Expert urges schools to talk about racism

Union protesters outside Pietermaritzburg Girls' High School Photo: Shan Pillay

University of KwaZulu-Natal sociologist Dr. Kathyrn Pillay, said schools should be proactive and not wait for incidents to happen before acting.
“Schools have a vital role to play in educating learners on issues of racism, inequality, social justice, and human rights. This should be built into the curriculum. It is educational institutions which can ultimately cultivate critical debate to enable students to question the popular narratives of race and racism presented to them,” said Dr.Pillay
The Department of Education in KwaZulu-Natal says it has a zero-tolerance policy towards racism and has suspended a pupil from Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High whose racist rant on social media this week went viral.
The Grade 11 pupil sent a voice clip on social media calling some pupils on the school’s Spring Ball Committee “k****rs” (A derogatory word used against black South Africans) because they had misspelt her name. The clip quickly went viral, triggering a huge outcry amongst pupils and the public.




The use of the term “k****rs” in referring to black people is considered hate speech and is outlawed and actionable in South Africa. Earlier this week Education MEC Mthandeni Dlungwana weighed in on the controversy saying there was no place for racism in society instructing the department to launch an urgent investigation.
The department yesterday (Tuesday) announced that the pupil had been suspended.
“As the Department of Education, we have a zero tolerance policy towards racism and we believe that it should be uprooted in its totality because it destroys persons and dehumanizes both victims and perpetrators. It is against this background that the department has decided to suspend the learner pending the investigation into the matter. The Department of Education rejects all forms of racism. We are committed to eliminating racism in our schools,” said Kwazi Mthethwa, the department’s spokesman.
Although the school has also condemned the incident saying they have a “zero tolerance policy towards racism”, the clip has created deep divisions between pupils and also between pupils and school management.
Various social media posts following the incident have criticised the school’s handling of the matter and has thrown the spotlight on race relations generally at urban schools.
“The … (Teacher’s designation as per post is being withheld) is saying “everyone has the right to speak up. They say we mustn’t get mad because someone told us how she feels. They are saying she’s confused and stressed out,” read one of the posts.
The School Governing Body (SGB) however said the matter is being dealt with “the urgency and importance” it deserves” as the racist remarks were “contrary to the beliefs and ethos of our school”.
“We explicitly promote human dignity and equality. We condemn in the strongest terms the racist language used in the voice note circulating on social media. In liaison with the KZN Department of Education, we are attending to the matter with the urgency and importance that it deserves,” said a statement from the SGB.
Dr Pillay explained that one of the contributing factors when it comes to children using racist labels is growing up in an environment that “reflects a lack of empathy and the inability to embrace a shared humanity”.
“This is what creates an environment for behaviour and language like that espoused by the offending student, to flourish. There is a focus on ‘us’ and ‘them’, as opposed to viewing each other as fellow human beings. Many people still do not have an appreciation for the structural racism and individual discrimination that is still very much a part of the fabric of South African society,” she added.

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