By Crain Soudien

South Africa is to have a formal inquiry into racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination in textbooks. Minister of Basic Education, Ms Angie Motshekga, announced in February 2016 that she had appointed a Ministerial Committee to look at these issues.

She asked the Committee to evaluate a broad sample of textbooks and learning and teaching support material in use in the country for their content – how were they dealing with diversity, she wanted to know.

Minister Motshekga was prompted to set up the inquiry for a number of reasons: one of the most material was the work of a researcher into textbooks at the Human Sciences Research Council.

He suggested that there were many very questionable textbooks being used in the country’s classrooms. He claimed that too many appeared to be unconscious and unaware of their shortcomings. Many went into second and third editions with the same racist, sexist and discriminatory images and texts with which they were launched. Many contained derogatory images of people of colour and of women.

They were constructed around idealised middle-class constructions of social life – abundance in everything. They paid little sensitivity to the fact that many people lived much more modest and perhaps even difficult lives. Not enough publishers seemed to be aware that the editorial selections they were making were exclusionary and even disrespectful of particular people.

This decision on the part of Minister Motshekga, it needs to be said, comes at a critical moment in the life of the country. The question of ‘race’ and racism is the subject of impassioned debate and public engagement. It has been put on the public agenda by the events surrounding the challenges poor and largely black students experience in gaining access to the country’s universities and by the exposure in the public of a slew of racist utterances via social media. Providing further justification for the Minister’s investigation has been the occurrence in the last year of a number of less publicly visible, but no less significant incidents at schools. At least two incidents in the latter part of 2015 revealed deep issues. One of them saw children and their parents standing firm behind their apartheid-era racial labels – we ‘coloureds’ and you ‘Africans’ (or worse names) – and proclaiming their racial superiority and racial right to privilege: ‘This is our school. You people don’t belong here.’

Important about these events, particularly those playing themselves out in the environment of the school and the university – places where young people are supposed to be deliberately learning the important lessons of social difference and tolerance of difference – is the kind of learning and understanding that is evident in the behaviour of people. The events show the extent to which prejudice and sometimes even hatred – bad learnt behaviour – underpin the the decisions made by individuals and communities. That educational environments are the sites of mental and cognitive constriction, the closing down of minds and the imagination and the truncation of true freedom, as opposed to being sites of opening up, enlargement and the cultivation of curiosity, is for the country a matter of deep concern.

It is correct that the different communities of South Africa, as it must be for people everywhere, have the right to defend their identities. But that they will do so based on false understandings about their own value and toxic assumptions about people they consider ‘other’ to themselves, must be a moment of pause for everybody.

It is true, it also needs to be said, that young people are reinventing themselves in both conscious and unconscious resistance to this bad learning. They are making themselves anew into what important social commentators in the country have described as the ‘new South African’.

This ‘new’ South African knows that ‘race’ and racism, knows that gender, and many of the other differences that are part of his/her life, are important parts of his or her social and cultural legacy that require some care. This South African is probably deeply confused by these realities. But he/she knows that he/she has to live differently, more respectfully. He or she knows that the attitudes of his or her parents are not acceptable.

However, that the bad learning that continues to circulate in South African schools (and homes) remains so easily taken on, and so comfortably lived – lived with and even lived for – is something that the country cannot ignore.

Minister Motshekga is deeply conscious of these issues. It is of concern to her that there are still South Africans who talk hate and demonstrate prejudice in their behaviour. It is this consciousness that has led her to mandate this work. She has asked the Committee to undertake an evaluation of the textbooks that are being used and must have been read by South African children and the parents who manifest the ‘closing’ of the mind rather than its ‘opening’.

The Committee will look at texts in English, an additional, preferably an indigenous language, mathematics and a social science subject. It will look at how textbooks are dealing with the questions of inclusion and exclusion, and particularly how in their content and imagery, they deal with the questions of stereotyping and discrimination. The Minister is interested in developing a good understanding of how the textbook publishing community in the country, the publishers and disseminators of teaching and learning material, has taken forward the country’s commitments to inclusion. How has it taken on the principles of non-racialism, of an awareness of gender discrimination, and sensitivity to the differences of religion, disability, sexual orientation, home-language and the other less obvious forms of differentiation practised in schools and communities?

The work which the Committee will undertake will, as studies of this kind typically do, focus on the obvious things – the narratives, the stories, the images. It will also look, however, at the use of texts – the pedagogical approaches of teachers. It will attempt to do classroom observations and the ways in which what could be considered to be ‘good’ information and ‘bad’ knowledge is managed by teachers. Are teachers aware of the politics of the content of the material they are mediating?

The Committee will also attempt to assess what communities – parents in the main – understand about the texts and other materials their children are using. It will hold focus groups and public dialogues on this question.

Finally, the Committee will make recommendations to the Minister on the key policy imperatives relating to discrimination. These recommendations will talk to how texts are commissioned, how they are planned and designed, and how they could be used.

* Professor Crain Soudien of the Human Sciences Research Council heads the Committee of eight academics and educationists that will be conducting the inquiry into textbooks. He writes in his personal capacity.

This piece forms part of a series of op-eds being written for Anti-Racism Week (March 14-21). Visit www.arnsa.org.za for more information

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