I have been following the news reports of discrimination and anti-black policies in former Model C schools, which some of us had the privilege of attending. The reports pertained to specifically Pretoria High School for Girls and Sans Souci High School for Girls in Cape Town.
I saw some profound words last week that these former Model C schools prepare pupils for a world that no longer exists. I couldn’t agree more.
I follow my alma mater, Collegiate High School for Girls in Port Elizabeth, on Facebook. I need to state from the onset that I am incredibly proud of this school and it is an honour for me to be associated with it.
Recently, a photograph of its hockey team that had excelled in some tournament was posted on the page. I felt proud for but a fleeting minute before I quickly realised that there was something starkly unsettling about the team’s racial composition.
While I am happy about the team’s stellar performance, I couldn’t help but wonder why there wasn’t one or barely any black faces in that squad. Now before you get defensive and present the tired “players are selected on merit” argument, consider my already earlier stated position.
The world where those girls will play in a team that is lily-white or predominantly white no longer exists. Now, are we not setting up these girls for massive disappointment when spots in a provincial or national team are being allocated and that girl who has always played in a lily-white team does not get a spot because those team compositions have to reflect the demographics of the country?
Because throughout her learning years we reinforced the idea that it’s perfectly normal to be in a lily-white team? Let me make it clear that that is not normal.
Later on we will have cultivated adults who are incredibly bitter as their sporting careers have not panned out because suddenly the world they will be released into will simply not accept their reality. And no, telling kids to stick to sporting codes that are “black” like netball is not only lazy, but exclusionist and divisive.
I grew up in an era where teachers had the power to rechannel pupils’ interests taking into consideration their strengths. There is no one more teachable than a 13-year-old child entering a high school system.
Nurture them. Teach them. Help them earn their spots in the teams that seem to be “white” sports.
If a child cannot afford a kit or a hockey stick or a tennis racquet like her white peers, the Old Girls Guild has our contact details and we can help overcome these barriers with ease.
Fortunately, Collegiate in my view has not resisted so severely the realities of the changing power dynamics where race is concerned. Bar one incident in 1998 and amid a raging cultural furore at a neighbouring school where a boy returned from the school holidays, which always coincide with initiation season, with a shaved head in accordance with the rite of passage.
The boy was suspended for breaching that particular school’s hair policy (which had been formulated decades before with the white boy in mind). As the debate around acceptance of African culture in traditionally white schools raged our headmistress at the time declared in a school assembly that there at Collegiate there was but one culture that would be observed “and that is the English culture”.
Apart from this single incident of the horrid negating of African culture I never again heard a negative response to the insistence that the African girl child be allowed to be who she is, within acceptable bounds. I also do not recall any teacher subjecting pupils to punishment for speaking their home languages.
I also remember that as far back as 2010 I was the first black old girl (in the school’s 125-year history at the time) to deliver the keynote address at Founders’ Day, an annual reunion and celebration. That memory however does fill me with some profound sadness because I was aware that a small group of old girls from our matric year boycotted the assembly because they felt a white girl deserved the honour to deliver the speech instead of me.
I also acknowledge my school’s pride when in 1999 an essay and speech I wrote entitled “To be an African” won me awards and when the Education Department came to present me with my awards we sang the national anthem (which we had to practise since the singing of the national anthem was not common practice). On that day, I delivered my speech in front of the whole school at a special assembly.
I also acknowledge that in my time as debating chairperson, we tackled topics which weren’t always comfortable, but were integral in our becoming. All these fine testimonies of being receptive to black children and their right to exist and express their existence notwithstanding, I will be the first to acknowledge that much more needs to be done.
From the top of my head, I feel we need to revisit the current names of “houses” in these schools. I read elsewhere a powerful statement from a former pupil at Kingsridge High School for Girls (formerly known as Kaffrarian), which incidentally I attended from standard 3 to 7 (grades 5 to 9), that house names such as Milner, Grey, Durban, etc do not have a place in the new South Africa.
This was because, frankly speaking, we can’t be glorifying people who disenfranchised, oppressed and were in one way or another responsible for atrocities against black South Africans, who happen to be the majority in this land. I feel exactly the same way about the names of houses at Collegiate, namely Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary, Queen Alexandra and Queen Victoria.
When we held inter-house challenges and contests pupils, including black children, competed under the banner of the names of the queens of England. I think my prowess as an athlete (which is non-existent if I may add) might have been more greatly enhanced had I been competing under the banner of Queen Nandi or Queen Modjaji.
Nostalgia for English “culture” is seriously misplaced in the new South Africa and should really not be glorified in any way.
All this said, I think an opportunity exists for us old girls (and old boys) of these prestigious schools that may be stuck in some bygone era to lend our lived experiences of the South Africa we live in today and hopefully work with existing governing bodies to help facilitate the necessary transitions and transformation if required. Old girls – and I am talking to black old girls especially – you have an important role to play.
It starts with swelling the ranks of old girl guilds which, without our participation, might just continue to concern themselves with maintaining the status quo because the preservation of white spaces and continuous affirmation of white privilege is a reality.
And no, acknowledging blackness and changing backward policies will not result in the dropping of any standards and result in pandemonium. That is an intellectually lazy cop-out to this debate.
Uniformity is crucial, but beyond the wearing of identical school uniforms it is not always practical when you take into account the dynamics of diversity, multiplicity of races and multi-culturalism in South Africa. The leaders and teachers in these schools have a moral obligation to “raise” children that will easily adapt to the world that is rapidly changing around them.
We all have a role to play. I feel very sad when I see 15- to 17-year-olds fighting battles today that we can help solve with our combined experiences and acquired expertise.
Own these spaces, sisters. You are actually very entitled to them.
The South Africa we envision is possible, but for this to happen we need all hands on deck. Twenty-two years since the advent of democracy, we cannot still be having debates about why we can’t apply the same rules to a black child’s hair which is, in its natural form, Afro-textured and vastly differs from that of a white child which is mostly Caucasian textured.
The same principle applies where Indian and Chinese hair is concerned. I am not propagating that black girls be allowed to wear weaves or those ridiculously long and thick Boom Shaka braids.
I accept wholly that pupils ought to wear their hair in styles that are conservative, neat and in keeping with school uniform, and that no eccentric/fashion styles be allowed.
As long as we understand what is deemed conservative and neat in African culture may differ considerably in Western culture and school rules should concede as much.
I am raising my voice in this debate because I believe it to be crucial continuously to unpick the very fabric of hegemony and by so doing make it very clear that – to paraphrase Whitney Young – “Look at me, I’m here.
I have dignity. I have pride. I have roots. I insist, I demand that I participate in those decisions that affect my life and the lives of my children. It means that I am somebody.”