If I said to my editor ‘stop me if you’ve heard this one before’, this article would never have been written.
On 8 February this year, an incident occurred at Milnerton High School in Cape Town involving the deputy principal, Mr Iqbal Cassim, and a black pupil. As details of the incident began to filter into the media a familiar narrative emerged which was then amplified by certain government officials, human rights organisations and – hot on their heels – diversity consultants.
The mini-saga is worth a deeper look because it is really quite strange and reveals something pathological and insincere about the way race pervades the thinking of otherwise reasonable people.
The first mainstream media outlet to pick up on the story was the Weekend Argus. It ran a story on 13 Feb titled ‘Milnerton school rocked by “racist” incident’ written by Bulelwa Payi. The subheading reads:
‘A disturbing incident where a black pupil was forced to bow on his knees several times before a fellow white pupil at Milnerton High has rattled the school community.’
The article tells of how two students (one white and one black) had a ‘silly fight’ over a bench at break time. The matter was reported to a teacher and ‘the following day the head of the school’s disciplinary committee made the black pupil get on his knees and bow to the white pupil several times’.
Not only was the school community rattled, but a source says that the incident ‘angered pupils and some teachers’ and that the ‘whole school community is agitated and frustrated’.
Another source tells us that ‘Everyone is in distress’ and it is ‘so tense at the school’.
The reason for the emotional trauma experienced by the entire school community becomes clear the further you read. There is, according to the article, an almost unanimous agreement that the incident was racist.
The first source cited says that it looked like the black pupil was worshipping the white pupil. Another says ‘We share his pain’ and that these pupils never experienced apartheid ‘But it’s concerning that those in authority seem to be stuck in old mindsets’.
Pupils at the school seemed to agree as two days later anger over the incident led the students to stage a ‘peaceful anti-racism protest’ on the sports field where students ‘took the knee, a gesture which is a show of silent solidarity and taking a stance against racism’.
On the day of the peaceful anti-racism protest, the victim of the racist act took the opportunity to ‘share his anguish’ in assembly and thank everybody ‘for being there through my downfall and for helping me rise up again’.
A source says that the pupil ‘spoke about the humiliation he’s suffered’ and that ‘the incident has stripped him of his dignity’.
A parent with children at the school put it most starkly:
‘It’s disturbing that 30 years into our democracy, children are made to relive apartheid where blacks were regarded as being inferior and submissive to other races. We cannot have teachers who rip children’s dignity apart and enforce racist behaviour.’
I agree we cannot have teachers enforcing racist behaviour and creating an environment where children are made to relive apartheid. However, at this point a critical observer might wonder how everybody seems so sure that the incident was racist.
The same parent gives us an idea: the incident just ‘reeked of racism’.
Quite a nose.
It appears that others have been blessed with similar olfactory exactitude.
In a News24 article published on 17 February, based on the Argus story, chairperson of the Select Committee on Education and Technology, Sports, Arts and Culture, Elleck Nchabeleng is quoted as saying:
‘It is extremely shocking and disgusting to learn about incidents of this nature taking place at schools that are supposed to be places where seeds of non-racialism and non-sexism are sowed. The committee condemns this alleged humiliation in the strongest terms, and it should also be condemned by all at Milnerton High.’
Just two days after the Argus article, Amnesty South Africa, a division of Amnesty International, tweeted that it was ‘shocked’ to hear about the report detailing the ‘alleged’ incident sparked by ‘an argument over a bench’. The word ‘alleged’ is encouraging however, the very next tweet suggests the word wasn’t doing any heavy lifting.
The day after the Argus article was published, the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) released a statement strongly condemning the ‘recent racist incidents which occurred at schools in the Western Cape and Gauteng’. The Centre was ‘appalled’ to read reports about how a black pupil was made to bow and ‘raise his hands up and down in worship and submission, before a fellow white pupil’.
In other words, the LRC, with little to go on assumed that the incident was racist. Bear in mind that no official report of the incident had yet to be released. Bear in mind too that the LRC’s mission is to ‘undertake evidence-informed action focused on advancing transformation … with a targeted focus on land and education’. Worth mentioning is that the chairperson of the LRC is Thandi Orleyn who recently investigated racism allegations at St Mary’s Waverley in Johannesburg. This might be of concern to some given that Ms Orleyn and the LRC had no qualms in concluding that the Milnerton incident was a racist one even though it was well-known at that point that the Western Cape Education Department was conducting a formal investigation into the matter. This was mentioned in the Argus article from 13 February:
‘Western Cape Department of Education spokesperson Bronagh Hammond said the department was aware of the incident.
“The matter was reported to Labour Relations and an investigation is under way. The school dealt with the matter according to WCED policy and protocols,” said Hammond.’
As is often the case with incidents that smell like racism, diversity consultants (who are starting to resemble tow-truck drivers racing each other to the scene of an accident) arrived to offer themselves up as the solution to all your problems.
In a second Argus article about the Milnerton incident published on 20 February, Commissioner for Basic Education, advocate André Guam said he was scheduled to meet with the Department of Basic Education regarding a ‘Human Rights Commission-sanctioned social cohesion, sensitivity and diversity training programme that can be rolled out at all schools’.
The same day, TimesLive published an article by anti-racist extraordinaire Teresa Oakley-Smith who is Managing Director of Diversi-T Consulting. The headline reads like an infomercial for stain removal: ‘Uproot racism in schools with two simple steps’. Oakley-Smith references the Milnerton incident as an example of racism in schools before offering a solution to the problem.
‘I am convinced’, she says ‘that we should deal with this ongoing stigma of racism in our schools directly, without further investigations or endless commissions.’
She continues, saying that schools should voluntarily undergo ‘regular training in understanding and managing racism, discrimination and prejudice’, and that educators should be trained on ‘diversity, prioritising race and how to create inclusion and equity for all’.
Guilty of what, exactly?
Sometime in late April, the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) informed those who asked, of the outcome of the investigation into Mr Cassim’s alleged misconduct. The statement, provided by Bronagh Hammond, Director of Communications, says that Mr Cassim was found guilty of misconduct and sanctioned in terms of the Employment of Educators Act. The details of the sanction, however, were not disclosed ‘in terms of the employees (sic) right to the protection of personal information’.
The statement also says that Mr Cassim had ‘allegedly apologized (sic) directly to the learner involved, the staff, the learners who witnessed the event and the whole school’.
In an Argus article dated 24 April, Bulelwa Payi reports on the outcome of the investigation and subsequent reactions to it from various people. One reaction was from ANC spokesperson for education in the provincial legislature, Mr Khalid Sayed, who was not entirely pleased with the paucity of information provided by the WCED.
‘We will raise this again in the provincial parliament. The provincial government needs to provide the public with a detailed response. They need to come clean and clear on the matter.’
I agree with Mr Sayed, although I suspect we might be expecting slightly different outcomes.
Another side to the story?
How sure are we that Mr Cassim is a racist who intentionally stripped the dignity from an innocent young black boy?
On 15 February an article appeared in The Citizen titled ‘“Racist” incident at Milnerton High School “taken out of context”, says principal.’
One piece of information emerging from the principal’s account is worth taking note of.
Mr Besener, a highly regarded educator and leader if the various accounts from past issues of the school magazine are to be believed, explains that the catalyst for the incident was a fight over a bench (recall that a source in the Argus referred to it as a ‘silly fight’).
According to Besener, a black pupil beat up a white pupil who ‘never responded’ to the attack.
‘I made him stand up more than once’, he adds.
Following this, Mr Cassim, the deputy principal and head of the disciplinary committee, called the pupils and those who witnessed the fight into an office. Here, according to Besener, the pupil was asked to apologise, which he did with ‘a bit of bravado’.
(As mentioned, the Citizen article detailing this account of events was published on Feb 15. Payi, the reporter from the Argus was aware of this account because in her article from Feb 20 she references a piece of information from the Citizen article. However, in that article and her follow-up from 24 April, she failed to mention that the black pupil seemed to have a habit of dropping to his knees in a grandiose display of remorse.)
What is more likely?
I am interested in the truth of what happened and would like to see the WCED provide us with a detailed account of the disciplinary hearing and its findings.
It is entirely within the realm of possibility that the accused, Mr Cassim, is a racist who, in early February, revealed his true colours by forcing a black pupil to kneel and bow to a white pupil because he believes that blacks are inferior to whites. If this is indeed the case, the public deserves to know.
Alternatively, and perhaps this is a more likely scenario, is that Mr Cassim got himself caught up in something that in hindsight he could have handled better but that was racially innocent and spurred on by a boisterous young man apologising with bravado and who subsequently relished the attention his newfound victimhood afforded him.
If Mr Cassim is guilty of stripping the young man of his dignity in a racist act reminiscent of apartheid, we could reasonably expect that he would be, at best, suspended, and at worst, fired. But this does not seem to be the case.
Mr Cassim, as explained in the WCED statement, has apologised to the school. According to ‘some pupils’ quoted in the Argus on 24 April, Mr Cassim ‘made an attempt’ to apologise at a school assembly.
‘It was feeble, very lame. He did not even make eye contact with us. It left some of us confused as to whether he was forced to do so or not,’ said one pupil.
Perhaps these students were unhappy because Mr Cassim’s apology was not for racism but something else? Maybe the pupil’s suspicion is correct and he was forced to apologise. Maybe that was his punishment for mishandling the disciplinary hearing?
Right now, it is difficult to know but I think we ought to know. Because, if the first scenario turns out to be true then Mr Cassim should be nowhere near the teaching profession. But if the second scenario or something similar is true, then all those who smeared Mr Cassim as a racist, including public figures and organisations, are deserving of scorn and should be held to accountability themselves. There may even be a case for a defamation claim.
The damage done
Regardless of the true outcome of the disciplinary hearing, the school appears to have buckled to the public pressure placed on them to hire a diversity consultant to uproot the racism that may or may not exist at the school.
Bronagh Hammond, on behalf of the WCED, says:
‘I can confirm that the school is embarking on a process of diversity and inclusivity workshops for educators. The school management have met with the service provider to discuss the requirements of the school, and more specifically on workshops around transformation, diversity & inclusivity.’
And so the damage is done. As I have discussed in a previous article, diversity consultants reliably sow division instead of cohesion. They sell a brand of social justice that focuses on identity politics and race essentialism and is sceptical of anything deemed to be infected with ‘whiteness’, whatever that actually means.
I sincerely hope I’m wrong because from what I have read, Milnerton High is a diverse school with happy pupils and competent teachers. I wish them luck as they navigate the choppy waters of so-called ‘anti-racist education’.
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