Daily Maverick

Transforma­tion questions that we shouldn’t be asking in 2021

- Lwando Xaso Artwork: James Durno Lwando Xaso is an attorney and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @Including_Inc

Every now and again I get requests from schools to come and speak on transforma­tion. This has been more prevalent since the global Black Lives Matter reckoning of 2020, which sparked a localised iteration on our shores, Black Student Lives Matter, against elite private schools.

Not too long ago I received such a request to speak at a private school. The theme that was provided was “Why is transforma­tion necessary?” I could have suggested my own theme to the school, as I sensed their openness, but I decided I wanted to respond to the theme as it was presented. My first question was: who is asking why transforma­tion is necessary? Is it the school management or the parents? What is the colour of the voice? Is it an individual or communal voice asking the question? Is it a voice assuming responsibi­lity and accountabi­lity? Or is it an obfuscator­y voice? Can the person who has to ask the question be trusted to undertake a self-directed course of change? What values are reflected in the question asked? And, more concerning­ly, what impact would the question have on the listeners, especially the black children attending the school?

The question I was asked to respond to reminded me of a lunchtime lecture I attended when I was a student at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, in the United States. A very white school in a very white town in a very white state. The theme of the lecture was “What is the virtue of diversity?” This question was being asked in connection with a case that was going to be heard by the US Supreme Court of Appeal on affirmativ­e action, which in the United States is largely underpinne­d by diversity.

In this case, the voice asking the question was white, Federalist and Republican. And the majority of the listeners venturing an answer to the question were white. I was one of two black people in the room and upon hearing the question and the ensuing dialogue, I was saddened to tears.

The thought that struck me was that if they are arguing against the virtue of diversity, they are in fact arguing for separate but (un)equal. Personally, I felt that if diversity has no virtue, then by consequenc­e the presence of me and those like me had no value.

To me, the question was antagonisi­ng because it was prejudice disguised as intellectu­al debate. Contrary to the white voice that asked the question, I do not think, and most African-Americans do not believe, that affirmativ­e action is justified by diversity. From the black perspectiv­e, affirmativ­e action is about “the compelling interest in remedying past discrimina­tion and/or in addressing the present social condition of unsustaina­ble inequality” – not about diversity. And certain rationales for diversity and inclusion can serve white interests in the manner in which they can enable change in small and palatable doses.

As with affirmativ­e action, we need to always historicis­e transforma­tion. If one is steeped in history then the question answers itself. The reason the question “Why is transforma­tion necessary?” is problemati­c is that it fails to question how these schools were complicit in contributi­ng to the inequality that haunts our country.

The more interestin­g question is what history parents and schools are passing on to their children. Transforma­tion is necessary because we made a constituti­onal pact to rebuild our country with a more ethical imaginatio­n underpinne­d by the African value of ubuntu.

The question I left my attentive audience with is: what future do you want to live in? If we grow in the questions we ask, then in what direction is your school growing? And are you dedicated to creating a world your children will applaud?

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