Teach our children about sameness – don’t entrench cultural differences

To principals and teachers in our former white schools, please do not hold multicultural days at your school. I know you’re under pressure to show transformation.

After the hair incident at Pretoria Girls, the racist teacher at St John’s and daily reports of insensitivity in our former white schools, you obviously feel the need to reach out and to include black children in your school.

Yes, you mean well but you are making things worse with these ethnic or cultural days in which every child comes to school with clothes, food and even music that represent ‘their culture’.

This, I must warn you, is dangerous stuff, and here’s why.

The apartheid lie was that races are different and therefore incompatible. They even sold the nonsense that there are four races –- White, Indian, Coloured and African – and that the Africans could be further subdivided into less than a dozen tribes each with their distinctive cultures and beliefs. Do you know how many South Africans still attach to this four-race thesis?

They even call themselves by that name and official records still demand you tick those boxes.

So much for a non-racial South Africa.

By hosting multicultural days purporting that each child comes from a distinctive racial or ethnic culture, you play straight into the apartheid narrative and you ensure that our children continue to believe that there is in essence something different, even irreconcilable, across these imagined lines of colour and creed.

Ever wonder why so few young adults love and marry across the colour line – it comes from deep-seated prejudices that accept the lie of incompatibility even if on the surface everyone appears friendly and polite. To combat the lie of racial and cultural incompatibility, how about asking children to plot the many different racial and cultural influences in their family lineage.

Now that will set the racial cat among the purist pigeons.

You could start however by taking the high school students to see the movie Krotoa which, though lacking in social and political context, is a beautiful portrayal of the complexities of intimacy and the enduring legacy of Eva van den Kaap in many black and white families across South Africa today.

But if the sex scenes in Krotoa are deemed too much for high school students, give them a copy of then president Thabo Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech which is an antidote to separateness and a poetic acknowledgement of the many strands of origin that make us who we are as South Africans.

Or you could give the students access to one of the best debates ever on the politics of identity in South Africa. Recently, Ayesha Fakie posted an article on South African Indians basically making the case that this minority group is racially and economically privileged, on the one hand, and serious bigots on the other hand, even among their own. Her parents came very recently (1960) and so of course Ms Fakie writes from a position of privilege.

Then came a response from Ghaleb Cachalia from the famed ANC family of Yusuf and Amina Cachalia.

What he does is to point to the many ways in which Indians themselves were subjected to racial oppression and how many, including his own family, stood in solidarity with Africans in the ANC, paying a heavy price for non-collaboration.

What Ghaleb effectively did was to expose in Fakie’s writing the danger of a single story – in this case, about Indian South Africans.

It is dangerous because, as we know, every now and again a bigoted African nationalist or cheap-shot comedian would do exactly that, tell a single story of Indians as conniving thieves who collaborate with oppressors and all live lives of luxury. This is flammable stuff, as our own history has shown. A quick tour of parts of Chatsworth and Phoenix would quickly disabuse these anti-Indian bigots of such tendencies.

In sum, instead of teaching our children about differences – we did that for three centuries – teach them about sameness, about common origins and about how our lives are richly entangled from centuries of living and loving and now learning together. Show students how recent migrations of class across old racial affinities have further softened the hard lines of difference that justified segregation.

This means that identities are not static; they change over time.

Hold up the lives of families who crossed borders then and now –-Christian and Muslim in one household, Jewish and Muslim and Hindu in another, and African and White and Coloured together in the same family.

Your role as our teachers is not to reproduce official lies.

Please sign in or register to comment.