Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

The things we do in the name of transformation

I came across the recent cover of Independent Education and I was troubled. It is a picture of a black boy donned in Scottish garb while participating in a parade. The blurb inside the magazine explaining the front cover reads: “About our cover: Grade 10 student Sanele Mboto is the current drum major of the St Andrew’s College pipe band. Turn to page 28 to read how this Isasa member school commemorated the Battle of Delville Wood this year.” 

I read the article on page 28 and recognised the discourse in the article that great value is placed on the centennial commemoration of the battle because 125 Old Andreans died in the Great War. The article goes on to explain “…boys need rituals and tactile ways to express their feelings, particularly because their emotional vocabulary is inadequate when it comes to making real sense of concepts, such as war and death”.

In his speech on the day of the commemoration, principal Alan Thompson said “We are not some dusty old memorial in the middle of a busy street. We are alive, our life a continual reminder of how fragile peace is, and that we only have it through those who gave theirs for it … We have an obligation to make sure that our children and future generations of Andreans do not forget. We have an obligation to keep history alive, or our children will be forced to relive it.”

I can appreciate the need to celebrate the battle as a school that is connected to it through the death of its students. What left me with many questions was what the commemoration means for the students at this particular political and historical moment. St Andrew’s is situated in Grahamstown, which is in very close proximity to the geographical space where the Frontier Wars happened between 1779 and 1878. The school must have been affected as it was established in 1855. Does the school commemorate any of these historical moments? The image of a young black man wearing Scottish clothes made me wonder how (if at all) he celebrates his own heritage in a school that takes pride in its history which inadvertently excluded black people until more recent history when white schools integrated (I couldn’t find any record of the school’s integration moment but I suspect it was in the 1970s or 1980s, when most private schools were seen as progressive for opening their schools to black people).

This is not the first time I’m seeing a black student at St Andrew’s wearing a kilt. While studying in Grahamstown a few years ago, I came across one of the students at Pick’nPay in all his Scottish glory. I think it was Founder’s Day, which is a very serious event at St Andrew’s College which involves a lot of “tradition” with the parades etc. I didn’t speak to him. I was stunned: a black man in a Scottish kilt is quite a sight in Grahamstown. My brother school in East London also had a practice of cadettes on Founders Day, where all the boys were expected to wear the brown uniform for the procession that commemorated the involvement of the young men who fell in the Great War. The image of seeing these boys in high school (I’m sure the practice has continued) always made me wonder how the black boys felt about this tradition.

When I showed my colleagues the picture they were equally astounded. One of them said the image reminds her of the poem The charge of the light brigade. The image of the young man in a kilt (with a very stern face, as any self-respecting drum major should have) resembled the image we have of English soldiers but beneath that image, the leader of impi. She proceeded to recite the poem as she remembered it from primary school. She recalled that her teacher, Mr Ndlovu, would teach the class The charge of the light brigade alongside S.E.K. Mqhayi’s Ukutshona kukaMendi (The sinking of the Mendi).

In retrospect she realises that the teacher taught both poems perhaps because he felt it was important to balance teaching The charge of the light brigade alongside Mqhayi’s poem because he wanted his students to know both narratives of the Great War. Even though they were in primary school and they didn’t understand. This story is relevant to the questions above: when black children are expected to commemorate the Great War, which is perceived to be central to European history, are they commemorating historical moments in Africa? Do they even know about the battles that took place in their own province? Do they even know about the 805 black soldiers on the Mendi ship who believed that if they fought alongside the British they would recognise their humanity? Celebrating the Battle of Delville Wood, or any part of the Great War and how it affected South Africa always erases the lives of black people at the time and the narrative of the SS Mendi complicates this erasure.

While we were aghast at the picture we realised what it symbolised: “This is what transformation looks like,” my colleague said. Having a black boy as the leader of the pipe band on the cover of a magazine that profiles the work of the most elitist schools in our country is a symbol of transformation. Or is it? What does this image mean at this political moment where young black people are standing up against white supremacy like we saw with the Rhodes Must Fall movement and the Rhodes so white movement? This image is not about transformation. It’s about assimilation. It’s about the story of what still happens to young black people who go to former white schools and are expected to buy into the school’s culture in the name of transformation and in the name of belonging to the school.

Traditional, formerly white (and still predominantly white) private schools need to ask themselves serious questions about the expectation that black people are to assimilate into the culture. The words ethos and tradition are used as a form of branding but also a firm part of the language these schools use to justify why assimilation is inevitable: the ethos and tradition are code for the patterns of behaviour established when the schools still catered for white people alone. Holding onto the ethos and tradition means that the school’s identity is still in the past. What does the ethos and tradition mean when the school is finally asked to reckon with the fact that it no longer caters for the elite in the colonies? As Dr Nomalanga Mkhize says in her recent piece about the recent events at Pretoria Girls High School, “[former model C schools] do need to stop valorising archaic school cultures built on the schools’ own histories of racism and exclusion”.

With Heritage Day coming up soon, I can’t help but wonder how a school like St Andrew’s will commemorate cultures as we are expected to do during Heritage Month. Will the black students feel like they can wear symbols of their own heritage or is the power of belonging in a school like St Andrew’s College stronger? Or is the culture at St Andrew’s so powerful that they won’t even consider it?

I am grappling with these questions as someone who teaches in a school that was established in 1888 and still recovering from conversations about cultural appropriation. I am worried about the costumes we black people must wear on Heritage Day while the white people claim they don’t have a culture, even though slavery, colonialsim and apartheid are staring all of us in the face at a moment where decolonialism has been popular on our twitter feeds (hence National Braai Day). I haven’t even commented on the question of black masculinity performing colonial masculinity in the form of a Scottish kilt at a school like St Andrew’s because that needs an essay of its own. I was hoping not to comment on heritage and race but here I am looking at an image of Sanele Maboto wearing a kilt, and proudly too it seems.

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    • Richard

      If black Africans drive in motor-cars that were invented in Germany or take trains that were invented in England, talk on telephones and watch television, both of which were invented in Scotland, write with ballpoint pens or fly in aeroplanes that were invented in the USA (all by white people), and don’t worry about those things, why are they so squeamish about wearing kilts?

    • MICHAEL JONES

      I stopped reading at “how does this black kid celebrate his heritage at this school” it is not the schools job or duty to celebrate other cultures heritage, it is their own. If the children or author have anything against anyone celebrating the very big day in this schools history then don’t send you kid there or don’t go, ist easy as that.
      The whole world and especially other south africans cant keep changing everything to accomodate a few. If i enroll in a Soweto school will they accomodate me in celebrating the great Trek ? I dont think so, but authors like this and the # group of people want other institutions to chnage for them.

    • Issy Be

      Good Grief! And if he wasn’t included in the drum majors that would also be a problem. There is just no pleasing some people.