Racism in schools has not been exaggerated

2017-09-03 06:02
Parents put placards outside St John’s College ahead of Panyaza Lesufi’s meeting with the school’s management. Picture: Ndileka Lujabe

Parents put placards outside St John’s College ahead of Panyaza Lesufi’s meeting with the school’s management. Picture: Ndileka Lujabe

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The recent St John’s College race debacle has faded from view.

The school hopes it will avoid further public attention as South Africans fixate on the myriad other crises engulfing our country.

We can’t let that happen – institutions such as St John’s thrive on a culture of secrecy, and only sustained public pressure will force them to change.

The school managed to cleverly dodge further public shame by calling for a “town hall meeting” of the “St John’s Community” soon after it fired Keith Arlow, the teacher found guilty of racial abuse.

Though it pretended to “consult”, its real intention was to defend the status quo.

The meeting was a total farce.

For one thing, it was called with less than 24 hours of notice.

For another, the definition of “the community” only further exemplified the problem – it excluded cleaners, gardeners, security guards or dining hall staff, let alone people from the actual community surrounding St John’s.

Conveniently, the “community” meant “the comfortable bubble”.

Predictably, speaking time was disproportionately afforded to senior office bearers, all of whom were white.

Black pupils and black alumni barely spoke, and were relegated to the third hour of proceedings.

It was clear from the start that neither the headmaster nor the chairperson of council had any intention of resigning.

Some think calling for their resignation is a step too far, but senior accountability matters. Failure to sanction racism is just as deep a problem as racism itself.

The condonation of racism has always been racism’s evil twin, and must be treated as an equal evil.

Leaders who preside over institutions where racism is rampant bear a responsibility to defeat it; where they fail, they must go.

We have no problem declaring that senior political leaders should resign for presiding over corruption, even when they are not directly involved.

Why should racial abuse be any different?

I was shocked by the attitude of several white staff members who spoke at the meeting.

They rallied around the headmaster. One even threatened to resign if he went.

Another teacher said he felt victimised “because he might be called a racist”.

As if the fear of some unsubstantiated phantom accusation could be equated to the real racism that black pupils had faced.

Another teacher argued that black alumni who spoke out publicly were pursuing a “sinister power agenda”.

Well, if calling for senior accountability over racism is a “sinister power agenda”, then I plead guilty.

I address school racism in my new book Democracy & Delusion. While I was writing about it, part of me thought I might be exaggerating the problem.

Even the most fervent antiracism campaigners sometimes slip into moments of self-doubt.

When fresh stories of racial abuse emerged, I was reminded that, if anything, I had underestimated the problem.

In the companion rap album to the book, I have a song called Daylight, which focuses on my experiences at St John’s. I write:

It was hard putting up with the erasure/

But I knew there were millions who would trade places/

So, that’s what I call a post-apartheid irony/

When you get ahead, they take you back to their binaries/

Then, as now, I wanted to reflect the paradox of contemporary black South African life – every time you advance, you return to the same racism you thought you’d escaped.

All the while, you are shamed into silence because of how “lucky” you are to be at a school like St John’s.

But black people don’t forgo their right to criticise racism when they achieve economic advancement.

As if you have to be a poor saint before your voice is legitimate.

This irony only reinforces the problem – when it comes to racism, we would sooner question the intentions of the accuser than deal with the actions of the accused.

Mpofu-Walsh is a musician, activist, author of Democracy & Delusion: 10 Myths in South African Politics and winner of the City Press Tafelberg Nonfiction Award.

The book launches next week and is now in stores.

Read more on:    education  |  racism

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