Melanie Verwoerd

Verwoerd, afros and changing times

2016-09-07 07:36
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PICS: The day Dr H F Verwoerd died

On September 06 1966 just after 14:15 Dr HF Verwoerd was stabbed by Dimitri Tsafendas in the neck and chest four times. There was an earlier attempt on his life in 1960.

Melanie Verwoerd

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of HF Verwoerd. Out of respect for the family, which I became part of through marriage, I decided not to write about it. However, while thinking about it, I was reminded of something that happened recently.

When you carry a surname like Verwoerd in South Africa, you learn to expect a reaction when people hear or see it. My kids and I can never pass through passport control in OR Tambo, for example, without some negative comment or at least many raised eyebrows. Over the years I have learnt to joke about it, or try and diffuse the situation in advance.

Recently I was due to give a presentation at one of the big investment houses in Cape Town. On my arrival, I introduced myself to the receptionist as Melanie. She showed me to a boardroom and left. After a few minutes she returned. “I am sorry, I forgot to ask your surname,” she said. Anticipating a reaction, I jokingly responded: “It’s a bad one...” The receptionist’s eyes widened and she whispered slightly anxiously: “It’s not Zuma, is it?”

How times have changed.

But have they really? One of the things Verwoerd is most despised for, is his education policy. Of course we have come a long way since the racist Bantu Education policies of the 1950s, which continued to the early 1990s.

But exactly 50 years after Verwoerd’s death, we were confronted this past week with images of young girls in tears at their schools. They weren’t crying about breakups with boyfriends or girlfriends as you would expect at that age. These girls were weeping while relating painful racist incidents they had experienced. To make matters worse, it wasn’t unthinking actions by fellow students (which would of course also be totally unacceptable), but formal school policies and actions by teachers, which so pained the girls.

I was totally gobsmacked when I read what was happening at these schools. How on earth is it possible that the governing bodies and teachers did not think or understand how offensive these rules and actions are?  How can teachers, of all people, 22 years after democracy, still not get basic things like this right?

It seems to me these old Model-C schools still have an attitude of “us and them”. Either overtly, or through acts of omission (i.e. changing school policies), they seem to say: “You are welcome in our (white) school, but you have to play according to our (white) rules and abide by our (white) culture. Not a far cry from the painful past of Catholic missionary teachers in Africa, insisting on children becoming Catholic, dressing in Western clothes and even taking on European names. Today, as in the past with the Catholics and Verwoerd, these educational policies and rules are clearly based on a deep sense of cultural superiority as well as an insistence on conformity.

I remain puzzled as to why schools in general have this need for conformity. The argument is often made that conformity in terms of uniform and general appearance is necessary for good discipline. What nonsense. My children spent most of their schooling years in Ireland. They wore school uniforms as most kids in Ireland do, but hair could be worn whichever way they wanted. Make-up was discouraged, but still worn and little fuss was made about skirt lengths, or jewelry. Does the whole of Ireland have badly disciplined children because of that? Of course not.

In my children’s primary school there were children of all nationalities. Naturally siblings and children with similar languages spoke to one another in their mother tongues. I would have been furious if my children had been punished or fined for speaking to each other in Afrikaans at school. And that was in a country where English is the official language, unlike ours, which constitutionally recognises its 11 official languages. The question is, why in South Africa, so long after our transition, do the white scholars still not speak or understand isiXhosa (or other African languages), so that it is not an issue on the school ground?

Of course not all schools in South Africa are like these that made it into the newspapers lately. Before we went to Ireland, my children went to St George’s Grammar school in Cape Town. Being a private school, they became multiracial long before the early 1990’s – one of the main reasons my kids went there. Despite being an Anglican School, the school had children of all faiths. The principal at the time, Jenny Mallett (sister of Nick), encouraged multi-faith and diversity with a passion. All religious holidays were celebrated and cultural diversity was something to be proud of. Individuality was celebrated and encouraged. It was a huge contrast to my apartheid education, and something that has greatly benefitted and prepared my children for the country and world they have to operate in as young adults.

Surely what we need in South Africa today are young people who can claim their individuality, think outside the box and act with courage and tenacity? Surely we don’t need young people who constantly conform to perceived public norms out of fear of punishment? I saw an interview last week with one of Pretoria Girls High’s scholars, who explained that she was a sangoma. Listening to her, I got goosebumps with excitement. I  thought, what a privilege to have this young woman in the school. How I wished I could have had the opportunity to understand more of the world of traditional healing when I was young. But instead of celebrating this, the school apparently forbids her to wear beads around her neck, which is required for all sangomas.

I was filled with admiration for the young women who took up the battle last week, but I was also furious. This should not be their battle to fight. They should be in a happy, safe learning environment, not a place of sadness, fear and pain.  During the 1994 transition the governing bodies of Model-C schools were given many powers to decide on matters affecting the schools. As with many things post-1994, this was meant to placate white fears in the light of a requirement to rapidly integrate the schools. But it seems now that these powers were, and are still being, used to entrench whiteness, which results in insensitive and racist policies. This has to change immediately.

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and SA ambassador to Ireland. 

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