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.
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.
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”. 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…
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
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
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
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.”
of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.
 I cannot write an angry word about you, though it is
the fashion to destroy the sandcastles of childhood and to spit upon the
The #Running4Pads initiative
has the aim of securing and donating sanitary pads to schools and communities
in need. #Running4Pads is a Non-Profit Company consisting of individual
This team offer skills towards
the campaign from social media, organising collections and running to raise
awareness and ultimately the collection of packets of sanitary pads that is to
be distributed to schools for girls in need. The team’s goal is to ensure that
we can help as many school girls as possible by restoring their dignity and
keeping them in school.
I enjoy running for medals but
now I’m #Running4Pads. Contact me if you would like to donate a pack of pads for
girls who need them. You can also make a financial donation into the following
Once a term, we visit schools in the Cape Town area and drop off pads that we have collected. Everywhere, that we’ve been the school staff are always grateful for our contributions and confirm the need that is out there.
The South African government has finally exempted sanitary pads from VAT. It’s a pity though that such an essential item is not made available free of charge for girls who need it.