Schweizer-Reneke. Just another name in South Africa, that will join a long list of names that are diary markers of flashpoints in the fitful societal fight against racism: Coligny, Bronkhorstspruit, Sodwana Bay, along with individuals’ names like Penny Sparrow, Adam Catzavelos, and Vicky Momberg. As a society, we’re not doing very well.

If you think that these people and place names represent isolated cases, then you should at the very least marvel at how well concealed these outliers have been for a long time.

 

There’s almost a playbook representing all of these cases:

  1. An incident occurs or a comment is made and then reported on. In all the examples named above, except Coligny, the origin is social media or online (email or internet).
  2. Outrage follows. Most of the outrage appears to be expressed on social media or online.
  3. Protests occur – sometimes spontaneous, but frequently managed by political parties. The predictable statements are made on the left and on the right of the political spectrum.
  4. Pertinent facts are blurred, ignored and/or eventually included in report.
  5. Both attention and outrage fade away precipitously, and the window of opportunity to reach a resolution that is ethically appropriate, socially acceptable and widely publicised is lost. Guided by the media, we all move on and await the next incident.
  6. Repeat steps 1-5.

 

The media establishment as a whole has been a prominent player in South African public life recent years, particularly through their collective efforts at uncovering the deep perversion that has come to be known as state capture. Media houses and journalists here and abroad are under a range of pressures, mainly commercial and technological, as they work to remain relevant to the polis. This means that while they may sometimes excel, as they have done in regard to state capture, they may not have the resources or the bandwidth to investigate, fact-check and report their stories accurately and thoroughly. Also, their overarching priority is to sell copies or advertising, and either way this means enticing people to consume their content however they can.

Having said all that, most of us have no real option for informing ourselves but to consume whatever the media dishes up, however they dish it up. We’re just obliged to remain sceptical and vigilant.

The Schweizer-Reneke story sells easily, because it’s such a “clean” black-and-white story, or so it appears. (Pun intended, of course)

Naturally, because this is SA, the battle lines are pre-set and all of the expected outrage, arguments and counter-arguments have played themselves out. The protests have kicked in, as early as the very next day after schools opened and the picture emerged. It has been a battle, predictably, to get a clean hold of pertinent facts from the media. And indications are that the news cycle may have already moved on to fresher, more sellable stories, such as the ANC’s manifesto launch or the latest instalment of the slow-motion train wreck that is the DRC election.

It’s been particularly interesting to observe some immediate (dare I say knee-jerk) reactions. The Schweizer-Reneke School Governing Body issued a statement containing the usual PR guff, but notably claiming that the photograph was “a reflection of a single moment in a classroom.” In other words, nothing to see here people, move on.

 

In contrast, the North-West premier was reported to be “shocked by the images circulating on social media”. In other words, someone must be guilty of something here – let’s send in a team to investigate. Two equally stark leaps to diametrically opposing conclusions.

Because our attention and our outrage are loud, shallow and transient, we are unlikely to see the true issues in a place like Schweizer-Reneke, let alone resolve them. The Citizen[1] reports that the teacher suspended in connection with the photograph is one of an all-white staff complement of 19. Nineteen! Nineteen teachers at a government primary school in South Africa, not one of whom is black. Not only is this a significant part of the real story of Schweizer-Reneke, this is something for which all nineteen of those teachers and the MEC for education in North-West are partly responsible. They should all be desperate to change that fact and doing all they can to make it happen. Preferably together.  Sadly, the likelihood that such collaboration has ever been suggested, let alone attempted, is vanishingly small. Instead, this passes us all by.[2]

The same article from the Citizen quotes MEC Lehari stating that the school suggested the reason for the separation of the four black children from the larger group was that “they did not understand English and Afrikaans”. That the learners’ proficiency in only English and Afrikaans is apparently at issue (the MEC rejected this excuse) is actually one of our most fundamental problems in South Africa. We have not moved forward from the days of apartheid’s narrow tweetaligheid. We blacks have failed to take our own languages seriously enough to respect and value the languages that these four black kids, and millions of others, bring to the classroom. We have relegated their mother tongues to the back corner of the education system, and we will continue to subject them to these indignities for as long as white children’s proficiency in Setswana, Tshivenda or isiZulu is not even raised as a topic.

The racism probably expressed by this photograph[3] is an issue and needs to be dealt with.[4] The media as a whole has a responsibility to inform us better about incidents and issues as they arise. But we have a lot of cleaning house to do, as black people. And until we start making concerted and consistent efforts in this direction, we will be continually distracted, whipped into a frothy frenzy by each next “isolated incident” of racism that breaches the social media attention threshold. Let Schweizer-Reneke finally be the name that calls us to pay close attention to what really matters.

 

 

 

 Footnotes:

  1. Suspended Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke teacher ‘flees town’ – report. 11 January 2019. “Citizen reporter and ANA” – anonymisation of reports by credible sources is a growing problem
  2. Of course this is speculation. I would love to be proved wrong.
  3. I stick my neck out and make this judgement call – for me the fact that a teacher at the school took the photo and presumably saw nothing wrong with it is in itself an indication of how much work still needs to be done to battle racism.
  4. We would recommend beginning by holding a closed session in which the parents of all the learners at the school are allowed to voice their perspectives, frustrations and concerns, without constraint and without judgement. While the process and how we would handle it might be instructive for all South Africans, we would strongly prefer that it be closed and unrecorded, to maximise the chances for real engagement.