Multicultural SA offers a great benefit


Earlier this year the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a global trendsetter of the international education agenda, released a report detailing the importance of “global competency”.

The OECD defines global competency as “the capacity to examine local, global and intercultural issues, to understand and appreciate the perspectives and world views of others, to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with people from different cultures, and to act for collective wellbeing and sustainable development”.

Next year, representative 15-year-olds from more than 70 countries will be tested to assess how globally competent they are. The results are likely to spark a flurry of activity in the world’s most powerful economies to improve the ability of their young people to appreciate the views and cultures of those different from themselves. Without these skills, the report argues, we leave young people without the competencies that many employers require.

South Africa, with its wealth of cultural and linguistic diversity, should be trailblazing in this respect. Our young people are surrounded by difference and should be able to learn first-hand the skills necessary to bridge cultural gaps and to feel comfortable in multicultural settings. The former model C schools are among the most racially diverse educational establishments in the country.

But my research with teachers and pupils in a number of schools suggests this is not the case. Rather than expose their pupils to the diversity that South Africa has to offer, many of the former model C schools aim to preserve the cultural heritage they believe has been their recipe for success. By failing to hire black teachers, by maintaining school traditions that celebrate the heritage of their majority white pupils and by insisting on high fees that prevent significant class diversity, they rob their pupils of the ability to develop global competence.

Those that have taken steps towards diversity and inclusion in their schools, for example, with the A School Where I Belong project, speak about it in terms of an obligation to black pupils rather than an essential aspect of the learning experience for all pupils. Their sacrificial tone when speaking about making the school more inclusive suggests these teachers don’t understand what their white pupils have been missing.

Global competence, like any skill, can be difficult to master, but we shouldn’t protect our pupils from this any more than we protect them from the difficulties of mastering geometry. Let me give two examples.

I recently facilitated a pupil exchange between a former model C school in a predominantly white area and a school in a predominantly coloured area. The exchange was the first time that the former model C pupil had ever been a racial minority and it shook her.

“It’s hard having people stare at you and feeling like an outsider,” she said during our debriefing, as her black classmate laughed and nodded. But it’s only hard because it is unfamiliar to many white pupils whose parents intentionally send them to schools where they will not be a racial minority.

In another case, the only black teacher in the school was criticised by pupils because they couldn’t understand her mild isiXhosa accent. Fortunately, the teacher’s department defended her and the pupils’ complaints eventually subsided.

In a school just down the road, however, a black English teacher was refused employment because the department was afraid that the pupils wouldn’t be able to understand her accent.

What these pupils, their teachers and parents don’t realise is that understanding a diversity of accents is a skill. And, if they don’t possess it now, then part of being globally competent is working hard to develop it.

Unsurprisingly, these issues do not arise in schools that have a more equal racial diversity of teachers and pupils. In one such school where I am doing research, which is about 50% black and 50% coloured, a pupil described her school as follows: “There are many religions. And that’s why I like the school. We are very diverse and it’s like the school allows us to be open-minded with different backgrounds.”

On Heritage Day, for example, pupils shared their clothes and wore outfits that reflected the heritage of their friends, and Christian pupils attended mosque with their Muslim classmates and learned how to pray in a style different from their own. 

The pupils’ global competence is impressive, not only in terms of engagement and inclusion, but also with regard to their awareness of the issues that face all segments of South African society. Given that all the pupils I have mentioned are likely to graduate from good universities, who do you think an international employer would be more interested in hiring?

The irony is that, of all the students I work with, former model C pupils have the greatest aspirations to travel and work abroad. Being globally competent will come in handy when these pupils are teaching English in Seoul, or backpacking

in India, or their company invites them to open an office in Addis Ababa. But I wonder how they will cope if they struggle with being a minority for a day or choose not to understand the accents of their fellow citizens.

In South Africa, we often think about inclusion as a social justice issue, which it is. But the skills and competencies that make inclusion possible, such as understanding the perspectives and world views of others, or participating in open, appropriate and effective conversations with people of different cultures, are also highly marketable.

As Germany and China scramble to find ways to educate their young people to be globally competent, let’s not “protect” our young people from the incredible opportunities for personal growth that are on their doorstep.

Natasha Robinson is a PhD candidate in the department of education at the University of Oxford

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Natasha Robinson
Natasha Robinson
National Education Reporter at abcnews.

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