As the Truth and Reconciliation Committee ended, there was much concern about continuing growth discussions around discrimination and oppression. As a result, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation was founded in May, 2000, to further the work of the TRC. Last week, I sat down with their Education Projet Leader, Lucretia Arense, and Cecyl Esau, leader of the Schools’ Oral History Project, to hear their take on how schools are dealing with diversity, and the role of the IJR in supporting teachers.
What are the issues that schools in South Africa are currently facing, and what is your role in supporting them?
CE: Apartheid has been a system of colonialism, built to dehumanize people. Our mission has been to re-humanize. One aspect of reconciliation we have focused on is restoring human dignity through teaching youth. To be a human being is to be compassionate.
LA: There are some teachers who are talking about these issues, who try to have conversations around the TRC and apartheid. I think the majority of teachers don’t know how to deal with diversity in the first place. We’ve been such a segregated society for so many years, we don’t know about each other. A white teacher will tell me, “I have Black, African learners in my class, I don’t know how to deal with that.” I’ve actually gotten that quite often. “I don’t know how to deal with it when they’re talking in their language, or how to deal with their hair.” So all of those things come across as very racist. They are not aware that those are racist things to say and they don’t know how to deal, the awareness is not there. They don’t know the students have the right to do so! You also hear learners say, “I don’t understand my teacher.” I think in terms of learners and teachers dealing with each other, there’s a lot that needs to happen in schools.
What happens when a school asks you for help?
LA: We formulate a process where we listen to the story, from both teacher and student perspectives. There is an understanding that we are not here to judge you, but to gauge your understanding of racism and how can we assist you in seeing everyone as equal in all respects. Whatever the difference is, how can we help you see the other person as a human being. If it’s race, let’s learn about the culture. We want to help the person see the other as an equal.
Since 2013, we’ve been working on a project called Teaching Respect for All. The education department called us in when UNESCO asked what we could be doing to combat discrimination. As we worked, we discovered that it’s not really so much about what’s in the curriculum, but more about how teachers are going to deal with talking about discrimination. We were asked, “How are we going to expect teachers to teach what they themselves have not learned?” We’ve done workshops and found that teachers are still wounded from their past. Whether you’re white, black, Indian, you have a certain amount of wounds from your experience in apartheid. “How can I talk about differences and ask you about yours when I’m still hurting?”
We see teachers as agents for social change. Schools need to create a space for teachers to come together and talk about these issues and how they’re feeling. That’s where we can help.