Panyaza Lesufi’s dangerous worldview

Cilliers Brink says the Gauteng MEC views race relations as a zero-sum game

This weekend the political reporter Adriaan Basson came to the defence of the much loved and hated Panyaza Lesufi, Gauteng MEC for education, and so prompted an important debate. Basson tweeted that he does not believe Lesufi to be racist, or that Lesufi wants to destroy Afrikaans mother-tongue tuition. Afrikaans parents and teachers need only “engage” Lesufi about their concerns.

For liberals who are sincere about creating a fair post-apartheid society, and cautious of how easily ANC and EFF politicians can depict us as the enemies of redress, this is a safe approach. But it won’t help much. And sooner or later folks who are not necessarily concerned about Afrikaans, or mother-tongue tuition, will have to decide whether to accept or reject Lesufi’s worldview, and its implications for how South Africa is governed. 

It is a worldview that has predominated for most of our history albeit in different guises, and still informs public policy to this day. This is how it works. All of society, including public education, is evaluated on a scorecard of racial interests. Gains on the white side mean losses on the black side, and vice versa. Where coloured and Indian interests count is determined by expediency, a feature that will ensure that the racial scorecard survives shifts in demographics. The important point is that white privilege not only correlates with black deprivation, it causes it. There is no way to help in undoing the legacy of apartheid unless you subscribe to the racial scorecard.

In this worldview Afrikaans mother-tongue tuition counts as white privilege, even if most Afrikaans speakers today self-identify as either coloured or black. Parents who send their children to Afrikaans schools are responding to a racist incentive. Any argument for so-called language rights is just a fig leaf. So the destruction of Afrikaans single-medium schools, followed by the phasing out of Afrikaans tuition from schools altogether, becomes a moral imperative.   

But sometimes facts cannot be bent to fit this worldview. Try as one might, they snap back and hit you in the face. This is what happened last year when the Hoërskool Overvaal thwarted Lesufi’s attempts to change its language policy, first in the High Court, and then in the Constitutional Court. The case shows that maybe SA society is not a racial zero-sum game, and that the public good will be better served if we discard the myths and shibboleths of racial nationalism.    

Lesufi made clear his animus in an op-ed published by News24 shortly after his defeat in the High Court. “It is time”, he wrote “that our society identifies language policies as nothing more than crude forms of racism. Racism is pernicious, a behaviour which some may like to dress up as language policy but is, in fact, too low to be accorded that degree of respectability.”

The pretext for the battle of Hoërskool Overvaal was a crisis which recurs every year like clockwork: thousands of learners who apply to Gauteng schools cannot find placement before the start of the academic year. The demand for access to Gauteng’s former Model C schools grows faster than Lesufi’s department can build new schools, or rescue failing schools from being deserted.  

Many of the province's sought-after schools bear names like Smuts or even Verwoerd, but have for years had no association with Afrikaans other than as a second or a third language subject. Only 10% of SA schools have Afrikaans as a single, parallel, or dual medium of instruction, slightly less than the 12% of South Africans who speak the language at home. The Constitution guarantees mother-tongue education only if it is “reasonably practicable”, and so the post-apartheid rightsizing of Afrikaans tuition has been necessary.

But in a battle for scarce public resources, it is easy to associate the pain and harm caused by Afrikaner nationalists with the continued existence of Afrikaans. Or, as an official of Lesufi’s department candidly wrote in court papers: “It is unbelievable and / or unfortunate that even until today, in this constitutional democracy, we still have a society that sees nothing wrong with a language that was used as a tool of segregation and discrimination during apartheid which 90% of South Africans bemoan. A language whose legacy is sorrow and tears to the majority of those whom it was not their mother-tongue.”   

When Hoërskool Overvaal refused to admit 55 English-speaking learners at the start of the 2018 academic year, Lesufi had already prepared the media to accept his version of events. What we were dealing with here, or so any outsider listening to 702 could surmise, were recalcitrant Afrikaner racists determined to block black learners from enjoying equal access. The school’s language policy, and its excuse of not having classrooms or teachers for English-language tuition, was but a means of clinging to the ill-gotten gains of apartheid.

There was only one problem. The causal link between Afrikaans and black deprivation could not be established on the facts of the case. Court proceedings revealed that while Overvaal was in fact full, there was more than enough space for the 55 learners at two English-medium high schools in the same district (one of them named General Smuts). It was Lesufi’s department who had deliberately prevented the learners from taking up these places. The case was not about the best interests of the learners. It was about forcing Hoërskool Overvaal’s governing body to drop the school’s language policy.

To cover this up officials even resorted to manufacturing evidence. In what the judge called a “sting in the tail” of the case, the Department filed handwritten affidavits by the two principals of the neighbouring English-medium schools in which they changed their stories. Contrary to what they had told the Department before, they now claimed that their schools in fact could not accommodate the 55 learners. But evidence emerged that the principals had only deposed to these affidavits on pain of losing their jobs and pensions.  

While he was losing in Court, Lesufi’s ground forces assembled outside Hoërskool Overvaal with journalists in tow. Protesters bussed in by the SA Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), the ANC, and the EFF were determined to show the Overvaal school community as backward Boers defending their racial turf, or just to scare the shit out of them. But then the facts snapped back, again. A Facebook post by Kamo Tjelele went viral, and read as follows: “I’m a product of Hoërskool Overvaal and a black person. I graduated from that place having made friends and not enemies.” It turned that quite a few black learners had studied at the school over the years, in Afrikaans.

None of this implies that there is no racism at schools, or that there will never be a conflict between mother-tongue tuition and universal access to good schools. It is only fair for provincial education departments to require single-medium schools to either fill their classes, or to start changing their language policies to adapt to changing market demands, an approach distinct from Lesufi’s Hoërskool Overvaal maneuver.

But we cannot hold a presumption in either policy or law that Afrikaans mother-tongue tuition, or the effort to preserve the language for future generations, disguises a racist intent. This brakes the rules of natural justice, and it betrays the ideal of an open society which respects differences instead of stamping them out.

Neither can we assume that Afrikaans-medium schools stunt the emotional or cultural intelligence of their learners, or otherwise prevent them from being part of a diverse society. Parents are in any event best placed to make this judgment. Evidence does exist that where learners from poor and working-class Afrikaans households in the Cape Flats were taught in their mother-tongue, they excelled.

Lesufi’s worldview, broadly shared by the ANC and the EFF, predominates not because it is true, or mostly true. It predominates because the likes of Lesufi are so bold at propagating it, and because those who hold a different view are afraid of being cast as the enemies of racial justice. In the meantime the predominant view of SA as a racial zero-sum game will continue to produce policies that fail, and people will continue to be confused about the cause of the failure.