Yes, Black Teachers are Real. Are You?


By Lisa Joshua Sonn

The little girl from the school who last week asked whether black teachers are real teachers was entirely freely self-expressed. Based on her experiences and what she saw at school, in public and possibly in peoples’ homes, she asked a pure question.

Each and every racist issue that raises its head is met with shock, disgust and surprise. Why? We had a very well-designed system of apartheid to divide all of us and keep us separated. The aftermath of this system is one we navigate every day we wake and every night we lay down our heads.

Apartheid was responsible for where you lived, what access you had to education, where you were educated, what opportunities your parents and their parents had to be educated, employed or recognised as citizens of South Africa. It also ensured that we lived far away from each other. Some of us had easy access to schools, places of worship, sports fields, shopping centres and places of work. Whether your struggles were big or small, or your privileges were big or small, it can all be attributed to apartheid.

Is it not time for us to work together on reconnecting as people of South Africa? I know many people who are committed to making South Africa work for more people. I know many children who think the way it works or doesn’t work now is the way it is for everyone.

I was born during apartheid and have lived through that period to a democratic South Africa where my parents and I voted for the first time on the same day. I have four children who are born-frees. They are, however, not free while the apartheid architecture overarches everything we do.

They live privileged lives, but are always aware that how we live is not how most of South Africa lives. We are engaged in raising adults who are purposeful and understand the history and fallouts that are inevitable among us as South Africans. Instead of naming, blaming and shaming, we encourage our children to get engaged in conversations, meeting new and different people and always being sensitive to the diversity of the people they meet at school, in their social circles and online.

Children don’t have to be taught to be racist at home (although some definitely are!). However, the structure of our society has to be reconstructed in order for this to change. From any view it is obvious that some of us are better favoured than others.

Rustenburg Girls’ Junior School is in the news after its first black teacher was asked to resign by the school, and has since agreed to a settlement reached in her case before the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration.

The little girl from the school who last week asked whether black teachers are real teachers was entirely freely self-expressed. Based on her experiences and what she saw at school, in public and possibly in peoples’ homes, she asked a pure question. After only seeing black women in lowly jobs of cleaners, domestic workers, child carers, packers of groceries, cashiers, walking other people's dogs, standing at bus stops, walking to taxi ranks early or late daily and rarely seeing a black woman in a position of authority at her school. We all know that the schools who offer Xhosa as a third language mostly have a teacher who is only there to teach one subject, Xhosa.

This leaves me not questioning the little girl’s audacity, or blaming her parents for her not knowing that black women can also be class teachers, we need to look at what she sees through her 11-year-old eyes. Nothing noticeable is changing structurally to leave any of our children open to seeing the people around them as equals who are all able to reach their potential.

Why don’t our children have access to more black teachers than white teachers in a country where people say they are committed to transformation and redressing inequalities of the past? What is interesting is that the teacher in question was the first black class teacher in the school's 125-year history. Should it turn out that she was incompetent and her performance was not managed as all employees should be, this may smack of racism and constructive dismissal. In the meantime, this situation has again started a vital conversation. How do we bring about transformation in our schools' management and staff structures? Is it a priority or is it an area of development that is slipping off the must-do list? It is in the interest of all our children and their futures that they all learn to connect with each other, share of themselves, their cultures, their interests, their dreams and plans. This integration is not going to happen naturally, it has to be planned and implemented.

A good place to start would probably be to acknowledge more than judge the school that did employ a black class teacher. There must be lessons to be learnt about how that appointment went wrong. From recruitment, selection, orientation and induction in the workplace.

After a recent talk show interview about racism in schools, I had to think about how we change this landscape. How do more of our children get to see more teachers from different backgrounds on their school staff? Most significantly, how do we introduce our children to the competency of teachers of colour? How do they get the message that good teachers are good teachers, irrespective of their race?

Do you know if and how many black teachers are teaching at your child’s school? By teaching, I am not referring to class assistants, aftercare supervisors or practice teachers, I mean a teacher that has responsibility, authority, accountability. I think we will all be horrified once we become conscious about the reality our children meet every day, that only white teachers are competent and trusted with their education. We must create opportunities for all.

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