Sometime this week I saw some profound words that former Model C schools prepare learners for a world that no longer exists. I couldn’t agree more.
I follow my alma mater on Facebook: Collegiate High School for Girls in Port Elizabeth. I need to state from the onset that I am incredibly proud of this school and it is an honour for me to be associated with it.
Recently, a photograph of its hockey team that had excelled in some tournament was posted on the page. I felt proud for but a fleeting minute before I quickly realised that there was something starkingly unsettling about the team’s racial composition.
While I am happy about the team’s stellar performance, I couldn’t help but wonder why there weren’t or were barely any black faces in that squad.
Now before you get defensive and present the tired “players are selected on merit” argument, consider my earlier stated position. The world where those girls will play in a team that is lily-white or predominantly white no longer exists. Now, are you not setting up these girls for massive disappointment when spots in a provincial or national team are being allocated and that girl who has always played in a lily-white team does not get a spot because team compositions have to reflect the demographics of the country? Because throughout her learning years you reinforced the idea that it’s perfectly normal to be in a lily-white team?
Let me make it clear that that is not normal. Later on you will have cultivated adults who are incredibly bitter because their sporting careers have not panned out because suddenly the world they will be released into will simply not accept that status quo. And no – telling kids to stick to sporting codes that are ‘black’ like netball is not only lazy, but exclusionist and divisive.
I grew up in an era where teachers had the power to rechannel learners’ interests taking into consideration their strengths. There is no one more teachable than a 13-year-old child entering a high school system. Nurture them. Teach them. Help them earn their spots in the teams that seem to be “white” sports. If a child cannot afford a kit or a hockey stick or a tennis racquet like her white peers – the Old Girls Guild has our contact details and we can help overcome these barriers with ease.
Fortunately, Collegiate in my view has not resisted so severely the realities of the changing power dynamics where race is concerned. Bar one incident in 1998 and amidst a raging cultural furore at a neighbouring school where a boy returned from the school holidays – which always coincide with initiation season – with a shaved head in accordance with the rite of passage. The boy was suspended for breaching that particular school’s hair policy (which had been formulated decades before with the white boy in mind).
As the debate around acceptance of African culture in traditionally white schools raged, our headmistress at the time declared in a school assembly that at Collegiate there is but one culture that would be observed, “and that is the English culture”.
Apart from this single incident of the horrid negating of African culture I never again heard a negative response to the insistence that the African girl child be allowed to be who she is, within acceptable bounds. I also do not recall any teacher subjecting learners to punishment for speaking their home languages. I also remember that as far back as 2010 I was the first black Old Girl (in the school’s 125-year history at the time) who delivered the keynote address at Founders’ Day – an annual reunion and celebration. That memory however does fill me with some profound sadness, because I was aware that a small group of Old Girls from our matric year boycotted the assembly because they felt a white girl deserved the honour to deliver the speech instead of me.
I also acknowledge my school’s pride when in 1999 an essay and speech I wrote entitled To Be An African won me awards and when the Department of Education came to present me with my awards we sang the national anthem (which we had to practise since the singing of the national anthem was not common practice). On that day, I delivered my speech in front of the whole school at a special assembly.
I also ackowledge that in my time as Debating Chairperson, we tackled topics which weren’t always comfortable – but were integral in our becoming. My debating partners were Amy Shelver and Justine Wessels in those days.
All these fine testimonies of being receptive to black children and their right to exist and express their existence notwithstanding, I will be the first to acknowledge that much more needs to be done.
Off the top of my head, I feel we need to revisit the current names of “houses” in these schools. I read a powerful statement from a former learner at Kingsridge High School for Girls (formerly known as ‘Kaffrarian’) which incidentally I attended from Standard 3-7 (Grade 5-9) – that house names such as Milner, Grey, Durban etc do not have a place in the new South Africa. Because frankly speaking we can’t be glorifying people who disenfranchised, oppressed and were in one way or another responsible for atrocities against black South Africans – who happen to be the majority in this land.
I feel exactly the same way about the names of houses of at Collegiate, namely Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary, Queen Alexandra, and Queen Victoria. When we held inter-house challenges and contests, learners – including black children – competed under the banner of the names of the Queens of England through the ages. I think my prowess as an athlete (which is non-existent if I may add) might have been more greatly enhanced had I been competing under the banner of Queen Nandi or Queen Modjaji.
Nostalgia for English “culture” is seriously misplaced in the new South Africa and cannot be glorified in any way.
There is a hymn we used to sing there that in hindsight makes me somewhat resentful. Consider these lyrics for a moment:
“I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.”
Which country is this, you may ask? Great Britain. And this is a beautiful hymn by the way – a British patriotic song, created in 1921.
Now tell me what is the point of singing in tribute to a country that is our former colonial master? Why not sing instead Enoch Sontonga’s Nkosi sikelel’iAfrica to help cultivate patriotism for South Africa? Why not make learners sing with gusto a hymn that is a plea to God to bless Africa and her sons and daughters? Why glorify a country that not only colonised ours but raped and pillaged this land; a country that continues to own many of our means of production as well as banking institutions and continues to own and run mines including Lonmin (where the Marikana massacre happened) and Anglo-American – mines where our great-grandfathers and grandfathers worked as migrant and manual labour breaking their backs for a regime that dispossessed Africans of their land and brought untold suffering for many generations to come?
What world are you preparing learners for where it’s been engrained in them to extol whiteness to the point of singing odes to its greatness? This is but one example of the nostalgia which black children have no choice but to partake in; nostalgia that I consider to be offensive and entirely outdated and misplaced.
All this said, I think an opportunity exists for us Old Girls (and Old Boys) of these prestigious schools that are stuck in some bygone area and lend our lived experiences of the South Africa we live in today and hopefully work with existing governing bodies to help facilitate the necessary transitions and transformation.
Old Girls – and I am talking to black Old Girls especially – you have an important role to play and it starts with swelling the ranks of Old Girl guilds, which without our participation might just continue to concern themselves with mantaining the status quo because the preservation of white spaces and continuous affirmation of white privilege is a reality.
And no, acknowledging blackness and changing backward policies will not result in the dropping of any standards and result in pandemonium. That is lazy copout to this debate. Uniformity is crucial, but beyond the wearing of identical school uniforms it is unrealistic because of the dynamics of diversity, multiplicity of races and multi-culturalism.
The leaders and teachers in these schools have a moral obligation to “raise” children that will easily adapt to the world that is rapidly changing around them.
We all have a role to play. I feel very sad when I see 15-17-year-olds fighting battles today that we can help solve with our combined experiences and acquired expertise.
Own these spaces sisters. You are actually very entitled to them. The South Africa we envision is possible. But for this to happen we need all hands on deck. Twenty-two years post democracy, we cannot still be having these debates. But it is necessary to unpick the very fabric of hegemony and in this instance, we will raise our voices until we are heard.