Recently I attended a high school debating competition for some of the schools in the Western Cape. The event was hosted by Bishops Diocesan College, a private school for boys neatly tucked away in Cape Town’s southern suburbs. While I marvelled at the facilities and the remnants of British colonialism in the architecture, I was uncomfortable with this crude reminder of injustice in the form of an educational facility reserved for the wealthy. Four swimming pools, four sports fields, indoor cricket facilities, 15 learners in a classroom (no more than 800 learners in the entire school): these are some of the perks experienced by the privileged, mostly white boys who attend this school. This is not an exhaustive list, which also includes a golf course and fees as high as R100 000 a year (if the student stays in the boarding house) if one is at Hilton College.
In postcolonial societies across Africa, private schools have been the last bastion of mostly British colonialism. Granted, these are the schools that work and produce the students who enter university. Government has failed and private schools such as the ones I describe highlight the injustice not only in our education system but also in our society. The legacy of private schools is conveniently forgotten. Most private schools were established at a time when white supremacy wasn’t questioned. These schools were established with “blood money”, stealing acres of land that did not belong to them. Contrary to what private schools would have us believe (including those who have benefitted from these schools), private schools are middle-class making machines, which sustain white supremacy. The same could be said about former Model C schools which often masquerade as private schools with the exorbitant fees they charge as well as the practices they reinforce.
A few years ago I stumbled into an interview at a private boy’s school in Grahamstown. The school has Scottish origins and on Founders Day many of the boys are transformed into cadets to remember the boys who fell in the wars and some wear kilts to honour the school’s Scottish legacy. I applied to the school because I was desperate for a job. I was morally conflicted when I submitted my application. I was surprised when I was called for an interview. Walking into the headmaster’s office I knew I didn’t want the job. I was the only black person in the room and there was one other female teacher representing the sister school. During the course of the interview I was asked if I could teach at a school steeped in its traditions. The question was the deal-breaker for me. I remember saying I found their cadets “creepy”. Throughout the interview the questions highlighted how blind white supremacy is when it comes to the bigger questions about transformation. The panel didn’t understand my perceptions about the school. A school oblivious to the real world of inequality and the harsh backlash of colonialism in a town like Grahamstown is a dangerous place. I didn’t get the job and I was relieved.
Private schools are a crude reminder to how white privilege and white supremacy continue to prevail in the new South Africa. They also appear to be unapologetic for their privilege as though they accumulated their wealth in a vacuum. Former white private schools (which remain overwhelmingly white — learners and teachers) have not been transformed. Their idea of transformation has largely been through charity and unsustainable projects, which are hand-outs to the “less privileged” who are often a group of faceless black people who are supported by an NGO led by white people.
In writing about private schools I am highlighting the level of privilege, which is still enjoyed by mostly white people across South Africa. I would go as far as say that private schools prepare their learners for a world where their white privilege is extended and not questioned. Most students from these schools will access the best universities in South Africa and the world. Some may return to South Africa and “give back” to the country where they will use their privilege for the benefit of others. Most will not. Most will continue to live lives of privilege and will be oblivious to the injustice in the world around them. They might become conscious of the world around them but when they count the costs, committing class treason will be too much to ask. What should be the response of private schools given the South African context and the world around them? Are they really preparing their learners for a world that needs transformation?