Telling the whole truth at Maranatha School: multicultural schools as vehicles for reconciliation

| March 22, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Michael Curle

Maranatha School is in Piet Retief, in Mpumalanga province.

If you are a South African teacher of a certain age, you should recognise that name from your primary school history lessons. When the Voortrekkers arrived on the doorsteps of the Zulu kingdom in 1838, King Dingane decided not to trust the “white man” (who, let’s be honest, found it difficult not to speak with ‘forked tongue’ during the period that my history teacher rather euphemistically called ‘colonisation’), and promptly called on all present to kill the “wizards”, including their great leader (before they stole something). Eventually, the Zulu kingdom did succumb to pressure from the Boers and the British.1 The town of Piet Retief was established in 1883, right on the border of the kingdom, steeped in traditions of racial tension and mistrust.

I remember well when I was a school pupil, when the first black children came into the old Model C2 classrooms. Police escorts were stationed as a precautionary measure in the high school, and in the primary school, a boy (who later became a friend of mine) was so nervous that he spent his first break time gulping down a two-litre bottle of cream soda while trying to ignore all the staring eyes and contemptuous mutters. He came in for his first-ever Afrikaans lesson looking decidedly pale, and emptied all of the liquid-green contents of his stomach on the floor when the smiling teacher gently asked him his name.

But it was in this town, in 1994 – the year of the birth of a democratic South Africa – that a multicultural church felt compelled to begin a multicultural school, with the mandate to
bring up “generations of world-changers”.

Getting to grips with reality

It would be a struggle. Piet Retief has large Afrikaans, Zulu, German, Swazi, Muslim and Indian communities, as well as a growing number of minority groups from other African countries. You couldn’t ask for more of an ethnic mosaic in a little dorpie (rural town).

Multicultural education is no campfire ‘Kumbaya’,3 but I believe that our country needs as many multicultural schools as possible, because we have seen how they can be tools for encouraging true reconciliation and empathy in children and their communities. There are many towns like Piet Retief – towns where racial tension (whether between blacks and whites or between locals and foreign nationals) is always simmering just below the surface. And even though our schools are now officially integrated, there are not enough multicultural schools. Just having children from many different cultures in your school is not the same as having a reconciliation-building multicultural school. Therefore, we would like to submit this list of suggestions for making your school a vehicle for reconciliation:

1. Do away with ‘quota systems’

Just like our national cricket and rugby boards,4 many private schools vehemently deny the existence of quotas for controlling the numbers of white and black children in each class. But they exist. In the interest of ‘balance’, prospective learners from one race are favoured over others when filling classes. In schools where there are more black applicants than white, favouring white learners may seem like a policy (never in writing) that would promote less homogenous, more culturally varied classrooms, but what it really does is produce classrooms that favour whiteness over blackness and teach black learners to be as white as possible. Do away with quotas of any sort and you will encourage learners to value themselves.

2. Have a strong social anti-bullying policy

Many schools avoid the word ‘bullying’, dismissing it as a loaded term that isn’t helpful in practice. This has not been our experience at Maranatha School. We have found that a key to overcoming the often subtle behaviours that lead to a learner feeling excluded from a group and alienated from their own culture, is to define social bullying very clearly to all the learners in words that they understand, many times throughout the year; to have a clear procedure to be followed by all involved; and to have a member of staff who is passionate about seeing this policy and procedure followed. Before we defined social bullying and the procedure to be followed in response to it, subtle negative behaviours based on prejudice would often slip through the cracks at our school. Years ago, a child confessed to me that she felt guilty because she and her friends had been responsible for a white child leaving the school. When I checked the child’s file, I saw that the reason given for leaving the school was ‘financial’. This child and her mother had never told a member of staff about how she felt, because the instigators had never broken any rules. Wherever there is a minority group, there needs to be policy and procedure to keep them from feeling like outsiders. Now, even the youngest learners at our school know what ‘social bullying’ means. Minority-group learners don’t form cliques, and interviews and questionnaires indicate that they feel much more secure than before.

3. Assume that there will be prejudice and prepare for it

Many learners who go to private schools do so because their parents are religious and/or conservative and want to protect their children from ‘bad influences’. Unfortunately, some of the most conservative and religious people in the world are also the most prejudiced. I teach Grade 7 English at Maranatha. We study Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird5 for two terms. It’s a story that is really good at helping children confront their own prejudices. I’ve been teaching from the novel for years and I have never had a class in which even the nicest, most religious learners did not have to admit to the class and themselves that they struggle with prejudice (towards foreigners, white people, black people, Muslims, Christians, women, men, Catholics – practically any imaginable group). All of them begin the study by vehemently denying that they are prejudiced in any way. Younger children are more (and less) innocent. I once interviewed a new learner. She was sickly sweet and polite. On a hunch, I asked her openly what she thought about people of another colour. She replied, without batting an eyelid, that they were “like the devil’s children”. She has been very happy at our school, but only because we knew from the beginning how she would need to be integrated. She has dropped her prejudice – children are very quick to do so when led to it.

4. Even if your school identifies strongly with a religion, embrace cultural aspects of minority learners’ religions

Maranatha is a Christian school. However, the subject prize for 2015’s Grade 7 class was won by a Muslim child. She embraced the school’s curriculum because we have respected and embraced her religious culture. This year, she was awarded the Good Fellowship award (for displaying “exemplary Christian character”). Usually a shy child, she enthusiastically shared with me about her recent hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.6 Another young Hindu child brings me sweets every year at Deepavali.7 These learners feel free to do this, even though the certificate confirming my degree in theology hangs in my classroom, right next to my certificate attesting to my degree in teaching.

Many Christian schools rightly point out that spreading Christianity is a vital part of their school’s vision and mission. However, we need to respect the humanity of the child and prevent them from being bullied into ‘accepting’ a religion other than the one in which they were raised. I remember driving a bus to a cricket game and overhearing a group of boys pushing a confused Muslim boy to choose between Christianity and Islam. They were aggressive and unkind. I put a stop to it and we discussed the importance of personal choice in any faith. Years later, the boy and his older brother came to tell me that they had chosen to become Christians. Their parents (nominal Muslims) were supportive of their decision. Whatever a school’s religious affiliation, the staff need to be willing to express their faith freely, without compelling a child to agree with them by allowing social pressure or by subtly (or openly) undermining other religions in the classroom. Sow seed; don’t pull up little seedlings.

5. Don’t punish, teach

When confronted with learners who display some sort of cultural prejudice, most teachers tend to respond in one of two ways: either they mutter that it’s not nice, but then walk away, shaking their head and muttering about how it’s the fault of the parents; or they get angry and call down fire and brimstone before severely punishing all involved. Both of these responses ignore what prejudice really is – a learned behaviour. Only meaningful learning experiences will help to combat prejudice. Different learners respond to different things. Some learners need simple but experiential education about the beauty of other cultures. Other learners need to go through guided role-play exercises.

Whatever the approach, the important thing is not to get angry and emotional, but to provide the whole class (not just the learner who is perceived to be the problem) with learning experiences that empower them to recognise prejudice and to respond to it in a helpful way. Years ago, a child at Maranatha went home and complained about the racism he was experiencing (I say ‘experiencing’ because, especially for minorities, the experience of racism is necessarily subjective and the offending parties were often motivated to behave the way they did for reasons quite different from race). His grandfather, a prominent man in the school and the community, marched into the classroom the next day and shouted the place down, labelling the boy’s peers as racist. The class had to go through a great deal of counselling to get over this unfortunate experience. At first, the boy’s parents threatened to take the boy out of the school, but after we began to address the problem from a teaching rather than a punishing perspective, the boy’s experience changed a great deal. His younger siblings also attended the school.

6. Celebrate culture and language

In May 2011, Maranatha completed an internal self-evaluation report after going through the Independent Quality Assurance Agency’s (IQAA)8 Comprehensive Model Evaluation. At the outset, we were understandably confident. Our school has a reputation for academic excellence. However, a school is more than academics. The report’s findings included that our strengths were our small class sizes, our dedicated and wellqualified staff, the quality of the language of instruction (English) and the resourcing of the school. On the negative side, two of the five “recommendations for improvement” were (to our shock and mortification) related to our multicultural identity. Bullying and acculturation were identified as key problems. Zulu parents especially felt that their culture was not respected and celebrated, and feared that their children would “lose their culture”, and many of the learners experienced crosscultural social bullying. Since then, we have made an effort to better articulate the reasons behind our language policy (which pushes English and discourages the use of other languages in school), we have had cultural celebration days, we have encouraged the singing of isiZulu songs on school trips and at sports events, and we are about to implement isiZulu as a second additional language in our curriculum. While we recognise that the ability to read, write and speak English is vital to a child’s future academic success in this country, what we don’t want is for learners to feel like they have to be one culture at school and another at home.

7. Teach children more than the curriculum regarding our country’s history

Piet Retief is 1 614.7 km away from Cape Town. On 24 November 2015, I arrived back from a week in Cape Town with our Grade 7s. I was willing to drive all that way mainly because of one key opportunity – a tour of Robben Island. The tour was excellent. Our highly entertaining guide had met everyone from Nelson Mandela to Hillary Clinton. Who of the learners in your class know who Robert Sobukwe is? Nelson Mandela was a wonderful man, but the learners in my class were incredulous when I told them that President Zuma spent a decade on Robben Island. Piet Retief is in the Gert Sibande district, so named in honour of Richard Gert Sibande, who was known as ‘The Lion of the East’ for his political and trade union work in the Eastern Transvaal from the 1930s to the 1960s – yet no child I have ever asked knew anything about him. On the boat ride back from Robben Island, a very animated tour guide sat next to me, lamenting how little this generation of learners knows about the history of our country. He pointed out that without truth, there can never be reconciliation. Many teachers tell me that they don’t like talking about apartheid (or even racism in general) because “it just stirs up old wounds”. The point is that those wounds will never heal without proper reconciliation based on proper truth about what has happened and what is happening in this country. At Maranatha, we try to tell the truth.

In spite of all the challenges, we would never swap the beautiful diversity of our school for an easier homogenous group, isolated from the reality of what it means to be South African. We hope that every school in this country will embrace the challenge of becoming a vehicle for reconciliation.

References:

1. See, for example: http://www.zuluculture. co.za/zulu_history_dingane.php#.VqHx8FKzz4o.
2. See, for example: http://www.expatarrivals.com/south-africa/education-andschools- in-south-africa.
3. See, for example: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/20/us/ 20religion.html?_r=0.
4. See, for example: http://www.espncricinfo.com/southafrica/content/story/ 855925.html.
5. Lee, Harper (1988) To Kill A Mockingbird. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
6. See, for example: http://www.religionfacts.com/hajj.
7. See, for example: http://publicholidays.com.my/deepavali/.
8. See: http://iqaa.co.za/evaluation/process.
9. See, for example: http://www.gsibande.gov.za/index.php?option=com _content&view=article&id=5&Itemid=8&limitstart=1.

Category: Autumn 2016, Featured Articles

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