ASSITEJ South Africa launches workshop series discussing racism with high school learners in Cape Town
By Faye Kabali-Kagwa
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in October. The Settlers High School Grade 10 drama learners leisurely walk themselves into the Reeler Sports Hall. Remnants of the exams that have just concluded remain with desks packed neatly to one side. The learners are about to be introduced to the world of St Gabriel’s School for Boys, the fictional school where Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni’s acclaimed play Sainthood is set.
Cullum McCormack, Luthabo Maduna, and Fadzai Simango are in character as St Gabriel students William Chambers, Tebogo Ndaba, and Zwelakhe Nkedama. The Grade 10 learners grab chairs and form rows as they prepare for the student assembly conducted by headboy, Tebogo. They participate eagerly in the assembly, clapping their hands the appropriate number of times, twice, as instructed by first team rugby captain Will, and groan with recognition when Tebogo announces the substitute teacher. The scene then dissolves into a promotional video campaign shoot where the boys of St Gabriel’s attempt to showcase the diversity, camaraderie, and the array of extracurricular activities on offer at the school. When concluded, the Grade 10 learners are brought back into the reality of their own lives. They are asked to form tableaus creating images of photographs that are likely to be found in their school’s magazine. This is how we began our workshop series interrogating racism in school with learners.
The workshops were divided into four sessions and were conceptualised and conducted by Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni and me, Faye Kabali-Kagwa. The aim of the workshops was to use them to discuss and interrogate perceptions, attitudes, and biases embedded in the school’s culture as experienced by FET learners with an explicit focus on racism. Sainthood was chosen because of the careful and considered way that it interrogates race, sexual identity, and consent. The play follows five matric boys in a fictional all-boys school who inadvertently find themselves caught in a scandal. The text is inspired by true events, both publicised news stories, and by individual interviews that Tiisetso conducted over a two year period with former students of all-boys and all-girls schools. Sainthood has been performed 44 times between 2018 and 2020 to audiences in the Western Cape and Kwazulu-Natal which have included audiences of approximately 13 high schools and two universities.
We felt it important to interrogate race with high school learners due to the habitual flare up of racial tensions in Cape Town schools most recently being the unofficial Brackenfell High School matric ball that reportedly excluded black students in 2020, and the Bishops Diocesan College class of matric 2020 activism which resulted in a memorandum listing 20 demands that addressed racism, discrimination, and systemic oppression at the school.
The workshops began with the students immersed into the world of St Gabriel’s and slowly over the four sessions we began to interrogate their own school environment. The first session ended with a dramatic scene in Sainthood where racial tensions flare up between the head boy Tebogo and the substitute History teacher Mr Swart. In the classroom scene Tebogo does an oral that speaks about gentrification in Woodstock. In it he says that “the ill-treatment of local inhabitants can be compared to the treatment of pests and vermin.” Mr Swart interrupts Tebogo and asks, “Pardon me but, do you think it’s appropriate to refer to your people as ‘pests’ and ‘vermin’?” What follows is a tense exchange between Tebogo, the deputy headboy Zwi, and Mr Swart which ends up with both boys at the headmaster’s office. They are both threatened with the stripping of their prefectship should they find themselves in any more trouble. We discuss initial thoughts and reactions to the scene and clarify any confusing details. For example, with both schools, we had to explain the term “gentrification”.
The subsequent sessions delve deeper into this incident through a variety of methods. We had the students express their opinions through body rather than speaking, having them stand in different positions in the room depending on their responses. In the aftermath of the scene with Mr Swart, a series of private WhatsApp messages between Tebogo, Zwi and their friends are leaked to the entire school. In it they question their white friends, Will and George, who were present in the class ,but did not defend them or contradict Mr Swart. The learners take on different facets of the school community and are invited to a town hall meeting to discuss the events that have transpired. Following the town hall meeting the learners are given the opportunity to hot seat different characters of the school community which include the headmaster, the teaching staff, the group of friends whose messages were leaked, the parent body, and the general student body. The world of St Gabriel’s created a safe container to discuss race, power, and to empathise with different viewpoints. We then moved the learners into exercises that had them reflect on their own school community; this included a deep listening exercise done in pairs where the learners were able to express their thoughts freely without interruption. The workshops are iterative, but are adaptive to each school and their specific context.
In October, we worked with The Settlers High School, based in the Northern suburbs, and another high school based in the South. We did anonymous surveys with the learners after the workshops. Approximately 80% of the learners reported that they felt more comfortable talking about race, and 98% of the learners said that Sainthood was a useful tool to discuss race and expressed interest in reading the complete text. The most common refrain from both groups of learners is that they would have liked to have the cast present at more of the sessions.
The immersive quality of the workshops that the live performance brought to the series was definitely an important element. When asked what was the one thing that stood out for them from the workshops, the learners had this to say:
“..how comfortable I was when speaking about my knowledge and experience with race. What stood out was also how much I learned and also how important speaking out is.” – Grade 11 learner
“How much the workshop actually involved us voicing our opinions and feeling comfortable speaking out.” – Grade 10 learner
“The acceptance from my peers when I voiced my opinion.” – Grade 10 learner
We would like to thank both schools for their participation. We are looking to continue with this series or workshops in Term 1 of 2022. If you are a high school in Cape Town and are interested in this project, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This project is made possible through support from the City of Cape Town.