If we’re going to raise non-racial children, it’s very important to empower them cognitively. We know through the many children who march with us and are involved in Equal Education’s campaigns that they understand some of them will likely never see a complete school infrastructure while they are at school. Instead, they’re campaigning for their own children. They know what a school should be like and they want to see that by the time they become parents.
Children might not have the language about race, but they do have the language about what they do not have, says Equal Education’s Tshepo Motsepe.
South Africa is now a country that services three types of people. At first, there were two: if you were black, you knew where you were supposed to be. Everyone else was white. Now it’s about the differences between township and rural people, and everyone else, with most black children subjected to sub-standard levels of education much worse than what was happening during apartheid.
If you go to certain rural parts of South Africa, you’ll see what poverty and deprivation do to the fate of a young black child. They’re still walking long distances. They’re attending lessons with animals in the classroom. Their teachers are old and semi-skilled. Many go to school very hungry.
Even at former white schools, you’re now finding emerging lower middle and black middle class children who have to wake up at 4am to catch buses just to get a better education.
Then you find another part, which is your much more affluent schools, where the few remaining white people have sometimes pushed themselves into enclaves and are doing all they can to protect their schools.
You’ll still find Afrikaans-medium schools where there are 300 learners resisting dual medium, yet there are black African parents and coloured communities fighting for resources that are non-existent.
You might then go to Western Cape areas like Manenberg, where coloured people are saying children are coming in from neighbouring Khayelitsha and Nyanga, and yet they too are under-resourced.
In Roodepoort, we see poor people scavenging for educational resources. The rest of us start to wonder, how do we decode all of this?
What we as Equal Education see is that children’s conceptions of race have shifted now not only to white people being in a better position, but to that which generally represents what they do not have. They’re being exposed to the emergent black middle class, and starting to ask why their neighbour has resources and they don’t. It’s all about how they conceptualise their own position.
They might not have the language about race, but they do have the language about what they do not have, and those comparisons are made at a very early age.
To discover how divided this country is in terms of race, visit any township or rural school and you will get a sense of how little our children are considered by the system – at a class and a human level.
In a rural school, you’ll find young people learning with cows and goats sharing space with the teachers in front. In some township schools, you’ll still find 80 to 90 learners packed into one class like sardines.
Automatically, education affects their position in life as black children.
Someone from outside may ask: How do parents allow their children to learn under the conditions where a child like 6-year-old Michael Komape just fell into a pit toilet and died? But the children in poor areas look at their worth, in terms of race and class, with those stories in mind.
How do their parents raise a non-racial child? They see education as a liberation for their children, because not being educated locks them up into deeper poverty. But if the children are not getting a decent education with the right infrastructure and resources, but they see some other black children have all those things too, like white children, and that the children of black elites treat them as differently as rich white children treat them, they’ll see themselves as not deserving of anything better.
Equal Education started from a simple point of view in 2008 – with broken classroom windows campaign in Khayelitsha. Since then, we’ve taken our campaigns a lot further to focus heavily on resources, getting toilets built and access to water. We feel those things – proper classrooms with school furniture – exemplify what the Bill of Rights is articulating for children to be treated as human beings in South Africa.
If we do not have those, our children’s rights will have been violated from the first order.
Yes, we must celebrate that young people have been able to go to non-racial schools. Yes, we have achieved the goal of universal access to schooling, and we should celebrate that. But let us also ask: has it provided sufficient opportunities to restore lost dignity?
Bantu Education made black children feel their race. It made them feel inferior. Today, this can happen through the lack of school infrastructure, which is a disgrace.
We need to be able to hold the system accountable, and we need to entrench the position that the important years of life are the first three years, and so the majority of black children will probably remain three years behind anyway, due to poverty and a lack of resources in their communities. Then they enter school, and in Grades 1, 2 and 3, learn in their mother tongue, taking a huge shift at Grade 4, where they must begin to learn in English without knowing to use English as a tool of knowledge.
But we want and need to build something else into the mentality of especially black South African children.
We middle-class parents panic when we’re a few minutes’ late to fetch our kids from school. But so many rural and other black parents have children who walk 10km to school and 10km back, and they remain committed. Us middle-class people tend to take education very lightly and for granted, but it – together with the Lotto – is all poor people have for the promise of a better life.
We need to give poor children a clear sense of their common humanity with all other children in the country, so that they understand this is about being human, not about being white or black, or part of the elite or not, so that we can undo the damage caused over so many years.
As long as we create the impression in children that their race matters in terms of how successful they might be in the future, there will be a race problem. If poor children believe all they are worth is to be slaves for us, and that others are meant to be superior, our society will keep degenerating into race arguments.
We must teach children to take pride in any jobs they do or we’re just compacting them into layers like what the system is doing. Even some black middle-class students remain angry; they say, no matter how close we have been to white children, we are still treated as nothing but a charity case, so even the proximity to whiteness doesn’t necessarily make children feel human enough.
But we need to start somewhere, and that’s in the classroom.
* Tshepo Motsepe is the general secretary of Equal Education, a movement of learners, parents, teachers and community members working for quality and equality in South African education.