It was a long time coming
I cannot resist the temptation to outrightly say “it was a long time coming.” As you, who reads this, will most likely have learned of the saga that grips a proud boys school of 145 years standing, I am most certain – if your political consciousness is sensitive to Africa’s history (in this specific case that of South Africa) – that we share a common frustration about the ignorant impression of (the late) Tata Hector Pieterson, carried by Tata Mbuyisa Makhubo as the former’s sister Mama Antoinette Sithole cries out in obvious anguish at the harm occasioned on her brother. That picture is the crudest depiction of the wanton brutality of apartheid and its sponsors: Africans – men, women and children – were the subject of untold ruthlessness by the state machinery. We can only offer infinite praise, if such is possible in this morbid context, to Tata Sam Nzima for being brave and steadfast to his profession in capturing such an iconic still.
However, today, there is no pride to boast of from the school, Selborne College, as the iconic picture and its worth has been reduced to scornful satire. It is a time to bow heads in shame for all those however connected to this moment. Initially, my frustration was not directed in any voluminous amounts to the pupil responsible for that image: Frankly, most 18 year olds of any race could easily have done that. Of course, it becomes aggravating that – I am led to understand – it is a White scholar who is responsible.
And, with that, the invariable race debate will ensure; and it is be natural that it would, if not warranted. But on a second assessment of what is credited to him as an explanation-cum-apology, I am then unable to fully reconcile that offer as a complete and unreserved apology. If you like, the tone of the explanation comes across as someone repentant only because he got caught and not because of the pain he is responsible for. That he closes off with the words, “there was never meant to be any racism or prejudice within the artwork and I apologies for any misunderstanding the artwork has caused” clearly demonstrates he is sorry only for being misunderstood and not for the pain he caused. The public outrage, therefore, is because the public has misunderstood him, and not that he has caused the pain to the public.
That response, which would certainly have been offered under parental and/or school supervision, smacks of the precise problem that is, in general, on display in this saga. Lastly, that he does not have the decency to show face and/or “man up” – as he has surely been taught to do at Selborne – by giving us a name; it then delves into an arena that can be reduced to white privilege. My greater objection, moreover, lies at the system that creates or allows such an environment in the first place. But I must – before the bloodthirsty bay for my blood – qualify why I can have strong opinions and convictions. I am an old Selbornian. I enrolled with my two brothers at the school in 1992. Then, in Sub B, I was one of five Afrikaans in a class of White. I would register for 11 straight years at the school. In the given period I contributed greatly to the school’s development such that the school found me worthy to honour as a school councillor in Std. 5 (1997) and again a school, house and hostel prefect in 2002.
I earned, as well, school colours for athletics, cross-country, choir and debating. On the eve of my valedictory, I was honoured with two special prizes: The Palma Virtuti award for service to the school and the Stan Lones Memorial Prize for exceptional service to the school. To the extent I could, I gave much of my talents and time to the school. In turn, the school found me a worthy ambassador such that it honoured me as above-described. I am not the only Selbornian from my family; in fact five Mabece’s have enrolled at Selborne. The school, in this sense, is now a family school. Against the background of the general status of education in the Eastern Cape, we were most privileged to have accessed our section-29 right to education where as much investment takes place as at Selborne.
I imagine from this account, if ever I needed one, I have an established right to comment on the affairs of the school; not on just that I am a former Selborne pupil, but because of my continued contribution to the school since leaving. It is against the background I proffered in my opening statement that what we are now seized with is something about which I am least surprised. Frankly, Selborne and most former model-c schools refuse to engage themselves.
The spaces that are now occupied at these schools no longer belong (illegitimately and exclusively) to Whites but to ALL South Afrikaans. Afrikaans are now as much the school’s culture and heritage as those who are White and lay claim to the school as from 1872, when it was founded. If such schools could simply insist on a radical programme of addressing the injustices that which they perpetuated in the past, through sheer indifference at least, then we would not have to deal with something that represents all of the bad that characterised our society before 1994 and, in some quarters, which still does today.
There cannot be any conceivable basis upon which it can be explained away why these schools do not reflect that change that is an obligation imposed by the Constitution. Demographically, Selborne rates poorly as against its rivals and counterparts in Komani (Queen’s College) and King William’s Town (Dale College) in the percentages of Afrikaans enrolled at the school. A careful study of the staff demographic at Selborne, and imaginably most such former model-c schools in the country, will create the strong impression that the school is doing much to resist the inevitable and desirable transformation. Outside the obvious two Xhosa language educators, there are just four Afrikan and/or Coloured subject or administrative staff.
The balance, obviously, are White. In percentages, this figure sits below 10 per cent. The demographics of the province and of the country are closer to the opposite of this percentage. Something is clearly wrong, and to suggest that the school is complicit in perpetuating the legacy of apartheid is not a stretch. The school, in 2014, only made its first appointment for a headteacher 20 years into the democratic dispensation, after Mr Alan Gunn stepped down. He had been in the seat since mid-year 1993. There are no surprises that his replacement is a White male who is also an old boy of the school. Selborne Primary, on the other hand, made it first appointment for a headteacher in this dispensation mid-year in 1997, when Mr Ken Schaefer made way for Mr Doug Voke.
The latter has just stepped down. Selborne Primary is now poised for a new headmaster in 2018. This is as good an opportunity for it to rise to the occasion and break free from the rank that has become a tradition of times past: A White male headteacher. This would be a step in the right direction for the reasons advanced below. In the absence of diversity, of culture, of traditions, of opinions, of language, of background; how does the school discharge its constitutional and social obligations? As a space of teaching and learning – where ideas are contested for the general, overall and collective enrichment of the school – how can its culture and heritage as well as academic and sporting fortunes be fortified when its diversity does not reflect the society within which it operates and serves? It is simply unconscionable that 23 years since 1994 that the same discussions that were burning then are still being discussed today. It is because of this lack of diversity that even the content delivered to the scholars is skewed and, therefore, irrelevant. In a separate piece three years ago, I penned an article that is available online (http://thoughtleader.co.za/songezomabece/2014/11/11/the-untold-history-lesson/), wherein I take issue with precisely this point.
As a start the history lessons are largely devoid of relevance. To think that US and European history is more accessible in these schools than the history of apartheid and colonialism is the highest of indictments to the system and the people who preside over it. The time is now upon all of us who have a stake at former model-c schools to rise to the occasion. An 18 year old boy, inadvertently, has invited us to the platform. His actions, together with those we have seen at many schools in around the country (Maritzburg College, Pretoria Girls High School, Rondebosch Boys’ High School, Lawson Brown High School, Leseding Technical School), among many others, are a clear vindication of the notion that our schools are – at times – standing institutions of the legacies which our Constitution has made a decisive and deliberate break away from. It is thus incumbent on the parents, particularly Afrikaans, to participate in the governance of schools and related school activities.
The assumption that all is well at these schools and the blind outsourcing of one’s child’s education is unsustainable for precisely what we now lament. As old boys and old girls, to the extent our voices carry weight, we shall, and must, engage the schools on the various platforms on offer in leading this charge. Those who are agitators can, and must, join the movement to correct our shared spaces; schools. Lastly, the framers and custodians of policy – like we see in the MEC for Education in Gauteng does – must follow suit to take charge and carry out these constitutional and social obligations. And do so unapologetically. There will be those who resist, and their fate will consign them to the wrong side of history.
Songezo Mabece is currently a LLM (Government Procurement Law) 2018 candidate at the George Washington University Law School (GW)