“A black child born today is more likely to be born into poverty than a white child…..Twenty-three years into democracy this is simply not good enough.” Rob Davies – Trade and Industry Minister.
As I ready myself to speak, I am acutely aware of the irony of the situation: a privileged school asking me to facilitate a dialogue session with learners on the topic of “Privilege and the Youth’s Identity”. Place that school in the affluent Upper-Highway area of KwaZulu Natal and the challenge is akin to the infamous Comrades climb up nearby Field’s Hill. But they are up for it and so am I so the irony is overshadowed by their bravery. Would that more schools would emulate Thomas More College and grasp the stinging nettles of our time so fearlessly.
500 or so learners of varying ages pile into the school hall and take their seats in grades on the floor. I am sat up front with a panel of 6 students representing all grades, colours and genders. We begin the conversation with a bit of a warm up question: “What is your understanding of the word privilege?”
There are those times when hope and possibility rise. Even whilst – from time-to-time – succumbing to anxiety and even anger over the state of our nation (the capture of our state that continues to make statements like the above from Rob Davies true, is a case in point), something happens and I know that everything is going to be okay. This is one of those times. As the youngsters speak I find myself transported beyond their words and into a space that is really nothing less than the new, New South Africa. These millennials are so clear; so passionate; more thoughtful and considered than just about any adult I have spoken to of late. They know the issues; they care and it is clear and they will be the source of the healing of our nation.
Their answers are informed; all variations on a dictionary definition of privilege: “A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” Their heads are full of knowledge and they speak with assurance. You can tell this is a school that teaches kids how to think.
But of course, my job is to challenge them to think more deeply about what privilege really looks like in the real world; what it smells like if you will. I have just 20 minutes and I want them to be repulsed by the pungent stench of inequality.
And suddenly, the academic privilege dissipates; it means nothing as reality bites: “Are you all equally privileged?” I ask. “Some of us are more privileged than others,” replies one very thoughtful young black man.
“Did you know that in South Africa, women earn around 28% less than men?” A ripple of shock goes across the hall: “And ladies, don’t think you’ll be better off if you leave the country,” I say looking to add a touch of humour: “In the US women earn around 21% less than men.” Another ripple of horror and the voicing of disgust from our panel. They are grappling hard with these facts in the face of their perceived equality. “According to Statistics South Africa, black South Africans earn on average just 20% as much as their white counterparts.” The shock now is eerily silent.
“I want to do something to practically demonstrate what all this looks like,” I say somewhat reticently. I ask the young black lady to push her chair back several feet so that she is excluded from the group and I instruct the two on either side of her to close the gap in front of her. I do the same with the young black man and the Indian girl. It was an exercise that I had planned to do with them but I must say that I felt ill doing it. It felt so wrong; sick in fact.
I asked them if this process was okay; if this was acceptable what I was doing: “No!” cried a young girl emotionally from the front of the panel. I ask them if we should bring the outsiders back and they all say we should. We welcome them warmly back in and I explain as gently as possible that this is the harsh reality of privilege; inclusion or exclusion based on nothing more than your colour or gender.
They begin to suggest ways that they can personally counter inequality and the young black lady – still visibly emotional from the activity – delivers a line I shall never forget: “I am going to ask white people what they have that I don’t.” It’s like a punch to the guts.
This whole assembly – including the topic – was arranged by an organization run purely by pupils; the Thomas More Current Affairs Youth Council. Teachers and senior members of the school had nothing to do with it. To these brave pupils, I salute you all for being willing to ‘go there’; for being willing to hold up a mirror to your society and yourselves. You are the light of a bright and beautiful future for South Africa; a future where every child – no matter their colour or gender – has equal opportunity.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.