Literature Review

Dealing with difference in South Africa: A critical review of literature and experiences on racism, prejudice and xenophobia in South African Schools

- Jonathan D. Jansen - March 2001


This paper was commissioned by Soul City in Johannesburg, South Africa, with the following objectives:

  • to describe the nature and extent of racism and xenophobia in schools.
  • to document children's experiences, attitudes, behaviour with respect to racism and xenophobia
  • to identify existing policy priorities with respect to racism and xenophobia in the school context
  • to relate current strategies within and outside government to deal with racism and xenophobia in schools
  • to highlight "best practice" locally and internationally for dealing with racism and xenophobia in schools
  • to list the stakeholders and "major players" in the field in terms of racism and xenophobia especially as it relates to educational and training contexts


Two dates signal important symbolic shifts in the historic process to end apartheid rule. February 1990 marked the unbanning of liberation organisations and, at least formally, the start of the process to end racial tyranny in South Africa. April 1994 marked the first-ever non-racial elections for all South Africans, and the formal installation of a Government of National Unity headed by the dominant political party, the African National Congress. Starting visibly in the 1980s, and accelerating under these new political conditions throughout the early 1990s, schools became deracialised.

There were two views on the deracialisation project faced by South African schools, views that coincided to some extent with the political perspective of the observer. The one view held that racial conflagration would ignite in public schools as children from different backgrounds and experiences, with strong stereotypes of "the other" ingrained in their attitudes through institutions like churches, families and sports clubs, came together. This was not an uncommon view among those who grew up on an apartheid diet of "incompatible races."

The other view held that except for initial problems, schools would integrate orderly and predictably since children tend not to carry the baggage of their parents. Left to themselves, children tend to play together naturally, so that it was simply a matter of time before integration would be fait accomplish in South African classrooms. This was a view widely shared among liberal communities for whom the deracialisation of schools was fundamental to a post-racial order.

Neither view was correct. To be sure, the South African education system did not collapse under the weight of racial conflagration and ethnic violence in its schools. In fact, commentators often remark on the relative ease of racial accommodation in schools outside of the high-profile media cases such as Vryburg (North West), Ladysmith (KwaZulu Natal) , Potgietersrus (Northern Province), Cape Town High (Western Cape), and Bryanston High (Gauteng). But it is also not accurate to describe a seamless integration of happy races within desegregated schools. There are almost weekly reports of racial incidents in schools. And there are countless unreported incidents of racism and intolerance, especially in well-shielded, "proper" middle-class white schools and in primary schools, where children are unable to articulate experiences of language, religious, racial, ethnic, class and other prejudices, including xenophobia.

This literature review will show that South African schools experience myriads of daily and routine incidents of racism, harassment, segregation and prejudice-of which only a select few reach public attention. The review will also reveal that a small but concentrated group of persons and organisations are beginning to systematically address problems of racism and prejudice in schools, the most prominent of such organisations being the Education Desk of the South African Human Rights Commission. And the review will demonstrate that schools that have acknowledged and confronted the problem of diversity are experiencing successes that can be shared and, in appropriate circumstances, transferred into other educational contexts. For these reasons, a state-of-the-art review of the literature on the topic of racism and xenophobia in schools is critical in understanding how to proceed in "chipping away" at the formidable boulders of prejudice and discrimination that remain as apartheid's most intractable legacy.

Conceptual Starting Points

The sharp focus of the review, for the sake of time and space, is on racism and, to a lesser extent, xenophobia. However, the conceptual territory covered concerns the broader problem of difference in our schools. South African schools express intolerance and prejudice towards anything that deviates from the traditional "norm" established during apartheid. So, for example, intolerance, prejudice and discrimination are expressed against, and experienced among,

  • black children
  • children with disabilities or children with special needs
  • poor children in affluent schools
  • immigrant children
  • children who speak languages other than the former official languages (English and Afrikaans), or minority languages in a province
  • girls in "co-ed" schools
  • Muslim or Hindu children within schools claiming a "Christian ethos"
  • head-dress (religious or otherwise) within traditional schools
  • "over-age" children
  • children with HIV/AIDS

Much of what will be said in this literature review recognises the ways in which talking about racism and xenophobia applies equally well to talking about children with disabilities and children from religious minorities. The structure of prejudice and discrimination are the same, even though the specific actions taken against these different actors in the school context might differ.

Review Strategy

I started by examining three comprehensive reviews of the literature on the subject of racism in schools and applied a critical evaluation and extension of what appears in these documents. The most prominent reviews used are:

  • A Report on a Study by the South African Human Rights Commission, edited by Salim Vally and Yolisa Dalamba, called Racism, 'Racial Integration' and Desegregation in South African Public Secondary Schools. This Report was presented at a Johannesburg Conference on Racial Integration in Schools, February 1999.
  • A Commissioned Report on Racism and Education, presented at the Launch of the Anti-Racism Forum on Robben Island, September 2000 (Draft). This Conference was also facilitated by the South African Human Rights Commission.
  • A Report on the Proceedings of a Workshop titled Towards Racial Integration in Schools, convened by the National Centre for Curriculum Research and Development (Department of Education), from 31 March 1999-1 April 1999.

I then added more recent literature to the corpus under review, including observations and reports of papers delivered at a Ministerial Conference of the Department of Education on Values, Education and Democracy in the 21st Century, held from 22-24 February 2001 in the National Botanical Institute in Kirstenbosch, Cape Town. In addition, I reviewed a number of articles not appearing in the three review reports listed above, and included findings from these studies in this document. And finally, I introduced several of my own findings from observations and studies in more than 1000 schools in the text of this review.

The review is not written in typical academic format with countless footnotes and distracting references. For practical purposes and ease of reading, a more informal report is presented.

The Nature and Extent of Racism and Xenophobia in Schools

A first measure of the scale of the problem of racism at schools is the number of complaints received by the Human Rights Commission. According to the HRC investigation, the education sector generated the second highest number of complaints received by their legal department, with 62% of complaints involving issues of inequality. These complaints were received from eight of the nine provinces. The main limitation of this measure of racism is, of course, that it only documents complaints by that sector of the population that is either aware of the HRC and its functions, or who make the effort to report such events.

A second measure of the incidence of racism in schools was provided by a comprehensive study undertaken by Vally and Dalamba (1999) which showed that 62% (or 1075) of 1729 learners sampled from 60 schools reported positively on racial problems at their schools. Since at least 15 schools had 5% or fewer black students, this was regarded by the research team as an under-reporting of the actual incidence of racism in South African schools. It is important also to note that reported incidents tend to be made by articulate young adults and this leaves silent the majority of learners i.e., those in primary schools who might daily experience prejudice and racism without even knowing it.

A third measure of the extent of racism in education is the evidence provided through "high profile" media cases. The list of schools and regions are familiar: Ruyterwacht, Vryburg, Potgietersrus, Ladysmith, Mondeor, Bryanston, and many others. Then there are the individual cases such as the South African teacher harassed and arrested by police in Hillbrow because the darkness of her skin suggested she was an "illegal immigrant" (The Star, Monday 12 March 2001). The main problem with this measure of racism is that it simply reports on celebrated cases regarded as newsworthy by the media and not the day-to-day routine incidents of racism in schools, colleges, universities, technikons, pre-schools, NGOs and many other education and training settings.

Taken together, however, these three measures of the extent of racism in education tell a simple and consistent story: that racism is pervasive in the education and training sector; that racism did not end because schools became desegregated; that racism is not limited to either teachers or learners; that racism is not limited to any particular province or region; that racism is easily recognisable by young people; that racism intersects with religious bigotry and xenophobia; and that reports on racism probably underestimate the real scale of the problem especially in rural schools and in communities isolated through ignorance or distance from the technologies that allow reporting on routine (as well as spectacular) incidents of racism in education.

From a research point of view, this preliminary review of existing databases suggests a strong need to provide a more reliable catalogue of incidents of racism in education both to shape policy and to inform practical strategies to address this scourge within our schools.

Children's Experiences, Attitudes and Behaviour with respect to Racism and Xenophobia

In this section we discuss the different ways in which racism and prejudice manifest itself within education and the ways in which young people experience, express and respond to racism.

Learners from Privileged Groups

  • children issue racist insults verbally to their fellow learners
  • children issue racist insults in writing to their fellow learners
  • children separate themselves by race from their fellow learners, whether in classrooms or in the playground or in general socialising
  • children hold and verbalise cultural stereotypes of their classmates
  • children from privileged groups expect the "incoming" children to adjust to and accept the existing norms and behaviours of the school
  • children expect racial friction because of integration, and therefore recommend segregation
  • children hold low expectations of their fellow learners from disadvantaged groups

Learners from Disadvantaged Groups

  • learners feel alienated within the dominant school culture - "At the hostel we have a white block and a block for us others."
  • learners experience abuse and ridicule because of their racial designation
  • learners tend to aggregate with students who share the same colour and language - "The white learners sit on one side and if you ask them something they are in such a haste to get away from you that you might as well not exist."
  • learners feel subjected to the dominant culture, especially on language issues
  • learners are segregated within a school, but also often within a classroom in groups designated by the teacher e.g., reading groups in primary school
  • learners feel ignored by teacher practices, even when they are in the same classroom - "There is a teacher that only talks to one row of [white] children and we must just listen. In the beginning I complained but later I just accepted it."

Black and White Parents in Privileged Schools

  • black parents are often not represented on the school governing bodies. - Even in schools where black learner numbers have grown, or even exceed those of white learners, it is not uncommon to find that white parents still dominate, sometimes completely, the composition of the governing body. This happens through a string of well-managed events (see next point), and cannot be ascribed simply to the literacy levels or the unwillingness of black parents to serve on the governing bodies.
  • schools typically manage representation on governing bodies in such a way that the status quo is maintained i.e., so that there is continuity in the racial composition of the governing body - This happens through a tight selection of strategies that include the school principal or chairperson of the governing body recommending specific names for nomination; or indicating in a circular the willingness of a specific parent or parents to stand for a vacated position; or narrowing the field of expertise for a vacant position so that it is unlikely that a black parent would qualify for that position. This is common practice in many privileged schools.
  • schools typically fail to involve parents in creating greater racial harmony and inter-cultural understanding within the schools - When racial problems surface within a school, parents are seldom consulted or their expertise sought. A problem is dealt with strictly within the confines of the school i.e., among teachers and principal, and if necessary, with members of the governing body. Unsurprisingly, when an event makes it into the media, the parents are split in opinion by race.
  • schools are often forced to retain their cultural and racial composition, especially as far as teachers are concerned, by assertive parent constituencies acting through or around the governing body - It is impossible to understand the lack of integration among teachers in a school without understanding the powerful, though often hidden roles, of white parents in maintaining the status quo. The case of Pretoria Boys High School is simply one incident (see next page) from a very recent experience which would have successfully ejected the only black teacher were it not for the determination of the principal and support from some parents. But this is not typical. Most principals, whose additional teachers are supported by the high fees paid by parents, are sensitive to, and often succumb to, the wishes of white parents.
  • schools which do not manage the racial growth of black learners in their schools tend to loose their white learners to schools that do. - A very good example of the politics of school demographics can be found in the Westville area of KwaZulu Natal. There are four large primary schools in the area: Westville Junior and Senior Primary Schools, and Berea West Junior and Senior Primary Schools. As the number of non-white learners at Berea West grew, the white learners started to leave, at first gradually, and then in a rush. Most of these children ended-up at Westville Senior Primary School which, through very crafty mechanisms of student admission (e.g., selecting students largely from the Westville area), were able to maintain a white dominant school. So, as BW schools started to become dominant black, WP schools were able to become dominant white. In effect, therefore, the pattern of demographic shifts had re-racialised former white schools into institutions that were markedly black-dominant and white-dominant, even though singular students from the non-dominant group might have been present (and therefore conspicuous) within these racialised student bodies. The point is that these trends are not "natural" but carefully managed between the leadership of the school and its governing body.

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