditions. This enables them to find common ground, and averts the inevitable stereotyping that ignorance produces.
Racism is still very much alive in schools today. And the vast majority of schools are still far from diverse – a structural legacy of apartheid. This is harmful not just to social cohesion, but also to the education our children receive. It is not adequate preparation for real life for children, of whatever race, to be educated in a racial bubble.
It is safe to say that truly diverse schools with no majority race are few and far between. The spatial divisions in our society along racial lines have made it difficult or even impossible for poorer schools to get a good mix of race in their learner base – or any mix at all. Most formerly white schools either switched to entirely black within a few years, or else still have a large majority of white children.
We cannot just wait for positive change to happen organically over time. Schools must make a deliberate effort to provide children with diverse interactions right now – if not through a more diverse learner base, then through a diverse teaching staff, and through inter-schools sports and cultural events.
The richer schools though, those in quintile 5, are well positioned to grow learner diversity. This they can do actively by making it a priority, and by extending bursaries where necessary and possible.
Besides giving children the historical context of racism in this country, and giving them opportunities for racially diverse interactions, the fourth key lever is literally to tackle racism head on, both in its vulgar and its veiled forms.
This starts with an outright and unequivocal condemnation of racism. Children must be told in no uncertain terms that racist remarks are completely unacceptable. Furthermore, schools and parents alike can and must teach our children that they are not greater or lesser by virtue of their skin colour.
Life Orientation or Life Skills lessons are a good place to start talking about race and tackling racism. We need greater and more open dialogue – this is not a subject to be avoided. Children must be made aware that race is a social construct with no basis in biology. This is not to say that it is wrong to identify as a certain race or culture. On the contrary, kids should be encouraged to accept and celebrate diversity in all its forms.
To the best of their ability, school principals should engage their teacher and parent community on tackling racism. Teachers and parents must clearly understand that they are role models. Children will take their cue from the adults around them.
Finally, the greatest challenge of all, but one from which we must not shy away, is to give children confidence in who they are as individuals. Both teachers and parents must affirm children – let them know they are perfect the way they are.
This starts at home. Parents need to give their children the love and time that confirms their worth, regardless of their wealth and race. A solid family base filled with love and reassurance will go a long way towards healing insecurities.
For children who come from an environment where the parent is unable to give them this confidence – perhaps because they don’t have it themselves – this responsibility falls heavily on teachers. For many children, school is a “safe zone” because home is not a peaceful, secure place in which children’s self-worth is reinforced. For these children, the role of the school is absolutely essential, to fill the vacuum created at home.
Overcoming racism is not an impossible task if the will exists. These five levers identified by this group of school principals will go a long way to taking the toxicity out of it. Historical injustices were born out of education. Now schools can and must play a leading role in repairing the damage.
But racism will only truly be defeated when race ceases to be a defining feature of our children’s future prospects. For this, we have to dismantle the structural barriers that poor, black people continue to face. And that starts with giving all our children an excellent, world class education.Mmusi Maimane