​Long may these fires burn

My sister is a teacher at a public school in Mayfair, Johannesburg. It’s well run, embedded in the greater community, and is consistently rated as one of the best primary schools in the district. Although the work of teachers is often thankless, it is also a peephole into the dizzying array of colour and texture in the tapestry of who we are.

The tales of my sister’s workday range from the amusing (children who subsist on candy and junk food) to the maddening (Indian children who refuse to befriend a black child). Her school then is also the story of middle South Africa, a beguiling place of potential and promise, where progress is hailed but change is so far cosmetic.

When 13-year-old Zuleikha Patel rose against the hair policies of Pretoria High School for Girls in August, thousands of graduates and pupils spoke out about discrimination in schools, particularly former model C schools.

And as the anecdotes multiplied, schools were scrutinised for how well they have transformed. It was about hair, yes, but it was also about so much more than hair. It was ultimately about the institutional othering of black people in public spaces.

And it coalesced official efforts to address the ways in which our school system defines itself, to the point that all the schools in my sister’s district held consultative meetings to rename their schools. The implicit admission in this process is that our schools do not adequately represent the communities they serve.

And again these are all relatively better-off schools. Texbooks are delivered timeously, teachers go to class (I think), the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union does not have a monopoly on recruitment, nobody’s setting the school alight (in fact the buildings and grounds are maintained well) and learners at the school go on to some of the best high schools in the city. Is the name of a school, or its policies on hair, really that important if the school is performing well?

The pass rates, however, do not explain why an Indian child refuses to befriend a black child at a reputedly good public school in Johannesburg in 2016. It’s like the magistrate in the coffin assault case in Middleburg pointed out: the assailants were only six and seven years old in 1994, so where then did they learn this kind of language and behaviour?

The schoolchildren in Mayfair were not even born in 1994. As much as parents must be fingered here, surely we must ask questions as well of the schools and the systems supporting them.

Our schools are important as a gauge of good governance but it is also a space where we construct who we are as a people.

We cannot gauge how well a school functions by its pass rates alone. We also cannot measure progress as a democracy in the number of democratic elections successfully held. The ultimate test of who we are as a nation must lie in how well the values of a nonracist, nonsexist society are actually realised in the lives of its people, in the potential of its children. And it lies too in how well the state responds.

So we rise.

And yes, the fight against injustice is exhausting. It is also prone to contradiction and being captured by narrow self-interest. We can, however, ill afford apathy. Some of us found our voices this year, through protest or the ballot paper or both. Others found a raging fire within, just as have the hundreds of thousands of people around the country who have protested against poor governance for years now.

We would do well to note when we choose to notice the fire in others. Too often we are more likely to reach for the extinguisher instead of marvelling at the beauty of passion.

The sum of who we are cannot, of course, be reduced to a group of chief executives in a church in Pretoria calling for the president to step down. We are those people, but we are also more, much, much more.

So we rise, and we rise again.

As long as we harbour the desire for a more just society, where schools function well and children emerge better in touch with their own humanity, we must continue to rise with purpose, and not just in anger, but with conviction that, for a better society to emerge, the fire within us must continue to burn. We cannot lie still while our humanity is sacrificed to injustice that has become routine.

It’s not so much a battle cry as it is a call for us to look around and remember who we are and who we could be. We rise up. And we rise again.

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Khadija Patel
Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is the editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, a co-founder of the The Daily Vox and vice chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI). As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and the Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand) and has previously worked in community media. In 2017, she was among 11 people from across Africa and the diaspora who were awarded the inaugural Africa #NoFilter fellowship from the Ford Foundation and in 2018, she was awarded honorary membership of the Golden Key Society. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good.

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