By Roy Hellenberg and Dylan Wray
Earlier this week a video circulated on social media that a Hoërskool Die Burger learner had filmed during class. The video shows her/his teacher loudly calling the class "black idiots" who "only invented peanut butter". He then goes on to remind the class of presumably mainly black young people, that the reason he calls them idiots is that he is really trying to make them "champions" and doesn't believe in "black" or "idiots". Again, he tells them very loudly.
The video and related commentary have become regular themes within South African schools, especially in the classrooms of former Model C schools like Hoërskool Die Burger. What happened at Hoërskool Die Burger is, as we have seen over the last few years, not an uncommon experience for young black South Africans in our schools. Perhaps the insults are not as loud, the words as clear (nor always filmed) but the message is there. Many black learners feel marginalised and excluded and we will see the number and frequency of these incidences increasing as our collective and the institutional pasts of schools starts to catch up with us.
Given that the average age of educators in South Africa is somewhere between thirty-five and forty-five years old, young people are encountering the reality of an education system that is filled with adults who grew up in an apartheid state and imbibed the values of a racially hierarchical and unequal society. The majority of teachers standing at the front of classrooms all across South Africa today were educated, raised and moved around in a segregated South Africa. Most of their days were spent engaging with people who looked like them and shared a similar culture and socio-economic status. Values were absorbed, ways of viewing the world were internalized and yet we find ourselves surprised when these values and views of the world manifest themselves in the classroom some twenty years later. And we are taken aback when educators shake off some of this dust from the past as they enter their classrooms.
Let's be clear, this isn't something that only happens in the former Model-C or private schools (nor, only happens with teachers). Whatever their race, South Africans who grew up during apartheid carry some dust. (A note to the "born frees" who grew up during a democratic South Africa and feel somewhat immune from this - the thing with dust, is it is carried in the wind, and eventually, it finds places to settle).
As South African classrooms transitioned from mono-cultural environments to multicultural ones, no meaningful retraining of educators took place, no real assistance offered to help them confront their own identity formation, their own biases - both explicit and implicit. It was like we either believed that we could simply wave a magic wand over our schools and the past would disappear, or we turned our back from it, because that was easier. Or perhaps we just weren't ready or didn't know how to face up to it.
But whose responsibility was it to confront these pasts? For sure, each teacher (all of us really) needs to face the past - their own, South Africa's and their school's. For those teachers older than thirty-five, there is particular, uncomfortable work to be done. How different would that video had been if that teacher had taken the trouble to face his own identity formation, his personal past and what growing up in a divided society did to him? Has he really spent time thinking about the messages he received that consistently told him he was superior? Has he reflected on how this can so easily shape how he teaches a classroom filled with young people he was no doubt raised to see as inferior - even if he truly does believe he is making them "champions"? Has this been spoken and shared with others - others very different from him?
For those teachers younger than the majority who experienced this past, don't think this is just the work of the older colleagues sitting in the staffroom. You were raised by parents and care-givers who lived through that time. Their past will have rubbed off and some of it would have settled on you. There is work for you to do as well.
For sure there is work for us all to do, no matter what our profession. As citizens we all have this responsibility to face the past resting upon our shoulders. But, in the case of educators, it cannot just be left to the individual. That is far too risky for us to do as a nation. There is no other institution or sector that requires every South African citizen to go through it during their most impressionable years. It is here that young South Africans are exposed to the values, ethos and priorities dictated by that environment and specifically, the adults in that environment. On an average school day, a child often spends more hours interacting with teachers than their own parents. Every single day a teacher has two to three hundred young people sit in her classroom. Every South African child will be exposed to a multitude of educators over their twelve-year journey at school. Every school day every South African child will be confronted with the reality of the teacher in the classroom.
If we want to face our past as a country and build schools where all South African children belong, we have got to get more organized about helping educators to face their own past and schools, their institutional past. This calls for a co-ordinated effort by the national Department of Education, Provincial education departments, teacher unions and school governing bodies. The individual has work to do, but we all need to do this work together. There is a desperate need for facilitated engagement around the issues of racism, bias (explicit and implicit), transformation and belonging. As long as schools and education departments treat the incidents like that at Hoërskool Die Burger as isolated occurrences that require only disciplinary action, they will fail to root out the systemic injustices cemented into the very foundations of our South African schools.
The thing with dust is that it sticks to us. Sure, we can brush it off. But that's the point, unless we actually do, the dust settles on us. It is time to face our past. It's time to face it together.