[OPINION] How can our schools ensure more diverse and non-racial society?

One of the basic tenets of racism is the notion that an individual is meaningless and that membership in a collective, particularly the race, culture and even language, are the source of identity and value. To the racist, the individual’s moral and intellectual character is the product, not of his own choices, but of the genes he or she shares with all others of his race, language and culture.

This philosophy of racial division, cultural and language individualism, remain entrenched in our education system. That is why Hoërskool Overvaal’s legal victory in keeping out 55 Grade 8 English learners from the Afrikaans school in Vereeniging was a major setback for transformation and the struggle for a non-racial society, should be repudiated.

Believe, I am the first to admit that there has been a huge transformation in schools since the dawn of democracy. Gone are those monochrome school classes, in are multi-coloured, multi-ethnic schools that reflect the changed composition of our society.

Of course, many schools reflect their catchment areas and their composition can be determined by patterns of settlement and housing policies over which schools have no control.

The GDE believes that in order to promote and encourage a true multicultural-diverse education, the public education system must advocate: an authentic multilingual curriculum with competent instructors and administrators committed to the agenda; an ethnic self-identification process that goes beyond the use of appropriate ethnic labels, but one that explores intrinsic idiosyncrasies of a non-racial society and a genuine multicultural education that promotes ethnic constancy.

What our Rainbow Nation urgently needs is a ruling that recognises a language policy for what it is: a malignant policy that harms everyone is the very essence of racism. Unlike the policy of racial integration, some language policies propagate all the evils inherent in racism.

The advocates of language policies believe that admitting other language groups creates a diversity of viewpoints in schools, the major reason why racial division remains entrenched in our society.

The value of racially integrated schools lies entirely in the individualism it implies. It implies that the learners were chosen objectively, with skin colour, language or culture ignored in favour of the standard of individual merit.

But that is not what diversity advocates of language policies want. They sneer at the principle of colour-blindness.

They use language as a proxy of racism. They want admissions to some schools to be made exactly as the vilest of racists make them: by bloodline. They insist that whatever is a result of your own choices - your ideas, your character, your accomplishments - is to be dismissed, while that which is outside one’s control - the accident of skin colour - is to define your life.

It is time for our society to identify language policies as nothing more than crude forms of racism.

Racism is pernicious, a behaviour which some may like to dress up as language policy but is, in fact, too low to be accorded that degree of respectability.

Believe me, the job market and the educational field have influenced and altered societal trends. It is not a secret that professionals capable of mastering two or three languages, have an edge in the job market. Paradoxically, our School Governing Bodies have been sending mixed messages through language policies.

On one hand, multilingualism is seen as an asset for educators and business people. On the other hand, second-language education has been systematically suppressed by some SGBs in favour of monolingual education.

So, in the light of recent Hoërskool Overvaal’s ruling, it seems appropriate to ask what our schools can do to ensure a more stable, inclusive, diverse society. How can our schools ensure a more stable, a diverse society, an inclusive ethos and robust anti-racism policies?

Our schools need an inclusive ethos and practice in both their formal programmes, a real inclusive practice as part of the school's culture in all activities such as informal and formal programmes, including sports games, clubs and other extracurricular activities.

That is why the GDE supports the Department of Basic Education’s South African Schools Act, 1996 (Act No. 84 of 1996), and the Employment of Educators Act, 1998, to promote social inclusion, create social consciousness and foster a strong sense of belonging to all of us and seek to:

• Give the Head of Department the final authority to admit a pupil to a public school;

• A public school must take into account the diverse cultural beliefs and religious observances of the learners;

• Limit the powers of a School Governing Body in recommending candidates for admission;

• Empower the Head of Department to dissolve an SGB that has ceased to perform functions allocated to it in terms of the Act;

• Prohibit educators from conducting business with the state or from being a director of a public or private company conducting business with the state; and

• Require the SGB to submit the language policy of a public school, and any amendment thereof, to the Head of Department for approval.

As role models teachers should be involved in mentoring through open relationships between teachers and learners. Teachers need continuing professional development particularly in cultural and linguistic knowledge.

Learners need to be given the opportunity to socialise and learn in an open, tolerant and supportive environment where high standards are set and expected for all and everyone is treated with respect and dignity.

Language cannot be viewed as an isolated construct but must be analysed as an extension of culture.

In this global world, the idea supporting the total suppression of one language against the other is inconsistent and detrimental to a non-racial society.

That is why no school should exclude a learner on the basis of language. The right to education is one of the most fundamental rights in the constitution and if any school, in applying its language and admissions policy, acts contrary to the constitution, that policy must be disregarded.

The Hoërskool Overvaal and other cases before have actually disregarded language rights. Language rights are protected in the Constitution and will be respected by the department, as they have in the past.

The issue is about access to education and the question of language is being used as a false shield to exclude those who are entitled to education at a school in which they qualify, in terms of the legislation.

At the centre of our non-racial crusade is how much equal opportunity we as a nation are willing to sacrifice as we pursue diversity and a non-racial culture. The point is, if we want the virtue of our kids being exposed to kids of different races and backgrounds, then we have to be willing to accommodate any pupils, irrespective of language, culture and race.

Protecting a language such as Afrikaans as the sole basis of communicating will not only hinder progress, but place this country in jeopardy of losing its justified title as an emerging economic giant.

Few people of open minds and good hearts would deny that social cohesion and non-racialism are not just an admirable goal but a necessary one for schools that aim to prepare learners for life in the real world.

Panyaza Lesufi is Gauteng MEC for Education.