On June 16 and throughout the Youth Month of June we are called to remember the struggle of young people who engaged in critical action, who took a stand in the face of oppression and who rejected the system of Bantu education that was designed to dis- advantage them.
But how do we take the lesson they offer us and begin to deal with the current education system, which, 44 years later, still undermines the prospects of the majority of youth in South Africa?
Recently, many people have been shocked by the parallel stories of the killing of George Floyd in the United States and Collins Khosa locally. These two stories concern the brutality and violence that happens in plain sight; the fact that they do happen in plain sight deserves an article of its own.
They are both deeply shocking stories, yet they represent only the tip of the iceberg. The physical violence that we bear witness to in their stories is undergirded and supported by symbolic, psychological and structural violence that is pervasive in our society, the weight of which is only felt when you experience it first-hand.
Local voices have done an amazing job of describing this “invisible violence” in the book Disrupting Denial: Analysing Narratives of Invisible/Visible Violence & Trauma, edited by Sarah Rosaline Henkeman. This more subtle violence remains a powerful force in our schools, and it targets black bodies.
In the very lively debates about our schools that have taken place during Covid-19, we have heard teachers,
parents, learners and scholar-activists raise a number of disconcerting truths about South Africa’s schools: pit latrine deaths, overcrowded classrooms, learners who are yet to be placed in a school, lack of water supply, lack of teachers, hazardous buildings, curriculums that undervalue the cultural resources students bring from home, and language policies that undermine the potential of the vast majority of students.
The families disproportionately affected by these realities are black families in the urban townships, ghettos and rural villages. These are the obvious ways in which the system advantages some learners, while disadvantaging others. These realities may not be part of the design of schooling in a ‘“new” South Africa, yet they have been allowed to persist, and this represents complicity in the violence.
There are further parallels between the violence against black bodies in the US and the violence against youth in South Africa. Here, we do not talk about a “prison to school pipeline” yet recent actions and policy developments point firmly in the same direction. In recent years, for example, some schools have appointed school resource officers, based on the US model, some of whom don’t hesitate to inform learners that they will “be processed”.
The latest Western Cape Provincial School Education Act amendments include a clause for the provisioning of “intervention centres” for youth. It is worth asking why learners who may be in need of help at other schools receive counselling and mental health care, while students in the ghetto, who are equally in need of help, must be “processed”.
Few people bother to ask about the lived realities of learners in the Cape Flats ghettos, who live in multistorey tenement buildings, where the floodlights of a supposedly bygone era still pierce their windows, and where gangs and police vans produce an equal amount of noise that keeps the neighbourhood up at night. Why do we not bother to ask how these realities are systemically produced?
In my own work, I get to meet youth who have no other option but to attend one of the poor, under-resourced, no-fee schools that make up the majority of public schools. They are youth with aspirations, hopes and dreams.
They are learners who are able to engage in critical thinking and conduct social analysis, yet they suffer a loss of dignity each day at school when they must use toilets that have no doors for privacy, toilets that have broken seats (if there are any), and bathrooms where there isn’t any soap to wash your hands.
They must sit in classrooms that are cold because the windows are broken and in which, sometimes, when it rains, the asbestos roof leaks. On their way to school, they must navigate invisible yet tangible borders that represent rival gang territory or, if they commute, they must sometimes take a chance on the train because they don’t have money for the fare.
At school, they engage in a curriculum that is dislocated from their community and most of them are taught in a language that is unfamiliar.
All of this they endure, and sometimes the only wisdom these learners are offered is to “pull up your socks”, “work hard” or “put your mind to it”.
This is the callous manner in which our society schools black youth, and quite possibly why, in their alienation, many choose to opt out.
As we feel the pain of Collins Khosa, let us also remember the stories of Michael Komape and of Lumka Mkhetwa — they are connected to the same forces which ravage society.
Perhaps, this Covid moment, which has laid so much bare, is a moment we should use to, at the very least, set our schools right.
Perhaps if we listen, we can still hear the cries of youth who are being battered by the system, calling for “freedom!” — let us not wait until tomorrow.
Ashley Visagie, a Canon Collins scholar studying for his PhD in education at the University of Cape Town. He is also a co-founder of Bottomup, an organisation that promotes critical thinking and social justice among high-school youth, and a member of Thinking Space, a radical scholarship collective