In the old Cape Gov’nor’s garden

EDIT: some background to this piece (skip to get straight into it)

  1. In 2014 I wrote a letter to the school about transformation
  2. In 2018, a the first black African form teacher ever employed at RGJS was fired. Regardless of the merits of her particular case, this opened up space for a plethora of voices concerned about the lack of transformation at the school.
  3. I was one of the first to respond to this news on Twitter, sharing a link to my 2014 letter.
  4. Based on that, I was invited to speak on SAFM, which I did, knowing full well I’d lose “face” in the school network.
  5. Following the interview, I wrote this piece which unpacks some of the ideas in more detail.
  6. Other old girls have written far more eloquently about the issue, parents for change have spoken and a petition has been created.

In the old Cape Gov’nor’s garden

“Schools are often forced to retain their cultural and racial composition, especially as far as teachers are concerned, by assertive parent constituencies acting through or around the governing body — It is impossible to understand the lack of integration among teachers in a school without understanding the powerful, though often hidden roles, of white parents in maintaining the status quo. The case of Pretoria Boys High School is simply one incident …from a very recent experience which would have successfully ejected the only black teacher were it not for the determination of the principal and support from some parents. But this is not typical.” — Jonathan D. Jansen — March 2001

Schools should be the environments in which we prefigure the societies we want tomorrow.

We cannot have equality through education, if there is not equality within education. We cannot have an integrated, empathetic, inclusive society tomorrow, unless today we are raising young people who hold those values (and, by implication, who challenge our biases as the older generation).

I am not sure that we as South Africans have a clear vision of what future-forward schools look like? There is some emphasis in the Western Cape on getting the classroom more tech-ready — to raise a generation of people who are ready for the “4th Industrial Revolution”. But is there as much emphasis on the social problem solving, empathy and “strength through diversity” skills that we also know are needed?

A recent incident at my former school has brought the issue of transformation in our schools back on the agenda.

Listen to Nozipho Mthembu in her own words:

Nozipho Mthembu was a learner and then a teacher at Rustenburg. She sounds like a passionate teacher and it would be a loss to the education system if she were to abandon her calling so fresh into her career.

Is it plausible that this is a case of an incredibly poorly run performance management and review process?

Sure, it is plausible.

Unfortunately, we’ve yet to hear from anyone representing the school on what exactly those performance issues were.

Despite this, people have jumped* to give the school the benefit of the doubt, and to rapidly dismiss this as “the race card” being played by a disgruntled ex-employee who could not do her job. (*Ok, maybe I shouldn’t count people who comment on EWN articles).

Was she absent before or after being referred to as “the girl” by angry parents? Read more about stereo-type confirming stressors in the work place for black professionals :

Sometimes the hardest racism of all is the racism that exists without “racists” (at least not the Old Flag wearing, white hood wearing kind): Institutional racism.

It is especially tough to acknowledge institutional racism when a part of your identity is liberalism and progressiveness — which is arguably true for many southern suburbs English speaking schools.

It is also plausible, that in our social context, and the context of being the school’s first black teacher (apart from isiXhosa), this is racial.

It is as plausible that confirmation biases were at play in the way parents, learners and other staff interpreted Nozipho’s performance.

The number of parents and former learners posting on social media that they are “not surprised” should can not be ignored.

I spoke to Masachaba Mtolo on SAFM this morning. You can listen here:

Proviso’s: I spoke based on my experience, which is admittedly a while ago now (Gr 7 in 1997, Matric 2002). And I spoke in my personal capacity, not as any representative of any body. I am also always nervous speaking about race because it is a constant (un)learning process for me. I almost certainly said something that in future I’ll hold a different perspective on.

We need a clear vision of what integrated schools look like, and what excellent schools are. We need to interrogate and change the whole system – teaching, parenting, learning – to remove any prejudices that remain from our history.

We need to centre the experience of the child, and what they are learning in this environment. The learners in the video below give me hope. The number of recent learners and parents who are saying this is not their experience, however, give me skepticism.

Rustenburg Girls High School prides itself on being safe, open and progressive and also talks about its history in a more nuanced way than the primary school.

Why do I even care about this?

I’m not a parent, and I’m not involved in school activities in any way.

I am involved in spatial transformation and spatial justice, and I see the similarities between NIMBYism and not-in-my-school-ism (is that a thing?).

See kids, a NIMBy says “Nozipho can work in my home, but not live in my neighbourhood, it’ll bring the area down” and a NIMSy says “Nozipho can attend our school, but not teach our kids, it’ll bring the standards down”

Schools are where we form our identities, where our cognitive biases get formed. If we want transformation in our neighbourhoods, universities, boardrooms and chambers — we must start in schools.

One of things we were taught at Rustenburg is that it is OK to make mistakes, if you learn from them. We learn our whole lives long, they say (and I agree), and mistakes are a part of that.

The parent who removed her child from a black teacher’s class room, and the learner who questioned if a black teacher is a “real teacher” made mistakes the entire school system can learn from.

And I’m not talking about learning to sssssshhhhhhhh to protect the reputation of the school.

Nor am I talking about naming and shaming to outcast.

I am talking about a social learning, to be more aware collectively of where we are going wrong on transformation.

No but was Phumzile’s comment deleted?

There is a learning opportunity in this — I hope the school is using it as such and not rushing to sweep it under the carpet in the name of school reputation.

Finally, I carry privilege that I inherited from the school with me. A part of needing to respond is about not abusing that privilege. With it, comes a responsibility.

Ok, so now what?

A standard approach: change the numbers

When trying to change a system, we often try to change things that are measurable:

  • Number of teachers of colour
  • Number of learners of colour
  • Number of racist incidents reported (problematic to measure, for sure)
  • Number of “inclusivity” sessions or motivational speakers brought to school assembly
  • Number of diversity training modules offered to staff

Often, only changing things that can be measured does not change the dominant paradigm. We can reach these targets through assimilation rather than transformation.

And, in fact, some studies show that only focusing on numbers can increase racism, because of confirmation bias, unless combined with more explicit efforts to address those biases.

Rustenburg Girls Junior School has a Revised Inclusivity, Diversity and Transformation Plan which has measurable efforts that focus on teachers, learners and parents.

Rustenburg says they are busy reviewing policies. Policy reform is one thing, singing a school song that celebrates colonialism is another. And beyond that symbolism, is a broader system that arguably involves a whole club of model-c and private schools in the southern suburbs, the formal and informal power they hold socially and economically, and the pipeline of networked future leaders they create.

I was very unpopular when I declined to accept the one year free membership of the exclusive Kelvin Grove Club offered to head students of southern suburbs schools. As they say, there’s no such thing as a glass ceiling: there’s a brick wall, and someone willing to open the door for you on the other side. Behave ‘well’, and the door will open.

As systems approach: change the paradigm

The easiest way to get a ‘good education’ from a former model C school is to assimilate and not rock the boat. The easiest way to get rid of racism is to redefine it. The easiest way to reproduce a system is to participate in it.

A whole of society approach to changing the system will have different role players.

The formal education system needs to account for the transformation process and it needs to protect that process from the informal and formal power of scared and racist parents:

  • It must not tolerate the rumor mill, but use it as learning opportunities.
  • It must celebrate learners and parents who are willing to “ruin the party”, rather than calling on them to be civil (tone policing).
  • It must equip learners and teachers for the inter-generational tensions that will be a necessary part of transformation.
  • It must interrupt feedback loops in the system, and actively reward positive behaviours and provide feedback on negative ones.
  • It must foster networks for learning between more progressive teachers and governing bodies (I saw a tweet that Rondebosch Boys Junior has apparently got great mechanisms in place — lets learn from them if true?)

(Note: Parents for Change are skeptical about the Departments ability to lead in this way)

In this way, an enabling environment for more progressive parents and learners will be created. In this environment, we will have space for:

  • Brave teachers who subvert the space (I acknowledged some of my favorites previously)
  • Brave learners, teachers and parents who speak up about their experiences, despite shaking voices or pain and anger, or fear of losing their old girls ‘benefits’ (‘its not what you know, but who you know’ — but actually, you’ll be just fine on your own)
  • Changes in the curriculum and how it is interpreted — what science hero’s do we celebrate, which history do we teach, do we count African literature as ‘English enough’? (These are set nationally, but there are choices within and how it’s interpreted and debated. Often the subtle narratives are what stick longer than the regurgitated facts).

As parents, old girls, governing body leaders and school managers, we need to equip ourselves with tools to identify code words that squash dialogue or protect the status quo, such as:

  • “the race card” (what about the rest of the deck?)
  • “protect our standards” (of course)
  • “honour the traditions of the school” (which ones? to whose benefit?)
  • “excellence” (as inclusive of blacks)
  • “black excellence” (as the norm, not exceptionalism)
  • “school pride” (when is this employed? what expressions insult it?)

We need to be aware that words like “inclusion”, “integration” even “race” mean different things to different people. We need to have the patience to ask “what do you mean by that?”, and to really listen to what is spoken and unspoken.

The role of the learner will be different in primary and high school, and strategies to include them should centre on development stages.

Primary school sees many incredibly important formative stages around core belief systems, values and belonging. There are lots of age appropriate resources for talking to children of this age about race. Almost more importantly is the behaviour modelled for these children, where they will take their cues from going forward. This is why it is all the more sad and disturbing that there is not a single black form class teacher at Rustenburg Junior, and that a young South African questioned if “black teachers are real teachers”. These girls might be getting an “excellent education”, but they are being taught that black excellence is a rarity or a myth, not the norm.

By high school, however, learners need the right spaces for achieving milestones in exploring self-identity, expression, voice and power.

To be excluded from transformation processes is unsuitable for this age group. In my opinion, schools would be advised to not only listen to girls with official leadership roles (this may bias a more assimilated group perspective) when it comes to how the school needs to adapt. Additionally, it is so easy to use the curriculum to create spaces for dialogue, and to present narratives of black excellence that exist across science, literature, business, politics, sports and the arts — provided, of course, the teachers are equipped to handle those dialogues without presenting their own white fragility, and without fear of punishment from management or parents.

*If you’re not sure what the title of this piece is about, its a line from the school song, which celebrates the history of the school in Simon van der Stels old garden.

Archive of thoughts. Imperfect, incomplete and not assumed to be my final position. My actions speak louder than my words. Learn more: