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OPINION: Why our children need to see transformation at school

Last week an American History professor, who has studied South African history for three decades, interviewed some of my school friends and I. She is doing a book project and part of her study is finding out from us, how it was during the 1970s and 1980s, to be a coloured scholar at a newly integrated private girls school. It opened up a done and dusted conversation for me and a few wounds for some.

My sisters and I started at the school in 1978. She asked about culture shock - for me it was the realisation that, as a family, we didn't have a lot. I only realised we had a little when I met people who had a lot. My sister's friend lived in Constantia where they had a swimming pool, a proper tennis court, a triple garage that led into the house and their parents had an en suite bathroom, yet she preferred to come to our Cape Flats home for play dates. When we were young, organising a play date was a foreign concept, cute actually. In our neighbourhood, growing up we played outside in big groups. We played kennetjie, hide and seek, dodge ball and "I declare to make a war". Play dates with start and finish times, were a culture shock. Our friends used to love coming over to our house to eat frozen oranges, balance on the rusty drum we played with in our yard and sit on our garage roof to chat and watch over Bokmakierie, the sub economic area a little worse off than ours, to the power station across the highway! THAT was a culture shock.

We enrolled at the school and our father's words of orientation to our new learning environment were: "This is a multi-racial school, it is not non-racial because you are here on a permit. If you make friends fantastic but our goal is to give you girls a sound education." This was, for us, the best support and advice - we didn't have to "fit in", we were enough as we were and as we weren't. So off we went to our plush new school different, but equal.

My first real experience of being different was when our teacher went to vote, there was an election. As a 12-year old I had no clue what that entailed, the only conversations in our home centred on the fact that my parents - and all the adults I knew, revered and respected - didn't count and could not vote. When my teacher got back to school that voting day, being the inquisitive, confident girl I was, I put up my hand and asked how the voting went. Fine, was the curt reply. Now, thinking we were engaged in an interesting conversation, I rose to my feet and clearly asked who she had voted for? I was curious about this process and she was red from neck to hairline: "Annalisa that is the most disrespectful, rude question you can ask! Sit down." To add salt and vinegar to my shame I looked about for some support and my very good friend mouthed: "That IS a really stupid question!" It took me at least fifteen years to recover. That was the day I decided I had nothing important to say and asking logical questions was stupid. Fortunately I found my voice and use it even when it shakes, as is often advised in quotes from anonymous people.

I think enrolling our children into private and model C schools where the scholars are integrated even if it's not as proportionate as it could be and the teaching staff are mostly white, is a problem. We are part of reinforcing apartheid style characteristics that positions of authority are best filled with white people, Xhosa teachers are usually African and the cleaning staff is mostly people of colour. I long for a South Africa where we are socially inclusive. Where better to start than at home and at school.

A young man from my son's model C all-boys school, this weekend took to Facebook to query whether the possibility existed for their school to employ the service of a principal of colour at the retirement of their current headmaster. The school is over a century old and has produced many greats. The comments and replies to his query took me by surprise! He was attacked, questioned and criticised and all the rawness of racism disguised as "We have to give the job to the best person for the job! This is our tradition" came spinning out of spitting hard typing!

I and many, many people like me, come from families of committed and successful scholars and educators. In my family they were progressive, smart and wise. Apartheid strengthened their resolve that people from all communities be ready and armed with education. The evidence of their competence is attributed to the amount of successful doctors, lawyers, architects, teachers, and business people around South Africa and even abroad. Many still make contact with our family to tell their stories of how my grandfather used to visit their homes at night, during their Matric exams, in his big black old Mercedes Benz, a check scarf for his asthmatic chest and a torch to ensure they were studying during the wee hours. Suggesting the best person for the job is probably not a person of colour is amusing. It is indicative of how far we have come and how slowly we are moving, especially since teaching is not a new profession in communities of colour. During apartheid nursing and teaching were among the few options for post Matric studies.

There are many deputy principals of colour, many heads of department of colour. But we are not there, we are not ready to make the shift because a lot of people, parents and schools are not willing to.

We must start having these uncomfortable discussions, to put education where it should be - it is imperative. It is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world. Education is not just what you learn in a classroom, education is the ability to learn everyday even if you don't agree.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn

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