By Devan Moonsamy CEO of The ICHAF Training Institute
The first term of school this year has not gotten off to the best start for some children and their parents. At Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke in North West Province, a teacher has been suspended over racial segregation of children in a class. A photo was sent to parents by WhatsApp by the teacher which clearly shows a large group of white children seated together, and a few black children separated from the group at another desk. That’s a red flag, and a political protest was held outside the school.
But is this what people so quickly assume it to be? A number of explanations have surfaced. Firstly, this is simply the work of a racist teacher showing preference to the white children. Schweizer-Reneke is a town said to have deep racial divisions, and some say the teacher was even doing the right thing because of these tensions and because integration takes time.
Secondly, that the black children were new at the school and could not speak Afrikaans or English. Why this was in fact necessary was not made clear by the school. One reason could be that the children required a different teaching intervention which the teacher planned to give them in a small group setting. Separating learners according to needs in this way is a common practice and seems to make sense.
However, it is strange that the children who are said to need special attention are placed at the back of the class in the corner. Was it necessary to make them feel even more excluded in this way? It just doesn’t add up. MEC Sello Lehari who went in to address the situation has rejected this excuse and is investigating further.
Thirdly, it has been said that the children were allowed to sit where they wanted, and so the seating arrangements were their choice. This last reason is somewhat plausible because we do all tend towards ‘birds of a feather’ habits, and perhaps more so for young children in such a setting. But it would still seem unlikely that the children end up in the particular arrangement shown in the picture on their own. Does it not seem too well organised for these small children aged between four and six?
On social media, people were angered, and said it is unacceptable, while others say it is a ‘fake racial event’. Another teacher is to take the suspended teacher’s place, but some parents have already removed their children from the school.
Making an analysis this soon is difficult. More information is needed. However, I propose that it is the duty of the teacher in question and the school to make a formal apology at the very least for an insensitive way of arranging the children in the class. The teacher ought not to have placed the black children away from the others and at the back, especially if they needed more attention due to a language barrier.
Whether intentionally racist or not, it is highly offensive, and it is what we are supposed to be working very hard to prevent. Education has long been a site of racial contention, and we need to tread carefully. People of colour already feel marginalised in many settings. There is no need to throw that in their faces, and in such a personal way.
People are also naturally very protective of their own and other people’s children, and rightly so. It is not unfair to take to social media seeking public attention and comment on this photo. We need to debate this and ensure that children across South Africa are not subject to segregation or favouritism for any reason.
Let this be a warning to all teachers, educators, schools, colleagues, universities, trainers, etc. – we must be sensitised on these issues of racism in education.
Devan Moonsamy is the author of Racism, Classism, Sexism, And The Other ISMs That Divide Us, available from the ICHAF Training Institute.
The book tackles contemporary issues in the South African workplace, including a variety of diversity-related challenges and how these can be overcome. It is an excellent guide for managers to harnessing diversity for success.