For many of us, it was shocking and deeply disturbing when, just weeks after the start of the 2015 school year here in South Africa, there were allegations of racial segregation at Curro Roodeplaat Private School in Pretoria.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that this was not an isolated occurrence. In 2013, there were at least seven allegations of racism in schools across the country (Wilgehof Primary School, Paarl Gym rugby team, Bersig High School, Hendrina Combined School, Dr Viljoen Primary School, Rivonia Primary School, and Vergenoegd Primary School). Last year, there were the incidences of ‘blackface’ by University of Stellenbosch students and the racist attack by University of Cape Town students at a local shopping mall.

These incidences, from primary level to varsity, suggest that there is an urgent need to look at solutions for equipping and empowering parents, teachers, learners and school bodies to become leaders in diversity, inclusion and transformation. Rather than debating whether racism is really a problem at schools or not, we need to be asking – why are these incidences happening and what can we do about it?

This is critically important not only for the schools where incidences have been reported, but also at schools where issues have not yet surfaced or schools that view themselves as well-integrated. Based on our experience working on diversity and inclusion across South Africa, we suggest three initial steps that all schools need to take:

  • The need for inner work and dialogue

 

In many of the cases mentioned above, there were whistle-blowers – parents, teachers and students – who took the initiative and the risk of speaking out. However, in other instances, where teachers or learners observe racism and prejudice, there is still reluctance, perhaps linked to fear, to speak out. Students, teachers and parents need the skills and tools to work through the fears and consequences for speaking out. And teachers and parents, in their roles of authority, need to do intensive inner work to look at the baggage they carry into the classroom and into the home. Schools need to proactively prioritise safe spaces for diversity and inclusion dialogue.

  • The need for intentional integration of diversity and inclusion into daily teaching for all schools, not just those that make it into the news

 

Challenging the argument that ‘there is no space in the curriculum for diversity work’, an anti-racist and inclusive approach needs to influence everything a teacher does, rather than being treated as a single topic or subject area. There are highly effective tools and strategies that teachers can be trained in, which won’t add to teachers’ workload but will actually empower them to teach in diverse classrooms.

  • The need for accountability and more appropriate consequences for offenders

 

Both public and private schools, in partnership with the Department of Education, must relook at the consequences for schools, teachers and learners that are found guilty of hate speech and acts of racism, in order to send a strong message that this is unacceptable. At the same time, rather than only taking a punitive approach, we must push for a societal response, which recognises the fact that schools are often microcosms of the prejudices and racism that persist in our communities and workplaces.

To find out more about some of the creative ways that we have supported schools in their diversity and inclusion journeys, please contact us at info@mandatemolefi.co.za or by calling 011 728 9585.