by Neil Jardine
I slapped a boy across the face in my first week as a teacher.
I was taking a PE lesson, a subject for which I was totally unprepared, and, in desperation, introduced a game of rounders. When the ball was hit into long grass, I asked a boy, Huntley Southwood, to fetch it. His reply was, “There are dubbeltjies there. Why don’t you fetch it yourself?’ In my insecurity and anger, I slapped him. (That’s the explanation; no excuse of course).
Having applied for postings to Umtali, Salisbury and Bulawayo, I received a telegram at Rhodes University informing me I had been appointed to the new government high school at Fort Victoria (FVHS) in a small town in the south-east of Southern Rhodesia, then a part of the ill-fated Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
That venture, established without much consultation with blacks in the three countries, lasted just ten years. It was designed as an imperial experiment in nonracial government with a benign policy leading eventually to ‘meaningful’ integration of blacks in government.
I had left South Africa because I did not wish to teach history under the Verwoerd regime. (Ironically, Hendrik Verwoerd, born in Holland, remains the most famous, or infamous, – take your pick – alumnus of the Bulawayo high school, Milton, where he had been the top scholar). A few years into my teaching career, I found that the Rhodesian Front party had much the same racial policies as those of the ruling National Party in South Africa: suppression of blacks through a firm denial of the franchise, apart from a minority who qualified through barriers difficult to penetrate.
Approaches to maintaining white power were not very different from the South African policy of apartheid but far more subtle and hypocritical in style and application. Most Africans appeared ‘docile’ and appreciative of a first-class junior school education. State high school education was limited to about 12% of black pupils so many, like Robert Mugabe, attended mission schools. (In 1928 when Mugabe was headboy of one of these, a Catholic school, the Governor of Southern Rhodesia, Rodwell, and the Prime Minister, Huggins visited the mission school.
When the head-priest asked if a medical clinic could be built nearby as there was only one in an area of four hundred square miles, Rodwell replied, ‘No. There are too many natives in this country already’). Draw your own conclusions.
I reported the incident in which I had slapped Huntley to the headmaster, Mr. Leslie Herbert Crowther Sharp, a Yorkshireman from Leeds who affected an Oxford accent and pronounced words like ‘carry’ ‘cerry’, ‘hurry’ ‘herry’ and so on.
Reason unknown. I was surprised to find the reaction of the head to my act of unprofessional behaviour relatively indifferent and I was not dressed down in any serious manner. I apologised to Huntley and that was that. (He must be in his sixties now). Les Sharp was the founder-headmaster of FVHS after many years teaching geography and coaching rugby at Chaplin School in Gwelo, one of his pupils during the nineteen-thirties being Ian Smith, (later Prime Minister of Rhodesia) who was headboy, captain of rugby, cricket, athletics, tennis, boxing and swimming. He won the Victor Ludorum shield four years in a row. (In a book on Rhodesian High Schools published in 1981, a year into independence and the new Zimbabwe, the chapter on Chaplin School states ‘The school is very proud of Mr. I.D. Smith and his achievements’).
In August 1958, Les Sharp and his wife, Margaret, a classics teacher, arrived in Fort Victoria to prepare for the opening of the coeducational high school in January 1959. In a dry and hot climate it was difficult to prepare any sports facilities for the first term and the first building block was ready just in time.
At Rhodes University, Grahamstown, in 1958 I had achieved what I was told was impossible for anyone with even a scintilla of basic intelligence. I failed the Union Education Department certificate exam, (UED).
There are some feeble reasons but no excuses. I did little or no academic work. In my ‘prac-lesson’ at Graeme College, for which I was totally unprepared, I asked pupils to read the chapter on the Great Trek from a biased and factually incorrect account of South African history, by Fowler and Smit (at school, we called it ‘Fouler than S**t’). I then asked a few contrived and irrelevant questions and the bell rang. As we walked back to the University, the Senior Lecturer in the Education department, Koos Gerber, an elephantine man with a falsetto, said, “ Neil, that is without doubt, the worst ‘prac-lesson’ I have witnessed in my entire career”.
My priorities were in other things. I was courting my wife-to-be, June Dicks, (both of us came from baking families in Grahamstown), was captain of the first teams in rugby, cricket and golf, ‘stooged’ at St. Andrew’s Prep, acted in two plays, Chekov’s ‘On The High Road’ and James Thurber’s ‘The Male Animal’ and composed the musical score for the first original musical play for Rhodes Rag. On occasions I played the piano at dances. I was also a member of the Oppidans’ House Committee.
So there it was; a question of priorities. I still wonder whether I got it wrong. In any case the very British-orientated education ministry of the Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland had scant regard for a South African professional qualification. Apart from an appreciation of some South African universities and the beaches of the Natal South Coast, attitudes to South Africa verged on condescension. The matter of the UED was never referred to. I passed it eventually and received a small increase in salary. Later I obtained a B.Ed through UNISA.
Mr. Sharp informed me on my arrival that I would be in charge of rugby and cricket and teach History, English, PE (acting as HOD in each subject), some Afrikaans and carpentry! We began with a teaching staff of seven. There were no syllabuses as the school only had junior pupils for the most part. A few seniors did something based in the UK called COP ( College of Preceptors). Teachers were expected to structure their own syllabuses and get on with it. I floundered. One example of my inability to plan and teach properly was an attempt, as a general background, to teach Forms 1a and 1b the whole of world history in the first term. I was not successful. Today, when I run into pupils from that era, they still tease me. ( I think we got as far as the Ancient Greeks in a very superficial manner). But I did manage to write a one-act play in the first term, a Rattigan-influenced piece called ‘Even The Darkest Cloud’, acted on a bare stage and with sheets as curtains . (I don’t think I’ll trouble any publishers with it).
June and I married in Grahamstown in August of that year, returned to Southern Rhodesia and settled into a minute flat. We became involved in the highly active Fort Victoria Drama Circle and I played rugby, cricket and tennis at the Victoria Sports Club.
I was surprised at how ‘British’ Southern Rhodesia was. The Union Jack was flown everywhere and on Speech Days and other special occasions, ‘God Save The Queen’ was sung with gusto. Attempts at non-racialism during the Federal days were sincere but ineffective in the long run. I recall taking pupils to a Catholic mission school for blacks, Goromonzi, to see an outdoor production of ‘Murder in the Cathedral’. Afterwards, pupils from both schools mixed happily over tea. But when the Rhodesian Front won the election in 1962, things changed dramatically.
One Rhodesian Front election poster had shown four pairs of legs in gym skirts, three white and one black, with words to the effect ‘This is what you can expect if you don’t vote RF’.
After 1965 and the unilateral declaration of independence, separation of the races came into force big-time. Education and politics? There’s a thin line between indoctrination and education. But at the school I gained invaluable experience I could not have found at more established institutions. Les Sharp was a nice man to work for and I was very happy with my new and considerable challenges.