BLM: 'Performative activism' makes no difference, top Cape school told

Past pupils of Rustenburg Girls' High School have given the school an ultimatum to transform and not play PR on allegations of racism

19 June 2020 - 09:09
Rustenburg Girls' High School has been given a few days to answer some of the difficult questions that have been posed by its former pupils, which include allegations of prejudice and racism at this top school.
Rustenburg Girls' High School has been given a few days to answer some of the difficult questions that have been posed by its former pupils, which include allegations of prejudice and racism at this top school.
Image: Supplied

One of Cape Town’s prestigious schools, Rustenburg Girls’ High School (RGHS), has been given until June 24 to come up with plans on how it’s going to address an apparent systematic racism and embrace diversity at the 126-year-old school.

According to a memorandum that’s been penned by the matric class of 2019, which TimesLIVE has seen, among the demands made by past pupils to the school is for the provision of free professional counselling to staff and students whose mental health has suffered as a result of the alleged discrimination at the school.

In the ultimatum, the former pupils urged the school to use the Black Lives Matter campaign as an “opportunity to begin the journey of genuine transformation” as it has so far “failed” its past and present pupils.

“If the school is as committed to transformation and activism as is displayed on its social media, then the necessary changes, which need to be made, will not become a widely debated topic,” reads the memorandum.

The school principal, Michael Gates, has confirmed that he received the memorandum on June 15, “and [we] are giving it the attention it deserves”.  

“We know that there have been actions and experiences at Rustenburg which have caused deep hurt and we are listening and will continue the journey of transformation that RGHS is on. We are committed to making RGHS a place where everyone feels that they belong. We are committed to antiracism,” he said.  

Among the demands that had been brought forward to the school is re-evaluation of sports coaches, which the former pupils claim should not include staff members, as this has created “bias in the classroom”.

Rustenburg Girls’ High School is one of more than 20 former Model C schools in Cape Town that were implicated in alleged racism and discrimination by pupils. Various Cape high schools opened up about discrimination experienced at the hands of staff and fellow pupils, following the global Black Lives Matter movement, which was sparked by the killing of an African American, George Floyd, by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, in the US.

The former pupils said it was with a “heavy heart” that in their first official communiqué to the school since graduation they had to write about the alleged discrimination at the school. They said abuse of power was not limited to law enforcement officers, but to all those in positions of authority, including teachers.

“Abuse of power is not limited to police officers and politicians, and the abuse of power among particular members of staff is alarming. The ability to have students’ voices suppressed, as opposed to addressing the core issue of racism among the staff, constitutes an abuse of power. As a member of staff who, by law, has a special protective relationship to the students under your care, you have a responsibility to hold your colleagues accountable for their wrongdoings. Your outrage at the actions of your colleagues and perhaps yourself is not enough. Until your outrage translates into visible action, you have failed the Rustenburg community,” they wrote.

They accused Gates of “performative activism” and showing no genuine concern for the wellbeing of the pupils who experienced “micro and macro-aggressions at the hands of your staff members”. “Your statement, ‘A school where we all belong’ is nothing more than a false pretence. If the statement was accurate, then the effort to bring about meaningful change would not be such a widely debated topic. It is evident that these statements are made to uplift the reputation of the school and are nothing more than a PR driven tactic to appease the public.

“The only way in which meaningful change can take place is by educating members of staff and the students through the lens of those who have experienced racism first-hand,” the statement continued.

“True forms of activism do not include the need for social media praise. The school is so concerned with public image that it has failed to address the internal image that the staff and students have of Rustenburg.”

The former pupils also demanded:

  • Genuine open-door policy when parents and students raise issues of discrimination and bullying.
  • An equal number of black, indigenous and people of colour and people of colour in ratio to white students in Western Province trials for all large sports teams. 
  • Further education on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people community.
  • Further consideration for Muslim, Indian, and any other religious groups during times of fasting or other religious practices which may have an effect on their ability to properly function at school.
  • Bullying is to be properly investigated and handled in the correct manner, which is in line with the no bullying policy of the school.
  • Collaboration with surrounding schools in the education process regarding gender-based violence.

Also on the topic of transformation in schools, a pro-transformation parents lobby group, Parents for Change, said it had noted the “accounts of the undervaluing and bullying of black teachers in schools, and the poor offering of marginalised African languages, particularly in primary schools”.

“We believe that it is the responsibility of the schools to value these teachers and protect them from all forms of bullying. The schools should also consider reviewing their policies and offer marginalised languages as a way of fast-tracking social inclusion and the transformation plans which many schools claim to be prioritising,” it said.