In recent years, educational institutions have been sites for public struggle against racism, sexual and gender-based violence and other forms of oppression. These struggles have played out at every level from primary to tertiary education, and across the country indiscriminately. We have seen this play out at Brackenfell High, but similar struggles have been part of our landscape as far back as the transition to democracy in South Africa. In unpacking this history, we can begin to understand the intractable nature of oppression in education, and to propose new ways we can deal with or resolve racism and sexual and gender-based violence, among other forms of oppression.
Over the last few weeks Brackenfell High School has been receiving attention after a group of white parents and students planned a graduation party which allegedly included only white persons. The graduation party revealed the deeper layers of racism at the high school with current and previous students sharing stories of racism on Instagram and activists highlighting the almost all white staff cohort at the school.
The internal struggles with racism in the school, were a microcosm of what was to unfold outside the school gates. On one hand political parties, such as the EFF and PAC, alongside social movements and activists planned a protest against racism outside the school. On the other hand political parties and actors, including the DA, the Cape Party and local (predominantly white) church groups either protested against the EFF or made public statements in defence of the school. During the protests outside the school physical forms of racism and gender-based violence were documented.
In this case there are multiple layers to the functioning of racial and gender oppression: we have experiences of racism among black learners, an almost all white staff cohort, white parents defending the school, and political and social actors challenging racism or violently defending racism. The intractable nature of racism becomes clearer once we understand the complexity of its functioning.
The Brackenfell case is one among many many others. In 2020 at the University of Cape Town (UCT) several cases of racism and sexual and gender-based violence emerged in the media, with more being dealt with internally. In 2019 an image surfaced of black students being seated separately on their first day at a primary school in Schweizer-Reneke. This image highlighted how even our formative experiences of education can reinforce racist and segregationist forms of oppression.
In 2017 a brawl broke out when protestors highlighting racism at the University of the Free State disrupted a university rugby match. The disruption of the sacred and white space of rugby in the Free State led the spectators to hurl racist slurs and physically attack the protestors. These cases highlight the segregationist politics still present, and how integration is seen as “dangerous” and leads to violent resistance.
In 2016, learners at Pretoria Girls High staged a protest to challenge racist rules and in the same year learners at Sans Souci Girls High (Cape Town) also highlighted how they were berated for speaking isiXhosa and wearing braids. A few years earlier the principal of Wordsworth High (Benoni) forced black learners to wash their hair with dishwashing liquid after making racist statements about the hair of black learners.
In 2015, a video surfaced of the brutal rape and violent assault of a black learner at a school in the Northern Cape. Four white learners covered the black learner in a white substance (reported as either bleach or white paint), tortured and sexually assaulted the learner. The above cases highlight the embodied nature of racism, including harmful comments about the hair, language and physical features of black learners. In each case, but especially in the awful story from the Northern Cape, black learners are “corrected” by the white education environments. Corrected, because they are not white or have not assimilated into the dominant (white) culture.
The penultimate example that needs to be shared is that of the infamous Reitz incident where white students humiliated black and women workers by making the workers consume a drink mixed with urine. The video capturing these violations begins with the statement, “Once upon a time the ‘boere’ lived peacefully on Reitz Island, until one day when the less-advantaged discovered the word ‘integration’ in the dictionary”.
“Integration” work, or what we may call transformation, inclusivity and (critical) diversity work is not only difficult and contested, it’s dangerous work. The stories recollected here highlight the dangers of this work.
Lastly, in 1995, Cara Kriel opened her report on protests at the Witwatersrand University campus by stating: “The pillars of learning are once again under siege at Wits, and once again students are divided on the issue”. Dan Motaung, then representative of the Wits chapter of the South African Students Congress (Sasco) said: “We’re not going to go on and on with a university that is a relic of the past, there has to be a change and it doesn’t have to be unilaterally determined.”
In the past 25 years, within education institutions racial and gender oppression has been present and documented. While we have vividly recollected the more overt and often brutal incidences of racial and gender oppression, we know that it also often manifests in obfuscated forms. Everyday indignities occur in the form of microaggressions, veiled insults and the difficult-to-capture feeling of being excluded and ignored. Explicit forms of racism can only occur in an environment which silently supports racism and enables subtle forms of racism.
While our strategies to challenge racism and sexual and gender-based violence have evolved and innovated, the problem is present, and its nature hasn’t substantively changed. If racial and gender oppression continues, our strategies till this point have not been fully effective. So, what can we do differently?
Racism and sexual and gender-based violence is real, we don’t need more reports to tell us that: the first impulse of education institutions when racism becomes visible is to investigate, review or write a report about it. We’re at a stage where we have evidence across many institutions and across many years. We don’t need to collect more evidence, we need to take more brave actions.
Trust, listen to and keep safe those sharing testimonies of racism and sexual and gender-based violence: if hearing these stories was hard for you as a reader (as it was for us to write them), we can only imagine how hard it is to articulate and share these stories publicly as a survivor of racial and gender oppression. As educational institutions we need to trust, listen to and safeguard those who courageously speak up, not isolate, challenge or ignore them.
Reject efforts to defend and explain away racism, or refer to the right to free expression and association to excuse racism: in racism cases (alleged) perpetrators often refer to their right to respond and defend themselves, or the fact that they would like to explain their side of the story. These are rights already offered to perpetrators. However, these efforts tend to prioritise the experience of those who already are in positions of power and privilege, at the expense of and trivialising those bringing forward claims of racism.
Use trauma-informed approaches: The stories shared here clearly highlight how racism and sexual and gender-based violence leads to physical and emotional consequences for survivors. The fallist movements often referenced black pain as embodied experience (Lewis and Hendricks, 2017). Racism and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) are traumatic, anxiety-inducing and undeniably harmful. Processes which aim to deal with these situations need to consider, support and affirm survivors.
Flip the narrative on the colonial myth of integration: some define integration as including black persons into white institutions. Underpinning this statement are the assumptions that black persons don’t belong in educational institutions, are outsiders and that our very being is wrong or needs to be corrected. We need to flip the narrative: the land and spaces belong to black persons, it is white people and settlers that should have had to integrate and not the other way round.
Allow black persons to define what it means to be black: Mosa Phadi’s (2012) research explores how allowing black people to define our conceptual understanding of what it means to be black allows ordinary people to shape, adapt and dismiss scholarly definitions, thus disrupting conceptual frames. This can challenge elite and exclusionary political, philosophical and theoretical orientations and centre lived experiences of blackness.
Race and racism are never about them, it’s always about us: education institutions, especially higher education institutions are primed to probe and explore the “other”, to research a “them” or give “voice” to a silent other (Leroke, 1994). Often, we talk about race and SGBV in these othering ways. We need to own our thinking and action in terms of racism.
Why do we hate our ID photos? We hate that they reveal the tightly woven and intractable nature of our identity in numbers, barcodes and ugly photos. In doing so they hint at the intractable nature of oppression as related to representation and the embodied and emotional suffering that comes with oppression. In education institutions we have seen racism and sexual and gender-based violence play out over decades, and now is the time to revisit our strategies and actions. We need to learn from the past to chart a new path, one that won’t have us looking back 25 years from now at the same arc of racial and gender oppression.