Telling tales out of school: an opportunity for ISASA schools to share their transformation and diversity journeys

| August 22, 2018 | 0 Comments

By LEBOGANG MONTJANE

In the last six months, two headmasters of my alma mater, St Peter’s Prep School in Johannesburg, passed away. The announcement of Richard Todd’s death left me with a sense of great loss of a beloved schoolmaster, whose admission of my brother and me – the first act of integration for St Peter’s – has had a profoundly positive impact on my life. He not only enrolled us, he set an institutional tone of full membership for the black boys whom he was to admit into his school. Of course, a few teachers did not agree with Todd’s view of inclusivity and equality. But for us boys, the tenor he set mattered, because when dealing with those teachers, you knew that they were racists. Conversely, it also reminded you that even in apartheid South Africa, not all white people were racists. However, in an effort to put apartheid behind them, some people today dwell on those noble figures who stood for justice in a racist South Africa. In doing so, they gloss over bigots and their impact on our society. As the #MeToo,1 #BlackLivesMatter2 and other movements illustrate, this emphasis on ignoring uncomfortable issues comes at great human cost if prejudice is unchallenged or unexposed.

Assimilation not the same as transformation

I was pointedly reminded of this lesson when I participated in an “Old Boys, My Story” panel discussion at St Peter’s in mid-May this year. The panel was composed of mostly black Old Boys and some white fellow alumni from the 1970s and 1980s. The black Old Boys, who had had the good fortune of having been at St Peter’s during the Todd era, reminisced about feeling fully included as members of St Peter’s – a white majority community during apartheid. They also agreed that when Todd left to become headmaster of Hilton College in KwaZulu-Natal, black students at St Peter’s felt as though they were now viewed as beneficiaries of the magnanimity of the new headmaster. Black students felt that this headmaster set a tone that black boys did not fully belong at the school, but were merely being accommodated.3 In the past few years, the question of transformation in schools has captured the media’s imagination.4 Judging by the coverage, you would think that racial inclusion in schools is a recent phenomenon. What is not generally known is that one of the first schools established in South Africa, St George’s Church School, was an integrated school. It “was apparently the first Anglican school to be founded in South Africa and it is interesting that of its pupil cohort in 1845, 43 were ‘of European descent’, while four were the children of ‘apprenticed negroes’ and even of ‘Hottentots and other persons of colour’”.5 Thus, integrated schools are not a new phenomenon in South Africa – even though this brief experimentation with inclusion was soon abandoned for more than a century. In South African schools, the modern journey of diversity and transformation began in 1976 when some convent schools enrolled black South African children for the first time.6 Other independent schools soon followed. During the bleak days of apartheid, this stance was a bold act of defiance in the face of the prevailing racial order imposed by the nationalist government.
At that time, broader questions of what inclusion entailed and whether institutional cultures needed to be interrogated were not at issue. As illustrated by the experiences of black students following the departure of Todd from St Peter’s, the approach of some school principals who enrolled black students was that after all, black families should be grateful not to be consigned to the ghetto of Bantu education as well as lesser-resourced schools for coloureds and Indians.7 The noblesse oblige attitude of “open” schools affirmed for them their progressiveness when they challenged the prevailing racial hierarchy.

Transformation not just an ethical, but a legal imperative

However, some 40 years later, transformation and diversity raise many different issues, because South Africa is now a constitutional democracy that recognises the equality of humankind.
As the largest and most inclusive schools’ association in southern Africa, ISASA has always taken into consideration contemporary factors that impact independent schools in general, and its members specifically. In the near half-century since inclusive independent education began, the approach of most schools has been one of assimilation. This reality prevailed for a time, first because the number of black children in independent schools was small, and second because even pioneering schools that enrolled some black children (from elite black families) upheld racial hierarchies that had been encoded into law by apartheid. However, since the dawn of democracy, independent schools have seen sizeable shifts in their demographic composition, especially at the pupil level. This means that the presumed historical institutional cultures, that were taken for granted must now be recognised. Our Constitution makes any form of racial grading illegal. As a result, schools have to find their place within the new values of an open and democratic society in which the “[h]uman dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms [as well as] nonracialism and non-sexism”8 are the founding principles. It is highly unlikely that a school which had accepted black students in the 1970s would necessarily meet the higher constitutional standard that now prevails in South Africa. The proscription against discriminating on the basis of “race, gender, sex… ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation… disability… culture, language and birth”, in section 9(3) of the Constitution, binds all of us as citizens and institutions. Further, central to South African constitutionalism is the balancing of rights with obligations. This means that individuals do not only have rights and the state duties. Thus, the sometimes onerously evoked right to free speech does not dislodge a person’s constitutional responsibility not to discriminate.

The ISASA Toolkit for Transformation and Diversity

In 2006 and 2007, ISASA formally addressed the question of diversity by conducting research in our member schools. A preliminary report of this research was tabled at the September 2007 ISASA Council meeting. At this meeting, the ISASA Council established a committee to review the findings of the report and to make recommendations to the ISASA Executive Committee, Council and Directorate, now called the Transformation and Diversity Committee, which remains a standing committee of the ISASA Council. Its early achievements included making the increase of diversity in member schools a strategic imperative for the ISASA 2008–2010 Strategic Plan. The inaugural committee also facilitated the release of the ISASA Diversity Report in January 2009. The recommendations of the Transformation and Diversity Committee came in the form of the Toolkit for Transformation and Diversity,9 which was published in September 2012 and revised in December 2013. The ISASA Toolkit is now being revised for the third time into A Guide to Effective School Transformation and Diversity Management. The philosophical approach of the initial toolkit was to win the hearts and minds of member schools and help them to understand that diversity and transformation are the right thing to do. True success for schools on the journey of managing diversity is undoubtedly based on the ethical commitment to humanistic principles founded in the SouthAfrican Constitution, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights10 and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Declaration of the Rights of the Child.11 However, as Stanley Bongwe of the Diversity Institute12 and the updating author of the ISASA guide makes clear, the necessity to diversify and transform is now a legal requirement. This is why ISASA recently published a new iteration of the ISASA Toolkit. This updated publication combines the instruments for those who desire to embrace humanist goals with the non-negotiable, anti-discriminatory and legal requirements imposed on all South African people and organisations. Although the ISASA Toolkit is accessible to ISASA member schools electronically, hard copies are for sale to all those who are interested in this topic.

An opportunity for schools to share their transformation stories

As mentioned above, the questions raised by the journey for inclusion and diversity in South African schools began in the 19th century. On this voyage, the best of humanity has revealed itself. However, some among us cling to the discredited notions of the congenital superiority of certain supposed groups within humanity. As ISASA’s Executive Committee probed the media’s consistent reportage of “untransformed” schools, it concluded that ISASA and its member schools should share their transformation stories. This decision was informed by the fact that it was independent schools that were bold enough to begin transforming their schools. Along the way, there have mostly been triumphs, but some pitfalls as well. That is why ISASA has embarked on the journey of dedicating two issues of Independent Education to relaying schools’ transformation experiences. My hope is that the complexities of human institutions that thrive to be inclusive will emanate from ISASA schools sharing their narratives on this question.

To see the full list of references relevant to this article, please visit www.ieducation.co.za. An extended version of this article can be found at: www.ieducation.co.za. The article was excerpted from A Guide to Effective School Transformation and Diversity Management and edited especially for Independent Education readers. To find out more about the guide, please visit: www.isasa.org.

Category: Winter 2018

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