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SA government must crack the whip on transformation at private schools

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Picture: shelbyasteward, flickr.com – The majority of the teaching staff at private schools are white. Ditto: service providers across the board. In most cases, you would find that they take diversity seriously when it comes to black cleaning staff.

By Edwin Naidu

Private schools have recently been under the spotlight for various reasons, not all positive. But the golden thread is a stony silence and a business-as-usual attitude once the noise subsides. Diversity and inclusivity remain a headache for private schooling in South Africa.

This subject is dominating global headlines amid another royal race row involving a Lady Hussey, which may seem contradictory. Fortunately, Prince William swiftly responded, saying that the racism of Lady Hussey has no place in the world.

One cannot leave FIFA out of the debate since there’s no justification for saying that racism and discrimination have no place in football while denying footballers the right to spread a message of love – or fans their choice of drink. Qatar, with its known incidents of abuse against immigrant labourers, shows that the world pays lip service to human rights.

Dealing with diversity and inclusivity remains a significant challenge throughout the racist planet. And the leadership of private schools is contributing to the problem. The Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (Isasa) has member schools in South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, eSwatini, Zambia, Mauritius, Angola, and Mozambique. They should be at the forefront against racism, stamping out discrimination, and promoting social cohesion. Instead, one gets a hollow anti-racism statement to which its members must subscribe. Just tick the box and continue as usual.

This toothless organisation believes in human dignity, anti-racialism, and anti-sexism. Isasa insists it’s committed to developing anti-racist schools through education and support from the various stakeholder bodies. But their website shows that most schools in urban areas are whiter than detergents, except in the townships.

Generally, they hire white (or Indian and coloured) principals. The majority of the teaching staff at private schools are white. Ditto: service providers across the board. In most cases, you would find that they take diversity seriously when it comes to the black cleaning staff. The ground staff is also always black. You may find traces of apartheid South Africa with an elderly white supervisor with his ‘boys’. Receptionists also reflect the faded rainbows. But the headmaster’s assistant is primarily white.

You may struggle to find a black bursar. Is it fair to ask whether Isasa-schools do not trust black people to handle money on behalf of parents? Governing body chairpersons are also in white hands at private schools.

Unsurprisingly, the fat cats in business and Government do not complain since they can afford to send their children to private schools. Who cares about the people in the townships? They matter during elections when politicians suddenly arrive in the name of economic freedom – and votes.

After years of doing nothing about racism, Isasa issued an empty anti-racism statement on 27 September 2021. Ironically, this lily-white organisation has a black executive head, Lebogang Montjane, an attorney with an MA in Comparative Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. But he’s not a traditional educator, and Isasa has allegedly lost experienced black staff because of him. Since assuming the role, some within Isasa say he’s not as passionate about education as his predecessor Jane Hofmeyr.

Nobody’s perfect, but at least she was accessible – and responded to the burning education issues. Montjane allegedly shafted several senior black staff from the Hofmeyr era, replacing them with unqualified white individuals. All regional directors under Montjane are said to be retired, white principals.

One of the country’s top private schools, Roedean, is currently going through a bullying crisis. Have you heard Isasa or Montjane? Despite several requests for comment since October, there has been none from spokesperson Amy Barr-Sanders, a former teacher with limited experience in media relations.

Like the worthless anti-racism statement on its website, Isasa also has a policy on bullying. But it means nothing if you consider their inaction on the response by Roedean to bullying that has seen several victims leave the school while the perpetrators are protected. Something’s not right. But such behaviour is not new. The school has enabled the bullies, and Isasa does nothing to hold them accountable.

People act without fear at private schools. In recent years, there were salacious stories about drug-taking at Michaelhouse in KwaZulu Natal. No action. Another involved disgusting sexual escapades of a randy teacher with pupils at Bishop’s in the Western Cape a few years ago.

It made global headlines. Did Isasa raise this with members? If one keeps silent, as Montjane does, the storm subsides.

But it never goes away. Since Montjane took over this voluntary body, several incidents have occurred at private schools. Isasa offers members financial, advocacy, school best practices, and professional development. But it does not own or manage schools and is not a governing body for private schools. That’s cold comfort for children who have lost their lives through negligence or suffered racism at the hands of others. Worse is the don’t care attitude at some schools under the membership of Isasa.

In September, two grade eight pupils jumped off a building at St Teresa’s School, one died, and the other survived. Isasa remains tight-lipped about the incident. In another incident in February, a six-year-old grade 2 pupil Amkelekile Mokoena died at a private school in Germiston after allegedly choking on a grape from her lunch box. A report said the little girl was asked if she was okay. After replying yes, the teachers did not check up on her. Should teachers not have a duty of care to watch over children?

It is easy to go the route of politicians who make capital by claiming that black lives don’t matter. The deaths of Mokoena and others would suggest so because many instances of racism reflect a don’t care attitude concerning black pupils. One can easily deduce that Isasa pays lip service to diversity.

These challenges are not unique to private schools. The unfortunate demise of 13-year-old Enoch Mpianzi, who drowned during an unauthorised outing by a public school, Parktown Boys’ High School excursion in 2020? He was the teenage son of Congolese immigrants who arrived in the country in 2001 with three other children in search of a better life. But they saw their hopes pinned on their handsome young boy snuffed out after he drowned while on a school camp. This young man with promise was a casualty of an elite education system known as Model C schools.

How hurtful for his parents to find that nobody on staff at the school knew that their beloved son had gone missing long after he had drowned. They only found out after seeing the roll call list, which had gone missing.

Of course, Isasa did not get its hands dirty, but it benefits from subscription fees from hard-working parents of children at some 870 schools under their membership.

It is easy to go the route of politicians who make capital by claiming that black lives don’t matter. But one would instead not go there.

Isasa was silent after claims of a racial slur made during a hockey match between Michaelhouse and St John’s College. The matter has gone to mediation, but it highlights the need for more than words on paper to address racism. Earlier this year, Cornwall Hill College, a private, boarding English medium co- educational preparatory and college in Irene in Centurion, faced race claims. Parents and pupils asked former Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi to help make their school inclusive of races and cultures.

Isasa had nothing to say. Their anti-racism statement is on the website. That should suffice.

A year ago, UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report warned of growing inequality and exclusion due to the high costs of private education and weak state regulation. Since it has conveniently

passed the buck to the education authorities, saying that the provincial department regulates schools in the country, Isasa and the silent Montjane must account for its silence on Roedean. Lesufi now runs the province. His successor with a reputation for transformation, Matome Chiloane, had better earn his keep since the red brigade has thus far left the untransformed private school sector relatively unscathed. Under

Montjane and the untransformed membership of Isasa, it’s business as usual – like in the old days! Does anyone care?

Naidu is a journalist and communications expert. He also heads up Higher Education Media Services – a social enterprise start-up committed to stimulating dialogue and raising awareness around education in South Africa and the African Continent.

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