In the beginning of October, I attended my nephew’s primary school concert at the Academy for Christian Education (ACE) in Brits. I had been looking forward to it for weeks, having forgotten what my own experience of these concerts had been like as a child. My nephew, currently in the fourth grade, was also very excited. The school had planned to have the same concert over two nights, it would be identical both on Monday and on Tuesday. Each child had to pay an amount of R300 to participate in the concert. The money, parents were told, went towards the wardrobe for the concert. In addition, family members attending had to buy tickets at R60 per person. The children had been practising for weeks in advance and quite excited at the prospect of performing for their families. The teachers had become choreographers for their respective classes. I was there for the first night, a Monday.
The grounds around the school were filled with parked cars. Many parents clearly just coming from a long day of work to support their children. Some pooled, others used taxis to get to the school. My sister and I had driven from Letlhabile, a nearby township, where many other families attending stayed too. When the concert started, the coordinator of foundation phase education at the school, a white Afrikaans woman probably in her 60s, opened with a prayer and continued to explain the value of these concerts to children as well as the value of having their parents there, seeing them perform. The concert was organized as thus: groups of children would render a choreographed performance per class from the first grade to the seventh. The theme was Disney, and so a lot of the characters came up in the performances. My nephew’s was a mixture of 101 dalmations and oddly, a Michael Jackson-like dance routine.
There were several things that stood out for me while I sat in that large hall watching children dance to unnecessarily loud music for three hours. The majority of those in attendance were black parents and siblings of children participating. In fact, the only white people I saw happened to be staff members. Among the staff members, most were women ranging from the estimated ages of 25 to 65. There was only one black teacher. Over and above, the Academy for Christian education was Afrikaans run. In the student body, there were no white or coloured children whatsoever. That is to say, with people coming from places such as Letlhabile, there were no first-language Afrikaans speakers. The music that the children danced to was mostly in English, but every now and then, as if well calculated, an Afrikaans song would come on and you would see them even singing along to it. Of course, this ties into the larger picture of the conservative Afrikaner place that is Brits – where the EFFs mostly popular white member came from.
Since the undeniably racist Pretoria High School for Girls black hair debacle, many “Fallists” have been reflecting on their own alma mater experiences. The common thread has been self-reflection and self-emancipation, in the Biko sense of the term. In addition, the need for a decolonisation project beginning in schools was highlighted. The discomfort that comes with Blackness in anti-black spaces has resulted in more of us confronting exclusion. In fact, to label it discomfort is to reduce it. It is about power dynamics in schools, the socialisation process that children go through and subjective or even (as with PHSG) collective formulations and experiences of Blackness.
One of the aspects of culture that allow for a shared identity is language. Children at ACE in Brits are taught Afrikaans as a second language. I could not believe it when I found out as I had also been taught Afrikaans from grade 2 all the way to matric. I passed and pledged never to use that language for any purpose. My reasons ranged from being ashamed that my grasp of seSotho was worse at the time; to being disillusioned by the value that had been attached to Afrikaans in my school years. I asked myself if there ever would be a situation in my life where I needed to describe something as “grasgroen”. But more than that, the sight of white Afrikaans speaking employers communicating with black employees in Afrikaans always upset me. Somehow, they felt entitled to a response from any Black person when they talked to you in Afrikaans at the mall, as if understanding Afrikaans was still a pre-requisite for a Black person to be in a place like Pretoria or Brits. Yet, for those white people that learned a South African indigenous language, it made their CVs look all the more impressive – the Johnny Clegg effect. I thought it was unfair. I still do. I hoped that the generation following mine would never have to deal with this.
And so there I was watching my nephew and his friends dancing and singing along to an Afrikaans song in a school that valued Afrikaans well above seSotho, seTswana, isiZulu, and other South African languages. Yet, there have been questions raised about this kind of criticism. A popular one has been “why don’t we open our own schools?” The assumption in the question is that schools such as the ACE were meant to cater only for white Afrikaans children in the first place. Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi was once accosted by Afriforum as targeting Afrikaans-medium schools. He was told that Afrikaans schools were not “exclusive white spaces”, that there were Black children at the schools. But this is pointless as it does not address the fact that the culture of the schools remains exclusively white Afrikaans christian. With the ACE, I only saw Black students, no white students, yet the school still functions to instil these Afrikaans Christian ideals in children. So the question about opening “our own schools” needs to be debunked. Exactly what does “our” mean?
If by “our” we mean schools for Black children with languages such as seSotho being taught then that is futile because these schools already exist in townships. A more leftist response would be that white people have no right whatsoever to claim schools built from the proceeds of an oppressive racist state on this land as their own to begin with. Our problem is structural. As a child, my father told me that he was sending me to a “white” school so that I would receive the same education as “white” children. It was a former model C school. Of course, by the time my younger brother matriculated there we no more white students there. The lack of adequate resources (as highlighted by the textbook saga in Limpopo?) in townships and rural area schools leads many Black parents who can afford it to find schools elsewhere.
At the same time, capitalism demands so much from these parents that life becomes about survival, hope for the next generation to have it better. Mobilising to ensure change in schools such as the ACE or create new ones cannot be easy when time is so expensive for parents who even struggle to pay for their children to participate in the concert or those who have to commute by taxi, or those that work such long hours that when the school said the children were getting the rest of the week off parents were upset – they had not planned to pay for a babysitter.
The way we teach and raise children is telling for this country, be it in the education system or outside of it. Black parents trust white teachers to transfer a certain kind of skills and knowledge to their children. White parents entrust Black women to babysit and ultimately raise their children by instilling a different kind of skills and knowledge, albeit policed much more closely.
The language issue highlights how as much as we have talked of education unfortunately being an economic commodity, it is also a cultural one. Yes, many of these schools and even universities, can be thought of as inclusive, but they remain exclusive culturally. We should not be forced to assimilate.