Swaziland’s gateway to the world
I zigzag up a steep hill to get to Waterford Kamhlaba, the historic school located just outside Mbabane, the small but bustling capital of Swaziland. And when I arrive I am welcomed into a most unlikely world.
A school at which children from 50 different countries study and board might seem surreal but its solid reality reveals itself as I drive deeper into Waterford.
"So where are you from?" I ask the teenager who has offered to take me to the media reception area. But before he can answer, the girl walking behind us on the stairway light-heartedly responds on his behalf: "Sierra Leone," she says.
The young lad confirms this and adds: "I was born in England but I'm from Sierra Leone."
"She's from Holland," he says, with a nod back to the girl behind us.
This synthesis of nationalities, coupled with the alternative education it offers, is what makes Waterford unique.
The school this year marks its 50th anniversary.
When it opened in 1963, with just 16 pupils, Waterford was the first multiracial school in Southern Africa.
It was meant to be in South Africa but, when the apartheid government blocked it, its founder Michael Stern chose this piece of Swaziland instead. The school's distinguished alumni include Botswana's President Ian Khama, South African Cabinet minister Lindiwe Sisulu and the founding chief executive of South Africa's Commission for Gender Equality, Colleen Lowe Morna. These days, 80% of the 600 students at Waterford are from African countries, and 30% of them are Swazi citizens.
The school's academic reputation is a byword, offering its pupils access to many international universities. Bruce Wells, Waterford's acting principal, said this was partly because they left school with an international baccalaureate diploma. "This diploma ensures that they get first-year credits in universities in the United States and Canada."
The school has partnerships with several overseas universities and wealthy donors. John Storer, the school's director of admissions and university adviser, is responsible for courting international universities to visit Waterford with a view to recruiting potential students. "Up to 40 universities visit us each year," he says.
Tshimologo Molebatsi, a pupil in form five from Killarney in Johannesburg, does not mind that the international baccalaureate adds two extra years to her secondary education. "I like the idea. Not that I've not decided what I want to do after school but [the diploma], from what I hear, is a rigorous course," she says.
On the opportunity to access overseas universities, Molebatsi says: "I wouldn't have known it's possible to get to them if I had continued studying at my former private school."
Dalumuzi Mhlanga, a Waterford alumnus who has just graduated from Harvard, echoes Molebatsi's sentiment.
"I'm not saying this just because I'm [a former pupil here] but Waterford provided me [with] lots of opportunities to go study in the US. We got lot of support. American universities would come here and that made it so much easier to access information," he says.
"When you go to a school where 80% to 90% of the students go on to study at international universities, it broadens your horizon. We're fortunate, I'm fortunate," said Mhlanga, who comes from Bulawayo in Zimbabwe.
But during a panel discussion at the school, Mhlanga warns against perceiving the school as one available only to pupils from middle-class and rich families. In fact, 30% of the students are on bursaries Waterford provides and are recruited from some of the poorest communities —including refugee camps. Fees range from R49 000 to R130 000 a year, but parents Gcina and Thula Hlophe from Alberton in Johannesburg believe the expense is worth it, and praise the leadership skills their daughter Sibahle has developed.
"At 14, I knew nothing about NGOs [nongovernmental organisations]," said Gcina. "But Sibahle has become passionate about community work. She surprised us when she ran a campaign to raise awareness about
[fugitive Ugandan warlord] Joseph Kony last year when she came home for holidays."