OPINION | Palesa Morudu Rosenberg: Fish Hoek High meltdown – doing the diversity grift

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The Western Cape Education Department is still investigating a diversity course presented at Fish Hoek High school.
The Western Cape Education Department is still investigating a diversity course presented at Fish Hoek High school.
Jenni Evans

Misleadership and the local variant of the American diversity industry combined to set off the meltdown at Fish Hoek High School, writes Palesa Morudu. 

Sometime in May this year, a teacher at Fish Hoek High School in the southern Cape Peninsula reportedly used the K-word during a discussion of the classic Afrikaans novel Fiela Se Kind.

Written nearly four decades ago, the book is set in the 19th century in the surrounds of Knysna and the Outeniqua Mountains. It tells a story of a little white boy found in the forest and raised by a woman of colour named Fiela.  Until the census men show up, declare that a white kid can't belong to a coloured family, and decide that the boy must belong to a white family who lost a son years earlier. It is the identity politics of the colonial period. 

The use of the K-word in the class got the students upset. It led to an "enough is enough" protest, which took issue with other backward practices, like stopping black children from speaking in their own languages and complaining about their afros. 

What did the school management do? It panicked and suspended the teacher. An independent legal process later cleared the teacher, but that report is under lock and key at the Western Cape Education Department. The students who protested are in the dark about this and so is the public. 

Department of Lost Marbles 

At this point, the provincial department thought it wise to bring in a "diversity, equity, and inclusion" (DEI) consultant – and to schedule her session just a few days before students would sit for final year exams. The provincial education mandarins could now justly be renamed the Department of Lost Marbles. 

The DEI field has become a big-money industry over the past decade, but it went on steroids after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop in the United States. Corporations and institutions started falling all over themselves to procure DEI services. 

READ | Parents fume over diversity course at school

It has been interesting to observe South Africa's response to the US racial reckoning. Many private and former Model C schools responded to their own versions of Black Lives Matter protests by doing exactly what US institutions did: bring in a DEI consultant to explore themes of "white fragility" and "black pain" and encourage the formation of so-called affinity groups.  

It is this model that collapsed so spectacularly at Fish Hoek High. I spoke to some black students who attended the event. Their teachers informed them they needed to attend compulsory diversity training on race, gender, and religion. So on a Monday afternoon, a group of about 800 teenagers, between the ages of 13 and 19, packed a hall to hear the DEI gospel. 

Now, as anyone with an even tenuous connection to planet earth knows, it is hard enough keeping 10 teenagers quiet and attentive at any given time. But the school evidently thought that locking 800 teens in an auditorium to lecture them on race, gender and religion was a good idea. 

On cue, pandemonium. The facilitator read the powerful poem Water by Koleka Putuma, for which she won the PEN South Africa Student Writing Prize in 2016. It was apparently well received, despite the noise and general chaos in the hall. The poem is rich with complexity and deserves better treatment than was possible with a large group. "It became chaotic and argumentative, and everyone wanted to leave because the poem was simply not appropriate for this large setting," one student told me. 

I have some experience with the Fish Hoek valley. My child attended public school there for six years, and I served as a member of the governing body. Fish Hoek is quite a religious place, with a church on almost every corner, and it was a dry town until a few years ago.  

Legacy of apartheid spatial planning 

Fish Hoek school communities are very diverse in terms of race and class and reflect the legacy of apartheid spatial planning. Kids get dropped off in a Tazz or a minibus taxi. The minibus is always full of black kids who come into the valley from the townships of Masiphumelele and Ocean View.

But there are also black and the white kids who get dropped off in fancy cars. They mainly come from the beautiful villages that line False Bay. To spend a morning at the gates of a Fish Hoek public school, and to hear the kids' stories about what happened in the classroom or on the sports field, is to witness the making of a post-apartheid multiracial middle class.  

READ | Why the SA Human Rights Commission wants to introduce compulsory diversity education in schools

"The Valley", as they call it, is a close community with all the social complexities of 21st-century South Africa. When there are shack fires in Masi, the Fish Hoek community responds. Churches hold services across communities. Fish Hoek Soccer Club boasts stars from "Masi", Ocean View, False Bay and Constantia. The valley is in fact a case study in diversity. 

"We actually all get along and have a solid school spirit at Fish Hoek High," another student told me. 

A US-style DEI intervention here was always likely to fall flat – and so it did. But it also highlights the growing influence of American race consciousness and culture wars on the South African conversation. The one side of this campaign finds expression in identity politics and racial essentialism, which is the toxic antithesis of South Africa's traditions of non-racialism. The reaction, no less salutary, comes in the form of a campaign against "critical race theory", which conveniently simply doesn't want to talk about racism. The local purveyors of both snake-oil trades are quick to spot an opportunity. 

South Africa has rich traditions of building social cohesion. They range from the example of Nelson Mandela to the Kagiso Trust, to the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation.

To abandon these traditions is to surrender to the right-wing opportunists and the diversity industry grifters. The only true leaders, in this case, were the kids at Fish Hoek High. It is worth your time talking to them.

- Palesa Morudu Rosenberg is a South African writer based in Washington DC. 

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