Adriaan Basson

3 lessons from that Schweizer-Reneke photo

2019-01-14 07:53
Sello Lehari, MEC for education in the North West visits the Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke. Photo: Christiaan du Plessis

Sello Lehari, MEC for education in the North West visits the Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke. Photo: Christiaan du Plessis

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A photo showing four black Grade R children seated separately from about 20 white classmates in a North West farming town has laid bare some of the deep fault lines in our fledgling democracy.

If there is anything positive to take from this story, it should be that it gives us insight into some of the major issues still hampering our maturation into an equal, non-racial and non-discriminatory democracy.

It asks of each of us to up our game in achieving these goals set by our founding fathers.

I have been following the story through the coverage of our reporters and have some experience of small farming towns in rural South Africa. I've learnt the following three lessons over the past few days:

1. White racism is deep-seated and intertwined with skewed power balances in rural South Africa

Whatever the reason of the Grade R teacher from Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke to seat her black and white pupils separately for a photo, there can simply be no justification for what she did. She should have known better and deserves censure for segregating her class based on race.

The language argument is a nonsense one. This wasn't a picture of extra Afrikaans lessons, which would naturally be dominated by black children. It was a class picture and there was no reason to seat them like that.

The fact that some people can even think there may be a valid reason for the offensive seating arrangement shows we have lots of work to do in explaining centuries of institutionalised racism to some white South Africans.

The sight of a small number of black kids bundled together while the majority of the happy, smiling class sat elsewhere brought back painful memories for black South Africans. This is exactly what apartheid looked like – black people being treated as second-class citizens in their own country, where they have always been the majority.

The power balance in the picture unfortunately represents much of what I've seen in rural South Africa, where very few of the means of production are owned by black people. In most North West farming towns, white people still own the majority of farms, shops and corporations.

The ANC has failed dismally to create a sustainable black middle-class in rural towns who are not employed by the municipality, but that is a discussion for another day.

Not "owning" your town means you have very little agency over the public goods, like schools. This unfortunately means black kids in schools like Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke will always be seen as visitors in a school that "belongs" to white people.

2. 'Tis the season for selective outrage

The North West is probably one of the provinces where the ANC's governance failures have been the most extreme. From countless potholes to a collapsing public health system, the ANC in North West has all but imploded.

It has descended into a cesspit that sends its money, supposed to uplift the poor, to Dubai for the Guptas to build a fancy medical facility for rich people.

The party does not really deserve to govern this province.

Still, the ANC managed to cause an enormous outcry over the Schweizer-Reneke photo and MEC Sello Lehari was there almost immediately to suspend the (wrong) teacher. Never in recent history has the ANC acted so swiftly and decisively over a matter of public concern in the North West.

Of course the Schweizer-Reneke incident deserves outrage, even from politicians, but what about the collapse of the provincial health system? Or the lack of proper roads? Or the number of bankrupt municipalities? Or the money to the Guptas? Are these examples of mismanagement that directly steal food out of the mouths of the poor not worthy of outrage, protest and decisive action?

With an election five months away, it is not convenient for the ANC to highlight its own governance failures. Politicians will try to use the Schweizer-Reneke photo to divert attention from causes just as worthy as fighting institutionalised racism.

3. Facts don't matter if you shout loud enough

It emerged on the weekend that the "wrong" teacher was suspended. The teacher who seated the kids separately was not suspended. Her colleague who was asked to take the picture got the chop.

Unless I am missing a major part of the story, that will hopefully emerge soon to enlighten us all, this makes zero sense. Yes, the teacher who took the picture should have asked her colleague what the hell she thought she was doing, but surely the person at fault here is the teacher whose class was pictured?

What if the teacher who took the picture wanted to expose her colleague? However unlikely, this is technically a possibility. Unfortunately, it seems that the hysteria of the moment overshadowed all logic to establish the facts before casting judgement.

Lehari is back at the school on Monday. Let's hope for more detail.

A thorough, impartial investigation should be undertaken to establish the facts, out of earshot of protestors, gun-toting residents and publicity-seeking politicians.

- Adriaan Basson is editor-in-chief of News24. Follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanBasson

Read more on:    anc  |  schweizer-reneke  |  north west  |  racism  |  discrimination

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