OPINION | Missed opportunity for real transformation

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South Africans had hardly recovered from a controversy around claims of beach racism in the posh Clifton suburb of Cape Town when, in the North West province, an angry black parent reposted a WhatsApp photograph of a classroom showing four black children sitting at a corner table near the door.
They were separated from a larger group of white children seated alongside each other in an extended chain of desks.
A Grade R teacher had apparently sent the photo to parents, including the distressed black parent, to show how their children were settling in on the first day of school.
The social media reaction was swift. Outraged citizens cried racism while others defended the teacher as politicians descended on the Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke in the North West province.
The public reaction defending the teacher’s actions was as distressing as it was predictable, going something like this: The separation was temporary; the photo does not capture what happened over the rest of the day. There were photos of other classrooms at the same school showing black and white children at the same desks interacting with each other. And the children were simply sitting with friends they knew; nothing racist about that.
But there was one set of arguments that merited another look – the children were merely being separated by language, presumably Setswana-speaking black children from Afrikaans-speaking white children.
In other words, the children were being organised in order to facilitate mother-tongue education. In general, there are other educational grounds for separating children such as academic readiness or different ability groups, though we know nothing, of course, about the cognitive levels of these young learners.
The question remains: are there educational grounds on which the children at Schweizer-Reneke could have been separated? The straightforward answer is “no”.
Throughout South Africa, and abroad, children enter classrooms with different language backgrounds at all levels of formal schooling. In the early grades, in particular, a more defensible educational strategy is to place children together precisely because of the advantages offered by multilingual learning...

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