/ 19 July 2020

What is the future of black lives in historically white, elite schools?

A common criticism levelled against elite former white schools is their lack of transformation
A common criticism levelled against elite former white schools is their lack of transformation (John McCann)

If by integration you understand a breakthrough into white society by blacks, an assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and code of behaviour set up by and maintained by whites, then YES I am against it.

Steve Biko

Why are we still shocked by the racism which saturates our country’s prestigious independent and former model C schools? Every few years one of these institutions is engulfed in a scandal, usually centering around the hostile treatment, marginalisation and discrimination against non-white students. And every few years, the country gasps and sighs in disappointed shock. Outrage is followed by apologies from school management, the announcement of internal investigations or disciplinary hearings and desperate promises of reform by these institutions. 

Whereas I do think it is better to be a student of colour at these institutions in 2020 than it was 20 years ago, with the unravelling of each new scandal, the pace of progress within these schools feels lethargic.  Are these historic institutions willing and or able to change? I’d like to explore this question and offer some radical, but useful conclusions.

The state of our schools, in how they mould minds, shape identities and impart knowledge and skill is a mirror into the health or depravity of our society at large. Taking this point seriously, an evaluation of these schools reveals that non-white children are often alienated. In other words, black people still, to a limited but significant extent, exist as second-class citizens, within our nation’s privileged schools and in society at large. I base this not just on what individuals say but how structures of power treat collective groups in our societies. 

Our experiences are not identical, but a common thread throughout our divergent moments in these schools, is the memory of hostility. For some it was an ever-present feeling of not being totally welcomed. As a student of colour, there were times when you could not fully embody your identity at school. For others it was the constant, daunting reminder of their difference. Whether it be the colour of your skin or the religion you subscribed to, these differences were an annoying disturbance to institutions which demanded conformity to conservative Christian and European values. 

Existing as a black child in these schools often meant one’s presence was burdened by the barrels  of stereotypes, myths and assumptions surrounding people of colour. It wasn’t uncommon to hear white teachers or other staff assert and imply racial folklore: black kids were assumed to be loud, lazy and disruptive, the Hindu faith of Indian students was strange, exotic and inconvenient, and coloured students were sometimes expected to have an affinity with violence. 

If we leave the natives beyond our border ignorant barbarians, they will remain a race of troublesome marauders. We should try to make them a part of ourselves, with a common faith and common interests, useful servants, consumers of our goods, contributors to our revenue…

Sir George Grey

These experiences were not just the unfortunate result of a few racist members of staff or the abrasive tendencies of teenagers. What these assaults on the dignity and peaceful education of children expose, is how schools are still held captive by ideologies which should have no home in the present. 

When diagnosing the source of bigotry in these schools, it’s common to hear arguments which remind us that such bigotry is a reflection of mindsets present in society at large. Some would say, because South Africa still teems with regressive mentalities, it shouldn’t be shocking that we find these mentalities in our schools. This analysis is coherent, but it only skims the surface of this layered issue. 

Racist by design

I contend that private and former model C schools were never designed for the healthy and holistic education of non-white children. These schools, because of the political context in which they were founded and in which they evolved, partly functioned to produce two kinds of subjects: the uncritical and loyal white settler, alongside the docile, subservient native. 

We’re often reluctant to think or speak of education in political terms. Such a reluctance leaves us ill-equipped to solve the sociological conflicts which explode within the education system. Education is not neutral or amoral, it is loaded with values. Education is not insulated from politics, it is not numb to the grips of power. It would be simplistic to think of schooling solely as the pouring of knowledge into minds or equipping the young with useful, job-attracting skills.

A person can spend up to nearly two decades in an education system. It is in those years where the foundations of a person’s identity are laid; in which that identity will undergo tremendous growth and evolution. And it is in those formative stages of childhood and in the chaotic throws of adolescence where the human mind is vulnerable to influence and impression. What we do not ask ourselves often enough is how power imprints on the minds of the young? 

A look into history can illuminate the disarray of the present. 

Education in South Africa has undergone two monumental changes: the colonial education implemented in the interests of British empire, to create a settler population who would uphold and propagate British culture and values — therefore sustaining the empire’s rule.  As the National Party swarmed the halls of state power in 1948, seeking to drastically reshape civil society, education worked to advance and cement the Afrikaner nationalism of the apartheid regime. 

These legacies did not fade into the past, they haunt the present, finding vitality in the culture of some of the countries oldest and most esteemed schools. You may be thinking, apartheid is over and colonialism ended nearly a century ago. I would desperately caution against this mindset, as James Baldwin once said: “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

So what are the legacies of colonial and apartheid education? And how do these spectres of white supremacy create a schooling environment that can turn into a series of sad memories for students of colour? 

Christianity and the missionaries

Most of South Africa’s oldest independent schools were founded and for many decades governed by European missionaries. Some Dutch, others German or Swiss but most of these colonial crusaders were British. The European missionary is a titanic figure in recent African history, whose shadow still looms over the present. The efforts of missionaries remind us that the effective conquest of people, the kind which echoes into the lives of future generations, must occur on multiple planes: the subjugation of human bodies, the seizing of material resources and the domination of the conquered subjects’ mind. 

Missionaries, aided by the British government of the time, viewed education as a public good that could benefit both the African native and the white settler. The purity or innocence of their intentions is irrelevant, evidence reveals that other motives were vital to the establishment of schools in South Africa. A quote by Sir George Grey, governor of the Cape in 1955 summarises these motives: 

“If we leave the natives beyond our border ignorant barbarians, they will remain a race of troublesome marauders. We should try to make them a part of ourselves, with a common faith and common interests, useful servants, consumers of our goods, contributors to our revenue. Therefore, I propose that we make unremitting efforts to raise the natives in Christianity and civilisation, by establishing among them missions connected with industrial schools.” 

What breathes in between these words is the mentality of a conqueror who views the subjugated subject as infantile, wild and barbaric and therefore in need of an education which will render them not only subservient but existing in harmony with the values of their ruler. The patronising mentality of colonial governments was not confined within the halls of power but prevailed among the white settler societies of past centuries.

The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do

James Baldwin

It isn’t a coincidence that many learners of colour who went and are currently going to independent schools recount experiences of being patronised by staff and learners. They recount how teachers were surprised by their polished English or their academic excellence. I’ve met numerous matriculants from independent schools, retelling tales of how they were expected to be infinitely humble and grateful for their admission into those institutions, because “people like them”, don’t often have the material or intellectual means to get into and thrive in such spaces. 

What does this tell us? It is a bitter reminder that non-white children, particularly black students, are still at times treated like objects of missionary charity. The admission of children of colour into these schools is a relatively recent event. Which means for decades a particular culture stewed within these schools, one that was not entirely prepared for the black, Indian or coloured child to be educated not as an “other”, but as a respected human being. Therefore the racist condescention students of colour endures, as morally abhorrent as it is, is not an anomaly but it is to be expected. 

I remember a friend telling me how she was firmly instructed not to speak isiZulu in the independent Catholic school she attended because it wasn’t a “township school”. The revulsion at the sound of black students speaking their mother tongues by staff at white-dominated schools, is a painfully familiar story. This aversion to children speaking indigenous languages achieves an important objective of colonial domination: the adoration of English as a superior language that signifies one’s intelligence and civility. Which, in return, often implies that indigenous languages are inferior and reflective of an unrefined mind of philistine inclinations. 


It unmasks another key element of colonial education, present in the words of Grey: assimilation. In and of itself assimilation is not bad. What matters is the terms in which assimilation occurs — as an organic process or as a coercive experience. What children of colour often endure upon entering former white only and independent schools, is an institution which demands the gradual smothering of their black identity. Tongues must perfectly bend to the whims of the English accent, coiled and curly hair can’t look too African, and one’s culture must be left at the gates of the school. 

Humanitarian progress is often slowed down or obstructed by the lack of solidarity. The task of demanding change becomes all the more gruelling when no one or very few people stand in support of your cause. Often the majority of students who protest against racism or other forms of bigotry, through petitions or rallying support online, are students of colour and yet they are often a demographic minority in former model C and independent schools. The absence of indignation from white students is blaringly loud.  

Boundary of identity

One answer to this is that humans generally struggle to stretch their empathy across boundaries of identities. A heterosexual may mistakenly think they have no stake in the struggles of LGBT+ people. A white person could falsely believe that racism is a black issue and not the concern of all human beings. 

Another component which possibly explains the passivity of white students can be retrieved by a brief glance at the legacy of Christian National Education. CNE was an educational policy implemented by the apartheid regime. Under this policy, education served as a form of grand social control by strengthening segregation and proliferating the values of Afrikaner nationalism. Unsurprisingly, the educational policy produced by an authoritarian regime revered and demanded a blind obedience to authority, an uncritical submission to rule of law and the cultivation of minds that did not question the nature of the social order. 

Remnants of CNE can be seen in many of the country’s great, former model C schools, particularly those of the “Old Boy” and “Old Girl” variety. In their ethos and actions, these schools, to varying degrees, have an intense attachment to the values of authority and obedience. It is an attachment which I believe numbs the capacity for critical thought. A capacity which is indispensable when identifying and understanding oppression or discrimination. 

Moreover, an uncritical mind is fearful of authority, it is reluctant to oppose authority when abused, if it can even see the abuse in the first place. Such a mind often sees meaningful challenges to authority as unnecessary and destructively disruptive. 

This is why a student can be called a “kaffir”, “coolie” or “monkey” and some white students will not yearn for accountability or demand retribution against those who violate the dignity of their fellow classmates. 

Rarely does bigotry, structural or interpersonal, flourish in solitude. I’ve met many people who wield racism and homophobia like a two-edged sword. Compounding the racism in the schools I’ve been referring to, is an atmosphere that is antagonistic to queer and gender non-conforming students. Whether it is the unconsented outing of gay or lesbian students to their parents, governing bodies denying same-sex couples admission to matric dances or teachers overlooking the bullying of queer students, homophobia has a vigorous presence in these fine institutions. 

Clutching to the conservative 

Part of its unrelenting presence stems from the ethos numerous independent and former model C schools uphold. They clutch on to conservative interpretations of Christianity. Whether it be traditional Catholicism or antiquated Anglicanism, these Christian philosophies are used to try create a student who is unquestionably heterosexual, sexually inane and who lives within narrow, outdated definitions of gender. This type of social engineering can partly be attributed to colonial and apartheid education seeking to produce ideal citizens, whether the white settler, Indian migrant or African native. Education which was propped up by conservative Christianity was viewed as essential to the project of the British Empire and sustaining the power of Afrikanerdom. 

Today, some students who attempt to live authentically as themselves, outside of these suffocating confines, are often bullied or harassed and not given the freedom, and therefore responsibility, any human needs to be themselves.  

Children and parents of colour are at times in a distressing dilemma. What cannot be denied about the majority of independent and former model C schools, is the excellent quality of education they offer to their students in a national schooling system that continues to inadequately equip the majority of the schooling population, stifling their potential and making their chance at socioeconomic well-being all the more elusive. And yet, the psychological costs of schooling in an institution that can eat away at one’s identity, which can force you to endure severe harassment or bullying merely because of your race, gender or sexaulity, these costs can seem too tremendous to bear. 


What alternatives exist? On social media some black parents suggested the creation of schools specifically designed towards the needs and interests of the black child, and the black community at large. This proposal seemed attractive to some but others cautioned that we must be weary of our impulses to further segregate our social institutions on distinctions of race. 

The question of how schools can change to equitably and comfortably accommodate all kinds of children, irrespective of the facets of their identity, is a question about how our most vital institutions can embrace difference. Furthermore, it is a question of how a society once held hostage by ideologies which stigmatised difference, utilising it on a grand scale to embed division and justify immoral hierarchies, can eliminate the need for subscription to the legacies of these ideologies in the present. 

Andile Zulu is a political essayist who runs the Born Free Blues blog.