On being kicked-out: Democratic governance of South African schools is a myth.

In the second term of 2018, Bottomup was kicked-out from Grassdale High School (in Grassy Park). Our student Action Research Committee (an opt-in programme) and Representative Council of Learners (student elected body) programmes were abruptly discontinued following a letter that the student group had co-constructed in a group activity to voice their concerns about linguistic discrimination on their school, as well as the general humiliating comments Afrikaans students are exposed to by some educators who hold a deficit view of Afrikaans learners.

Students wanting to invite their school management team (SMT) into dialogue about why Afrikaans is gradually being phased out at their school, why Afrikaans students have limited subject choices from Grade 10–12, were met with a great deal of resistance. The ARC group had also conducted surveys and interviews with students to find out how many students in their Grade 8 group would prefer to be taught in their home language. Where the school had suggested there was not sufficient students for an Afrikaans Grade 8, the student survey had tracked 46 students in Grade 8 who would prefer Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

After sending the letter and sensing the discontent of the school management team, Bottomup arranged to meet with the principal and the deputy principal to discuss further. This meeting ended in a heated discussion where the student letter was equated with ‘the throwing of stones’, where students were accused of not having the facts when putting pen to paper and not going about things the correct way. The principal mentioned that he has an open-door policy and that students should just have met with him personally, while students on the other hand express that they sometimes feel intimidated by the principal. In the meeting Bottomup was accused of ‘activating students’ and the organisation was told to ‘leave school management to school management’. After further discussion we had requested, in the spirit of democracy, that the principal and deputy honour the student’s request to meet with the ARC group to discuss the contents of the letter. Such a meeting was held with students and the two Bottomup facilitators. In this meeting little progress was made and more deflection tactics were employed by the school management.

The afternoon after the student meeting with the ARC and the Bottomup facilitators, Bottomup received a Whatsapp message from the school deputy principal indicating that the school has decided to move on without Bottomup. Our schools liaison officer requested that a meeting or exit interview be granted to enquire about the reasons for the schools decision, and that an opportunity be granted to address the students about the schools decision. The school deputy principal then indicated that this would not be necessary.

Bottomup then conducted an off-campus public engagement meeting to update students and parents about what had transpired. In this meeting the actual ARC letter was made public.

There are of course several issues arising from this school engagement. Linguistic discrimination in Cape Flats schools (often for Afrikaans or isiXhosa leaners) is obviously an important concern. Moreover, on the Cape Flats, Afrikaans often functions as a signifier for class position, so there are parallels between the fortressing of former Whites-only schools through admissions policies like feeder zones or fee based mechanisms, and the fortressing (or transitioning) of English medium schools through push-out strategies such as controlling the language of teaching and learning and not making any effort to accommodate other linguistic capacities of students (an example of what Angela Valenzeula might describe as ‘subtractive schooling’). Why would schools do this? All schools operate within the field of education and have to operate by the rules of the game. In the game of schooling, school success is not measured on inclusivity but on keeping results high. In such a game, schools will do whatever it takes to maintain high matric pass rates. Strategies schools often adopt is selecting only the top students for entrance into Grade 8 and setting difficult Grade 11 exams designed to prevent students from entering matric and interfering with the matric results. Schools might also make concerted efforts to expel students (push-out), passing students onto other schools in the community in order to keep their own results high. Linguistic discrimination is however a more subtle but also more violent strategy because it targets an entire group of students, many of whom might reside in the housing projects designed under Apartheid.

Beyond the issue of linguistic discrimination, the plain disregard of teachers who make comments such as “Afrikaans students are the dregs of society” or “These students aren’t going to go to university anyway” are effectively forms of hate speech against a group of students. Even if it were logistically impossible for the school to accommodate the schooling needs of Afrikaans students, this kind of classroom talk remains shocking when coming from educators, the adults who are supposed to inspire and nurture our students.

That many of these issues persist on schools without the intervention of parents, supportive teachers, students and other concerned members of the community demonstrates that the democratisation of school governance that our country hoped would enable greater forms of participation is not working in the interest of students. Without also empowering people with policy knowledge, the democratic process is weakened.

The need for rigorous SGB education in South African schools is urgent. The entire process of democratic school governance via parent majority in public schools is threatened and undermined when parents are intimidated by school staff because they do not have a thorough knowledge of their rights and important policy documents pertaining to the management of South African schools.

Headmasters who seek to operate their schools as fiefdoms depend on the ignorance of parents and students in this regard. The problem is also further exacerbated when parents do not regularly attend meetings to deliberate on decisions which will affect their children. Moreover, even when parents do attend, they are informed and not consulted, sometimes even intimidated.

The risks here are quite real. Many parents are left in the dark on how school funds obtained from the collection of school fees are spent. Important decisions such as the medium of instruction of the school are made without the proper participation of the majority of parents in schools. Additionally, students, who as per legislation only hold two seats in the SGB, are effectively silenced when they cannot garner the support of parents.

By example, if a student majority feels that the schools uniform policy (an aspect of the school’s code of conduct) is being used to entrench gender inequalities, or prevents students from exercising their constitutional rights to observe their religion, they would be unable to effect any change to the policy without obtaining the supporting vote of parents. Where parents are not involved or where crony members who only agree to the will of the headmaster come into power, the whole process is undermined. Students are then left with little ways to challenge policies and practices that produce student disengagement and alienate students from their education. This results in the escalation of problems beyond the micro-level politics of the school (students call on the district or the MEC, they take to social media, they organise protest action). Direct action or escalation should be a last consideration in attempting to minimise school-based oppression the situation at schools but the manner in which SGBs and even RCLs are manipulated often end up requiring students to call on higher powers or to utilise alternative strategies for change.

Of course, the straightforward disregard of constitutional rights (often rebutted with “students must also be taught their responsibilities” in attempts to make rights conditional or to excuse the misconduct of educators) does not help at all. When parents and students are not educated about school laws and regulations, all sorts of school-based oppressions are allowed to persist. The exercise of corporal punishment, discrimination on the basis of race, class and language, the exposure to environmental tobacco smoke (or second-hand smoking) when teachers smoke in classrooms, and several other harms are allowed to exist in schools because those who are affected the most, the students themselves have no voice in the management of the school environment.

Students who attempt to challenge or confront school management by calling attention to school-based oppression, are often patronised, ostracised and targeted for further intimidation. As it goes, many educators would rather that students “be seen and not heard” when it comes to school policy. The very spirit of our White Paper One on Education and Training as it is re-articulated in the South African Schools Act is being crushed, as students who attempt to exercise participatory democracy in schools are being crushed. When adults act to silence youth, they are teaching our young people that the power of the word, the power of dialogue and the processes of negotiation are not enough to generate social change. For this our fragile version of democracy will surely suffer in the long run.