Gauteng private schools try frank talk on racism

Panyaza Lesufi visits Curro school in Waterfall. (Gallo)

Panyaza Lesufi visits Curro school in Waterfall. (Gallo)

Representatives of independent schools in Gauteng were on their best behaviour on Wednesday as they told their audience, which included education MEC Panyaza Lesufi, that racism would no longer be tolerated in their hallways. They are expected to sign a declaration to achieve good governance by 2019, but many are still grappling with how to get there.

In a day-long summit at the Curro school in Waterfall, independent schools were forced to look back on their histories of racism during apartheid and the present day scandals that some of them have been lashed for.

“I’m pleading with you as a sector that please let us be humane,” Lesufi said in his keynote address on Wednesday morning.

The summit, organised by the Gauteng education department, was aptly hosted by a Curro foundation school. In 2015, mass outrage erupted after parents complained that the Curro school in Roodeplaat segregated black and white pupils. Lesufi condemned the school, and two years later, he’s still chasing private schools that have been shamed in racist incidents.

Jon Patricios, chair of the board of St John’s College, drew laughter at the summit as he joked about the “humility” he experienced in July when the MEC reprimanded him after a teacher at the school told black students that they got good marks because they sat next to white students.

Patricios said the school had made a mistake in the way it had dealt with the teacher, who also described foreign national students as “aliens”. Initially, the school had responded by giving the teacher a final warning, before demoting him and putting him through a “rehabilitation” process.

“In retrospect, we realise this approach was naive,” Patricios said.

The school has now developed a “speaker programme” to encourage students to speak about racism if they are victim to it. There are also staff discussions on reconciliation and opportunities for the students to tell “My African story”.

“We are a world class Christian school in and for Africa,” Patricios said.

He quoted Steve Biko, and played a video where the words “endure we must” were boldly emphasised.

A draft declaration has been compiled to encourage independent schools that “social cohesion and nation building” should underpin their good governance through being inclusive of all learners even if they cannot afford fees. Representatives from other schools, however, had a few bits of advice on what more should be done to teach students about racism.

Learning from history
Tim Nuttall, rector and chief executive of St Sithians College, spoke of white privilege and how the transformation statement of the school has made a difference. The statement addresses racism, sexism and homophobia to build an inclusive school body, he said.

“White people must acknowledge their racism,” Nuttall told the summit.

Heather Blanckensee, the high school principal of Sacred Heart College, meanwhile emphasised that the school had dealt with its apartheid history. In 1977, Sacred Heart opened its doors to black students after being a whites-only school. From 1980 to the 1990s, its educators designed a curriculum that “effectively decolonised the system at the time”, Blanckensee said.

“Not easy when parents are worried about standards,” she continued.

She advised schools that if they are to promote inclusivity of black students and teachers, and a curriculum that is diverse then they would have to ensure that parents embrace this direction.

At the end of the day, a declaration will be signed where schools promise to be compliant to the Constitution and develop codes of conduct to counter discrimination. This is the start of the province’s plan to force private schools to transform.

“The transformation agenda is very important. There must be no one in the sector practicing what we don’t want,” he said.

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra’eesa Pather is a general news journalist with the Mail & Guardian’s online team. She cut her teeth at The Daily Vox in Cape Town before moving to Johannesburg and joining the M&G. She's written about memory, race and gender in columns and features, and has dabbled in photography. Read more from Ra'eesa Pather

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