OPINION | Brackenfell High: We cannot pretend this day wasn't going to come

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Brackenfell High School will be the scene of protesting on Friday, the EFF says.
Brackenfell High School will be the scene of protesting on Friday, the EFF says.
Jenni Evans, News24

Stephan Lombard takes a hard look at the neighbourhood he grew up in and calls on the community of Brackenfell to fix what is broken after a recent alleged racist incident at Brackenfell High.


Brackenfell, where we've got it all: the very first Pick n Pay Hypermarket, the best boerewors this side of the boerewors curtain and so much tarmac you’ll never have to parallel park your double cab ever again. Now with added racial tension.

Brackenfell High School (BHS) drew the ire of the Economic Freedom Fighters and then the nation when the organiser(s) of a private matric dance allegedly invited only white learners.

For many of us, this kind of exclusion may come as something of a surprise, but my alma mater has long been a tinderbox waiting to ignite.

If it had not been this matric dance incident in 2020, another racially-charged event would eventually have sparked the flames.

EFF members protested over the incident outside the school when what appeared to be community members responded violently. A retreating woman was hit with a bat. A trigger was pulled and an arrest was made.

It has taken an incident of ethnic violence in my neighbourhood to prompt me to take a long and hard look at the place I (sometimes begrudgingly) call home.

READ | Analysis: Brackfell High: Is there a line between anti-transformation and right of association?

I feel about Brackenfell and my old stomping grounds like one does a sibling: I can criticise and complain about them all I want, but how dare you also call them out? It hurts, but Brakkies (as we call ourselves) cannot pretend this day wasn't going to come.

Like many of South Africa's leafier suburbs, Brackenfell's demographics do not represent those of the country. According to the last census, 63% of residents are white.

Some claim this is merely a matter of budget, not bigotry.

Several locals (including a BHS teacher), told me it's not that "they" (black people) weren't welcome at the matric dance; they just couldn't afford to attend.

Nice try. While the financial disparity between black and white South Africans is obvious to anyone, income levels in Brackenfell are surprisingly similar across racial groups. However, BHS learners don't necessarily all come from Brackenfell.

In 2020 schools fees at Brackenfell High were R23 400. On par with the only other high school in the suburb.

Dual-medium 

Fees have increased well above inflation since I was enrolled. The Western Cape Education Department says 254 Grade 12s from BHS are sitting for their final exams this year. I think we were close to 350 in 2006. Additions to campus in the years since I left include an astroturf, concrete sport stands and a support centre for learners with physical and learning difficulties. It may well be a better school now than the one I attended. Physically, anyway.

If Brackenfell and the school are more diverse than has been suggested, then I put it to you that the problem lies in dominance rather than demographics. Further physical transformation of the community and student body may not change anything if a particular culture remains ensconced at the top.

As a dual-medium language school BHS is compelled to offer classes in Afrikaans AND English. It follows that this must include non-academic activities and important management functions like governing body and parent-teacher association meetings.

That is not happening - evident when one considers reports of parents and learners constantly asking for information to be repeated in English.

READ | Analysis: Brackenfell High: A letter about racism and memories of our beloved school

Communication largely limited to only one language in a dual-medium language school does not create a welcoming environment, and alienates those who do not "fit in" based on language. Most BHS learners of colour are enrolled into the English stream.

During my five years at Brackenfell High I recall only one teacher in the whole school not being white. Per the school's staff directory on its website, this is still the case in 2020. My matric year was made up of seven Afrikaans and five English classes. I assure you some were more equal than others.

Being on the edge of Cape Town's urban sprawl where it meets with the winelands means Brackenfell has expanded rapidly over the decade since the last census from where I quoted earlier.

When a certain type of middle-class Afrikaner "semi-grates" to the Cape, Brackenfell with all its new developments is certainly among the top contenders for desirable suburbs. Let's call that New Brackenfell.

I hail from "Old Brackenfell", once lily white but which has undergone interesting changes in the last decade or so: remaining open space around the CBD was filled with blocks and blocks of flats. This has brought an economic integration not seen in the area before. Spatial planning along racial and income lines was the order of the day here as everywhere. Never before did I have black neighbours. 

The suburbs of Brackenfell are changing (however slowly). BHS, at best, is lagging behind.

Regression

In fact, it may even be regressing.

I'd love to tell you about the deputy head girl for 2021, who is black, but tellingly, the posts on the BHS Facebook page don't even spell her name consistently. No-name congratulations are all I can confidently offer.

Brackenfell High held a prayer meeting for the school on 15 November at a local church. Participants prayed for peace, reconciliation, forgiveness and safety.

Divine intervention is always welcome. (Are you there, God? It's Me, the Rainbow Nation). However, BHS principal Jannie Muller is entirely empowered to further peace, reconciliation, forgiveness and safety (also, non-racialism) through his regime's leadership and priorities. 

The most recent letter from the school on the "incident" suggested they now get that, at least in theory: the school has formed a diversity committee, will soon announce a new hair policy, offer structured training in diversity and sensitivity and implement processes around creating a safe space to speak up and report problems. Well done, I guess. This is the right thing to do as well as the bare minimum.

While we're feeling revolutionary, may I draw your attention to a high school 10 minutes from BHS actually still named after the first Apartheid prime minister, D.F. Malan?

READ | Mabine Seabe: Brackenfell should force us to question and act on kind of country we want to build

My earlier words seem to make a case that the school and the suburb are completely separate entities. But, schools have a special significance in the life and culture of a community. That same community can and should start fixing what is very broken.

I know Brackenfell (and BHS) to be filled with good people. Also with bigots, racists, homophobes, misogynists, etc. Like everywhere else that doesn't really fit a tidy stereotype. The voices of those good people have been drowned out. They will now be heard.

Brakkies, let’s emerge from behind our vibracrete walls. It’s time for a family meeting.

- Stephan Lombard presents The Social Rundown and produces the Breakfast with Refilwe show on CapeTalk 567MW. Besides a few years in the Persian Gulf, he has lived in Brackenfell all his life.


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