“Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the first importance for the revolution.”

Mao Tse Tung in “Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society” (March 1926), Selected Works, Vol. I.

A little while ago I had a conversation with the head of transformation at a top school in Gauteng. I said that I was from the Institute of Race Relations and we chatted amicably for a while. That was until I asked her whether the school was using a book called Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad to inform some of their ideas about social justice – a book that among other things requires white children to confess to all of their racist thoughts, and if they do not this is taken to mean that they are racist. She said that they weren’t and wanted to know where I heard that from. I told her that I had read it in the minutes of a transformation committee meeting that she chaired and that the document was on the school website. She backtracked a little and said that they were not using the whole book, merely employing some of the ideas contained in it. 

The following day, the document had disappeared from the website. I was not at all surprised by this or the attempted denial. 

I have been investigating, alongside some colleagues, what we have come to refer to as ‘school capture’. In the course of the investigation I have encountered such behaviour more than once. It can be frustrating, but it makes sense when you think about it from the point of view of an ideologue who considers those who disagree as roadblocks on the path to a grand and equitable future. 

‘School capture’ describes the ideological takeover of a school, from hiring practices to curriculum design to discipline, by a theory of social justice informed by the foundational beliefs of critical theories, most commonly critical race theory (CRT) and gender theory. 

CRT views race through a Marxist lens and requires converts to believe the following:

Society is just when institutions are demographically representative because, sans racism, this is what is a natural and just outcome. Among the factors standing in the way of this utopian ideal is liberalism, the core beliefs of which were designed by whites (and males, heterosexuals, cis-gendered and so on) to oppress others. Ideas such as non-racialism, equality under the law and freedom of expression all contribute to this system of oppression, even if they nominally promise citizenship, inclusion and participation in society. 

Oppression of non-whites is thought to be ubiquitous yet difficult to notice because it has become normalised throughout the western world. It is the job of those who have the special insight required to notice this, to teach others to notice it too and work together to dismantle the systems that perpetuate it. 

One group that possesses this insight by the bucketload are the diversity, equity and inclusion consultants and they are being welcomed by schools around the country. Shake an illiberal school policy and a list of racism allegations, and at least one of them will fall out. The kicker is that the consultants profit financially from selling their ideology. That is not to say that they are doing it for the money. They believe in their cause, just like the pastor of a megachurch who uses his congregation’s tithes to buy himself a jet. 

I have yet to come across a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant whose contribution has had an objective or observable net benefit for a school. Once they are allowed time with the students and teachers, segregated safe spaces appear; words and ideas are banned despite constitutional protection; students make false allegations against their peers and teachers, who withdraw and change the way they teach, choosing not to have conversations that may trigger offence; and students become fragile and relish the opportunity to advertise their victimhood and virtue.

Sooner or later, as social cohesion breaks down the school decides to fix it by granting the transformation committee an extraordinary amount of control over the running of the school, including designing and implementing a social justice curriculum. And as I have experienced, the committees, emboldened by the teachings of the consultants, are willing to bend the truth in the face of criticism. They know that what they are doing is radical and revolutionary, and that most parents would be outraged if they knew the truth of what was being taught to their children. 

Given this, why are schools hiring consultants? 

How the magic trick is done

About a year and a half ago I phoned a top private school, introduced myself and asked the receptionist if it would be possible for me to speak to somebody involved in transformation. I barely had time to finish my sentence before the lady, in what I interpreted to be a slightly panicked voice, assured me that the school was ‘doing the work’. She began listing some of what ‘the work’ entailed. We’re providing mandatory Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) training workshops; we’ve formed a Transformation Task Team; we’re decolonising the curriculum; we’re updating our codes of conduct and hiring practices. It came across as though she was reading a script. She was nervous about something.

The school had recently been accused of a few flavours of racism during the #yousilenceweamplify social media campaign that began in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. The campaign was started by students at Herschel Girls’ School and quickly spread to other schools, garnering a lot of media attention. Thousands of accusations were made across the country, some anonymous and some not, some specific and some general, and even some with identical phraseology.

Numerous media outlets and political parties called for transformation efforts to be ramped up; the former looking for clicks, the latter looking to advance a race nationalist agenda and, as we all know, willing to toss aside the constitution to achieve it.

Enter the DEI consultants. They drafted open letters, were featured on podcasts and were interviewed on primetime news networks. They all said the same thing: formerly white schools were riddled with racism. More than that, however, they were bastions of colonialism and would continue to oppress black bodies unless something fundamental – radical, in the true sense of the term – was done. Naturally, hiring them to perform the cleansing was touted as the way forward. 

Like most schools caught up in the scandal, the school management issued a statement declaring support for Black Lives Matter, accepted full responsibility for its role in a system of white supremacy, and promised to ‘do the work’. 

Following the school’s mea culpa, a transformation committee was set up to administer the school’s new transformation agenda, modelled on the Independent Schools’ Association of Southern Africa’s (ISASA) ‘Guide to Effective School Management and Diversity Toolkit’. 

The principal had little choice but to do these things. Politically connected parents were demanding the school change its hiring practices to ensure greater diversity, in many cases, at the expense of merit. Perhaps most importantly, pupils were demanding to have time set aside for conversations dedicated to topics like transgenderism, microaggressions, implicit bias, and whiteness. The principal supported the idea but soon realised, along with her colleagues, that holding such conversations with woke teenagers is difficult and can land you in a lot of trouble. People trained to teach maths or geography are ill-prepared to do so. So, she did what other schools were doing and what had been recommended by ISASA. That is, she hired a diversity consultant to teach the teachers how to have such conversations and to help plaster the cracks that were beginning to appear between pupils and teachers who held differing opinions on controversial topics to do with race and gender. 

As is the case with every diversity consultant who takes on a school as a client, she was fully on board with the tenets of critical race theory, gender theory, and postcolonial theory. There is no room for dissent in the face of the certainties these ideas embody. Such moral superiority is part and parcel of theories like these. 

Little wonder that following the diversity workshops, racial tensions at the school worsened; expressing liberal ideas like colour-blindness, individuality and meritocracy are discouraged in the name of inclusion, teachers are banned from  assuming the gender of their pupils at their all-girl’s school, and the headmistress is having to deal with an increasing number of allegedly racist incidents. With more racism will come a greater need for transformation and the cycle will repeat itself. As, inevitably, will the imperative of the consultant’s services.

The reason I bring this story up is that I have spoken to many people who say things like ‘These schools are stupid, why do they believe this nonsense?’ or ‘If I was a school principal, I’d never hire a diversity consultant’. I understand the temptation to think these things, and I have thought them, too. But that was before hearing the panic in the receptionist’s voice when I raised the issue of transformation and my subsequent meeting with the headmistress.

You see, the principal did not ‘believe this nonsense’, (neither do many others I have spoken to) which is the part I find most frightening. When we met, she expressed concern about what the diversity consultant was teaching her charges (as did most of her colleagues) and the resulting radicalisation of a number of her pupils and colleagues. 

Initially, she believed that she was doing the right thing. Later, she realised she may have made some wrong decisions, but by then the consultant had done her work and the transformation machine was gaining momentum.

The principal was no pushover. She was compassionate, smart, and not somebody I would ever like to disappoint. I could see why she had climbed the ranks and become headmistress. At any other time, she would have been presiding over a flourishing school. But this time she hired a diversity consultant. What was she to do once she realised her error? Stand up in assembly and espouse her liberal ideas of free speech and colour-blindness only to get branded a racist by a vocal minority of recently indoctrinated pupils? Face getting excommunicated by ISASA which explicitly condemns the colourblind ideal? Have to deal with the EFF at the gates, and find her name in a News24 article or her school’s in a tweet by Amnesty International? 

I don’t blame her for taking the path she did. I just think that she made the same mistake that many school leaders around the country have made, which is to underestimate the religious zeal of social justice activists and the enticingly simplistic ideology behind them. 

Always liberalism 

Liberal values in most of our top schools now sit upon pyres with flames licking at their feet. The fuel has been gathered over many years by organisations such as ISASA, the ANC, the EFF, and even overseas organisations like The Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity in the US who have partnered with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and whose fellows now occupy prominent places in media, education and consulting spaces.

If these organisations are the fuel, the spark is lit by allegations of racism. This is an important moment for a school. They could either dowse the spark with liberalism or hire consultants, sit back and watch them fan the flames. 

Here is some practical advice for school management who find themselves having to deal with allegations against teachers.

Get all of the facts before taking any drastic measures like suspending teachers or issuing a public apology. Regard the teachers as innocent until proven guilty. The vast majority of high-profile racism allegations have been proven false. Issuing a public apology before the facts have been accounted for adds fuel to the fire. Also, if you do feel the need to apologise, make it specific. Do not apologise for ‘systemic racism’ or ‘a culture of whiteness’. This is social justice language and you tie yourself to that paradigm if you engage with it. 

You may come under a lot of scrutiny from the media, politicians and social media activists. That is part of their playbook. Ignore it, it will blow over eventually and your school will be stronger for it. 

Do not do what most elite schools have done and hire diversity consultants. Just this week, Brackenfell High School was cleared of all charges by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) regarding an alleged whites-only matric dance. Yet, according to this Times Live article:

‘In the wake of the incident, the school said it would fast-track the formation of a diversity committee and plan activities to improve pupil interactions across different backgrounds. Workshops facilitated by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation would also be held for the staff.’

This is a mistake, as the school will discover in the not-too-distant future.

In a Weekend Argus article from February, SAHRC Commissioner for Basic Education, advocate André Gaum, is quoted as saying: 

“We also want a Human Rights Commission-sanctioned social cohesion, sensitivity and diversity training programme that can be rolled out at all schools.”

Standing up to social justice bureaucracy will not be easy in the coming years. It will take courage and integrity from school leaders, reasonable teachers, and concerned parents with help from principled organisations, to protect South Africa’s children from becoming the means to an end for a cabal of ideologues.  

Schools need to build honour codes centred on classically liberal values where esteem is granted for treating people as individual agents deserving of dignity and respect regardless of inherent differences; freedom of opinion is celebrated; non-racialism is upheld as is an understanding that life circumstances differ from person to person; pupils are taught that intentions do matter and that charity in this regard is a virtue, and; being offended by an idea you disagree with is normal but that in most cases you benefit from engaging with it. 

The schools that create such honour codes might be scrutinised in the short term but they are the ones that will have happy teachers of good quality and a generally cohesive and anti-fragile student body well-equipped to be productive members of South African society.

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Caiden is interested in human well-being from a scientific perspective. He believes in humanism and classical liberalism. He holds a master's degree in philosophy from Edinburgh University.