Proving how ‘woke’ we are in 140 characters
Two months ago young women stood up against racism at Pretoria Girls’ High School (PGHS), #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh trended on South African Twitter and conversations about formerly white institutions, black women’s hair and institutionalised racism took over mainstream media conversations. But what about privacy and protection when social media moves on? And who is left to pick up the pieces?
As a high school teacher I tried to imagine what was happening at the school. The rupture that was taking place at PGHS was palpable in every image that was on our screens and our tweets. But after a few days I began to think about the incident as a teacher, not just another black woman who could identify with the girls’ struggles. I was left concerned about the girls and the school in the aftermath of all the opinion pieces which followed the protest beyond the media frenzy.
The positioning of the girls during the protest was most concerning. The fact that only one name was bandied about in the media while the rest of the group was et al highlighted the personality cult that very few people pointed out. The convenience of one name and the focus on Zulaikha Patel as a symbol rather than as a child left me thinking about what it means to be a 14 year old girl in a world that’s always looking for the hero. Did her parents/guardians give permission for her pictures to be bandied about across our screens?
Schools are flawed institutions
Social media has done away with the notion of privacy and protection because the individual can become less important and the image we create of that individual is what is consumed. Many of us blindly consumed the story because that is what social media allows us to do so.
As a teacher, I keep asking myself, where were the parents? Why weren’t the girls appearing in the media alongside their parents or guardians? The generational chasm is a possible reason and perhaps some parents do not agree with the protest. The power of Twitter has completely erased any possibility of parents stepping in and trying to work with the girls to rectify this because most parents are not part of Twitter.
We talk about the importance of teachers and parents in the growth of young people and when it matters the most, we removed and erased them from the situation and created a convenient caricature of a homogenous group of white, racist teachers who unwittingly oppressed the young girls and the silent black parent who is keeping the peace. But did we stop and think: who are these teachers? What are the systems within the school to deal with the issue in a productive manner?
The lesson from the protest was that the media was given permission by the MEC to be present in the deliberations without taking into account the complexity of how schools operate. The MEC kept using the word “stakeholders”: who are these stakeholders, if they aren’t the parents and teachers? Schools are also flawed institutions with well-meaning people who are doing the best they can with the knowledge that they have. The teacher-student relationship is one that can be fraught given the power dynamics which exist in schools. Without an understanding of these power dynamics it is impossible to either fully understand or appreciate what happens in schools. The accountability of the parents and teachers as the caring adults in the situation was elided by the mass hysteria and all that in the name of parading the young girls as the next generation of activists.
Schools are complex spaces and previously all-white schools are constantly being centered in that complexity. Like we saw with #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall, there’s an erasure of work done by working class kids in resisting and finding ways of dealing with inequality in the education system.
Whose voices matter: Protests at schools are not new
If you’re in proximity to middle-classness and whiteness, your narrative matters more. This narrative continues to be bandied about without really challenging its consequences. What does it mean for us to constantly side-line and marginalise other voices while in the process of thinking that we are woke and showing solidarity?
The girls were paraded and used as a symbol of resistance in a context where young high school kids marching and resisting is not new. Equal Education has been marching for years and there’s been no outcry on their behalf about structural issues that are real in black, township schools.
A few months before the PGHS protest Orlando High School pupils destroyed their computer lab in protest over a teacher that they did not want at the school. Their story did not consume the twittersphere. Their story was also positioned as the township hooligans who are shooting themselves in the foot by destroying property. Much like the discourse around the violence of university protests, property was seen as more important than the children involved. This is not to excuse the burning of the computer lab but it seems some forms of protest are considered respectable while others are seen only as vandalism.
Gauteng Education MEC, Panyaza Lesufi’s comments on Orlando High School “we will not be using a cent of public funds to deal with this issue”: naturally because property was destroyed. The image of the students in the news was a group of boys who were interviewed in the corridor of their school; they were shown as a group of boys laughing over the matter rather than taking destruction of property more seriously.
I associate Twitter with a very middle class audience (of which I am a part) which easily jumps on a bandwagon because we are trying to out-do how woke we can be in 140 characters. This is largely how I can explain the response to the PGHS protest. When Twitter moved onto another issue, the girls were dropped, forgotten. And who was there to pick up the pieces?
We need to look at ourselves as consumers of this story. We also need to think carefully about our segregated education system and how we position the issues of poor, working class students alongside those of middle-class and more privileged students. I don’t think Twitter got close to understanding the protest at PGHS and the silence in the aftermath of the protests highlights the limitations of social media.