OPEN LETTER TO PRIVATE CAPE TOWN SCHOOL | Fears of intimidation over racism incident

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Protest at German International School in Cape Town. It is reported that the group protested against alleged racism at the education facility, where student protest was subjugated by school management.
Protest at German International School in Cape Town. It is reported that the group protested against alleged racism at the education facility, where student protest was subjugated by school management.
ER Lombard, Gallo Images

Last month, parents of children at the German International School in Cape Town (DSK) protested against the school's failure to address reports of racism adequately. Frustrated with the school's continuing inaction and apparent disinterest in the harm inflicted on its learners of colour, one parent has written an open letter to the school board, published here in a slightly shortened version. 

Esteemed Board of the German International School Cape Town (DSK),

This is an open letter from a DSK parent who is troubled about the school's reputation and about the persistence of racism in South African private schools in general. Undoubtedly, DSK is a prestigious institution that performs highly across many indicators for excellence in education. However, it also has a long-standing transformation problem.

While the school management has excelled in other areas of leadership, including its stewardship throughout the pandemic, it has failed miserably in handling the recent crisis, which was triggered when a Life Orientation teacher, delivering an ill-conceived lesson on BEE, made several racist statements about black learners and their parents based on a yet to be specified scientific 'study'. This crisis has unleashed a growing number of both old and new grievances from former and current learners and parents. 

On 19 June 2021, school management issued an apology to those affected by racism at the school, including by the most recent incident. The statement begins with the phrase, "the past weeks were marred by silent protest." Yet, it is not the silent protests that mar the school's reputation or environment but the ongoing failure to address the suffering of marginalised learners, parents and staff. What tarnishes DSK's brilliance is the failure to protect and prioritise the human rights of its students. What mars its reputation is its failure to acknowledge that it is a guest in South Africa, a country that celebrates the courage of its youth to fight for social justice every 16 June. 

The school's statement further contains an admission that many DSK community members have awaited for years: 

"There have been situations in the past in which we have not offered a sufficiently safe and healthy environment for our students to shield them from incidents relating to racism and discrimination. As headmaster, I bear the overall responsibility for the school. I sincerely apologise to the learners and parents for the fact that we have not always succeeded in creating this safe space for all our learners and for the pain and trauma this has caused."

Here, the DSK leadership acknowledges that it has tolerated a flaw in its environment; to tolerate means to let something happen, to allow it to occur. In this case, we must not mince words: DSK has allowed racism and discrimination to occur. Now let's draw the proverbial line in the sand. Let's be honest and brave, and transparent. Let's be a school that gets 'transformation' done. What are you, as the board, going to do to ensure that the school rises to this task? 

While apologising for the students' suffering (a suffering so debilitating that school management even promises to make "counselling by professionals" available), the statement concludes with the hope that everyone can "have a restful winter break." This is a prime example of the headmaster's inability to comprehend the nature of racial discrimination.

The suffering caused by racial discrimination never takes a break. It is relentless. It is a pain that causes a specific kind of fatigue and dis-ease, a demoralised outlook on life, and a gnawing sense of having experienced or witnessed unaddressed injustice. To conclude an apology statement in this way is simply tone-deaf.

United front 

What could have been done differently? The bare minimum following the apology would have been to personally reach out to the affected, showing genuine interest in their well-being. The minimum accomplishment in the week following the apology would have been to call an extraordinary board meeting to demonstrate the school's commitment and reassure the community that solutions are discussed, budgets redrawn and that professionals are consulted. This should have been accompanied by highly visible features on DSK's website and school App to provide public evidence of the school's commitment to a transparent and rigorous process.

Presenting as a strong, united front in solidarity with the affected would have been a radical and sincere gesture and would have won back trust from those who have heard empty promises before. It would have also allowed for more positive media commentary to offset the school's very negative image in the reporting on the most recent incident. Yet, none of this happened. 

Instead, everyone who can afford it went on their winter vacation. And those who are hurting, those who are seething with anger, were left in the cold. 

READ | Uproar at private Cape Town school after teacher tells pupils black children have no role models

My question is: What would it take for school management to make transformation a priority truly? What would it take for the board to hold school management accountable for elevating transformation as a key indicator of excellence? Would it take another incident where students or staff are demeaned? Would it take another alumni petition signed by more than 1500 people? Perhaps a compilation of letters from all the counsellors who have been promised to those suffering from trauma? Would it take a discrimination report, similar to the kinds of documents that spurred radical change at other private schools? 

I would like to comment on the most egregious offence in the school's apology statement: the proposal of a dialogue forum consisting of all stake-holders, and the promise to use the holidays to appraise guidelines, reporting mechanisms and feedback structures. These suggestions may sound good in theory. However, this proposal insults and blatantly disregards the many years of struggle and dedication by those working on transformation at the DSK. There have already been countless meetings, forums and workshops. Former and current SRC cohorts have requested numerous times to make anti-racism a priority. Even when presented with mind-boggling and disturbing survey data collected by learners as well as volunteer parents, neither the board nor school management took appropriate action. 

Traumatising events

So-called forums turned out to be traumatising events in which school management defended its stance and effectively 'gaslighted' those students reporting incidents of racism. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which a person is put in a situation where they are forced to question their thoughts, impressions, emotive responses and memories. This can lead to them questioning their own sanity. To emphasise this clearly: I have reason to believe that gaslighting is a dominant form of abuse on DSK campus and it is even implicit in the headmaster's apology statement. This diminishing of someone else's suffering or psycho-emotional  labour is the main reason that led the DSK representative alumni body of black and coloured students to reject the apology publicly and reiterate their experiences "of being violated, ridiculed and disrespected" at the school. They further state, "The most recent email by the principal sent to current parents are words former students are accustomed to. There are years of evidence that prove the school has deliberately ignored the safety of black and coloured students. Every time we reported such incidents we would hear these same performative words which would end the conversation." 

WATCH | Cornwall Hill College: Racism is not about a black child rising but white parents also standing up - parent

I want to add that although the suffering of students of colour is unique and requires urgent and specific remedy, white students also struggle in an environment in which they intuit that something is terribly wrong and in which their own success is contingent on collateral damage. Please be reminded that more white parents than parents of colour attended the parent protests. 

I would like to state openly that since the peaceful protests by DSK parents began on 14 June 2021, several parents have contacted me directly and anonymously, saying that they fear to protest or speak out lest they lose their bursary. These fears are warranted. There is written evidence of the headmaster's defensiveness and implicit intimidation. In June 2020, for example, a forum to discuss experiences of racism took place via Zoom. In a follow-up email that ironically circulated on Youth Day, the headmaster, referring to students voicing their experiences of racism, stated that the "same students have received every possible individual support from the school, have been supported with my/German tax money and bursaries throughout their school career." Is it surprising that some parents experience such sentiment like a gag-order? 

'Not an enticing invitation'

The apology statement calls on the community to "let us talk to each other again instead of about each other," using "channels of communication within our school community that already exist." This is not an enticing invitation for many of us. We have used these very same channels for too long and we have seen no results.

When the headmaster's apology statement ends with a call for the "necessary sense of proportion on our further cooperative path," many of us interpret this to mean that protest is disproportionate or that it mars the image of the school. Where else should aggrieved learners, parents and staff direct their ignored pain if "gag-orders and a lack of trust compromise channels of communication within our school"?

To conclude, the parents who speak out against racism are not the ones bringing the school into disrepute.

Right now, it is school management that is bringing the school into disrepute. Thus, my appeal to the board is to finally respond to this crisis with the attention it requires, with action that is loud and clear, affirming and inspiring, transparent and professional, just and firm. What would it take to achieve transformation at DSK and other schools with similar demographic? I believe the answer lies in a precious paragraph from ISASA's Guide to Transformation and Diversity Management (2018): 

"The school principal should lead transformation with genuine

conviction and managerial courage, relying on a compelling

business case in order to achieve key stakeholder buy-in and

support. This role does not belong to an external consultant or

some school committee, but is the key responsibility of the

principal. If the principal is not convinced and convincing,

then the staff and parents will not be convinced either."

I submit this letter with all due respect as someone who stands in solidarity against unnecessary and unacceptable suffering at our school.

- Aika Swai, concerned parent

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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