Discrimination at Rustenburg Girls’ High School

Discrimination at Rustenburg Girls’ High School

Former students of Rustenburg Girls’ High School have spoken out about their experiences of racism at that school. They have created a platform where stories can be told in order to provide validation, catharsis, healing and the restitution of dignity for those voices that were previously subdued. I am providing space here for a document that they have compiled.

Nuraan Davids writes, “the fact that past and present learners have taken to a public space to voice their frustration, anger and pain is a confirmation that they did not experience their school as a safe space.” The complete article can be read here.

Racism in Schools Exposed on Social Media

Racism in Schools Exposed on Social Media

Statement by Parents for Change

Parents for Change commend the courage of those current and former students of private and former model C schools who have spoken out about their experiences of racism and the impairment of their dignity. Those who have spoken out include young people associated with both Rustenburg Girls’ Junior and High Schools, as well as other schools in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. Our youth insist that we centre the historical woundedness, social incongruencies and our uneven inheritances. They demand new forms of accountability.

We also note the accounts of the undervaluing and bullying of Black teachers in schools, and the poor offering of marginalized African languages, particularly in primary schools. We believe that it is the responsibility of the schools to value these teachers and protect them from all forms of bullying. The schools should also consider reviewing their policies and offer marginalized languages as a way of fast-tracking social inclusion and the transformation plans which many schools claim to be prioritizing.

Since 2017, Parents for Change (PfC) have been working to create and support inclusive and transformed schools where all learners, staff and parents are respected and treated with dignity and equity. We believe that this will prepare our children to embrace and thrive in our diverse society as adults with consequential social cohesion and the potential for healing.

The statements made by young people on the YouSilenceWeAmplify Instagram account and other social media sites have highlighted that we still have some way to go to realise our vision. These events are unfolding in the context of the global COVID19 pandemic and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which have both exposed deep inequalities in our society and shown the need for new ways of being. The possibility of wilful ignorance, silence and amnesia no longer persists. Within this moment deep reflection is a pressing obligation.

What is critical is how the schools implicated by these allegations respond. We believe that important first steps include admission of institutional complicity in advancing racism, commitment to making racism a matter that matters for us all, and being proactive regarding anti-racism work. We hope that the schools will adopt a posture of humility and open themselves up for listening and dialogue with the young people who have shown the courage to share their stories, and that attempts will be made to seek answers and justice for the girls who experienced blatant racism and discrimination. In cases, where staff who are implicated in these incidents are still employed by schools, urgent investigations are required.

Schools must be safe spaces where our children can learn and grow into whole adults. No child should have to be made to feel as if they do not belong. The lack of transformation and anti-racism work at schools has done a great disservice to both black and white students. We call on all members of school communities, including fellow parents, to become part of the change required in our society to enable thriving, wellbeing and healing in a context of deep historical wounds. We need to learn to be more explicit about white privilige, racism and search for blindspots.

Skeleton Lodge, Langebaan – What’s in a name?

Skeleton Lodge, Langebaan – What’s in a name?

In 1976, the human remains in St James Cemetery, Langebaan, were exhumed and reinterred elsewhere. Several fancy buildings are now found on the land where St James Cemetery (together with a church and school) once stood. One of the buildings is named Skeleton Lodge.

One must assume that some thought went into the naming of Skeleton Lodge. Whoever decided on the name must have known that the building was erected on a site that was once a cemetery.

In 1966, the area of Langebaan in which St James Cemetery was located was declared a White group area. In line with apartheid laws, the land that accommodated a predominantly Coloured congregation was cleared to make way for White people. Such was the callousness of apartheid that not even the dead were spared the indignity of forced removals.

Perhaps the name “Skeleton Lodge” is a macabre attempt at witticism. But for those whose dead loved ones’ remains were dug up and reburied in a mass grave on the other side of the town, the name probably has another effect.

The remains exhumed from St James Cemetery were reinterred in a mass grave.

Playing with names is one of the ways in which people in positions of power display their belief in their superiority over others. Throughout history names have been used to demonstrate triumph. Names have also been used to ridicule and shame groups who have been conquered. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the names given by owners to their slaves in the Cape Colony. For example, Fortune was a common name given to slaves as an ironic reminder of their lack of wealth. Other popular sources of slave names were characters from classical history and mythology such as Titus and Cupido; similar names were also given to the slaveowners’ livestock and pets and when the slaves came into contact with their namesakes the joke would be revealed. These names survive today in the surnames of many Coloured people.  

Growing up on the Cape Flats, one can see how those naming patterns were also extended to places such as Valhalla Park, Lavender Hill and Heideveld. Beyond Cape Town, Sophiatown was renamed Triomf (literally, Triumph) after the forced removals of Black people who had to make way for working class White people.

Skeleton Lodge’s name plays an unintended purpose. In what is otherwise a town that has whitewashed its cruel past, Skeleton Lodge serves as a reminder of the people who lived, played, worshipped, learned and died in Langebaan but who are no longer wanted in the “nice” part. What might have been intended as a joke is not funny.

Day of Reconciliation

Day of Reconciliation

My thoughts about Nelson Mandela are similar to thoughts that I have about my parents. They are best summed up by Breyten Breytenbach in his poem, “Wat die hart van vol is loop die mond van oor”[1]. Writing about his mother he says,

vir u
kan ek om die dood
nie ‘n bitter vers skryf nie

alhoewel dit die mode is
om stikkend verby die moederspeen
in die mond te skel

en die sandkastele van kinderjare
roekeloos om te skop,
op die grafte te spoeg…[2]

Today, the memory of Mandela that overshadows others is, on the one hand, attacked by militant youth and, on the other, celebrated by the privileged classes. The memory of him that is largely celebrated is that of the reconciliatory Mandela – the man who forgave his captors, who had tea with the widow of apartheid’s architect. The memory of Mandela, the revolutionary, who founded the armed wing of the African National Congress in 1961, is conveniently forgotten.

If anything, Mandela has taught us is that timing is important. Just as there is a time for a war, there is a time for peace. What the privileged and moderates want to memorialise forever is the Mandela for peace and reconciliation.

The result is that 25 years after the end of apartheid, we are still trapped in a situation where the so-called fears of the privileged few seem to count for more than the expectations of the majority. Little has changed in 25 years precisely because there has been a deliberate intention to make compromises. The World Bank GINI index still ranks South Africa as the most unequal country in the world.

There have been squandered opportunities over the past two decades. Corruption at various levels of government and misplaced priorities such as the spending of R30 billion on military weaponry in 1999. But there have also been failures to act in key areas such as land restitution, transformation in sport, and access to education. This failure to act is largely due to policies and practices that sought to appease the privileged few.

The gap between rich and poor is stark when it comes to access to schooling. There is the obvious divide between private schools and public schools. But even among public schools the levels of inequality are high.

No better example of excess can be found than a small and privileged public school in the southern suburbs of Cape Town – Rustenburg Girls’ Junior School. Between 2016 and 2017, Rustenburg Girls’ Junior School spent more R9.6 million on revamping its swimming pool facilities. Over the same period, the school spent only about R300,000 on bursaries. In 2019, the school dipped into its reserves and will spend just under R1 million on resurfacing its netball courts. Less than R200,000 is budgeted for bursaries.

This excessive spending on infrastructure at a public school happens in a country where many schools lack basic facilities such classrooms, electricity and clean running water. An audit in 2018 found that at nearly 4,000 schools the only available toilets were pit latrines. In recent years, there have been confirmed reports of four children who have died in such unsafe toilets – two by drowning. Many students in rural South Africa have to walk more than 20km each day to get to and from school. Many children drop out of schools because their families cannot continue to afford to provide the basic necessities such as food and clothing, and cover the costs associated with schooling. 

To fund their lavish spending, Rustenburg’s annual school fees will increase by 6.5% from 2019 to R38,865 in 2020. This is more than what it costs for a year of study at many South African universities – for example, at the University of Free State it costs about R34,000 for a first-year of study towards a Bachelor of Arts degree. These fees are apart from other costs such as for several sets of compulsory uniforms – for winter, summer and sport.

School fees are an obvious means to exclude whole groups of people. Wealth is still very much distributed along racial lines in the country. So, it goes without saying that by keeping out those who cannot afford the high fees, schools such as Rustenburg keep out mainly black families. The school last released statistics on its student demographics in 2017. At that time, only 9% were black African and 19% were Coloured among the student body. Of the 51 members of the management and teaching staff, 16 (31%) were Coloured and only 2 (4%) were black African.

High fees are but one barrier to access at a school such as Rustenburg. The application of the school’s admissions policy is another. In this regard, there is a deliberate aim to retain dominance by a certain racial and cultural group. The fears of the dominant group is best encapsulated by a question posed by a member of the School Governing Body in August 2018: “Does anyone have any ideas on where we could pull data that debunks the myth of dropped standards if you take in people of colour or from a socio economic class lower than RGJS? There’s a perception that as soon as you bring in too many people of colour or people of a certain class then the academic standards of the school will drop.”

The newly appointed principal of Rustenburg Girls’ Junior School has said that transformation at the school must proceed at “a pace of grace” and that it is necessary to “slow down to speed up.” The argument is based on the idea that different members of the school “community” are at different points in the transformation journey. The question is, at what point of the transformation journey is the school’s SGB and senior management team?

The other question is: “grace” for whom? This approach hints at not taking sides. In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 Elie Wiesel said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” No change, like delaying change, favours those who benefit from the status quo.

Why We Can’t Wait is the title of a 1964 book by Martin Luther King Jr. Like Mandela, King became a darling of white moderates after his death, and he is often held up as an example of civility to shame activists today. In this particular book, King cites the slow pace of school desegregation (after the Supreme Court ruled in its favour in 1954) as one of the reasons for 1963 having become a landmark year of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. Central to the book however is “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written in response to white religious leaders of the American South, who criticised King’s involvement in nonviolent demonstrations against racial segregation, and who appealed – in a manner of speaking – for him to adopt “a pace of grace.” King responded by saying:

You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.

History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.

I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “wait”… I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.”

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

The views of those who speak for change at schools such as Rustenburg Girls’ Junior are dismissed as the views of a minority. This is not surprising since the majority benefit from the status quo.

Schools like Rustenburg Junior does a great disservice not only to black students and staff but also to its white students and staff. By stubbornly insulating itself from change, it robs all of its community the opportunity to be part of a new dawn and, in fact, to be an example to other institutions about how change can be brought about.

More than 70 years ago, in the early days of official apartheid, another moderate sounded a warning: “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they turn to loving they will find that we are turned to hating.”[3]

[1] Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.

[2] I cannot write an angry word about you, though it is the fashion to destroy the sandcastles of childhood and to spit upon the graves.

[3] Alan Paton, 1948, Cry, The Beloved Country

Controversy at the IEC

Controversy at the IEC

In October 2018, while I was under consideration for the position of Director of My Vote Counts, I felt that it was appropriate to declare information pertaining to events during my time at the Independent Electoral Commission. I appreciated this opportunity; this was my first venture back into the world of electoral democracy since my resignation from the IEC in June 2016.

I joined the IEC in August 2005, after having worked for 12 years in the higher education sector. In 2013, my name was one of those mentioned in a report by the Public Protector on a lease agreement that was entered into by the IEC. That lease was entered into in 2009.

In the Public Protector’s report, two of my colleagues and I were accused of not having provided information to the Public Protector during the investigation. I was surprised when I read that finding in the report since I was never given an opportunity to respond to the finding in, for example, a provisional report. In fact, what I do have is E-mail communication between ourselves and the investigator of the Public Protector’s office confirming that they had received all the required information.

Nonetheless, I maintain that I cooperated fully with the investigation by the Public Protector. Subsequent to that report, I cooperated with investigations by the Hawks, a forensic audit by PwC and regulatory audits by the Auditor-General. None of those investigations produced any evidence of financial misconduct or corruption on my part or on the part of anyone involved in the lease agreement. The forensic audit highlighted some issues which were honest mistakes in the adjudication process of the tender. Moreover, in 2017, the High Court dismissed an application to have the lease agreement set aside and confirmed our view that any mistakes were not material in the awarding of the tender.

A few people were mentioned in the Public Protector’s report and received some attention in the media as a result. The media did not cover a lot of the subsequent developments. Since the release of the Public Protector’s report, Pansy Tlakula resigned as Chairperson of the IEC but was subsequently appointed as Chairperson of the Information Regulator of South Africa. Norman Du Plessis retired from the IEC. Mosotho Moepya served out his term as CEO and was subsequently appointed as a Commissioner at the IEC.

In 2018, the only people who saw the need to bring up my involvement in the 2009 IEC lease agreement matter, were individuals (mostly anonymous) who wanted to discredit me in their attempts to oppose transformation at a certain school in Cape Town. In the process, they misrepresented the findings of the Public Protector and accused me of financial and electoral fraud. Any reading of the report makes it clear that I was never accused of – let alone guilty – of any of such charges.

Reflections on UCT

Reflections on UCT

I was an undergraduate student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) between 1989 and 1993. I subsequently worked at the university until 2002. During my tenure as staff member, I worked closely with two Vice-Chancellors – Stuart Saunders and Mamphela Ramphele. (I might write some more about that on another occasion.)

While a student and a staff member, I was involved in anti-apartheid politics and some of the work on institutional transformation.

Many times, I walked up to the Upper Campus and would pass the statue of Cecil John Rhodes. It was positioned prominently, overlooking the rugby fields. Despite my growing political awareness, I had accepted the presence of the statue as a necessary feature of the university’s landscape. It was in line with the rooftop of the university’s main hall (Jameson Memorial Hall), which in turn was aligned with Devil’s Peak in the distance.

So, when the #RhodesMustFall movement started in 2015, I had to do some serious reflection. I am not going to use this opportunity to make excuses for what I now accept to have been blindspots in my education. As an alumnus of the university, I joined together with other progressive alumni/ae to see to what extend we could support the movement.

I was fortunate to have my name added to two articles, which appeared in the Daily Maverick. The first can be found at this link (https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2016-12-20-letter-to-the-editor-beneath-the-surface-of-the-uct-convocation-agm/) and I have uploaded the second one here: Op-Ed_Restorative_justice_at_UCT_Daily_M (1).