White parents must rub their apartheid dust off and introspect

The apartheid ghosts hover over our schools and the parents indoctrinated by their own schooling hold tight to their symbols and traditions, writes Heidi Villa-Vicencio.

The open letter from alumni of Rustenburg Girls' high and junior schools speaks of the Eurocentric white culture that prevails at the institution. This culture is evident in many previously white English-speaking schools across our country and continually rears its head through racial incidents at these schools. These range from questioning if "black teachers are real teachers", to teachers being accused of racist rants and sustained discrimination of black learners, to learners being told not to speak isiXhosa at school or that their "accents sound funny", to implementing outdated hair policies and disciplining girls who wear the hijab.

Personally, I do not know why we are shocked or even surprised. The deep-seated legacies upon which these behaviours are based remain deeply ingrained in the cultures of these institutions. They have never been challenged. The old boys' and girls' networks continue to run the show and to uphold the privileges handed down to them by an unjust system.

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I am a product of white education, starting my primary education in Pretoria and then moving to Cape Town where I first attended Oakhurst Girls' Primary School, followed by Rustenburg Girls High School. This was a schooling that ideologically tried to brainwash me into believing in the supremacy of my white skin. It is the schooling experience of my fellow white South Africans who were at school prior to 1994. 

Indoctrination is the systematic process of teaching people to accept a set of beliefs uncritically. The apartheid system was adept at this. So, just because Nelson Mandela walked free in 1990 and 1994 brought a new dawn of democracy does not mean that these entrenched belief systems disappeared overnight. We might only have become more sophisticated at hiding them. Believe me, I am a child of apartheid education and every day I need to check my privilege. 

My school memories are full of images of seeing black people as the "other". I remember when I was eight years old, running down the streets of Pretoria filled with anxiety as the school had told us to go straight home as "the blacks are rioting again". I shamefully recall the embarrassment I felt when my parents asked me to give a black family friend a hug in front of a white friend and how she teased me amongst my classmates the following day. I remember sitting in my classroom at Rustenburg Girls High and the drill bell ringing for us to practice hiding beneath our desks in case the "blacks stormed our school".  

And, of course, at every assembly we were forced to stand to attention and sing Die Stem and pay allegiance to God and country. 
Then there was our headmistress in her clipped English accent singing the virtues of being good Christian ladies. Weekend entertainment included watching all-white rugby matches at our local brother schools or attending the Friday night disco with the same boys who were forced to dress up once week in brown cadet uniforms. We would see them marching across school playgrounds like little soldiers, whilst being told about the "terrorist" onslaught that they would protect South Africa, or rather white South Africa, against.

The cadets were the forerunner to compulsory conscription into the army. An army that terrorised black townships and fought border wars. Besides a minority of conscientious objectors – this means that most white men over the age of 45 were part of this war on their fellow citizens. 

I lived in a world full of white people, blacks were there only to serve this white world. And, if one dared to question this world one was ostracised – shouted at in assembly for refusing to respect the flag, called into the headmistress's office not to be comforted because one's father was detained under the State of Emergency, but to be told to be careful and not to bring politics into the school.  

One was forced to the edges of the school – excluded. Nobody wanted to associate with a person who dared challenge the system. 
It is the same system that today is the bedrock of previously white schools. It is a system in which black learners, parents and teachers are expected to assimilate into – they need to become whiter and speak like whites in order for them to be tolerated, not even accepted. 

The apartheid ghosts hover over our schools and the parents indoctrinated by their own schooling hold tight to their symbols and traditions. Their worlds remain shaped by a white superiority complex and this becomes the lived experience of their children. Their only interaction with black people is through the people who serve them as cleaners, domestic workers and gardeners. For them blackness is mediocrity and whiteness is excellence. So how can a black teacher be a "real teacher"?  

Change in our schools needs to start in our homes. It requires parents to rub their apartheid dust off, do introspection and recognise their privilege. And, in our schools, we parents need to be vigilant and create groups like the Parents for Change at Rustenburg Junior

We need to demand transformation from our schools and work constructively in partnership with them. But, if needs be, we must call the intransigent schools out and expose their unfair and exclusionary practices. This is essential to building a future for our children and generations to come, where inclusiveness and diversity are not only embraced but also celebrated. The long-term survival of our nation depends on it.   

- Heidi Villa-Vicencio is the managing director of Mthente Research and Consulting Services and has two children who attend schools in the southern suburbs of Cape Town.

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