Racial Dynamics at an Independent South African Educational Institution
Authors: Juliet Perumal, Andrea Dawson
Abstract: Historically, education in South Africa has been beset by inequality. Over the last few decades, however, the landscape of South African government schooling has evolved considerably since its distinctive, racially-defined origins. This is largely due to reforms in the education sector, which played a key role in attempting to redress the injustices of the Apartheid system. Since its inception in 1929, the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA) has envisioned a value-based and quality education for all learners, irrespective of race, creed or culture. Thus, the media exposure in 2020, which revealed the prevalence of racist practices in approximately 26 prominent independent schools in South Africa was startling, as these discriminatory acts contradicted the vision of ISASA. One such school, which came into the spotlight was Excel College* (pseudonym), an independent school in Gauteng Province, South Africa. In response to the accusations, the school management launched an immediate investigation to address the allegations of racial discrimination against its students of colour. A whole-school Racial Intervention Programme (referred to as RDI – Respect, Diversity and Inclusivity) was designed and implemented early in 2021. This qualitative study, which comprised eight student leaders, sought to investigate how these student leaders experienced the intervention programme. The study sought to explore student leaders’ perceptions of the rationale behind the implementation of the Racial Intervention Programme (RIP), and of the racial climate in their school, and how they felt about the allegations of racism levelled against their school. The study further sought to investigate the extent to which student leaders felt their experience of the RIP had sensitised them to the need to promote racial inclusivity in their school. Data for the study were collected by conducting individual, online semi-structured interviews, using participants’ diaries, and holding a Focus Group session. The study drew on the tenets of the Critical Race Theory (De La Garza & Ono, 2016; Delgado & Stefançic, 2000; Dixon & Rousseau, 2006; Gillborn, 2015) and Paulo Freire’s conception of Critical Consciousness (1970). Proponents of the Critical Race Theory argue that race is neither a naturally nor biologically grounded feature of human beings; but rather, a socially constructed and culturally invented category that is used to oppress and exploit people of colour. Freire’s Critical Consciousness involves identifying contradictions in the experiences of others, through dialogue to contribute to change. The study confirmed that there were allegations of racism at the school, and that many of the students had been victims of – or had witnessed – an act of racial discrimination. Despite overwhelming support for RIP, the initiative was criticised for moving slowly, being teacher-centric and syllabus-driven; and that initially, it did not appreciate students’ contribution. However, during the seven weeks of the programme (which this study reports on), participants reported grasping the purpose of the programme – which was to encourage courageous conversations about inclusion, exclusion, racism and diversity.
Keywords: Critical Race Theory, qualitative research, racial intervention programme
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