Too few voices tried to dominate comments in column by Verashni Pillay

Like so many articles written on the topic of racism and race-awareness in the current South Africa, this article was yet another person’s view and as such cannot really be denied, but rather forms the basis for further debate.

While the polemic that followed the article in the comments section was robust and shied away from the common place reductio ad fascism of other social media, I felt that there were too few voices and that these voices were trying to dominate the conversation. As though in a rainbow, there could be only one shade of blue. Perhaps this was exactly the point of the article – not to blame, but to highlight a topic for debate.

Again, kind of like choosing to visit a surgeon, a physician or a homeopath, the decision determines the outcome. A visit to a surgeon will end up in surgery, whereas a homeopath by definition will treat the same complaint differently. Therefore an article of this nature posted on the website of a well-read newspaper that caters for a more intellectually aggressive readership will by its very nature result in the type of discussion and argument that followed.

I am privileged to be a high school teacher, and perhaps it is the combination of my career path and my own life story that leads me to believe that Ms Pillay missed out on a couple of key points that would have given her column more impetus.

Working with the youth has made me realise that, like moths, they simply want a brighter future. This is not race dependent, nor has it changed in the 20 years that I have been teaching. It was as true for my students in a Western Cape government school as it is for my current multi-racial affluent private school pupils. 

And education is seen as a key pathway to this improved future. Whether it be through the legacies of apartheid highlighted in the column, or due to social plagues like divorce and the ever increasing stress faced by the modern youth, it seems to me that they are trying to make the best of their futures despite the turmoil that they face on a daily basis.

The key question, for me, is whether they are going to use these hardships – apartheid, social or otherwise – as an excuse for their failure or as a reason for their success.

Perhaps this may be a seventh difference between the “us” and “them” camps, the willingness to look forwards and build, rather than a desire to press pause while we reshape the past. Again, I refuse to use racially based adjectives, because it is my experience that these are convenient statements of difference, whereas although their circumstances might be unique, children are united in their desire to make their own futures.

In her discussion of generational wealth and social capital, the author missed out on what I consider to be the most damning legacy of apartheid. My current students take it for granted that each and every staff member is well trained, has at least one university degree, and is as nimble at switching hats as one could hope. The hard fact is that this is not the norm. 

Like many other schools in our area, my school offers a Saturday outreach programme. Perhaps, this substitute for the old teachers’ training colleges is the most politically and socially responsible thing that affluent schools are doing. At midday, there are streams of teachers who after a week of teaching in less than ideal circumstances, head home having dedicated one of their weekend days to improving their ability to teach their students. While I admire my colleagues who offer these classes, I am in awe of my peers who attend these sessions so selflessly.

But these are the teachers who care, the ones who have access to such support. Even though they may want to attend such sessions, I suspect that many of the rural schools are without any such support, even in this day and age of social media and networking.

The failure of the state to focus on teacher training and development, but perhaps more importantly, the failure to identify this as one of the dominant needs of the country means that the apartheid legacy has been perpetuated. Whether by omission or commission, the fact is that the majority of teachers in our nation ( and especially in key gateway subjects like mathematics) are undereducated themselves. 

One of my former headmasters always said that a school cannot rise above its staff room, and I believe this to be true. While the odd individual may be able to succeed purely due to their own efforts, the majority of education requires a caring a multi-skilled facilitator, and preferably a team of such people working in unison towards the common goal of a brighter future for other people’s children.

So i am uncertain whether this deserves being raised to the status of an eighth difference, or if it should be regarded as the key difference. For me the fault in the column lay not in its factual detail, but in the fact that it looked at the wrong age-groups of South Africans.

I am sure that the one side could (and have) point out many whites who suffered and are suffering due to the divisive nature of our past, and then point out the mega-rich modern South Africans who seem to be totally oblivious to their township pasts. The other side would then pull out percentages, and trustworthy adages about walking in other people’s shoes.

My sense is that the youth of today are equitable in their desire to make the most of their opportunities. The sad truth is that the gulf between those who attend effective schools and those that do not widens with every school lesson.

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