The inclusion of LGBTIQ+ community has been neglected in textbooks
Pupils and activists from the LGBTIQ+ community have strongly condemned the authors of South African school textbooks for "airbrushing them out of existence".
Their anger comes in the wake of a textbook evaluation by a task team appointed by basic education minister Angie Motshekga, which found that LGBTIQ+ people were mentioned only twice in the 39 books that the team scrutinised.
The team's brief was to examine the extent to which different forms of discrimination are reflected in textbooks.
The portrayal of race and religion also came under fire, as did the portrayal of poor communities.
Task team members counted the number of times words and images involving sexuality, race, gender, class, age, family status, religion and disability appeared in grade 3, 6, 9 and 12 textbooks in nine subjects.
Alex New, 17, a grade 11 transgender pupil at Westerford High in Cape Town, said he did not realise how little mention there was of LGBTIQ+ people in textbooks.
"It would definitely help other trans and queer people to discover themselves and feel more accepted if they were taught about it in schools. You can't hide us."
An 18-year-old matric pupil at a top private school in Johannesburg, who identifies as a queer "demiboy" (having only a partial connection to a particular gender identity), said he was not surprised to see the results of the textbook survey.
"It is so much a norm that I would be pleasantly surprised if I ever saw simple phrases such as 'her wife' and 'his boyfriend'," this pupil said.
"Even small amounts of representation can do wonders to make queer people feel more acknowledged and welcome, and help to normalise queerness.
"When school is your primary window into your society, the lack of representation within a school context can be severely damaging to one's comfort, esteem and identity."
Cape Town psychiatrist Simon Pickstone-Taylor, who runs a gender identity development service at the Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital, said textbooks are a great opportunity to teach kids about diversity and acceptance in a nonjudgmental way.
"The deafening silence, particularly on LGBTIQ+ representation, serves to make young people at risk even less supported in schools," Pickstone-Taylor said. "Making a group invisible helps to perpetuate the prejudices in our society."
The task team found stereotypes were still presented, such as that the various races prefer different sports activities.
The report mentioned the grade 3 Sonder Grense Afrikaans textbook, which tended to give "colonial" names to servants, for example Mieta and Selina.
The grade 9 Oxford Successful Life Orientation textbook was "particularly concerning" in its projection of poor communities.
According to the book, "in some poor communities parents send their girls out to have sex so that the family can eat".
Public consultations during which the preliminary findings of the task team report were shared also sparked debate.
According to the report, one person attending such a meeting described the textbooks as racist.
"The participant said textbooks showed pictures of people who were too black or had thick lips," the report said.
"When this arose, the members of the MTT [ministerial task team] who were present asked the speaker to send them the details of the textbook."
The report found that there were "notable silences and omissions" about religion, family status and disability.
"Atheism was not identified in any textbook."
Hans Pietersen, chair of the Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie (Organisation for Religious Education and Democracy), told the Sunday Times that the overrepresentation of Christianity and African traditional religion in textbooks and the neglect of Buddhism, paganism and nonbelief was disappointing.
Pietersen won a high court application against several schools two years ago, which resulted in schools being banned from promoting one religion only.
Professor Crain Soudien, chair of the task team, said as far as race and gender were concerned, "the textbooks were inclusive and come out looking all right".
But he added: "They don't do that when it comes to the very much more delicate and sensitive issues of sexuality, religion and disability."
Soudien said the absence of references to the LGBTIQ+ community in textbooks was a question that required "a lot of conversation by the country".
For a country that was so religious, there was little discussion about religious inclusivity and tolerance, he said. "Just show Muslims and Christians and make them visible in textbooks. It's not complicated."
He said that none of the 39 textbooks was offensive to the point that it had to be permanently removed from the curriculum.