“Remove laws that harm, create laws that empower.” This is the theme for this year’s Zero Discrimination Day, which is celebrated on the first of March annually. The day is meant to raise awareness about the social challenges that affect minority groups around the world. Black children who attend racially diverse schools in South Africa are one of those minority groups.
It has been almost three decades since the beginning of South Africa’s democratic dispensation, yet racism is still playing out in schools. This is happening despite legislative changes made since the end of Apartheid, along with a noticeable shift in the demographics of historically white institutions.
Racism in South African schools is currently in the spotlight after an alleged racially-motivated brawl at Hoërskool Jan Viljoen, west of Johannesburg. In an interview with media personnel outside the school, Gauteng’s Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi stated that the school has confirmed there have been past incidents of racism in their institution. Appalling, considering how progressive our Constitution is.
The incident at Hoërskool Jan Viljoen isn’t the first of its kind.
In 2016, anti-racism activist Zulaikha Patel made headlines after standing up against a racially-biased hair policy at her former school, Pretoria Girls High.
During my high school years, my school had a hair policy, which prohibited girls (read Black girls) from getting their hair plaited in braids, dreadlocks, and cornrows. Girls were only allowed to tie their hair up to look “presentable.” Despite this policy applying to all girls, it seemed rather targeted at Black girls. If not braids, dreadlocks, and cornrows, what else were Black girls expected to do with their hair?
Unfortunately, the discrimination didn’t end there.
Because these hair policies were suddenly being emphasised during my Matric year, I decided to wear my natural 4c hair in a high puff. My deputy principal at the time flat-out said to me: “Tell your hairstylist to make your hair smaller.” This was after the Black girls at the school, including myself, had tried to reason with the principal to no avail.
Prejudice—an unfair generalisation about a group of people with little or no evidence—is one of the root causes of racism in South African schools; it often takes the form of stereotypes. Black pupils are unfairly discriminated against because of their hair, background, and religious beliefs, which are all prejudicial components of racism.
Many formerly whites-only schools have shown little flexibility in accommodating the identities of Black pupils. For example, many of these schools prohibit Black pupils from using their mother tongue while on school premises – even amongst their peers. However, Afrikaans-speaking pupils are given free rein to communicate in their home language. This automatically places Afrikaans above other official South African languages, further discriminating against Black pupils.
There have also been countless experiences of racism shared by former Black students on social media. White teachers are said to have normalised saying, “This is not a tavern” or “This is not a taxi rank” to Black learners. Such statements suggest Black children don’t belong in those institutions and also discriminate against them because of their racial background. Assuming every Black child comes from a similar background is prejudicial, especially when it is meant to ridicule.
Legislation alone is not going to solve this crisis Black scholars face in South Africa; however, it will certainly play a pivotal role. For example, instead of allowing schools to draft their own policies, the Department of Education could provide universal guidelines for schools to take into consideration when drafting their policies. Institutional racism should also be considered a punishable offence; that way, institutions of learning can be held accountable for racial discrimination.
Racism is learned and can, therefore, be unlearned. Initiating dialogue at a national level is a great start. The government could implement various programmes that focus on the unlearning of implicit racial biases amongst educators. By doing so, the experiences of Black pupils who attend white-dominated schools can change for the better.