18/04/2017 04:00 SAST | Updated 18/04/2017 13:08 SAST

What Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma Really Meant By Saying That Model C Schools Are Anti-ANC

Her comments relate to the subversive and implicit things teachers say to their students which influence how students understand our politics.

Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma recently accused Model C schools of being anti-ANC. These sentiments aren't very surprising given the political climate in South Africa. It is the responses to Dr Dlamini-Zuma's sentiments which I find more interesting. There were three responses that were reported which I'd like to unpack.

The first was from Tim Gordon, national chief executive of the Governing Body Foundation who said amongst other things: "Her comments were irresponsible and it is not fair to take a broad swipe at schools. Not to mention that it's not true..."

The second response in the same article was from Professor Ruksana Osman, the dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Wits University, who "said it was worrying and warned the government cannot intervene in what was taught in schools along party lines. The state should not meddle in what is taught in schools, especially when we see ourselves as a democracy."

The third response was from DA spokesman on basic education Gavin Davis who said "Dlamini-Zuma's comments can only be interpreted as a direct attack on Minister Motshekga‚ since it's the minister's job to ensure that the curriculum is appropriate and that schools are not politicised. It is therefore incumbent on Minister Motshekga to set Dlamini-Zuma straight on what is being taught in South African classrooms."

All these responses left me wondering whether these people know how schools operate. Tim Gordon is after the truth because Dr Dlamini-Zuma's comments seem to be an egregious generalisation about Model C schools, which seems unfair at face value. The biggest problem with this response is that there's a refusal to engage with the reality of Model C schools. The insistence of talking about Model C schools more than 20 years of a desegregated education system highlights the class and racial segregation in our education system. Model C schools is a code-word for former white schools, even though the demographics amongst the students have changed to predominantly black students and a smattering of white students. By insisting on merely defending Model C schools, Tim Gordon has missed the reality that Dr Dlamini-Zuma is actually speaking about: there are schools in South Africa where teachers are predominantly white and have the power over the majority of black students. This of course would make the ANC very uncomfortable because it also highlights their own failures in transforming schools designed by apartheid and colonialism.

Her comments relate to the subversive and implicit things teachers say to their students which have implications for how students understand the politics of South Africa.

Professor Osman's response is also particularly interesting. Perhaps her sentiments were misconstrued in the effort of getting a quote from her because the idea that government shouldn't meddle in what is taught in schools seems ironic given that Model C schools are government schools. These institutions have to abide by what the government stipulates in regulations. The reality is that government has very little control over what teachers can say to their students when the doors are closed and the teacher's autonomy is uppermost. Without embellishing what Dr Dlamini-Zuma said, I'm going to throw out another assumption: her comments relate to the subversive and implicit things teachers say to their students which have implications for how students understand the politics of South Africa.

Teachers do not need to overtly say "the ANC is corrupt and you should not vote for them"in order to communicate these sentiments. As someone who was a high school teacher and worked in schools for more than five years, conversations with colleagues revealed that all of us carried our politics and beliefs with us into the classroom. Part of what the protests at Pretoria Girls High School revealed is that teachers often say things to students without thinking about the implications because they are speaking from a place of authority or a position that holds values that may offend and hurt their students. Teaching is both personal and political. I have heard teachers say many questionable things about race, gender and class without necessarily thinking about party lines or political beliefs and especially without the consideration of how their students will make sense of their ideas.

Davis's comment is the most interesting: that Dr Dlamini-Zuma was attacking the minister of education because her comments mean that the minister has not been doing her job of ensuring "that the curriculum is appropriate and that schools are not politicised."If I were Minister Motshekga I would have laughed at this response. It is possible for the curriculum to be "appropriate" (bad choice of words here) and be politicised. As highlighted above, teachers could be giving students the most appropriate information as outlined in the curriculum documents but because of their own personal beliefs they can position certain information to reveal their own beliefs. A good example can be seen in the teaching of history. If a teacher is a sympathiser of apartheid, or thinks colonialism was "not that bad" it is plausible that they will teach these sections in a way that is tainted by their beliefs. Unless of course we expect our teachers to read verbatim from the textbook in order to ensure that their own beliefs are not part of the lesson. This is impossible.

Schools and classrooms are complex spaces where there are moments of conversation where teachers are no longer teaching but also having conversations with their students. It is in these moments that teachers can communicate their own personal feelings about political issues and political parties. There is very little that can be done to control or prohibit this. Dr Dlamini-Zuma's comments speak to the institutional culture in Model C schools where the teaching staff is largely untransformed. This does not justify Dr Dlamini-Zuma's comments but the responses to her comments leave me with questions about whether or not we understand what happens in schools and classrooms in Model C schools.

Unfortunately, until we have a more equal, egalitarian education system, education in South Africa will remain a contested space which is politicised.