‘White equals best, and it’ll take forever to convince black Africans otherwise’

2015-02-04 16:17

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I have sent my children to a so-called “white school” since they were five years of age. It should not bother me.

In the first years of their schooling they would, unavoidably, be one fewer than five children, at most, in a class.

Over the years I was worried that this would make them lose contact with African culture, heritage and identity. But growing up in an integrated world that strives towards nonracism and equality cannot make them less African. Instead, they will understand the complex nature of identity and the fast-changing world at a much earlier age.

I now refuse to be shamed by accusations of raising “coconuts”. Like many middle-class parents, I was embarrassed and afraid to look critical people in the eye for trying to do the best I could for my children. But the motive for sending my children to white schools was simply to give them access to best education. Above all, it was to make them be part of a just and equal society that we are all trying to build.

Unfortunately, most of us born before 1985 have been condemned by history to always look at things in terms of black and white. The motive for sending so-called black children to white schools is not because of affordability but the desire to give children the best that this country has to offer.

I know that many parents who do menial jobs such as domestic helpers, messengers or gardeners sacrifice everything to give their children the best education, whatever that means. My own mother and father were poor, working class people who did their level best to give us access to education. They, ultimately, produced four university graduates.

I am disappointed and hurt that after 20 years of hard won democracy and freedom some white parents continue to move away or withdraw their children from schools because of the presence of black African children. This is, simply, anti nation-building and social cohesion.

It makes one feel awkward as an heir to Nelson Mandela’s dream of a nonracial, united and prosperous nation. We should be concerned that this is still a pattern in a country that holds so much promise for nonracism, equality and justice in the world.

It would be highly irresponsible for any proud and caring citizen to say they do not give a damn about “white flight” from increasingly Africanising neighbourhoods and schools. This spells death to the dream of nonracism, equality and justice.

Thank God, black Africans have not chased whites into the sea. But some whites are holding their ground and running away from working with us to build a society that so many people sacrificed their lives for.

To hell with racism. This must come to an immediate stop. It undermines the principles of our Constitution. We demand nonracism, justice and equality for all children, here and now.

But, again, it is superficial to solely attribute this withdrawal and flight to white racism. It is only human and natural to want the the best for oneself and one’s families and friends. Remember we live in an economic system that promotes greed and selfishness.

Much as there is enough for all our needs in this beautiful country, there are far too few people who are willing to share and redistribute what they have. Instead, everybody wants more for themselves only.

Also, I have witnessed some black Africans, so-called Indians and Coloured parents withdraw their children from some schools because it is increasingly becoming “too black”.

There seems to be something about the lingering legacy of colonialism and apartheid that makes people insane and wish to distance themselves from what is misunderstood to be “blackness”. Despite the fact that it was redefined and repackaged by a young and highly gifted intellectual visionary, Steve Biko, it continues to have a negative connotation.

Blackness is a not a threat to this country but is its future, especially when we understand what Biko meant.

In 1986 – when the anti-apartheid resistance was gaining momentum and blacks turned against separate and segregated education – I was afforded the privilege to attend the exclusively white and Afrikaans University of Stellenbosch. This is the environment that shaped and developed the awareness that equality and justice will always mean black access to white privilege.

In fact, as early as 1912 with the founding of the African National Congress there was a belief that justice and equality will only mean access to white privilege. Thus for many previously disadvantaged people including black Africans, freedom and justice means having what white people have. Period!

After all, whites are seen to have enjoyed the best this country has to offer for over 300 years. To be convinced that you have the best you must have what whites have: money, plush homes with swimming pools, two cars and, above all, quality education for the children. It will take a millennium to convince black African people otherwise. White equals the best.

The impulse is to sneer at the notion of white equals good. But I would be naïve to promote white superiority and racism.

At this odd moment in history, for many black Africans justice and equality is only possible when they have access to white privilege.

The easiest thing to do would be for self-appointed Black Consciousness adherents to dismiss this thinking and attitude as upholding white racism. It is a distortion to consider this perception as simply meaning white equals well and good. But there is always that danger.

Thus one needs to make it clear that the wish to send black African children to so-called white schools is neither to promote white superiority nor to celebrate whiteness, whatever that means today. It is simply to give children access to what is, right or wrong, perceived to be the best in this country.

There is no doubt that white people have over indulged themselves in the best that this country has to offer. And what is wrong if black African people want equal access to that?

The guilt of sending black African children to white schools is fading, slowly. If we want to build the brightest future for our children to grow up and live in a nonracial and democratic society characterised by justice and equality, white parents will have to come to the party.

It is time that whites acknowledged and recognised that this country belongs to all who live in it. All children have a right to quality education. If, for now, that is so-called white education, let the children go to the best schools in this country.

Every child has a right to quality education. It is not about being black or white but creating opportunities for future citizens of this country.

- Sandile Memela is former chief director: social cohesion and now the spokesperson for the minister of arts and culture.

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