2021 03 14 Alan Storey
A follow-on article about the Brackenfell High School violence by Alan Storey
published by the Daily Maverick on 16 November 2020.
This past week we witnessed ugly clashes outside Brackenfell High School. The violence ensued between parents / residents and the EFF. The EFF was protesting against alleged racism at the school after reports of a privately arranged masquerade ball / matric farewell attended by only white matric pupils. You can google to read all the allegations and counter allegations that make up the list of disputed facts.
I do believe however, that beneath the disputed facts, there lies truth that invites our reflection and action if we ever hope to live liberated lives in this country. I name four for you to consider:
The first truth: Racism is real
Regardless of whether the organised event was a masquerade ball or matric farewell. Regardless of whether the organised event was privately arranged, or not.
Regardless of whether the school knew anything about it, or not.
Regardless of whether the invitation was open to all, or not.
Regardless of whether the invitation was open to 100 pupils due to Covid-19 limits, or not.
If it is true that out of 254 students, the 42 learners who attended were all white, it is deeply troubling. Whether by exclusive invitation or not, this points to a fractured and divided community based on the colour of one’s skin. It boggles the mind to even think that after sharing 5 years of high school together, a group of students can get together in a homogenic racial group numbering 42 learners. This is true regardless of the reason for the grouping.
In our country and with our history it would be an act of profound delusion to suggest that this occurrence is a mere coincidence and not rooted in explicit or implicit racism. This is especially true for a previously white only school because even though the student body may have changed, the systems, staff and spirit of school may not have changed much at all.
For this reason, white people in particular are encouraged to walk humbly with a willingness to stop, listen, learn and grow. No different to how men are encouraged to walk humbly in relation to the reality of sexism.
The second truth: Denial delays healing
For the school to say that “it is not racist” is denialism. In this country the most truthful starting point is that racism is present, not absent. We may not want to be racist. Our rules and regulations on paper may not be racist. Our motto and value statement may even be written in rainbow ink, but still the reality of racism in our institutions is real more often than not. In other words, it is more honest to assume that racism exists within the institutions of our society, than not. This includes all institutions be they: education, religious, business, sport, entertainment, etc. The assumption that various levels of racism exist is not prejudicial. Rather it is honest and wise. This is, for example, no different to assuming that children from a broken-down marriage will have various levels of inner trauma. This is the logically responsible place to start. If there is no evidence of such trauma however, then we rejoice and welcome the exception, but knowing it is an exception.
Most importantly, what counts is not whether the governing body declares the school free of racism, but whether the black learners attending the school declare the school to be free of racism. Reality check: numerous accounts from black learners testify to just the opposite, namely that racism is real and so is the school’s denialism. The liberation and healing of the school will depend on how they wrestle with this truth. I can hear Jesus saying: “Truly if you want to save your school you will lose it, but if you are willing to give your school away to the truth, it will be given back to you stronger and more beautiful than ever”.
The third truth: Freedom to protest, protects freedom
The EFF are correct to highlight every instance of racism. We all need to be doing this. People may call them opportunists or worse, but people turn to them for a reason. People trust that the EFF will bring attention to their grievance of racism. We need to ask why other parties and institutions, including the church, do not have this reputation. At best the church may write a press statement condemning this or that racist act, but the shameful truth is we seldom put our feet on the ground in protest to stop racism in its tracks.
The right to protest is a fundamental human right. Our freedom depends on it. This is true regardless of who is protesting and for what. Therefore, people’s right to protest must be protected. This includes creative acts of non-violence that may even be disruptive, yet remain free of threat, intimidation and violence.
The fourth truth: Violence breaks down what it promises to build up
The moment protest becomes violent, it diminishes the human dignity of everyone involved – victim and perpetrator. It says, “our issue is more important than your life”. Violence also deflects from the essence of the issue being highlighted. It provides an excuse for people not to listen to the grievances and greater reason for people to stand in opposition. It provides an easy excuse for a violent retaliatory crack-down (violence begets violence). Further, anything that may be achieved through intimidation, threat and violence will forever have to rely on intimidation, threat and violence to be upheld. This is not sustainable. Therefore, violence sows the seed of its own destruction. Ultimately violence fails to create a peaceful and just future as it promises, for violence cannot chase out violence. For these reasons, threat, intimidation and violence will be the undoing of any who rely on such means. To put this another way: the moral arc of the universe bends away from violence.
The EFF’s modus operandi often includes threat, intimidation and violence yet, interestingly, it has within its own history examples of how futile this is as well as how fruitful non-violence is. For example, in April 2011 Julius Malema arrived at court surrounded by bodyguards sporting red ties and carrying semi-automatic rifles. It did him no good. It simply confirmed his loose-cannon status and justified the quest to silence and discipline him. Later that same year however, on the 28th October, Malema together with about 1000 followers walked from Johannesburg to Pretoria under the banner of economic freedom. It was a disciplined and peaceful protest and all the more powerful for being so. It sharply kept the focus on the issue of economic freedom. Despite being disruptive, this protest action instantaneously won Malema praise and renewed respect from even his harshest critics.
The violence from the residents / parents of Brackenfell was ugly, immature and self-defeating. Their violence exposed the truth of their character. Their violence added validity to the very allegations they so vehemently were in denial of. Any case they may have thought they had, eroded the second they landed the first punch and threw the first stone. That is what violence does. Violence robs the violent of any moral authority they may have had. While promising victory, violence seals defeat. While promising security, it makes one vulnerable. While promising to build up, it undermines. The parents’ violent behaviour now completely overshadows any other wrong (perceived or real) that they said they were resisting.
I invite you to re-read the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) that remind us that we cannot love God without loving our neighbour. And that our neighbour is of priceless worth and therefore we must be gentle, just, merciful and pure in our relationships, ruling out racism and violence forever.