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Beyond hair, it isn’t easy being African in a multiracial school

by: Buhle Lindwa - 13 September 2016

Sans souci protests_Sept 2016_©oneleliwani-22I attended multiracial schools all my life, and it was not easy. I never felt liberated enough to embrace my culture, and witnessed other forms of discrimination on other students too. Back then we felt there was nothing we could do about it.

Being forced to learn Afrikaans

I didn’t grow up speaking Afrikaans, so imagine my shock when I was forced to take Afrikaans as my second language instead of  my home language, IsiXhosa. The school claimed to offer other options besides Afrikaans as a second language. But the only IsiXhosa available to me was the arts and culture one, where you browse through picture dictionaries, naming odd objects around the room.

English and Afrikaans came with the fees, but for isiXhosa my parents had to pay an external teacher. This, of course was a financial strain. The school said an external language teacher was not part of the budget, and the school could not “afford” one. During school hours, I had to attend Afrikaans lessons, even though I was not doing the subject. I felt like a spectator. Every time I sat through these, I felt I was being stripped of my identity.

Being humiliated for observing our culture

In the same high school, after a young man came back from Xhosa initiation school, he was constantly teased. After his initiation during the holidays, the student came back dressed in the formal attire, as per tradition. You are meant to wear long pants, a blazer, and a hat at all times, for six months as a new man. It’s deemed disrespectful if you don’t. He was also required to carry intonga (a stick), that he crafted while at initiation school, which no one can hold.

Instead of teachers trying to understand what he had been through, he was told to take off his hat during the day, and also to leave his intonga in his home class. His newfound manhood, as per his Xhosa culture, was not acknowledged. Nor did anyone try to understand the cultural transition that had happened in his life. He was subjected to scrutiny from students, with others laughing that he was wearing winter uniform, during summer, and others playing with his intonga. When the issue was raised, no one in authority defended him or stopped the bullying. They didn’t take the time to understand and explain what it meant to go to initiation school to the students.

Multiracial schools bureaucracy somewhat feels entitled to police how our culture should be, and what types of customs are viable for them. The system hasn’t changed, and it continues to perpetuate the discrimination towards black people.

Opening image: Onele Liwani