In Pursuit of Transformation for Reconciliation

As part of his master’s thesis, Michael Curle explored how faith-based independent schools should combine the “how” and “why” of transformation for real effect.

At a workshop for new heads at the ISASA head office in Houghton, I was surprised to see the name and words of Simon Sinek on a whiteboard – “start with the why?”

In my case, the “why” referred to transformation. I had begun my master’s thesis with a focus on “how”. How can we transform our schools into the kinds of spaces envisaged by ISASA? Spaces where learners can live examined lives in an integrated country (2014). Places where more is done “to bear witness to the ideals of the democratic South Africa grounded on the universal dignity of all its people” (2021:1)?

The “how” has remained largely out of reach for schools in South Africa with a few gleaming exceptions that have made themselves available to learn and understand the “how”, and to inadvertently stumble on their “why” as well.

The “why” of transformation has many possible permutations – democratic idealism, pragmatic social contracts for the greater good, a humanist perspective. However, for many independent schools in Southern Africa, the “why” of transformation is located squarely in their faith-based origins and ethos. For those who claim to follow Christ, the “why” of transformation is the biblical doctrine of reconciliation. Full stop.

Exploring the “why” of transformation

Forging new identities

Reconciliation can only grow out of a reimagined racial identity that must be formed, rather than taught, in schools. For staff, learners, community partners, and parents this involves recognising the power of whiteness (where it refers to colonial imagination, apartheid and their shadowy hangovers) and racism in their own lives, and rejecting the identities formed by whiteness in their calling as ambassadors of reconciliation.

We cannot simply treat “all people as people” since this ignores both the history of our country and the forces at play in the world. Instead, we must teach black learners to recognise their identity in terms of black consciousness (as being proudly black as opposed to non-white) and for white students to recognise and understand notions of whiteness and evolve beyond a colonial identity of their race.

Restitution is a key component of transformation for reconciliation

Restitution and justice

Justice in post-apartheid schools must be based on principles of equity rather than equality – since colonial and apartheid legacies have made the playingfield perpetually unequal.

For white Christian teachers and administrators, a lifestyle of restitution must form part of their identity as ambassadors of reconciliation in Christ. Teachers will need to see themselves as change agents above all else.

Programmes and policies for transformation will need to express this reality of justice and restitution. They will need to be clear statements about required actions in the pursuit of change rather than merely statements of values.

For teachers, restitution will take the form of commitment to anti-racist policies and programmes in schools, and to creating classrooms that are communities in which prejudice and racism are openly talked about and confronted.

It means that teachers will have to continually confront how whiteness affects their ideas about discipline and assessment as well as their curricular choices.

More than anything it means committing to humility and teachability and to creating and implementing anti-racist policies and programmes, particularly with regards to admissions, language, hair and uniform, and staffing policies.

Forgive and embrace

Forgiveness, and the pursuit thereof, is an ongoing process. The will to forgive is not. The will to embrace and the will to forgive are non-negotiable aspects of what it means to be in Christ’s body. There is still a great deal of anger around racial injustice, however anger is not the problem, and it should not be silenced in schools.

Programmes and policies for transformation and reconciliation need to include open-door policies and platforms for arbitration that do not leave angry black voices feeling silenced or patronised. They should be set up so that black and white voices meet as equals. This will involve careful consideration regarding the structures of control and procedure.

Christ is the “why”

The “why” of justice, restitution, forgiveness, anti-racism, transformation and reconciliation needs to be spelled out in terms that go beyond the values of democracy and connect the faiths of Christian role-players to educational policies and programmes.

Teachers, administrators, parents and learners need to understand that these ideals are pursued tirelessly in obedience to Christ. Thereby, establishing a theologically sound anthropology; and pursuing transformed and reconciled (and reconciling) school communities.

The “how” of transformation for reconciliation

Policy adjustments:


  1. Embrace multilingualism by adopting at least one African vernacular language, initially as a second additional language (with a focus on the communicative approach to language learning), and later as a first additional language option.
  2. Make learning of an African vernacular language a part of professional development for all staff and facilitate this through online classes or language learning apps. This should be incentivised or mandated, in accordance with staff contract requirements.
  3. Change rules that prevent learners from speaking their mother tongues at school social functions, extra-curriculars, and break times.
  4. Adopt a purpose-designed curriculum to teach learners to respect the intrinsic value of each learner, parent and teacher by not marginalising them or excluding them through language. In addition, independent Christian schools must pursue economic redress and justice through student teacher-training bursary programmes so that local, economically disadvantaged youth can be brought into the education profession.


Simplistic approaches to bullying that ignore the overall culture of belonging or isolation will need to be addressed. Victimisation and social isolation of racial, religious, or linguistic minorities is not necessarily incidental or the result of individual “bullies” but may be part of the nature of the school itself.

Thus, as part of any bullying policy, independent schools must invest in education and training of staff and learners in bridge-building as part of the Christian identity as ambassadors of reconciliation.

Hair and uniform

Independent Christian schools must begin a reform of hair and uniform policy by consulting with a diverse body of learners and parents so that decisions are informed by values and ideals that can be shared by the whole community rather than holding on to traditions that may be based on colonial concepts about what constitutes “neat”, “smart” and “formal”.


Independent schools must respect not only the letter of the law in South Africa regarding admissions requirements, but also the intent behind the law, which is social justice and restitution. By this we mean that independent schools cannot use any admissions criteria “… that may be judged to be a ‘cover-up’ for racial exclusion”.

Race and transformation

In pursuit of justice and restitution, independent Christian schools’ policy on race and transformation must overtly reject the “colour-blind” approach, as this has been demonstrated to further racialise learners’ identities (in direct conflict with the biblical principal of the unity of identity in the Body of Christ) and maintain the status quo of subtle injustices in integrated but untransformed and unreconciled spaces (cf. Lewis 2003).

Furthermore, independent Christian schools must make it clear, through policy, that anyone guilty of racial prejudice or racism will face consequences. The procedure and process involved in such an event must be clearly spelled out to all parents and staff members as part of their contract with the school on admission.

Finally, independent Christian schools’ transformation policy must overtly affirm the goal of diversity in their student bodies, their teaching and administrative staff, and all their leadership structures.

Social Sciences

It has been shown that teachers of all races are not automatically qualified by their tertiary education to deal with questions of race, race history, and social justice (cf. Cappy 2016).

Independent Christian schools must prioritise the training of Social Science teachers so that they are able to facilitate conversations about historical racism and current injustice that is (at least partially) built on the legacy of the colonial and apartheid eras. Social Science classes must be safe spaces for engagement in the shared pursuit of truth-telling and social justice.

Independent Christian schools must direct curriculum planners to make choices that reflect both the will to embrace the other (their stories, cultures and history) and to engage in the pursuit of social justice through truth-telling about the past (and the present).

Life Orientation

As part of the Life Orientation learning area, learners have classes in Personal and Social Wellbeing (PSWB). According to the grades 4 to 6 Life Skills Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (DoBE 2011:8), one of the aims of these classes is that learners “… learn values such as respect for the rights of others and tolerance for cultural and religious diversity”.

This rhetoric of rights and tolerance cannot be the aim of independent Christian schools if we allow our curriculum to be shaped by the doctrine of reconciliation. Transformation for reconciliation goes way beyond respect for rights and tolerance of difference. Instead, the aim must be reconciliation and community and belonging (or theologically, koinonia).

Transformation for reconciliation is a democratic and legal imperative.

Action items

To move from policy and intention to practice, schools will need to adopt programmes of transformation for which specific people are held accountable and which are time-tied, and which cover the following areas (for a start):

  • Training for staff and a curriculum for learners in practices of inclusion (eg: narrative approach to language teaching, and training (or referral structures) for social science and English literature teachers to prepare them for difficult conversations.
  • Staff professional development in multilingualism.
  • Immersive community outreach to address a new “wall of hostility” related to socio-economic class.
  • Broader parental involvement through a programme of creating structures such as consultation bodies, class reps, belonging council, etc, with a view towards diversifying all levels of school management.

Transformation is a democratic and legal imperative. For those who say they follow Christ, it is also a spiritual imperative. Nothing is more influential than schools in forming who we are in Africa. If we drag our feet on this schools will continue to be racialising spaces when they have the potential to be reconciling spaces where everyone can belong.