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Brackenfell incident reveals ignored struggles of black learners

The nation was again shocked recently when our democracy and rainbowism were tested at the Brackenfell High School in Cape Town.

The school organised a matric function that excluded black learners and as many apologists argued, the function had nothing to do with the school, for it was a private occasion.

So morbidly interesting to invite the school’s matrics and yet express it was not an event linked to the institution.

To make matters worse, the society started giving misinformed justifications thus eschewing the real issues.

Several people have stated that the EFF should not have involved itself because the school function was simply a private matter meant for a select few who happened to be white.

How sad to hear even the most reasonable of people buying this balderdash that seeks to dissuade us from examining the crux of the matter.

Seeing a school turning into a literal battlefield was such a heartbreaking paradox especially in a time when we continue teaching and rummaging for social justice and social cohesion.

The Brackenfell incident reveals bigger struggles for black learners that the society has always refused to heed.

Many learners have been telling their communities how some schools alienate and reject them.

Even at Brackenfell, learners interviewed on Tuesday intimated how some staff members lavishly use derogatory words including the k-word when talking to black learners.

A few months ago, the Durban Girls College and Cape Town’s Bishops current and former matrics told us how inflexible their schools have become.

The former learners in KwaZuluNatal mentioned how oppressive and discriminatory their school was when they were still learners.

This portrayed a school that is intolerant and oblivious to diversity.

One girl related how she was ordered to cut a red string, that had religious significance, around her wrist.

Another narrated how her teacher found her dreadlocks offensive and wanted to cut them.

The learners were reminded of these incidents after the school told them to be careful on what they posted pertaining to George Floyd and Black Lives Matter Movement.

At Bishops Diocesan College, the matrics listed numerous grievances highlighting discriminatory practices and racism in the school.

The youth also highlighted the language debate calling for the recognition and use of isiXhosa as a language in the curriculum.

Most importantly, it was the call for decolonisation and issues related to epistemic freedom at their school.

The learners have realised the urgent imperative to redeem schools from the ills of colonised education thus freeing them from historic rides and culture codes.

We should applaud the youth who do not merely complain but bring forth recommendations as well.

Again, another unfortunate incident happened in Cape Town College where Grade 7 learners were given a fun activity on the Atlantic Slave Trade. They had to create advertisements for a slave trade auction and the group that presented the best advert was to receive a slab of chocolate.

The sample adverts presented to students used words such as Negroes.

The activities were so absurd and accommodating to the colonial narrative, and demonstrated how dangerous education can be when educators are not perceptive of certain sensitivities in historical accounts.

As one observes these anomalies, one wonders how many other learners are silent in numerous other schools because generally, society tends to do nothing after a brief hullabaloo.

Over the years, learners have been knocking on the doors of some school administration pleading for change but frequently their pleas have been ignored not only by the administrators but also by their parents, communities and government. We are always coming back to the same drawing board with no ideas at all.

A few years ago in a Pretoria school, black learners were told to alter their hairstyles in a way that did not accommodate diversity. In the same school, a teacher rebuked learners for speaking an ‘unintelligible’ language when they spoke their mother tongue.

In a way, the learners were being told that their language was not a language worth to be spoken in a school.

Then in a prestigious Joburg school, a teacher told his black learners how privileged they were to be in the same class with white learners.

He told the black learners that they were indebted to white peers for their top marks and sharing desks with white pupils was a privilege that they should never overlook.

The society stood up as it normally does. For two weeks, everybody was incensed and several declared their anger on social media.

Yet this merely ended there and we never spoke to the affected learners.

We never cared to understand what such utterances do to the psychology of the young people.

Many schools continue to be a disservice to learners in various ways as they persist in their traditional sometimes crooked ways, after all this is what the system knows.

The hidden curriculum conceals much and numerous ill practices can be done in the pretext of upholding standards, morals and values. Sometimes these schools do these to protect questionable traditions that only defeat the purpose of what schools should stand for.

Looking at these experiences it would not help unmask the real problems if we merely examine the Brackenfell High School incident superficially. People have shown in various ways what they think about the EFF’s activism as well as the hooliganism shown by all those involved on Monday.

Schools should be the places where children feel free to experiment their future of social cohesion. Our children should learn to ask the school difficult questions for this is the way they would build their country. Yet vestiges of segregation and apartheid will not help us in moving forward.

The private and exclusionary matric event at Brackenfell definitely sent confusing messages to all learners, those who were at the matric event and those who were excluded.

These doubts, planted in our young people portend a dismal future and are the subliminal messages that destroy the brittle desire to build one future.

Many children experience challenges throughout the year and to continue experiencing these during exam time is even more appalling and saddening. It is so convenient for many to blame the EFF for raising the concerns in Brackenfell.

But we need to look at all the role-players and see how best this could have been addressed.

It was so distasteful to see belligerent adults hurling expletives and stones at one another on the grounds where we are building futures.

We need to focus more on persisting structural problems in our schools. One would wish that our children have zealous parents who will always listen to the frustrations of their children and act immediately when necessary.

One can be certain that parents at the school became aware of the school’s plans when they heard about the private matric event where the word private seems to have been used euphemistically.

What needs to be underscored now is listening to the silent voices of children who are frustrated by the intransigent school system.

Their voices would help us build strong institutions that stand for excellence and most importantly, fairness and inclusion.

And as adults we should always ignite the desire to build and sustain humanising and progressive schools.

  • Vuyisile Msila works at Unisa. He writes in his personal capacity.

OPINION: Vuyisile Msila