South Africa’s ‘rainbow nation’ is a myth that students need to unlearn

South Africa isn’t the “rainbow nation” some claim it to be. Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

Apartheid capitalised on differences in race, culture and gender. When it was finally abolished in 1994, South Africa introduced a new ideology in the name of nation building: rainbowism. This emphasised common ground and sameness rather than a focus on difference and was meant to fight racism and discrimination.

One product of this approach is a generation of students who believe that race, gender and class don’t matter – only the “human race” exists. These students have been brought up thinking that people are all the same inside and will succeed if they just work hard enough.

This worldview is problematic on many levels. It focuses on the parts of multi-culturalism that are comfortable for a white minority. Simultaneously, it rejects any attempts to deal with structural inequality. It ends up invalidating and silencing people’s lived experiences of oppression.

The “rainbow nation” has come under fire recently. As academics, we have seen this first hand in our classrooms. On the face of it, universities have become racially integrated. But our students’ engagements with each other are still deeply impacted by their racial, cultural, linguistic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Privilege is a particularly complex, emotional and difficult topic to discuss. Academics struggle to find ways to help students understand inequality and its structural underpinnings. Students from the rainbowism school of thought shy away from the discomfort that conversations around systemic injustices may bring. How can conversations around race, class and gender be allowed back into classrooms without becoming emotionally harmful and divisive?

An activity we have conducted during 2016 may offer some useful answers.

Confronting privilege

Since May 2016 we’ve introduced and adapted an activity called the privilege walk in a series of workshops at two quite different universities. Our own institution, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, is a product of a series of mergers. It is large and has relatively low fees, catering mostly to poorer and predominantly black and coloured students.

Stellenbosch University, on the other hand, is a well regarded, well resourced, historically white institution whose student body is more economically stable.

The privilege walk is based on questions drawn from feminist and activist Peggy McIntosh’s famous “White Privilege Checklist”.

The walk visualises systemic privilege in a way that mere discussions cannot. Participants are presented with statements related to the intersectionality of race, gender, class, sexuality, age, religion, able-bodiedness and so on. Students then either step forward or back depending on whether the question reinforces privilege or oppression.

Some examples of the statements are: If one or both of your parents have a university degree, take one step forward; if you rely, or have relied, primarily on public transportation, take one step back; if you are able to move through the world without fear of sexual assault, take one step forward; if you feel good about how your identities are portrayed by the media, take one step forward.

This exercise almost always leaves white men at the front of the room and black women at the back – just as it is in society. Students end up positioned in a social grid that poignantly represents society’s current state.

Our walk created space for interesting conversations about the legacy of apartheid and how South Africa still values whiteness, masculinity and heteronormativity. It was the start of something valuable. But we had some reservations.

A need for disruption

Privilege walks are not above criticism. Some scholars worry about the ethics of asking people to disclose factors of their identity they’d feel more comfortable keeping hidden. There have been attempts to tackle this. One variation asks participants to answer the questions on their own and calculate a privilege score which they anonymously submit to be pinned on a chart by the facilitator.

One of the main points of discomfort for us was the question “who learns and at whose cost does the learning take place?” The privilege walk powerfully visualises the inequality of today’s society, but can be traumatising for those at the back of the grid.

The privilege walk also doesn’t allow for change or disruption of the social system that’s recreated. It visualises the status quo rather than envisioning an alternative future. It focuses on and often essentialises a student’s identity rather than seeing identity as something that is constantly changing and becoming.

One alternative is the privilege circle. This has participants stand in a circle, with those who are usually most disadvantaged moving into the centre. This is one example of challenging power dynamics in the grid.

In our mind, however, this still doesn’t go far enough. We wanted to challenge the grid itself.

New questions

As a follow up activity, we asked students to propose questions that would create a new grid based on different societal values. We hoped to affirm difference and emphasise the convoluted, complex notion of privilege as a decolonising and socially just teaching tool.

Shifting values shifts positions as well and ideally those usually positioned at the front can find themselves at the back and those at the back in front. The students, working in groups, struggled to formulate new questions. This shows how steeped people are in any system or frame that prioritises certain values over others.

Some of their questions included, “Who can speak other South African languages beyond English or Afrikaans?” and “Who grew up in a tightly knit community where everyone contributed to their upbringing?”

During debriefing sessions we could sense students’ relief at changing position. They inhabited and embodied their positions more proudly. But it was also an unusual and uncomfortable experience for some to find themselves at the front. We were hoping that it may affirm these students even just for those few moments in the front, while it allowed those usually in front to experience how those usually at the back feel.

Systems struggle to change

Systems are hard to change. But activities as the one described above help students to experience the power of language and words to include or exclude. They also started the work of unlearning rainbowism. That’s an important step towards recognising and affirming difference rather than fearing it as a divisive force that must not be spoken of.