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Liberation without transformation? What I thought I knew and what I didn’t know

| August 22, 2018 | 0 Comments


Springfield Convent School is a Dominican, Catholic, independent, allgirls school situated in the beautiful Wynberg area of greater Cape Town, in the Western Cape.

It was founded by the Irish Cabra Dominican Sisters in 18711 and today has an enrolment of 1 240 girls from nursery school to Grade 12. In 1976, Springfield was the first independent school in South Africa to defy the apartheid laws and open its doors to pupils of colour. We are proud of this heritage. In 2011, I was appointed the second headmistress of the school who was not a Dominican Sister. The school board tasked me with ensuring diversity throughout the school. My teaching and political background in the 1980s dovetails with the subheading, “What I thought I knew”, but the climate postliberation highlights “What I didn’t know”. In 1979, I had commenced my first teaching post at Crystal Senior Secondary School2 in Hanover Park, Cape Town, a school designated for pupils classified as coloured under the racial classification system of the apartheid regime. Conditions were appalling and epitomised “gutter education”.3

Opposing apartheid education

In March 1980, three white-classified teachers, including myself, were sacked and accused of inciting pupils to oppose the status quo. Our dismissal led to the immediate class boycotts of 1980, which spread throughout the country and, among other demands, there was a call for our reinstatement as teachers.4 In 1981, I was fortunate to be employed at Harold Cressy High School,5 a school administered by the House of Representatives, which had replaced the Department of Coloured Affairs. Harold Cressy High and its staff, parent and pupil components actively opposed racism and all forms of discrimination. My employment, which lasted 23 years, was subject to a three-month contract, only renewable on what was termed “good behaviour” i.e. to be politically silent. The staff and pupils at Harold Cressy High were involved in many leftist political organisations in opposition to the racist regime, and the debates among members of the school community
embraced the philosophies and principles of the New Unity Movement,6 Anti-CAD Movement,7 United Democratic Front,8 African National Congress,9 Cape Action League10 and Pan-Africanist Congress,11 to name a few. This was indeed my education. The belief and actions to embrace non-racism, non-sexism and oppose all forms of discrimination characterised the activism of this oppressed community. In 1985, the entire staff, together with staff from many other schools under the House of Representatives, were dismissed because of their failure to force pupils to write final examinations for which they had not been prepared, due to the six-month school boycott of that year. Hence, I was dismissed for the second time in my career! It was this background that gave me – so I thought – all the knowledge and tools to ensure diversity and inclusivity at Springfield Convent and to ensure non-racism, anti-racism, non-sexism and anti-sexism in the environment. How wrong I was!

Student protests spread to Springfield

The climate of 2015 with #FeesMustFall12 and #RhodesMustFall13 spread quickly from tertiary to secondary schools. The protests at both Pretoria Girls’ High School and Sans Souci High School14 were the sparks that led to a movement among pupils to vent their anger and frustration against the current acceptance of the hegemonic culture prevalent at many learning institutions. It was within this context that I was called on 2 August 2016 to meet a group of pupils in the Springfield Convent School’s Avenue. Without any previous indication, the pupils presented me with a petition signed by 139 senior school pupils, demanding an end to racism and classism at the school. I acknowledged receipt of the petition and offered to meet the pupils that same afternoon to discuss their grievances. Approximately 40 pupils arrived and my explanation that the school treated all pupils as equals and that I believed that there was only one race, namely the human race, was angrily rejected. The pupils’ response was unanimous, and they stated that they were black and wanted to tell their stories to all staff and pupils at the school, as they indeed felt like outsiders. Their call was for an immediate school assembly. As headmistress, I knew that I had to respond to their call – but simultaneously, messages had spread like wildfire throughout the school community, and there were differing viewpoints and many opinions. I was advised to contact a facilitator from a tertiary institution that had been at the forefront of protest action to facilitate the proposed assembly. This was my first mistake, in that the facilitator had no knowledge of the school or its community. The staff had not had a chance to meet and/or envisage what issues could be raised. The assembly enabled pupils to tell their stories of exclusion that they had experienced, but it created a scenario of “us” and “them”. Tears flowed as stories of hurt were told, while others felt guilty about “being privileged”.

Testimonies as change agents

It was a lonely and uncertain time. I knew that I had to act, and act quickly. Fortunately, I was put in contact with Nomfunda Walaza,15 executive director of Peace Systems.16 She agreed to take time to engage with Springfield Convent School and its stakeholders, i.e. parents, staff and pupils. She insisted that she would not work with the community unless there was 100% buy-in on the process of transformation. This had been a flaw in the previous initiative. Walaza met with the pupil leadership, who wanted another assembly. She also met with the senior school staff, albeit on the last day of Term 3, but all attended and supported her programme for the way forward. Although parents were invited to a meeting, only 16 attended, but four agreed to act as facilitators at the proposed assembly.

Early in Term 4 2016, the assembly was held. The atmosphere was very different. Anger had subsided and pupils wanted to hear what others had to say, and listened intently. There were mediators in the hall to assist pupils who were feeling uneasy or uncomfortable. Here are some of the stories (names have been changed):

Thandeka: “I was walking to my home in Bishopscourt one afternoon. The next day at school, my teacher asked me in which house was my mom a domestic worker, because she knows many people living in that area. I felt so sad that my teacher had assumed that my family could not live in that suburb. I was hurt, but said nothing.”

Olwethu: “I wore colourful beads to school because they had been given to me by my grandmother when I visited her in the Eastern Cape during the holidays. She told me never to take them off as they were a cultural connection between her and me. My teacher asked me to remove them as they were not part of the school’s dress code. I tried to explain that they were a link with my family, but I had to remove them. After class I sobbed, and a week later I heard that my grandmother had passed away. I felt responsible for having broken ties with my family by removing the beads.”

Nomthandaza: “Why can’t the teachers learn how to say my name? They call every other girl by their correct name, but they simply abbreviate mine to Nomthi because it’s easier to pronounce, they say. I don’t understand.”

Ayesha: “A girl in my class said that her parents don’t want me to be friends with her as I belong to ISIS17. I didn’t even know what ISIS was. I said I am Muslim and follow the religion of Islam. But, she refused to be my friend.”

Sadia: “The Parent/Teacher Association (PTA) was organising the Annual Fair. My father offered to make three pots of breyani and sell it at the fair and assist with the fundraising. The committee did not provide a stall for him, and he simply gave the food to poor people in our neighbourhood. He was upset, but said nothing.”

Neave: “I was mocked by a group of pupils about my ginger hair. I’m Irish and did not bother to explain to them that many people in Ireland and Scotland also have my hair colour. I was so upset that when I returned home, I asked my mom if I could dye my hair another colour.”

Luthanganiso: “In Grade 1, all the pupils sat in their classroom to eat their lunch. When I opened my lunchbox, my teacher stared at my food and said, “That looks like mud. Tell your mom to make sandwiches for you in future.” I had been looking forward to eating my lunch, leftovers from my delicious supper, and now felt ashamed to eat it. I have never forgotten that dreadful morning.”

Thandi: “Teachers and pupils always think that black pupils at the school are on scholarships. They talk to us as if we should be grateful for being a pupil at an independent school. I couldn’t be bothered to tell them that my parents pay full fees.” As story after story was told, we listened to these painful experiences. Even if there had only been one story, transformation was urgent and long overdue.

What have we changed?

• The Student Representative Council (SRC) reviewed the
Code of Conduct and Dress Code, which were
subsequently ratified.
• Policy documents were reviewed and ratified.
• Stereotypical photographs and displays in classrooms and
venues throughout the school were interrogated, removed
and replaced with more appropriate ones.
• Guest speakers have addressed the pupils and staff, including Reverend Father Russell Pollitt from the Jesuit Institute on Transformation;18 Hugh Fynn, who facilitated workshops on restorative justice and circles of dialogue or conversations;19 the Catholic Schools Office20 invited staff to a talk by Dr Mamphela Ramphele21 and Paul Jones,22 entitled “Re-imagining South Africa”; and many speakers have addressed pupils and facilitated workshops on relevant issues.
• Our Strategic Planning Workshop for the next five years was held and involved all members of the school community: members of the school board; parents; administrative, academic and support staff; and past and current pupils. Transformation was key in all the focus group meetings. Both the PTA and the school board have appointed subcommittees to continue working on transformation to ensure diversity and inclusivity.
• Staff appointments and pupil admissions are now more closely linked to ensure greater diversity.

At Springfield, we have all learnt that transformation is a process and not a tick-off box, and certainly begins with oneself, one’s attitudes and one’s behaviours. Teachers and our society/club organisers are conscious of what they teach and how they must initiate inclusive programmes. Here are some of the changes made over the past two years:

French Department: “We are listening to more songs from black singers, and reading poetry dealing with racial issues.”

Creative Arts/Dramatic Arts Department: “Our focus is on the development of theatre in South Africa. In Grade 8, we focus on precolonial forms of communal performance and oral traditions. In Grade 9, the focus is on the relationship between history, politics and culture; how and why colonialism affected the way people created drama; the ethics around telling one’s own versus other people’s stories; and how issues like stereotypes and bias relate to these. Texts are chosen to connect thematically to issues such as culture, language, transformation, liberation, gender identity, sociopolitical oppression, social (in)justice, economics and reconciliation.”

English Department: “The Grade 11s have analysed the way that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela23 has been presented in the recently written obituaries. The Grade 12 pupils’ listening comprehensions focus on cultural stereotyping in the latest Disney release, Moana24. The students are also preparing a forum discussion based on the South African Bill of Rights, and how these rights are translated into reality. The Grade 10 pupils’ mini documentaries include themes such as persuasive feminism, logical versus fallacious argument and propaganda. Likewise, the literature texts the students study include female authors, authors of colour, South African and African authors, including At Her Feet by Nadia Davids, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Once Upon a Time by Nadine Gordimer and The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk-Kidd.”25

isiXhosa Department: “We changed a textbook, as the picture portrayed people only speaking isiXhosa to petrol attendants.”

History Department: “The Grade 10 section on ancient African kingdoms has been extended and their project focuses on “Who am I?”, exploring cultural identity starting with self. The Grade 11 project was on Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah, and the Grade 12s’ comparative essay was on post-independent Congo and Tanzania.”

Culture Club: “We more often than not attend South African productions of South African texts, engaging where possible with issues surrounding diversity and equality and connecting with issues surrounding race, gender, social inequality and transformation in the universal context.”

Amasiko Portfolio: “During our Cultural Week, staff and pupils will share their knowledge on any aspect of culture, be it language, religion, performance, gender or race.” Finally, Springfield Convent School has engaged with all its constituents – the Dominican Sisters, board, staff, parents, pupils and past pupils – and together we are committed to actively continuing the process of transformation within the context of a South African and African teaching and learning institution.

Barbara Houghton is headmistress of Springf ield Convent School. To see the comprehensive list of references relevant to this article, please visit:

Category: Winter 2018

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