Real Lesson From Schweizer-Reneke: Don’t Judge Too Quickly

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Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke school children. (Twitter)
Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke school children. (Twitter)

Adriaan Basson, editor-in-chief of News24, wrote a kickstart to the year called 3 Lessons from that Schweizer-Reneke photo.

I put aside lessons two and three and focus on his lead point. He writes: “I’ve learnt the following lessons over the past few days: 1. White racism is deep-seated and intertwined with skewed power balances in rural South Africa.”

Straight off, that seems like an impossibly big thing to learn in just a few days. On the other hand, the story is ongoing, with mutually annihilating versions of the truth contesting in real time. So it must be too soon to draw the absolute conclusion that, even at the narrow scale of just this one particular classroom, racism is in deep.

To Basson, patently not. “Whatever the reason of the Grade R teacher from Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke to seat her black and white pupils separately for a photo, there can simply be no justification for what she did.”

Basson needs no further facts to know that something evil and terrible has happened. This rather slackens the pressure to keep an open-minded editorial line on the rolling story.

So consider at least three procedures from the pedagogic literature that could produce such a pattern of seating and in some form be justified.

1). Some arbitrary procedure is multiply iterated through the year. In other words, draw names from a hat, sit like that, swap it up next week.

2). Do whatever it takes to make students feel maximum comfort on day one (vide the Children’s Act). Put the twins and cousins and out-of-school friends together. Let them suck their thumbs even if it is bad for them. Once a trust-bond is established break the clicks and bad habits.

Even without considering race, a racial pattern might have emerged depending on prior relations. If the teacher thought like Basson, who correctly sees apartheid as having carved the geography of residence and work into racially divided patterns, then likewise the pattern could emerge on a straightforward consideration of race.

This is to say nothing of language. The easiest justification would shine up if it turned out that the teacher sat children next to the only other children who could understand them, word for word. This in order to make them feel more comfortable during one of the most traumatic moments of school, the first day.

3).Consider Jane Elliott, an American grade 3 teacher. She so hated racism about half a century ago that she split her (white) students into blue- and brown-eye groups and soon enough they were spitting venom at one another as she had hoped. Then she yanked them out of it so as to say, look how easy it is to get in-group and out-group attitudes going that are arbitrary, stupid, ugly, and cruel. Break that habit.

Elliott was – Basson should love this – teaching the kids a lesson. And teaching the world a lesson, too, by publicizing the results. It all depended on deliberate segregation to start with.

Which strategy makes sense will depend partly on how racially tense the community is and partly on other pedagogic questions about, for example, the usefulness or not of negative-emotion learning experiences. But, crucially, all the strategies 1) 2) and 3) are only justifiable at all in transient forms. All of those procedures depend on mixing children up in time.

We know little at this point about the particular case and it could be that Schweizer Reneke is riddled with racists.

We do know that parents, including a black parent, have spoken in support of the teacher and the school generally. And crucially we also know that other photographs were taken of the children sitting mixed and playing together joyfully. The timing and motivation of this integration matters.

In TimesLive on the morning of 10 January, a piece by journalist Naledi Shange was published that consisted mostly of quotes from one anonymous parent who said these photos are effectively fake. The parent claims that after the original divided photo came out, complaints were made, and then, “several hours” later, “another teacher”, who might be the principal, came in to manufacture vindicating evidence of a post-apartheid, Rainbow-esque classroom.

Public commentator Phil Mphela had already published what seems to be a screenshot of metadata, which indicates that the good news pictures were actually taken six minutes after the original. Several others have supported this claim. That would make some version of a benign form of the 2) strategy likely. It would also render the parent’s story false.

Worse, the parent claimed she got the manufactured photo story from her child. So if that story is false it opens up the possibility that the parent lied, using her child as a prop, to push a race essentialist agenda, and then got caught in the act. This would be a most shameful abuse at the primal level of mother-and-child relations. Or not. Perhaps the “metadata” is fake.

These are real contests and one would think the real meaning of the story turns on the truth. Yet Basson says the truth is already known – the teacher is unjustifiable whatever the details or reasons. He adds that to “even think there may be a valid reason for the offensive seating arrangement” is to fail to understand “centuries of institutionalized racism”.

I have not read the editor of a lead publication declare merely considering an alternative explanation of a politically significant photograph to be pathologically antisocial since I was studying, side-by-side, the histories of Grand Apartheid and the Soviet Union. That is not a joke. Basson tempts dangerous precedent.

Why would he do that? Basson is transparently insecure about publishing an ultimate conclusion on the seating arrangement of 5-year-olds, prematurely, and pinning this up as a demonstration of national scope. In his insecurity, he inadvertently telegraphs that that most crushing lesson of race politics goes unlearnt. The lesson is so simple it is taught at decent nursery schools globally; don’t judge till you know what’s what.

Gabriel Crouse is an Associate at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).

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