The Transformation Imperative

A call to remain steadfast to constitutional principles underpinning democracy

Recently, ISASA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion has been mischaracterised in the public domain.

According to these voices, ISASA’s advocacy to have schools execute their duty of care for all their charges, amounts to ISASA espousing critical race theory within its member schools. As ISASA’s executive director for the last eight years, this alleged campaign by ISASA came as a surprise, as, at no point, has ISASA turned to the works of critical race theory to inform its dedication to ensure that our schools are nurturing places for all our students.

As an undergraduate, I became familiar with the work of Derrick Bell, the then Harvard University law professor, who was the first black person to be granted tenure at the oldest law school in continuous operation in the United States, having been founded in 1817. Bell is generally acknowledged as the father of the field that came to be known as critical race theory.

Another leading thinker in this field is Patricia Williams, a legal scholar whose oeuvre I studied, and her insights in analysing legal practice contributed to my interest in attending law school. At my alma mater, Columbia University, where I studied education, Williams, with her colleagues, of whom Kimberlé W. Crenshaw was one, extended the work of Bell to create the field which was to become critical race theory.

Crenshaw stated, together with co-authors Kendall Thomas and the afore-mentioned Patricia Williams that ‘Critical race theory … evolved in reaction to critical legal studies, which came about in the 1970s and dissected the idea that law was just and neutral.’ According to these three academics, ‘[Critical race theory] is a way of looking at law’s role platforming, facilitating, producing, and even insulating racial inequality in our country, ranging from health to wealth to segregation to policing.’

What is critical race theory?

Although critical race theory makes for a wonderful catchphrase, it is not advanced in basic education schools. Rather, it is a theoretical movement within legal scholarship in the US.

As Thomas postulates:

Critical race theory tells a story about institutionalised racial disadvantage and systemic racial inequality. It highlights the structural harms of the ‘colourblind racism’ we see at work in laws that don’t mention race per se. Furthermore, notes Crenshaw, ‘This hysteria is just that. It has nothing to do with a legal theory that has been around for decades, and that you may never have heard of until now.’

What has become evident is that those who claim that schools are teaching critical race theory do so for ideological reasons and on intellectually spurious grounds. Critical race theory is a legal concept of analysing the law and its unequal impact on people of colour in the US. It is not a theory utilised by schools to assist them in fostering more inclusive institutional cultures or curricula.

Critical Race Theory and independent schools

The transformation imperative at ISASA

Under the leadership of my predecessor, Jane Hofmeyr, ISASA came to the realisation that our member schools needed assistance with navigating a transforming society under a constitutional democracy. Many independent schools founded under colonial and apartheid societies, under systems which were dedicated to white supremacy, needed guidance from their association on how to shift institutional cultures to align with the human rights dictates embedded in our constitution.

It was out of this yearning from membership that, in 2006 and 2007, ISASA formally addressed the question of diversity by conducting research in our member schools. A preliminary report of this research was tabled at the September 2007 meeting of the highest decision-making body of ISASA: its Council.

At this meeting, the ISASA Council established a committee to review the findings of the report and to make recommendations to the ISASA Executive Committee, Council and Directorate. This committee subsequently evolved to become the Transformation and Diversity Committee, which remains a standing committee of the ISASA Council.

The early achievements of the ISASA Transformation and Diversity Committee included making the increase of diversity in member schools a strategic imperative for the ISASA 2008- 2010 Strategic Plan. Transformation and Diversity has since been incorporated in subsequent ISASA strategic plans.

The inaugural committee also facilitated the release of the ISASA Diversity Report in January 2009. The recommendation of the Transformation and Diversity Committee came in the form of a Toolkit for Transformation and Diversity which was published in September 2012 and was then revised in December 2013.

A workshop based on the ISASA Toolkit was developed and has since been delivered regularly. From inception, the ISASA Toolkit was conceived to be a living document that would undergo several iterations over time. That is why, in 2018, this toolkit was revised for the third time into a guide – Guide to Effective School Transformation and Diversity Management.

ISASA’s philosophical approach

The philosophical approach of the initial toolkit was to win the hearts and minds of member schools and help them to understand that diversity and transformation is the right thing to do. However, over time, it became apparent to ISASA that the necessity of addressing the question of inclusion within our schools was not optional, but rather a South African legal requirement.

Under the South African Constitution, schools have to find their place within the new values of an open and democratic society in which the ‘[h]uman dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms [as well as] non-racialism and non-sexism’ are the founding principles.

As I cautioned in the introduction of the ISASA Guide to Effective School Transformation and Diversity Management, it is highly unlikely that a school, even one that had been progressive within the milieu of apartheid by accepting black students in the 1970s, would automatically meet the higher constitutional standard of non-discrimination that now prevails in South Africa.

The proscription against discriminating on the basis of ‘race, gender, sex… ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation… disability … culture, language and birth” in section 9(3) of the Constitution, binds all citizens and institutions. It is this globally commended South African Constitution that inspires ISASA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion and forms the bedrock of its philosophy.

Also evident in the ISASA Guide to Effective School Transformation and Diversity Management, are the works referenced to inform its production. Above, I have indicated the thinkers who are the leaders of the field of critical race theory, of which none are cited within the ISASA Guide. Instead, the works of Amartya Sen, Kwame Appiah, Mamphela Ramphele, Cheryl de la Rey, and Stanley Bongwe, among others, were relied on by ISASA to inform this work.

In fact, it was Bongwe who updated the Toolkit into a Guide which shifted the emphasis on the question of inclusion, from that of winning hearts and minds, to the statutory requirement to comply with anti-discriminatory dictates.

Grade 1 pupils at St James School

The impact of the #BlackLivesMatter movement

For the independent education sector, even after more than a decade of working with our schools to become more inclusive places, 2020 became a year of reckoning. When the Black Lives Matter movement spread around the world, independent schools in the US, England and South Africa were cited as hostile institutions for children of colour.

Social media postings affiliated to the title #BlackLivesMatter went viral, containing testimonies of exclusion and racial discrimination in American independent educational institutions. In South Africa, the #YouSilenceWeAmplify and #WakeUpST also chronicled harrowing stories of racial discrimination in independent schools.

What was so hurtful about these testimonies from South African independent schools was that they reverberated with the same malice my fellow black peers experienced when we integrated independent schools in the 1970s. Close to half-a-century later, black children were being subjected to similar racial stereotyping; something that was expected during apartheid, but was now still occurring in a democratic South Africa.

This failure by independent schools to fulfil their duty of care for all children, was a further call to action for ISASA. The ISASA Council adopted an anti-racism statement to unequivocally communicate ISASA’s commitment to have schools that ‘[h]eal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights’.

Besides the Transformation and Diversity workshop, ISASA added an anti-racism workshop entitled, ‘Why Are People So Upset?’ to assist our schools to understand the fallout from black alumni and also the ongoing alienation experienced by current black students within their own schools.

As organisations within society, independent schools must continue to heal the divisions of our past and begin to realise the aspirations of our constitution, as well as those of all South Africans of goodwill and faith, so that ours will be a more humane society in which the dignity of all, especially children, is protected.

Pupils at Deutsche Internationale Schule Johannesburg

Guard against intellectual sophistry

What I find ironic, is that those who claim that ISASA is introducing a foreign concept into the country, may well be the ones who are using tactics of caricature from other shores. What further alarms is that, in the US, those who misappropriate the rigorous intellectual thinking embedded in critical race theory, are campaigning, with some success, to ban any teaching of inclusion, as well as books from libraries that explore themes of racial, gender or sexual identity.

As Jill Lepore writes of some states in the US:

On the blackboard on the other side of the classroom are scrawled what might be called anti-anti-racism measures. Some ban the [New York] Times’ 1619 Project, or ethnic studies, or training in diversity, inclusion, and belonging, or the bugbear known as critical race theory.

In South Africa, we as ISASA caution against falling for this intellectual sophistry. The purpose of education must be to prepare critical minds. However, if we fail to encourage students to think critically about history, as well as issues of identity, and how we can create more just and inclusive societies, then education would serve no moral purpose. At its core, education is about solving problems that face humanity. This cannot be achieved by censoring knowledge through banning what can be taught or read.

Independent schools are on a journey that is education. As they learn more, they adjust their teaching based on present knowledge. When I was at school, corporal punishment was thought to be an indispensable pedagogical tool. Sexism and racism were also legal. We now know better, and, as the saying goes, we must do better.

If cultivating culturally competent children who respect the dignity of themselves and others offends the sensibility of those who are intent on distortion, ISASA must, more than ever, remain steadfast to the constitutional principles on which our democracy is founded.