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Ivy League schools fail black parents’ grade

Wealthy young black parents are veering off of the beaten track to private and former model C schools when they choose a path for their children. It’s a move to affirm their African identity.

The impeccable track record of these marque schools, such as the consistent 100% matric pass rate, is no longer enough for some parents.

Two mothers in the process of enrolling their children for their first year of school are not even considering the traditional private schools for their children. Having been educated at what are regarded as South Africa’s Ivy League schools themselves and agreeing that it was a good education, they insist they can do better for their children.

Their lack of interest in these schools has been further exacerbated by recent incidents of racial discrimination at some of these schools.

At St John’s College in Johannesburg a teacher was found guilty of racism. In the same week, black girls with braids at Windsor House Academy in Kempton Park were told that their hair was “unruly”. This followed a similar incident at Pretoria Girls High School where black pupils were told to straighten their hair.

Nandi Dlephu (34), whose son will start grade one next year, says: “Growing up, me and my siblings had our share of racial nonsense that we had to deal with in school. Even the hair drama is not a new drama. I remember being in school, having dreadlocks, and this was in the late 1990s, and it being a problem with my headmaster then. My mother took a stand that: ‘Nandi is not cutting her hair. It is Afrocentric. There is nothing in the guidelines of the school that says these kids cannot be proud of who they are.’ I remember the rest of the kids in the school cut their dreadlocks and I was the only kid left with dreadlocks and these are the type of nonsenses that I just don’t want my black child to go through.”

Vuyiswa Muthshekwane (31) started her schooling career in one of the top private schools in Cape Town in 1992 and she says she remembers a time where she felt like the “other”.

“Subtle things like all your teachers are white but all the cleaners are black, as you grow up and start to form your own perception, your self-esteem … I believe that those things have a huge impact. I never wanted for him to experience that,” says Muthshekwane.

Her son is also starting school next year.

These mothers are attracted to schools that offer a “revolutionary” curriculum, a space where their children will not be taught to conform, but rather learn to be individuals and encouraged to embrace being African.

In her teens, Muthshekwane, moved to Dakar in Senegal. She credits the years in West Africa, where she attended schools with people from different nationalities, for no longer feeling like the “other”, “because everyone was ‘other’ ”.

It brought her closer to people from other African countries and taught her to appreciate 
their cultures.

“I did not see myself putting my child in another one of these traditional Anglo-Saxon, Christian private schools where he would be indoctrinated in a certain culture that is so far from his own culture and where conformity is celebrated,” she says.

She adds that she does not want her child to attend a school where he is “persecuted” for embracing his African culture.

She has not yet decided where to enrol her son, but the one currently at the top of her list is a Future Nation School, the brainchild of former FirstRand chief executive and current chair of the National Student Fund Scheme, Sizwe Nxasana, and his wife Dr Judy Dlamini.

Dlephu has decided to send her child to a Nova Pioneer school, a pan-African private school.

The school’s mission is to develop “innovators and leaders who will shape the African century”.

That the school wants to produce innovators and leaders is only one of the reasons she has selected it.

“I’m not convinced that the curriculum in all other [traditional] schools has evolved enough to accommodate what being a young adult would be for him in 15 years time,” she says. “We need to take a page out of the reality where we need to be a country of people who are proactive and doers, people who question systems and not people who comply for whatever reason.”

The Mail & Guardian visited two private schools (see below and right) that are becoming an alternative option for parents such as Dlephu and Muthshekwane, who want their children not only to receive a good education but are also encouraged to be themselves and embrace their cultures.

Lebone II College: Private but with a difference

At the foot of Tshufi Hill in Phokeng, North West, stands Lebone II College of the Royal Bafokeng. It is a private school that was the dream of Bafokeng ruler Kgosi Mollwane Lebone II, who died 18 years ago.

Headmaster David du Toit said during the Mail & Guardian’s visit this week that when the school was established in 1998 it was run from prefab classrooms. But the late king’s brother and current king of the Bafokeng, Kgosi Leruo Tshekedi Molotlegi, realised that this did not live up to his brother’s dream, and the current Lebone II College of the Royal Bafokeng was built.

At first glance it easily fits the description of a typical private school. In Journey through our Space, a book about the history of the school, Kgosi Leruo Molotlegi’s foreword reads: “My personal experience as a student at Hilton College, where I witnessed African students becoming alienated from their cultural identities, their heritage [being undermined], and feeling embarrassed about their languages and traditions, made me envision a place of academic excellence rooted in African traditions and aesthetics, replete with symbols and stories that children from rural and developing communities like Phokeng can recognise and proudly call their own. Lebone II College manifests that vision in many ways.”

From the moment you drive into the school, all the signage is in English and Setswana. This practice carries through all the buildings.

Du Toit says about 85% of the 770 pupils are black, with 82% being Setswana-speaking and the rest isiXhosa and Sepedi speakers. The remainder are white, Indian and Chinese.

“What is unique about the school is the fact that it was created with the vision of being an outstanding independent school, but was never established to be necessarily for the wealthy.”

He added that the school has never had to deal with issues of transformation.

“Most of the other top-end private schools were established as white schools and they are now having to transform.”

Du Toit says the school was specifically for Setswana-speaking children, with a diverse staff that was mostly Setswana-speaking. The school, existing in a Tswana community, reflected this in its culture, tradition and language.

Du Toit says the school does not apologise for being a private school that has its values rooted in Tswana culture.

“We use drums instead of a bell. But at the same time we are an English-medium school because we know, particularly in high school, we are preparing pupils for tertiary [education],” he says.

“Everybody does English and Setswana and, by making a choice to come here, you know that is what you are coming to. I think we don’t try to convince people about our values and who we are, because you choose [the school].”

Pupils have a choice to take either Afrikaans or Setswana as a second language in grade eight.

But if a pupil who is non-Setswana-speaking starts school in grade eight they are required to take lessons for at least a year in conversational Setswana.

Du Toit says pupils are also encouraged to have class discussions in Setswana and if the teacher does not speak the language someone translates for him or her.

He also says the school was never part of the #HairMustFall campaign, because children are encouraged to wear their hair any way they like, as long as it is neat and practical.

Pupils were spotted with block braids and dreadlocks, and boys wore trendy haircuts. “We do not have to change a tradition of 100 years, and [say] that you can’t do this with hair, it must be short.

“We are an African school, we’ve got African children and that’s what African hair is and it is part of what we are,” says Du Toit.

DJ Black Coffee greets you as you enter the arts class. Well, a picture of him does. It’s apt, because the class is named after the internationally acclaimed musician.

All other classes have something similar on display at the Future Nation School in Lyndhurst, east Johannesburg.

Mampho Langa, the head of Future Nation Schools — the other school is in Fleurhof, west Johannesburg — told the Mail & Guardian during a visit to the school this week that this was the pupils’ idea.

“Each class is named after an African personality that they think has done well in their field and inspires them,” said Langa.

The school opened its doors in January.

But this is not a traditional private school, according to Langa, and it is evident.

Pupils are not restricted to wearing a uniform, but rather wear “school gear”.

“Uniform means one size fits all … here you can wear your tracksuit with your shirt, wear your sneakers, and we don’t have days where you wear this or that,” she says. “It helps them with decision-making. They are not meant to be the same; they are different. It allows that individuality, that uniqueness and decision-making to say: ‘Today I feel like wearing tracksuit pants and a blue shirt’. Let them do that.”

There are also no rules about hair.

The school follows the national Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement, but Langa says their approach to teaching is different.

“Our model is project-based learning. We are moving away from lecturing, chalk-and-talk type of teaching.”

She says this model teaches pupils to question and allows them to explore and design projects.

“In the 21st century it is more about what you can do, rather than what you know,” says Langa.

The school is also compiling a curriculum for African studies. This ties in with its goal to produce African leaders.

The school has incorporated indigenous knowledge systems into history and science studies.

“Simple things like teaching them how to make mageu. Our grandmom and -dads used to know how to make mageu without buying yeast, so they had that scientific knowledge, but those things were not recorded anywhere. Those are things we are teaching our kids: African origins,” says Langa.

Another unique feature about the school is shared bathrooms.

“Our teachers share the bathrooms with our students because we believe the cleanliness and the respect come from there. Why should the students’ bathrooms be different from the teachers’ bathrooms?

“If I want cleanliness I should also expect it from the students. If I want them to respect property, they should see me sharing it with them. Our bathrooms are not treated differently. It makes the students feel valued,” says Langa.

The school currently has 262 pupils and caters for grades R to two and grades seven and eight. It has ambitions to expand to other provinces and possibly further on the continent.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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