Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
7 September 2010

Who is digging a big hole for itself?

Maybe Rooseveld High School in Gauteng is a wonderful school with a truly nurturing atmosphere where real learning takes place and the critical thinking abilities of learners are developed so that they can become active citizens in our society. You know, a school where children are taught to respect diversity and embrace difference, to work hard and to think for themselves.

That would make Rooseveld High School a very different school from Pietersburg High School in Polokwane (where I matriculated in the 1980s). There, we were told to love God and our country (which belonged only to white people as black South Africans belonged in Homelands – unless they worked for white people). We were also warned to show pride in our bodies by shaving our hair poenskop (like they did in the army), by refraining from self pleasure and by marching around in military uniforms every Wednesday in preparation for defending apartheid on “The Border” (a mythical place that was somewhere in illegally occupied Angola.

Nothing much seemed to have changed at Pietersburg High School. The present headmaster of Pietersburg High School, one DW Schoeman, earlier this year gave an astonishing speech at assembly saying that “the ethos of the school requires zero tolerance for the use of alcohol and drugs, Satanism and gay activities”.

Leaving aside for the moment the worrying fact that somebody in charge of educating children at one of the top schools in Limpopo believes in Satanism (has anyone ever seen a Satanist and is it true that they play Kurt Darren songs backward to listen to the hidden messages about skinning cats, smoking at school or kissing girls and liking it?), it is rather worrying that Mr Schoeman had not heard that section 9(3) of the Constitution prohibits unfair discrimination on any ground including sexual orientation.

Equating the use of drugs with “gay activities” displays the kind of reactionary attitude that was rife amongst teachers when I was at school there. At least one assumes it has stopped employing a nasty maths teacher called “Koorspen”, who came to class on Monday’s with a heavy hangover bragging about how he and some selected boys from the residence had gone out at night to assault black people.

All this came back to me when I read that a pupil called Luthando Nxasa was having some trouble at Rooseveld High School at the moment. According to her father she was thrown out of class after she spoke isiXhosa to a girl who sits next to her in class.  Nxasana was also allegedly prevented from writing two mid-year exams or going to the toilet, and forced to spend three school days standing in a foyer. Luthando takes up the story:

“It was a free lesson. Everyone was chatting among themselves. Even the teacher was just chatting to some other learners,” said Luthando, who sits close to the desk of her business teacher, Mrs C Venter.  Lebo sits next to me. She was worried about not completing her work. I told her to relax, she shouldn’t worry.” But then the teacher heard the conversation.  “Mrs Venter said to me: ‘Luthando, either you speak English or you get the hell out of my class.’ I stopped and looked at her and decided to take my bag and walk out.” As Luthando walked out, she confronted the teacher, telling her that the reprimand was racist. Venter then allegedly said: “You’re digging a big hole for your small little body.”

If even half of this is true (and the details of the story and the fact that a spokesperson for the school trotted out that hoary chestnut called the sub judice rule, suggests that there was some truth to this story), the school, rather than Luthando, is the one that has been digging a big hole for itself.

What is clear is that a school is prohibited from telling pupils that they cannot speak their home language at school and that they have to speak English – even in a free period where no lessons are taking place. Although the rule might apply to all pupils, the effect of the rule would be to exclude and marginalise some pupils based on their race, language or culture and would therefore unfairly discriminate against those pupils whose first language was not English.

As the Constitutional Court made clear in the Pillay case (dealing with the Hindu pupil who was prohibited from wearing a nose stud), a school had a special duty to accommodate diversity and difference (whether on the basis of their culture, race, language or sexual orientation). This meant that the school could not make rules which, while formally neutral, would enforce the basic assumptions of the dominant group at the school. (I note from the schools website that there are no African representatives on the school governing body, so I assume that the ethos of the school is still very much white and English – despite the diversity of the pupil body.)

It was also not very comforting to note that the code of conduct of the school prohibits pupils from talking to teachers unless being invited to do so. How can one actually become a thinking, reflective person if one is not allowed to speak to a teacher unless invited to do so. If this rule was actually adhered to, one would not be able to ask a teacher any questions (unless invited to do so), and will not be able to challenge a teacher – even when he or she says something racist, sexist or homophobic. This would be absurd and pedagogically disastrous.

Maybe because the school is trying to instil a Waspish reserve in it students in order for them to be able to fit in when they emigrate to the UK? The code also states that “any excessive display of affection is unacceptable”. God forbid one would want to show affection – next thing one might want to talk about one’s emotions too and that, my dear Watson, just won’t be cricket.

This case forces us to ask serious questions about the manner in which schools deal with diversity in post apartheid South Africa. Do the teachers and members of  governing bodies of former “white” schools in South Africa understand that they come to the task of teaching and running the school weighed down by many unexamined assumptions, prejudices and beliefs which – if not checked – would marginalise and alienate pupils who do not share their race, religious, cultural or language background. Do they understand that they have a special duty to review policies and codes of conduct to ensure that these are not used merely to try and force all pupils to become perfect little white, heterosexual, conformist, Englishmen or Afrikaners (who all went along with apartheid after all)?

Somehow – and not only because of the stories relayed above – I have my doubts. If my suspicions are correct, the question may be asked: what kind of society are we creating where we teach pupils that they can only get ahead if they betray their own identities and strive to become good little white, heterosexual, English speaking, Christians? Are we not creating a time bomb by promoting  insecurity and resentment that will haunt our society for decades to come?

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