Shaping students who “will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character” at The Vine School

| August 22, 2018 | 0 Comments

By SUSAN KEEGAN

Since its inception, The Vine School has been strongly committed to playing a role in South Africa’s transformation journey.

Many factors contributed to our sense of calling for racial reconciliation. The school grew out of a preexisting school that was founded in 1988 by a group of parents – white and coloured – who wanted a Christian school for their children. Under the tricameral system of the day,1 only the “coloured” Department of Education was willing to register the school. The daughter of one of the founders was the first white child to be registered by the DoE of the House of Representatives.2 That school eventually closed in 2012, and The Vine School took over its resources, staff and pupils, as well as a parent body who had developed true friendships between families of diverse backgrounds. Another factor was the history of our premises. Built in 1939 to serve the local coloured community, the original school was forced to close when the suburb was declared white under the Group Areas Act.3 Today, the school is ideally placed to redeem that history. Situated in Lansdowne, a suburb in Cape Town in the Western Cape that is once again home to a predominantly coloured population, the school is close to the “leafy suburbs” of Rondebosch and Claremont, and a block away from a major bus and taxi route serving the townships of Nyanga, Gugulethu and Khayelitsha. It is accessible to rich and poor, black and white, those from far and those from near. It is a joy to see this diversity reflected in our student body.

A binding commitment

Like the founders of the school that closed in 2012, the directors of The Vine School were a racially diverse group. As they had learnt to love and respect people of different cultures, they wanted pupils at their school to learn the same. They expressed this in the appointment of teaching staff, the enrolment of school families, and in the policies and practices that regulate school life. Their commitment is expressed in the Parent Manual, as follows:

The Vine School [is] committed to more than nondiscrimination, in that we actively pursue diversity as an essential good. We affirm that there is nothing wrong with the powerful bonds that we share with our own “tribe”, where we can hear things in our home language and are familiar with cultural references. However, there is more opportunity for growth when we engage with people of diverse backgrounds, affirm traditions different from our own and seek to appreciate the beauty that God has chosen to express in others. Such engagement promotes deeper sensitivity, broader understanding and greater enlargement of heart and mind. These qualities Winter ISASA 2018_ISASA 09 Autumn 2018/06/14 09:54 Page 24 Independent Education • Winter 18 25 are necessary for loving relationships across cultural, racial and socio-economic boundaries. The Vine School seeks to be a united, diverse, reconciled community, as a testimony to the power of God and the nature of His Kingdom.

This is easy to write but difficult to achieve, given the prejudices, hurts and betrayals of our shared history. We know it is not enough to have racially mixed classes in the hope that our children will grow up “colour-blind”. Instead, we have determined to actively foster a reconciled community. We have not done all that we would like to do – the work of establishing and growing a school has been demanding, and we have not had the capacity to do more. But here are some of the things we have done…

A diverse staff and affordable fee structure

We sought to appoint excellent teachers from different cultural backgrounds. The racial mix of our teaching staff is 52% coloured, 43% white and 5% black, and there are similar ratios in our administrative and maintenance teams. We are one of few ISASA schools in the Western Cape whose principal is not white. We would love to appoint more black teaching staff but have struggled to attract teachers with strong English skills. Many black teachers who speak English well are strongly committed to working in disadvantaged schools. This we respect, but it is unfortunate for us. We have tried to keep our school fees as affordable as possible, so as not to become exclusive. As we have small classes with no more than 16 children in each, this has not been easy. However,
our fees are relatively low for an independent school. We offer education bursaries to all employees who wish to enrol their children, including maintenance and administrative staff. We also offer reduced fees to families who cannot afford the full fees – typically those who remain disadvantaged by the apartheid legacy. Our great challenge now is to raise sufficient funds to continue supporting such families, thus helping to redress some of the wrongs of the past. Rules about hair have made the headlines in recent times.4 Attitudes towards hairstyles are often arbitrary and culture-bound, resulting in different opinions about what is acceptable. In thinking through the principles that inform these opinions, we settled upon modesty and a self-forgetful attitude consistent with the school’s values. We require that hair colour should be natural, and styles should be neat, conservative and easy to maintain. Braids may be worn, and hair extensions should be the same as the student’s natural colour. Teachers contact parents if their child’s hairstyle is a source of distraction to the child or to other pupils.

Celebrating and supporting each family 

It is an ongoing challenge to arrange parent meetings at a time that suits all our parents. Families who use public transport struggle to come to evening meetings in the week, because trains, buses and taxis are irregular and/or unsafe at night. We tried to have parent meetings on Saturday mornings, but that didn’t work for families who work or shop on Saturday mornings, or who have children participating in club sports. It’s also a challenge to arrange a school event for pupils in the evening. To ensure that everyone can participate, we encourage parents who have transport to open up their homes so that children who can’t travel home at night can sleep over. Out of consideration for families who live far away and have no transport, we schedule only one event during the year that requires all children to attend in the evening. This is one of several areas where we have chosen to give up a benefit often taken for granted by the privileged for the sake of those who have less. We have arranged multicultural events to promote fun and fellowship. We had a bring and share supper, and asked families to bring a meal typical of their culture. It was a great success – Xhosa families brought umphokoqo and amasi (krummel pap and sour milk), umngqusho (samp and beans) and fried chicken from a fast-food outlet. Shona families brought sadza (mielie pap), korvu (a vegetable like kale) and stew. One American family brought chili and salsa, another brought takeaway pizza. Coloured families brought bobotie and breyani and koeksusters, an Afrikaans family brought melktert. Only the white, Englishspeaking families were unsure what to bring, as they realised that their favourite dishes reflect so many cultures of South Africa and the rest of the world.

Opportunities to bring issues to the table

We hosted two evenings for parents to engage with one another on the issue of racism. We invited a speaker to talk about the racism he experienced as a black South African, and racism that he identified in his own responses to white South Africans. We set up tables of eight, with a teacher hosting each table. We asked participants to ensure that each table had different cultural groups represented. With the scene set by the speaker – and a reminder that the purpose was to share stories, not opinions – we invited parents to take turns to describe their earliest memory of when race became an issue for them. As each group was small enough for a measure of intimacy, and because our parents are not strangers to one another, it was a safe enough space to share memories that were often painful. Some people had dramatic stories to tell, others remembered seemingly small but significant incidents. For some, this was the first time they had ever heard a deeply personal revelation from someone of another cultural group. These dialogues were greatly appreciated by the parents who attended.

A long, hard look at the language issue

In common with other schools, we wrestled with the problems that arise when a group of people use their shared language to communicate with one another while excluding others from their conversation. We require everyone using a language other than English to switch to English if they are in the company of anyone who might not understand them. This has reduced mistrust and alienation, as there is no opportunity to use language as a cover for unkind talk, gossip or deliberate exclusion. This is one of many areas where it was helpful to have the insights of board members whose mother tongue is not English. We were able to implement this policy without alienating parents or pupils. We recently adopted a language policy to promote the teaching and learning of languages used in southern Africa. In the purpose statement, we noted that this is to foster respect, fellowship and reconciliation between people who have historically been divided. Other benefits include validating the worth of different cultures, opening doors of opportunity to learn from one another, countering bias that favours Western culture, helping adoptive black children develop their identity as people of colour, and contributing to the building of our nation and God’s kingdom. The practical applications of this policy will include formal instruction in one of the Nguni languages, inclusion of worship songs in the home languages of our students and learning how to greet in languages used in Africa, including southern African languages, French and Portuguese. As these activities are introduced, we have no doubt they will be welcomed by our school families.

Diversity flourishes in an environment of humility

These are some of the humble attempts we have made to foster a school community where diversity is enjoyed, appreciated and accommodated. We, too, long for a nation where, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr, our children “will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”.5 We do this in the recognition that every child bears the image of God, and we welcome them as representatives of the multitudes from every tribe and tongue who will one day worship their Creator in perfect unity

Susan Keegan is director of The Vine School.

References:
1. See: http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/tricameral-parliament
2. Ibid.
3. See: https://public.getlegal.com/legal-info-center/april-27-1950-south-africapasses-group-areas-act-formally-segregating-races-and-beginning-era-ofapartheid/
4. See: https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/lesufi-gives-kempton-parkschool-deadline-to-change-hair-policy-20170725
5. See: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/mlks-content-of-character-quote-inspiresdebate/

Category: Winter 2018

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