Black or white

2011-04-01 00:00

JIMMY Manyi started it, then Trevor Manuel and Kuli Roberts threw petrol on the fire and Cope’s Phillip Dexter stoked the blaze with his statement that “... we are a nation of racists, bigots and discriminators. As in many countries, but sharpened by 350 years of colonialism and 50 years of apartheid, South Africans are fascinated with, and are experts on race, ethnicity, skin colour …”

For those of us old enough to have experienced apartheid, racial prejudice is a familiar, if uncomfortable concept. However, generations of South Africans born after apartheid’s demise, even if they live with its legacy, have to learn about it, either from family and community, or in the classroom, or both. And so they should, for we cannot escape the fact that apartheid, and its foundation, racial prejudice, are still a part of who we are as a nation. Even if we cannot or will not admit it, they often define how we see one another, how we see ourselves and how we relate to both ourselves and one another.

Away from the national headlines and media spotlights, pupils in local schools learn about South Africa’s recent past in a number of subjects. Grade 4 pupils at Cordwalles Prep school recently studied the theme Proudly South African in social science. They learnt about Nelson Mandela and read Beverley Naidoo’s book, Journey to Jo’burg, which was banned from 1985 until 1990. “You cannot learn about Nelson Mandela without talking about apartheid,” explained Grade 4 teachers Denise Dedekind and Ali Kingsley. As a result, their 33 pupils learnt about apartheid first-hand through an experiential learning programme.

Each school morning for three weeks boys chose a card that designated them either “white” or “non-white” for the day, the terms once used under apartheid. Those who were non-white had to carry a dompas and got a tiny taste of what it was like in the world of apartheid South Africa.

Boys clamoured to explain to The Witness what it was like to be non-white. “We have to stand during computer lessons while the whites sit. We get only water to drink at lunch, not juice, and we can’t have second helpings. Apartheid was unfair and unkind,” said Timothy Houghting. “We cannot play with our friends if they are white and we have to play on the worst field at break. I’ve been a non-white many times and it’s ugly. The only time it’s okay is if your friends are non-white too,” said Senzelwe Sibisi.

“We have to clean up after the whites in art lessons and we miss the warm-up in drama, we just have to watch. If we forget our dompas, we have to go to jail in the brick quad at break time. We cannot go out and play. If we lose our passes we go to jail at break for three days. It’s unfair,” said Jarooshan Chetty.

The project also prompted boys to ask their parents and grandparents about their experiences of apartheid. They learnt about things older generations once knew, but many youngsters had never heard of: separate facilities for different races like entrances, toilets and tills; pass raids; being forced to learn Afrikaans; being jailed unfairly; whites-only schools; and growing up without friends of other races.

“We can talk about apartheid, but the children will not have a deep understanding or empathy for people who suffered it unless they get to feel what it was really like. Once we started this project, we were able to draw parallels with real-life apartheid and they really started to understand what it meant,” Dedekind said.

“Boys are not always aware of their feelings, so we helped them articulate what they feel as non-whites and this put them in touch with a range of strong emotions like anger, sadness and frustration at the injustice and unfairness of apartheid. Some came very close to tears when they drew a non-white card for the fifth or sixth time in a row.

“We were also able to highlight just how amazing Nelson Mandela was in being able to forgive and help establish a new country despite all he suffered. They also need to understand that the consequences of apartheid still exist. They are around us all the time, and the boys start to grasp that too. The brilliance of this project is that the boys really get to experience apartheid, but it does not interfere with the school programme,” Kingsley said.

As part of the Grade 6 social sciences curriculum, pupils at Laddsworth Primary in Hilton had a similar experience of prejudice and discrimination. As part of a comparative study about leadership, they learnt about Nelson Mandela and Adolf Hitler. Grade 6 teacher Nikki Stokes has blue eyes, so the privileged elite in her class were the pupils with blue eyes, while the pupils with brown eyes were the ones to suffer discrimination. “I gave the blue-eyed children privileges the others didn’t have: they could go to the toilet any time without asking, they could eat in class, including sweets, and throw the wrappers on the floor for the brown-eyed class monitors to pick up. The brown-eyed pupils had to stand while the others sat and ended up standing against the wall as the others could not see the board. It did not take long for the privileged pupils to start taking advantage of their status and the underprivileged to feel aggrieved and angry,” Stokes said.

She was able to use the experience to lead into a discussion about the injustice of apartheid discrimination, and the holocaust and Hitler’s persecution of people who were not blue-eyed Aryans. “It was a wonderful exercise to get the pupils to see the potential that leadership has for good or evil — both Mandela and Hitler were great leaders, but used that gift so differently. Linking the exercise to apartheid also let us discuss the racial discrimination that occurred, about which some pupils knew very little. It was also instructive to help them explore their feelings about the experience of being one of the privileged elite or on the receiving end of prejudice, and how they related to each other in that context.”

Mandela said: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” Hopefully exercises like these will not only help to make “never again” a reality, but also produce younger generations with racial attitudes different from those of their elders.

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