Professor Angela Davis hails Pretoria High School’s Zulaikha Patel

Professor Angela Davis has applauded 13-year-old Pretoria High School for Girls student Zulaikha Patel for shining the light equally on her peers as the media has shone it on her.

At the 17th annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture hosted at Unisa, Pretoria, on Friday, September 9, Patel was summoned to the stage to honour Davis with a portrait, in a symbolic gesture of passing the torch from one generation to the next. Patel, however, refused to come alone and called upon her sisters to share the glory. This left Davis “impressed”.

Davis, an African American political activist and struggle veteran, gave the keynote address at this year’s lecture. She was introduced as “a person who graduated from the university of life, in the faculty of hard knocks”, by the master of ceremonies, Professor Somadoda Fikeni.

The crowd stood and applauded while Patel took the first steps towards the stage, then turned back to invite her fellow Pretoria Girls students to join her on the stage.

PASSING THE BATON: The students from Pretoria Girl's high commemorate Prof Davis with a self portrait at the 17th annual Steve Biko Memorial lecture

PASSING THE BATON: Students from Pretoria Girl’s High honour Prof Davis with a portrait at the 17th annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture.

“I would be nothing without the organisations I stood with during those times,” said Davis in a media briefing after her address.

Davis emphasised the importance of organisations in political activism and the danger of lording individuals in collective struggles. She said movements required the strength of many contributors and Patel’s recognition of that truth was an “important” one.

The auditorium was coloured by chants, claps and songs of affirmation as Davis delivered her address where she spoke about the legacy of Steve Biko, her own experiences of political activism and on contemporary struggles for justice under the topic “legacies and unfinished activism”.

“The revolution we wanted was not the revolution we helped produce,” said Davis, speaking about the institutional and structural inequalities that continue to exist for black people across the world.

Throughout her address, Davis highlighted that the revolution was changing and the role of veterans and historical heroes and heroines increasingly becoming advisory rather than active.

“Veterans often take themselves and their knowledge too seriously,” said Davis; urging past leaders to allow young activists to create their own paths and to “learn from their mistakes”.

During her short visit to South Africa, Davis has met with various activists including Wits SRC President Nompendulo Mkhatshwa and former president Shaeera Kalla.

“I would not have been able to imagine then that two decades after the defeat of apartheid, we would be confronted with militaristic responses to people’s protests,” said Davis to applause.

 

Video: Prof Angela Davis responds to a question from the media on how today’s political activists can respectfully challenge veterans given that they are now in the leadership of the new dispensation.

Also in attendance were former first ladies Graca Machel and Zanele Mbeki whom Davis recognised, regarding their presence an “honour” to her.

Crowds mingled after the lecture and reflective conversations could be heard throughout the halls. A media frenzy ensued as attendees swarmed to take pictures with Patel and to congratulate her for her courage. One was heard saying “Ngifuna is’thombe nalo mntwana”, meaning, “I want to take a picture with this child”, as he stood among the crowd waiting to greet Patel just outside the entrance to the lecture theatre.

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Good hair, no Becky

On Monday August 29, #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh was trending on social media while black learners at the school were protesting against what they described as cultural discrimination.

The learners highlighted their school rules which force them to wear their hair in ways that conforms to western standards and how they are prohibited from standing in groups or speaking their mother tongue languages during school hours.

The movement sparked a national conversation in which I think provided a good learning opportunity for all South Africans. First off, let me say definitively, it’s not about hair! The debate plays out through the dreadlocks and the cornrows but really, the conversation is about institutionalised racism. And more specifically about the institutionalised racism at some of this country’s most prestigious schools.

In other words it’s about the fact that black students are animalised in schools. When white teachers think that black hair is untidy, they refer to it as a “birds nest”. They are “behaving like hooligans”, when they are often, just being themselves, themselves in a way that is not white. They are told to “stop cackling” or “acting like monkeys” when they laugh too loudly and their “messy” schoolbags or desks are said to resemble a “pigsty”. I’ve experienced all of this and I am only one person. One black child. So there’s this consistent reference to black students and animal behaviour. This notion that your habits limit your acceptance into human society.

Then there’s the chatter about the code of conduct.

The code of conduct is fundamentally a set of rules that governs the school. It is the law. All laws only find relevance in the societies they exist in. When society evolves, so too should the law. Codes are written by ordinary people who seek to promote their own bias. How can we expect a law that was written without black students in mind to work to serve them?

The very problem that the learners are working to address is the idea of not seeing colour. It is necessary to see race so the structures that people of colour occupy can operate to equally benefit them. Ignorance to colour, “race blindness”, is not a noble gesture, it is to dismiss the diversity of people.  Diversity is good, it also requires flexibility and that must be taught in institutions of learning.

Schools are the facilitators of such lessons but they should not simply distribute teachings as gospel. Paying for an education is not like buying loaves of bread. The factors that produce an education, such as teachers, rules and environment are as important as the education itself. Learners are not consumers but stakeholders in the chain of production.

It is up to the schools to look into their policies, change the rules and fix it. The stakeholders can’t be told to go elsewhere if they are unhappy, it’s their school too. Black students are not the inconvenient guests at the former model C school, they are partners, these codes of conduct should get it right.

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