This week we have all been shocked and deeply dismayed to witness the Selborne College Class of 2017 scandal with the dog-faced Hector Pieterson photo incident.
Another week, another SA school making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. I’m sure you hope your school isn’t next – there are no quick fix solutions, but there are proven strategies available to ensure you’re not.
As the person overseeing an educational institution in South Africa in 2017, you hold an incredible responsibility. You must also carry a sense of the burden of the legacy of apartheid that continues to play out every few weeks in yet another school.
You might well be asking, “When will the school with the race incident on the front pages of the newspaper be mine?” And you must be aware that as much as you hold strongly to the hope that “We are not that kind of school” it is very likely just a matter of time before the next incident hits a little closer to home.
From a hair incident at Windsor House Academy in Kempton Park to a viral racial slur by a Grade 11 pupil in Pietermaritzburg to multiple incidents from a teacher at St Johns to allegations against a hostel superintendant at Wynberg Girls in Cape Town, the rate at which race-related conflicts are being reported seems to be on the rise.
It seems to be less of a question of “If?” and more the likelihood of “When?”.
Why wait until it’s too late?
In most cases these stories surface because many schools’ codes of conduct continue to have apartheid principles, values and rules which have not been suitably updated now that we are in a constitutional democracy that affords rights and freedoms to all citizens. This is with all the best intentions, and with no malice involved by the school leaders – but, sadly, apartheid left us all with the legacy of blindspots.
What is also disturbing is the number of cases that have not yet been brought to the light because of a lack of openness and opportunity for pupils to be able to speak about racial incidents that have taken place. When an incident does happen, it tends to bring about a flurry of interaction between staff and parents and pupils that is often muddied by a media presence and hurried attempts to remove it from the public eye.
The solution is to deal with these issues before they become issues, and to be proactive.
I can help you with this.
For the last twenty-five years I have worked with young people and parents in schools, churches and youth organisations. I have also been one of the longest-serving members of Cape Town’s longest-running Improv show team which has included working in schools and conducting workshops. For the past three years, since returning to South Africa from a time in the States where I worked with inner-city youth in some rough neighbourhoods, I have devoted much of my time and attention to the race conversation in South Africa.
Earlier this year my wife and I flew to Durban to facilitate a number of race conversations with groups in different areas as well as coordinating training for a student group that performs justice presentations in local schools. The feedback from those conversations have been extremely positive and one particular group in Umhlanga has continued to facilitate their own meetings with further success.
The biggest win has been facilitating spaces where people from all aspects of the various organisations have felt safe and free to speak and so issues have been able to be raised which can now be dealt with on a more ongoing and thorough basis. One of the biggest advantages of the spaces we facilitate is that people feel heard and so are more eager to buy in to the process moving forward. This creates hope and belief in positive change and draws everyone into the process.
Spaces of Safety and Opportunities for Learning
Whether it is staff, parents or pupils, there is an urgent need for more education to take place in the area of race and culture relations. Places of safety where students, in particular, can feel safe to speak out about incidents they have already faced or are currently facing, where the guarantee can be given that positive steps will be taken to effect change.
There is a need for this to happen on a much deeper systemic level where a syllabus should be implemented that deals with social injustices such as racism, colonialism, and apartheid head on. These issues clearly continue to be prevalent in all corners of South African society today and it is imperative that we handle them directly at school level.
But in the interim, it will be extremely helpful to bring facilitators into your schools who are able to work with staff, parents and pupils alike to help them find the words to share the stories of struggle they have faced and continue to face daily, in the hope that some more immediate bridges can be built and to minimise the risk of further incidents. We need to work together to create a culture of unity that truly sees ‘the other’, understands some of their history and pain and seeks to be a cause of healing and redemption for them.
Each time a new racial incident occurs it causes a deep damage to the school, both in terms of the extreme harm it causes to reputation and standing in the community, but also because of the distance it creates between people and the divide it helps grow amongst people of different race groups in the country at large.
You have to start taking this more seriously and do something before the next school in the newspaper headline is yours.
But also, even more so, because the continuing degradation and humiliation that happens on too regular a basis, both in extremely subtle and more obvious ways, is hurting our country’s chance of emerging from our dark and troubled past with a strong hope of a more united future.
What are you going to do about it?
 Contact me. Let’s get a conversation going about how best I can help facilitate a similar process at your school.
 Contact me before the end of January and I will prioritise a time in your school calendar before the first term is done so that we can get the process rolling without further delay.
 Let’s chat about where you are and what you’d like to achieve on this issue in 2018, then let me speak to your leadership team about the resources and processes required to protect your school, and after that we can decide whether a series of workshops in your community is a valuable next step.
Let’s help make our education spaces safe havens for learning, reconciliation and growth together.
Brett Anderson [blogger, communicator, workshop facilitator, proudly South African]