Schools’ bias stymies black pupils

Progress in changing language policy at Stellenbosch University also points to the need for transformation of the discriminatory institutional culture and language policies present in elite government schools in the area.

In a highly contested victory this week, the Open Stellenbosch Collective at Stellenbosch University succeeded in getting the institution to change its language policy.

Through ongoing protest action, the Open Stellenbosch Collective had condemned the university’s support of Afrikaans as a tool of racial exclusion and discrimination.

A statement issued by the university’s management this week made English the primary language of communication: “All learning … will be facilitated in English, and substantial academic support will be provided in other South African languages, according to students’ needs,” it said – a move that is a first step on the road to transformation and the realisation of all students’ educational rights.

Also in Stellenbosch, just last week, a case in the equality court alleged that the Paul Roos Gymnasium, a government school in the town, applied discriminatory practices in rejecting a 15-year-old boy’s application in 2014. The boy’s parents claim that the school advised them to enrol their son in a school in the township of Kayamandi in Stellenbosch “because that’s where he belongs”. 

From #RhodesMustFall to #OpenStellenbosch and across the country, university students have insisted on campus-wide racial transformation. But very little attention has been paid to secondary schools and how they shape student outcomes on university campuses. The feeder schools that shape the dominant culture at these universities must be assessed.

If discriminatory practices in the varsities’ feeder schools ensure that the best instruction is intentionally reserved for white pupils, it should not be surprising when the same discriminatory practices continue in university environments.

For example, Paul Roos Gymnasium shares a number of similarities with Stellenbosch High School, Stellenberg High School, Bloemhof Girls’ School, Paarl Girls’ High, and Paarl Boys’ High. All these secondary schools are former model C government schools, and are consistently among the top performing schools in the Western Cape. Importantly, they are all at least partially Afrikaans-medium.

In addition, they are the schools identified as feeder schools for Stellenbosch University, according to the university’s media department. Unlike pupils in predominantly black and coloured government schools in the area, these pupils have extensive resources and are equipped to excel at university.

All these schools share another very important characteristic: they don’t hire black academic and administrative staff. Scroll through the website for Stellenberg High School and you will find pictures of 92 staff – none of them black. Even the isi­Xhosa instructor is

white. The pattern continues: Stellenbosch High School, 46 staff, none black; Bloemhof Girls’ School, 49 staff, none black, not even the isiXhosa instructor; Paarl Girls’ High School, 31 staff, none black; and Paarl Boys’ High School, five white senior management staff, no black staff.

Paul Roos, perhaps wisely, does not post staff pictures, but a perusal of the staff list gives the impression of the same phenomenon. The remarkable exceptions are Stellenberg’s and Paarl Girls’ “terrain personnel”, none of whom are white.

But why are website photos and lists of names being used to assess the transformation of secondary schools?

The answer is troubling. The Western Cape ­education department collects information from the centralised database management information system on the demographic make-up of pupils and staff – but this information is only released at the discretion of the school.

These schools are permitted to operate without transparency or accountability in their hiring and admissions processes, making it nearly impossible to assess transformation, or to gain an adequate picture of the context for claims of discrimination.

Elite former model C schools are not representative of the state of South African education. Yet the pupils who attend these schools and receive the best education – giving them the foundation to excel at university and in the job market – have access to disproportionate ­capital as well as access to these ­educational spaces.

This experience is routinely denied to black pupils, promoting the myth of white exceptionalism. The vast majority of white pupils in elite ­government schools are also absorbing an ideology expressed in the very structuring of the educational space, that black and coloured South Africans – whether pupils or staff – do not belong there, and that whites are entitled to have their preferences protected at the expense of the majority population.

When these discriminatory learning environments shape the experiences of top-performing pupils who feed into Stellenbosch University, the pervasive culture of white supremacy and the privileging of Afrikaans is unsurprising.

In response to the Democratic Alliance’s claims that Stellenbosch University’s change in language policy discriminated against Afrikaans speakers, Pierre de Vos, a constitutional law expert at the University of Cape Town, argued that the debate around language is “a debate about power and dominance; about who counts and who is rendered invisible”. He highlights that Stellenbosch University – like each of the secondary schools mentioned – receives public funds yet serves primarily the interests of a “small but economically privileged group. And that group is importantly the primary beneficiary of apartheid oppression.”

De Vos also challenges the use of human rights discourse to further privilege this group. Advocating for Afrikaans-medium instruction in fact goes against human rights principles because “it argues in favour of a policy that discriminates against the vast majority of South Africans on the basis of their race”.

This argument applies all the more to primary and secondary school ­pupils. Language and economic capital should not and cannot remain a tool to facilitate the exclusion of black and coloured South Africans.

It is time to turn our gaze and efforts to the primary and secondary pupils languishing under the burden of an untransformed education system. If we don’t do that we run the risk that Paarl Boys’ motto – “The Blueprint for Tomorrow” – remains tragically accurate.

Alison Clowes spent last year as a Fulbright scholar at Makupula High in Kayamandi and is involved in research and advocacy on education and transformation.

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