The Constitution, Education and Racism

by | Sep 1, 2009 | Basic Education Litigation | 0 comments

The Constitution of South Africa is founded on the values of non-racialism and non-sexism. Yet, fifteen years after the introduction of multi-party democracy, the “race debate”, which focuses on the nation’s habitual racism, continues unabated and unresolved.

It is obviously one thing to call a country dedicated to non-racialism, as the Constitution does, and entirely another to make it so. Old habits die hard, changing any long-standing pattern of interaction takes effort, education and ubuntu. The lingering stereotypical racism is, in part, the product of a long history of colonialism and apartheid spanning more than 300 years in which racism was a given at first and then became the law of the land as the “separate development” ideology of the National Party was tried and failed. Racism can not be wished away overnight. During the period of apartheid from 1948 to 1994, the education system was bent to the ruling ideology of that era. One of the major disadvantages foisted upon those whose appearance and descent disqualified them from membership of the legally defined category “white” or “European” (the latter in respect of persons whose ancestors may have lived in Europe some generations previously, but who had themselves not, with few exceptions, ventured beyond the borders of the country) was that they were exposed to an inferior education system which was aimed at preparing them for a life as “hewers of wood and drawers of water” in the words of apartheid’s architect Hendrick Verwoerd.

The race debate persists today largely because the new South African education authorities have done insufficient to address the inequalities and disadvantages which flow from the disparity in education received prior to the dawning of democracy. Instead of concentrating on the upgrading of the qualifications of educators in the system so that they would have the capacity to prepare their learners for more than the life envisaged by Verwoerd, teachers training colleges were closed and little has been done to improve the skills of under-qualified teachers inherited from the imperfect past. Instead of using the well qualified teachers, principals and management in the so-called “white” school system, and staff at the colleges, to help redress the imbalances in the nation’s educational past, they were offered a “voluntary package” to leave the system and too many of them did, at great cost to the nation. Instead of embarking on a comprehensive and accessible adult education programme for all, puny attempts at making the constitutionally guaranteed right to basic education for all a reality for child and adult alike, were launched. They were chopped and changed without really getting off the ground. Instead of sticking to the basics of the three R’s so that learners could walk before flying, a sophisticated “outcomes based education” (OBE) system was introduced to the bemusement of those in the education system and the detriment of those trying to make their way through it. It is a national disgrace that only 3.5% of the “black” (African) learners who started school in 1996 emerged 12 years later both functionally literate and with a matriculation certificate. It is also shameful that the system of marking has been so manipulated that of the 278,000 black matriculants in 2007 only 42,000 among them were functionally literate when they graduated from high school. Those who dropped out along the way or failed, nearly a million of them, are condemned by their lack of education to Verwoerdian menial work or unemployment because they are unemployable in a modern economy. OBE has no strategy for accommodating them and adult basic education and training is barely getting off the ground 15 years after basic education has been included as a right claimable by all in the Bill of Rights.

The effect of these dismal failures has been to perpetuate the racial stereotypes of the past. The former model C schools in the leafy suburbs and the private schools continue to produce sufficient graduates of all races to be regarded as functional education centres, while many of the schools of the townships and rural areas are those in which, in the words of the new Minister of Basic Education, “the culture of learning and teaching has died”. It is impossible to successfully promote the constitutionally endorsed notion of “unity in diversity” in these circumstances. The former model C schools have, by and large, become islands of racial tolerance, the young learners there do not understand what the fuss over racism is about, they see their classmates of all races as human beings rather than members of another race. Would that all citizens could regard themselves as human first, African second, South African third and a member of an ethnic, language, religious or cultural group, last. Usually the order is reversed which exacerbates and perpetuates racism. A new race category called “non-African” has recently emerged, reminiscent of the “non-whites” of the racist past. Can any citizen of any hue truly be “non-African”? Hopefully not, the tag “non-African” borders on hate speech and should be jettisoned.

While it is true that the Constitution does require that the public service be recruited on the basis that it “must be broadly representative of the South African people”, this requirement is tempered by the notions that the public administration is constituted “with employment and personnel management practices based on ability, objectivity, fairness, and the need to redress the imbalances of the past to achieve broad representation.” The Constitution also requires that in the appointment of judicial officers consideration should be given to the “need for the judiciary to reflect broadly the racial and gender composition of South Africa”. It is right and proper that these provisions were agreed by the founders of the Constitution. There is no other way to ensure the legitimacy of the Bench and the efficient user-friendliness of the public administration. It is also the most appropriate means of transcending the imbalances of the past. Apart from these provisions the Constitution is appropriately colour-blind and guarantees freedom of association. At some stage the racial “numbers game”, as it was so aptly called by Judge Ahzar Cachalia in Kliptown recently, will have to give way to the foundational values of non-racialism and non-sexism. If this is not done, racism will inevitably trump non-racialism.

This is why the equality clause in the Bill of Rights does not mention race at all when it deals with the promotion of the achievement of equality; nor could it. The “full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms” which the guaranteed right to equal protection and benefit of the law posits will not be attainable if a Jimmy Manyian fetish is made of the racial numbers game. This is why the Constitution speaks, wisely, of promoting the achievement of equality via “measures designed to protect and advance persons (not races), or categories of persons (not ethnic groups), disadvantaged by unfair discrimination.” For so long as this provision is used to baselessly justify the new reverse racism inherent in the overly enthusiastic conversion of the Bench and public administration (and indeed everything else) into entities in which the unfortunate racial “numbers game” is played without regard to the fitness and properness requirements and the genuine qualifications of candidates; while black empowerment laws are used to advance those least disadvantaged by unfair discrimination (the new black diamonds) at the expense of those most disadvantaged (the rural poor) without any constitutional justification for doing so and while what Graeme Bloch correctly calls the toxic mix in the education system endures there is little hope that the shackles of the racism of the past will be shed.

There are three solutions to the nation’s problems, including lingering racism: education, education and more education. The priority it is now being accorded is not a moment too soon.

Paul Hoffman SC
September 2009

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