As problematic as Maritzburg College’s initial response to the students with the placards may have been, we must protect College’s right to its rules — before we tear into the rules it upholds through this right.
Former cricketer and Maritzburg College student, Kevin Pietersen, thrust the establishment and the students supporting the EFF (in school uniform, on school premises) into the public spotlight with a tweet that read, “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS? Total disrespect for a once GREAT school! Are you joking?!?!”
Advocate Martin Williams responded that the Constitution frees the students to express their political opinions; the school’s code of conduct cannot limit this right. No less an editor than Peter Bruce also replied, “Well, Kevin, if we as young men stood up to injustice like these guys we would not have become the country you had to leave.” The freedoms of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion are hard to separate from the freedom of expression.
But once the Constitution trumps the rules of voluntary private clubs like schools, then the “equality clause” should force churches (also private voluntary clubs) to give same-sex couples the same rites they offer opposite-sex couples. In 2015, Eusebius McKaiser argued that he would rather live in a world where Mmusi Maimane was allowed to think homosexuality is sinful than one where he was not. I agreed, though I wondered whether children should be kept out of churches in which the preaching and practice deviate from what the Constitution says.
De-toothing schools’ code of conduct on constitutional grounds (even if the Schools Act of 1996 supports those private club rules) could have unexpected ramifications also for businesses that don’t comply with the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act. Should private companies’ decisions on this be overridden by the Constitution’s recognition and redress of past injustices through positive discrimination? Why have an opt-out option?
Even if we preach Constitutional supremacy, there is a danger that when we use it to take away others’ private club freedoms, we jeopardise our own.
Now, let’s criticize Maritzburg College’s initial stance on the placarded students (even if the charges against them were eventually dropped).
Many of our schools were formed under colonialism or apartheid; Maritzburg College has been “directing potential since 1863”. Back then, a governmental power would have a system in place to educate white students for senior administrative and managerial jobs in the public sector, or for professions in the private sector that had a symbiotic relationship with said government. Those who received what would later be called Bantu Education were limited to skills just a little more empowering than hewing wood and drawing water. This system extracted labour from them through the administration of those from “nice” schools — thereby capitalising itself, paying salaries and assuring life-long jobs in the system.
The training and education of that day spoke to securing employment in that context, and rules against challenging educational establishments were how the system legitimized itself in the minds of its obedient children.
Today’s educational needs and economic background are different: the rules must be too. In the absence of colonial powers extracting and exploiting black labour, entrepreneurialism and autonomous thought are as close to life-long job security with cushy salaries as many students will get. This requires the antithesis of silence and compliance because the promises tied to “behaving” can no longer be kept any more than America and Maritzburg College can be made “great” again.
Today, managing one’s social media presence is part of self-marketing. It must be, for the students’ only survival options will be radical entrepreneurship on their own or radical economic transformation engineered by the state. When we condemn them for being self-expressive and bold, we’re condemning the characteristics that will be required by the liberalism which, if allowed to flourish, would make the EFF unnecessary as a “last hope”.
To avoid being accused of pandering to opinion just because it’s opinion, a school in College’s position could redeem its reputation as a place of relevant learning by challenging opinionated students to defend their views in the public square under the disclaimer that those opinions are not necessarily theirs. What on earth could our schools possibly teach, today, other than how to think and substantiate thought?
Steven Sidley wrote an article saying our political parties aren’t prepared for the rise of technology and its ramifications. Jobs will go to robots; financial institutions will be challenged by cryptocurrencies. Presidents could start World War Three with a single tweet. In this world, the airing and defending of a students’ views should not be so under-resourced and unexpected that visually, it’s aided only by hand-painted signs and socially, it is responded to with shock.
We cannot just wait until the end of the year to look for students’ names in newspapers, then lament at how the education system underprepares them for the world we condemn them for engaging.
Our youth deserves the benefit of the doubt — and educational challenges that match the world they’re growing in. Leveraged well, the ability to defend one’s opinions on social media is the currency of tomorrow and one of the few tools we’ll have to shape humanity’s collective destiny.
Failing this, we’re preparing students for a past world, which the party these boys support claims to be dismantling precisely because many of us refuse to let it go.
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