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Ten suggestions: What we have discovered on our journey to wholeness

| November 26, 2018 | 0 Comments


‘T and d’. And, all of a sudden, it became our focus. We were not trained for it; we thought we were doing fine. And then it became clear. We were obliviously incompetent! We should thank those who so boldly and sometimes so rudely exposed us to the truth.

There is a grave danger that in writing about transformation and diversity, one will be perceived as attempting to be the expert. As someone wise once said, “An ex is someone who was, and a spurt is a rush of water, which is then gone”! There is also a danger that readers may think that I wish to portray the school I lead as a forerunner in the journey of transformation and diversity. The truth is that we are but babes in this journey of becoming more fully human. St Mary’s DSG in Pretoria, Gauteng, will be 140 years old in 2019. My introduction to the school was the 130th anniversary mass in 2009. On this occasion, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu described the school as “The type of school they said could not exist”. This has remained my inspiration over the years. If you ask me to quote statistics, I would say that St Mary’s DSG is approaching 70% black: 30% not black ratio. We celebrate the giftedness brought by every individual and the gift of diversity brought by the whole. But this statistic must not disguise the need for transformation. The following suggestions come from personal reflections on my journey to wholeness.

1. Have a clear personal understanding of diversity and transformation

At their most benign, these two words (‘diversity’ and ‘transformation’) are essential elements in the struggle for organisational growth and survival. Diversity within an organisation, properly managed, is now commonly seen as necessary to get the very best outcomes. It is about the coming together of differences, not the smoothing over of differences. Corporate culture should encourage being different, not being the same, except in terms of fundamental values. The corollary, seldom talked about, is the need to produce people of diversity. The idea of a school producing a type (“The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”)1 no longer holds any validity if we acknowledge !ke e: /xarra //ke2 – that is, ‘Diverse people unite’ – as the summary of the founding mission of our republic.

“The point is that there will always be positions to be taken. Truth is much harder to tell.”

Diversity has become tied strongly to racial diversity, but we face the danger of ignoring other aspects of diversity. These may include nationality, language and culture, religion, gender and sexual orientation, and economic status, among other elements. Transformation is about change in response to the external environment. It is about reading the times and ensuring that the organisation is remaining relevant. Again, this has become linked to responding to the sociopolitical world in which we live. However, your understanding of the present will depend on your past – and in this country, in particular, that history is very likely not the same as your neighbour. I keep reminding myself that of the approximately 900 girls in our school, 600 have grandparents and parents who were not regarded as fully human in the land of their birth. To understand the present, we have to understand our common past. Then we will be transformed.

2. Know your principles

In my case, these are threefold. The first principle is faith; the second, common humanity; and the third, common nationhood. They are necessarily bound together. For me, faith is not about certainty of doctrine, but the uncertainty of mystery and hope. That I should be loved beyond all measure by a God who loves beyond all measure takes my breath away and is beyond understanding, but not beyond my knowing and experiencing. That this same God created mankind in His own image gives a divinity to every human being and is the foundation of any discussion on what it means to be human. As a consequence, every human interaction becomes sacramental and potentially life-changing. This is the common humanity we seek… that all human beings are able to be fully human, fully alive… and that where and when they cannot be, we have failed. This must surely be what Ubuntu is? Only then do I ask, what does it mean to be South African? In our deliberations to listen and understand each other, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that understanding each other is enough. The purpose of understanding each other must be the forging of a national identity in which we are able to link arms and declare proudly “I am South African”. We must seek that common identity. This is easier and more difficult than we think. The preamble to the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa lists what needs to be done:

We, the people of South Africa, Recognise the injustices of our past; Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity. We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to – Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights; Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law; Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.

Then we will be South African!

3. Know thyself

My life has been profoundly influenced by four schools: St John’s College in Johannesburg, which I attended as a student through the fortune of my father being on the staff, and where I taught for 11 years; Diocesan College in Cape Town, where I taught for six years; St Dunstan’s College in Benoni, which I led for 11 years; and St Mary’s DSG, Pretoria, which I have now led for nine years. All are Anglican church schools. The fact that these schools, which were established in the time when ‘Britannia ruled the waves’4 at the height of empire, were based on English public-school models5 needs interrogation. The Anglican Church is almost the quintessential colonial institution (still having the Queen as the titular head!), and these schools are all offshoots of this colonialism. We need to be certain that we have shed any remnant that will hinder our progress towards being South African schools. In retrospect, one of the astonishing things about my schooling was that having no black boys in the school was not regarded as abnormal. We lived in normally abnormal days. This was, in part, I am sure, why legendary headmaster Deane Yates left St John’s College to start Maru-a-Pula in Gaborone.6 This consideration of my schooling (and my university life) itself is a starting point of the consideration of what ‘white privilege’ has meant to me. I and my children have been beneficiaries. In the same way that there is generational damage done, there is also generational responsibility. Those of us who benefited (and we need to teach our children this) have an obligation to carry the collective burden of guilt and make remedy. I consider it a massive responsibility to make the world a better place for those who still suffer the effects of apartheid oppression, despite the passing of time, while I have the means and influence to do so. The Socratesian7 ideal of ‘know thyself ’ urges us to place our true selves in present history. It is pertinent to note here that the so-called ‘Milner schools’, started by Lord Milner after the annexation of South Africa by the British Empire, are also steeped in colonial history and tradition. Lord Milner had no love for independent education, and these schools were started in part to combat the rise of church-based independent schools. King Edward VII School, Jeppe Boys’ High, Pretoria Boys’ High School and Pretoria High School for Girls are examples.8

4. We must start avoiding ‘polar’ talk.

Find common ground Linking Upper Houghton and Lower Houghton in Johannesburg is the Munro Drive. This steep curving pass, built by Italian prisoners of war, is the nemesis of boys from King Edward VII School and St John’s College, many of whom have had to train up this steep, tortuous road. (I discovered that feigned asthma was a good way to avoid it, but only after two years of college.) At the base of the vast retaining wall were spray-painted the words ‘Hang Mandela’, over which has been sprayed ‘Free Mandela’. You can still see where this was if you look closely. This, apart from my mother’s staunch support of Helen Suzman9 at that time, was my introduction to the politics of the age. I remember asking my parents the meaning of the graffiti when I was a primary school lad, and getting told that Mandela had tried to blow something up, with the associated understanding that he was getting what he deserved. But I was young, and they were also victims of the times in which they lived. In retrospect, these slogans remind me of two things: first, the ease at which we are drawn to opposite sides, and second, the value of history as a subject for study. The legend of John Peake (later headmaster of Diocesan College) throwing the brand-new prescribed history book known as ‘Van Jaarsveld’ through a closed St John’s classroom window into the Clayton Quad pond was a revelation.10 History, I learned from this display of disgust, was no longer a subject in which I had studied facts, but an interpretation of the victor’s opinion of the truth. Winners tend to write history, hence the necessary emphasis of research skills and my scepticism of the new motivation that schools must offer history as a compulsory subject so that learners will ‘know the truth’. The point is that there will always be positions to be taken. Truth is much harder to tell. So, what is truth? These words of Pontius Pilate11 resonate with school leaders as they try to manoeuvre their schools through the quagmire of the present age. The most important thing is that we move from a narrative around winners and losers, black and white, and find common ground that will recreate us and allow us to find our common heritage as humans, with all the divinity this entails.

5. Those on the fringes hold influence, but not necessarily legitimacy

There will always be those who wish to make a noise, and often they have influence, but one needs to be very clear about the legitimacy of each person’s voice. Structures need to cater for the voices of as many as possible. Like most schools, St Mary’s DSG operates according to a clearly defined constitution – which, in particular, stipulates the way in which the school is governed. As a school held in trust by the Anglican Diocese of Pretoria, the constitution is owned by a greater body than just the school and is an approved document of synod.12We have a sub-committee of the governing body wholly concerned with transformation and diversity matters. A parent forum, expressly constituted, advises the sub-committee on these matters. There is a separate parents’ association, which is also represented on the governing body panel. Learners have a leader dedicated to transformation and diversity, assisting the head girl. Learners interact through what we call ‘Circles of healing’, or ‘Letsema’, which meet biweekly or whenever necessary. In my opinion, focusing attention on the learners has paid off. I have learned that one has to work hard at the legitimacy of these structures. Employees, especially academic staff, meet to discuss how to understand their role. Yet, if authority and power are allowed to be assumed by small groups, governance is shattered. We must listen to all, but be certain of who to work through and with.

6. It is much harder with adults, but keep focused on the kids!

As educators, we know that matric results are not the primary job of schools. Our job is to produce young people who will have the skills to change the world. Frankly, we adults who have been through apartheid on whatever side are damaged, and it takes deep and often painful introspection to come to this realisation. Our kids will do a much better job if we teach them well. Yet, we will be mistaken to take the ‘miracle of 1994’13 attitude. It will take generations of work to undo this damage. There is generational damage that we cannot and should not escape.

7. There will be incidents in the future, and what you do will not please everyone

Schools are not in isolation. Events in society, such as the #FeesMustFall and #BlackLivesMatter movements, feed down very soon into senior school students’ minds, and even further. If the learners take positions in this regard, you have taught them well. How the learners will engage with the institution will test your structures. As long as incidents occur in society, they will be reflected in our schools. In true educational institutions, our attitude must be embracing and learning, rather than defensive and protectionist.

8. Be intentional

Transformation should be on the informal and formal agendas at every level of the school. It should be as normal to discuss and evaluate transformational issues as it is to discuss and evaluate behaviour and cognitive development.

9. Subscribe to the ‘Africa rising’ narrative

At our school, it has been useful to ask colleagues in the classroom to look deliberately for ways to regularly bring into the curriculum (including, importantly, life orientation and history) things that speak to the wisdom, the past and the potential of Africa. So much of what we have heard in the past, and which lingers in the minds of many, is what we may call the ‘Africa failing’ narrative. Take every opportunity to celebrate, both an individual and in our common heritage. Remember events such as Africa Day, Festivals of African Saints, Heritage Day, Mandela Day and Human Rights Day wisely. Be careful that we do not do this for good public relations and marketing. We do this because we should.

10. Have someone completely outside of the school to advise you personally

I am immensely grateful to the organisation Re-Imagine South Africa (RiSA), spearheaded by Mamphela Ramphele and George Lindeque,15 who guided me through our initial journey and remain available for consultation. Their vision of a new South Africa resonates deeply. It is my hope and prayer that this reimagined vision will continue to inspire our school to be “That school they said could not exist” in our never-ending quest to be more fully a school that produces ‘daughters of the King’ who are fully human and fully alive. The Sisters of the Community of St Mary the Virgin (CSMV),16 who ran the school for 70 years and established many of the traditions and the ethos of the school, in their wisdom chose the colours of the school uniform to be the redbrown of the Pretoria earth and the blue of the African sky. They clearly had a vision of a truly African school, which claims the motto: ‘Filiae Regis’, meaning ‘Daughters of the King’. I would like to add, “Jabulani Africa”, – “Rejoice, O Africa!”

The Reverend Canon Angus Paterson is the head of St Mary’s DSG.

1. The original statement (in the form: “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”) is attributed by oral tradition to the Duke of Wellington, but is probably apocryphal. By 1881, it was evidently familiar enough to be used allusively, without direct references to Wellington. (Source:
2. The motto ‘!ke e: /xarra //ke’ is written in the (now extinct) Khoisan language of South Africa and means ‘Diverse people unite’. This coat of arms has been in use since 27 April 2000. (Source:
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Category: Summer 2018

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