Dear Stephen Price
My name is Cherrel Africa and it’s been several months since I wrote an anguished letter to you, sent on the 22nd of June 2012 at 13:53pm. My email system shows that this email was indeed opened from your email address. I did not receive any acknowledgement of it from you or your office, not even to say that you noted the contents thereof. I think my letter to you might also cause quite a stir. Yet, I sincerely hope that it goes beyond causing a stir but leads to a national discussion about a very serious matter. My letter is borne out of my desire to see all children have a chance to fulfil their dreams at ‘former Model C schools’. The merits or demerits of your critique of President Zuma are a matter for another discussion.
Now, let me tell you a little bit about my son. He attended a small private Christian school for grades 1, 2, 3 and 4. He enjoyed this school and was well-loved by his teachers. He received several discipleship awards for his character. Because of the school’s financial constraints, we moved him to a public school where he had a very positive experience and started to show his athletic prowess. By the time he finished primary school he was a well-adjusted teenager with average academic marks – polite and well-mannered although quite forgetful and unfocused as teenage boys are.
Like countless other parents clamouring to get into Bergvliet High I was thoroughly impressed by what your school had to offer. Indeed, it’s one of the top twenty in the country. Such an accolade! We came to your open day and were even more impressed, especially by the rousing address you gave to eager new parents. My son was accepted at your school and began his new journey at Bergvliet High at the beginning of 2012. At Bergvliet High however, there were so many unhappy incidents which occurred, incidents which left me as a parent feeling shocked and frustrated. My son had begged me not to raise these issues with individual teachers because he feared victimization. As an educator and someone who manages an academic department, I decided to keep track of them and approach you during the June holidays so that I could resolve them with you. Upon analysis of the various incidents, I concluded that there is a deep sociological problem of entrenched racism among the older cohort of your staff. I decided that the problem was too deep and systemic and so decided to extract my son from the situation after a mere two terms in grade 8. I realize that this might only affect a small minority of learners (and that many learners do have a positive experience at your school), but that is still too many.
At the beginning of the June holiday I wrote a letter to you to explain all of this and you did not respond at all. My letter was not written maliciously but with the intent of improving the situation for other children facing a similar situation. In my letter to you I stated that
“ Bergvliet High has experienced rapid change in the demographic composition of its student body. In plain language, there has been an influx of “students of colour” into the school. It is entirely feasible that this reality (and indeed the reality of living in a constitutional democracy where every person has equal rights and freedoms) has not been fully embraced by portions of your staff. These staff members may not even be fully aware of this. I can use the analogy of a child who is adversely affected by the divorce of his/her parents. On the face of it, one might simply observe a troubled child. The child may not know or be able to articulate the reasons for his/her disposition, anger, troubles, etc. In much the same way teachers, who struggle with the transition to democracy may feel a sense of betrayal and or a loss of power, may inadvertently label and target students who are not white. There is thus a disjuncture between your vision for school (and our new democracy) and the norms and practices of some of your teachers.”
I further wrote that
“It was really difficult and disheartening to watch his spirit slowly but surely being broken and him coming to believe that it was his fault. My son initially indicated to us that he wanted to “stick it out” at the school. This demoralizing situation is not one conducive to learning. Given the complexity of the problem, it seemed to us as parents that it would be better to extricate our son from a situation that may take many years to be resolved.”
I approached the principal of another school in the area, Norman Henshilwood High School. I was amazed at the embracing culture of this school. Let me say that Norman Henshilwood has a higher ratio of students in their classes and do not have the facilities that Bergvliet High has, but they have teaching innovation combined with discipline, fairness and nurturing. They have transformed in the true sense of the word and the principal makes a world of difference. My son is thriving at Norman Henshilwood and his grades have improved.
I therefore found it incredulous that you decided to pen an open letter to President Zuma demanding him to account to you when you in fact have been entirely unaccountable to me. Furthermore, the audacity that you have in terms the content of letter meant that I simply could not in good conscience remain silent on my experience with your school. You state that it is your mission to develop “a revival of respect, a unity of purpose, a spirit of participation and more importantly, a sense of hope”. Values you say that we should be seeing in the leaders of our country. You say that your school teaches about “shared heritage, about our country, about each other, about the value of treating others with respect, about being proud of who they are and about loyalty and integrity”. This was not our experience at all, it was the complete opposite. Worse than that you did not show any leadership, neither did you show me any respect when you failed to acknowledge my letter. I had a deep sense of frustration because of this. If you believe in the future of this country and our youth, why would you rise to the challenge and do the hard work of grappling with the issues that I raised? These are issues which remain and I do believe face many families that sacrifice to send their children to top ‘former Model C schools’. There are many schools where there has been a rapid change in the demographic composition of the learner population but no fundamental change in the staff complement and no “diversity sensitivity” training for staff who struggle to process the vast changes that have occurred in our country since 1994. As I said in my letter to you, many of these parents may not even be aware of the problems that their children are experiencing given the demands of family life. I maintain that the implications of this situation are far-reaching because there is a cohort of learners who are systematically being broken by a systemic problem beyond their control. These learners are people who may have excelled in life but were turned off from education because of these experiences.
You have the audacity to request respect from the president but you do not afford it to others. I hope you will now respond to my letter (and the substance thereof) now that I’ve placed it in the public domain. Sir, you need to practice what you preach!
Dr Cherrel Africa
Parent of a former of Bergvliet High School student
PS: Let me make a side comment on your point about self-enrichment. Upon acceptance at Bergvliet High, I paid a text book fee of R2000. When exiting the school I approached your bursar about the pro-rata re-imbursement of this fee. I was told that I had signed to acknowledge that the fee was non-refundable. I responded that I had indeed signed that letter based on the presumption that my son would be at the school for the full duration of five years. I then took the matter to the circuit manager who said that others had faced a similar problem but all I could do was seek legal recourse. I then took the matter to the small claims court but was told that it was beyond their jurisdiction because the school formed part of government structures. I therefore had to forfeit the R1600, which was unacceptable given that school is not a profit-making entity. Your bursar at least communicated with me but there was utter silence from your office. Again, you should practice the standards you set for others.
MY ORIGINAL LETTER TO YOU
22 June 2012
Dear Mr Price
You may be aware that my husband and I have decided to transfer our son, , to Norman Henshilwood High School as of term 3. This decision was not taken lightly. I have decided to write to you so that you may gain insight into this decision in a way that can assist Bergvliet High. Before I go into the substance of the letter I would like to emphasize that as the Head of a tertiary level department of more than 900 learners (with only 5 academic staff) I fully understand the need for systems, policies and discipline. Furthermore, in our home we are committed to Godly principles and values and therefore also enforce a system of discipline in our home.
Deciding on a high school is a very difficult decision. As parents we were very impressed by your open day programme and the reputation of the school. We were therefore very happy to receive a place at the school. Unfortunately, our experience has not been a happy one. I fear that our experience is not unique and, as I will explain, might require some difficult introspection by you and your staff.
Initially I thought that the problems which were occurring were mainly teething problems given the fact that a move from primary to high school is such a difficult transition. I kept note of the problems with the intention of raising them with you at an opportune time. My son in fact begged me to not raise these incidents as they occurred. Some of the examples include my son being told that he is not of any worth to the school if he does not do a sport, being given instructions about using the rest rooms in Afrikaans (during the exam period not during Afrikaans instruction) and then being screamed at for not following them (as a consequence of not understanding them) and being told that they would be penalized if they queried their exam marks. There are other instances, however, I do not want to dwell on the specifics of these occasions. I want to highlight the broader problem and the implications thereof.
Upon reflection I realized that these incidents are likely to be the manifestation of a far deeper and more systemic problem. This is my analysis of the problem. Bergvliet High has experienced rapid change in the demographic composition of its student body. In plain language, there has been an influx of “students of colour” into the school. It is entirely feasible that this reality (and indeed the reality of living in a constitutional democracy where every person has equal rights and freedoms) has not been fully embraced by portions of your staff. These staff members may not even be fully aware of this. I can use the analogy of a child who is adversely affected by the divorce of his/her parents. On the face of it, one might simply observe a troubled child. The child may not know or be able to articulate the reasons for his/her disposition, anger, troubles, etc. In much the same way teachers, who struggle with the transition to democracy may feel a sense of betrayal and or a loss of power, may inadvertently label and target students who are not white. There is thus a disjuncture between your vision for school (and our new democracy) and the norms and practices of some of your teachers.
This disjuncture manifests as everyday problems between teachers and some learners. This is not really the case among the younger teachers. This might be so because their experiences and training are different but also because they are more able to embrace a diverse student body.
On the face of it, it simply looks as though those learners are troublesome. This problem seems to disproportionately affect boys rather than girls. If you check my son’s record you will see that he did receive several demerits. These were for minor infringements and in fact I took issue with the validity of some of them. Indeed my son is quite forgetful but he is very respectful and compliant. You can verify this with his primary school teachers. To my understanding the purpose of a system of discipline is to develop responsibility and a positive attitude. I don’t believe that the demerit system is currently being used in that spirit. In some instances learners are also spoken to in an unnecessarily abrasive manner. Given the comparatively low teacher student ratios, it is very hard to see the reason for this.
It was really difficult and disheartening to watch his spirit slowly but surely being broken and him coming to believe that it was his fault. My son initially indicated to us that he wanted to “stick it out” at the school. This demoralizing situation is not one conducive to learning. Given the complexity of the problem, it seemed to us as parents that it would be better to extricate our son from a situation that may take many years to be resolved.
The irony and the tragedy of the situation is that the families of children in a similar situation are likely to be making a big financial sacrifice to put their children in such a terrible situation and are likely to blame their child rather than the system. Many of these parents may not even be aware of the problems that their children are experiencing given the demands of family life. The reason that we are aware of what was happening is because we make a practice of discussing their school day. The implications of this situation (if I am correct) are quite far-reaching because there is a cohort of learners who are systematically being broken by a systemic problem beyond their control. These learners are people who may have excelled in life but were turned off from education because of these experiences. I do also believe that there are many schools where there has been a rapid change in the demographic composition of the learner population.
Of course, you simply cannot know everything that is occurring in every class and cannot verify what teachers are saying to learners. However, while it is therefore understandable that you could not have been aware of this situation, it is by no means acceptable for this to now continue. Furthermore, I know that the initial reaction of your teachers to these claims may be defensiveness and therefore have no desire to engage with individual teachers about any of the incidents that I mentioned. I am not raising these issues to point fingers at any individual member of staff but to ask you to engage in a process of critical reflection so that the extent of damage to children is minimized.
You may choose to disregard my analysis or can grapple with it in a meaningful way. I realize that what I am asking is not easy but I do believe that it is critically important. I would recommend that you consider diversity training for your entire staff. In fact there is an NGO called Inclusive Education Western Cape( IEWC) based in Claremont which offers training on various aspects of inclusive education. Their website address is http://www.included.org.za and the manager is Robyn Bath who can be contacted on (021) 674 1422 or email@example.com
This has been a traumatic process but we hope that through our difficult experience there may be a positive outcome. I would appreciate your feedback on this letter.
Dr Cherrel Africa
PS: There was one teacher who made a world of difference to my son. He is Mr Fortune, the EMS teacher. Mr Fortune was strict but fair and caring. He affirmed the students in his class. Perhaps you could follow up on his teaching philosophy so that the other teachers may learn from him.
Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on MyNews24 have been independently written by members of News24's community. The views of users published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.