Recently, there have been a number of highly publicised racial incidents reported in the media, which have caused a public outcry. This is understandable, given the history of our country. The reaction of the school leadership at St John’s College, in Houghton, to a teacher who made racist comments was criticised, to the extent that the MEC of Education in Gauteng intervened.
Are St John’s College and many other independent schools racist? If not overtly racist, are these schools simply at fault for not embracing our country’s diversity to its full extent? Ultimately, the Bishop of Johannesburg, the Right Reverend Dr Steve Moreo, addressed about 800 people in the Johannesburg City Hall on this matter. At a recent meeting with the Heads and Chaplains of local Anglican schools, Dino Gabriel, Bishop of the Anglican Church’s Diocese of Natal, requested that we share this message with our school communities. Bishop Moreo opened his address as follows:
“The past few days have been some of the most painful in my experience as a Bishop in the Diocese of Johannesburg. Together with others, I have struggled with the challenges presented by the upheaval caused by racist comments made by a teacher at St John’s College. This issue highlighted, once again, the scourge of racism and its many bedfellows that are blight on our society in our beautiful country … I am, as a Bishop, first and foremost your chief priest and pastor, and in tackling matters of this nature, it is my duty to minister to everyone involved, even those who are peripherally affected. Regarding racism, we stand opposed to all discriminatory practices … we derive the position from our faith and the truth that: ‘… God created humankind in his own image.’ (Gen 1:37). To break down a person’s dignity based on how they have been created denigrates the Image of God that they carry, and will thus denigrate the God behind the image too. In Christ, we are told that ‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). Jesus commands us, as part of this great institution of education, simply to ‘love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another’. (Jn 13:34).”
Bishop Moreo very clearly stated that “Racism thus has no place in this school. Racism is alien to the core values and beliefs of the school and when it is found, corrective action must be taken so that it is rooted out. Any attempt to downplay, minimise or in some way tolerate the issue of racism, breaches the fundamental identity of the school, the Anglican Church of Southern Africa and indeed of the Christian faith.”
I am delighted to hear the Bishop take a firm stand against racism, and in fact, any form of hatred, but at the same time emphasise that schools such as ours were founded on love and acceptance, as opposed to discrimination of any kind.
The Anglican Board of Education in South Africa (ABESA) backs this up in correspondence sent to Anglican schools, mentioning ‘a generosity of spirit’ as a core principle. In this, it states that “one of the hallmarks of an Anglican Church school is a spirit of kindness, compassion and respect for all people. This expresses itself in healthy relationships in the school and toward the wider community.”
An Anglican school should therefore be a welcoming and safe place. Although I believe that St John’s D.S.G. is a welcoming environment, it would be naïve to assume that we are immune to the problems seen in many other schools. It is, therefore, imperative that we adhere to the guidelines stipulated by the church to which we are affiliated. If we put into place mechanisms such as non-threatening discussion groups (which are already in place) and teach tolerance, understanding and an ability to listen attentively, then we are heading in the right direction. Perhaps we should consider the suggestion made by a parent that all girls would benefit from learning conversational isiZulu at St John’s.
Nelson Mandela once said, “We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination.” It is our duty as a school to heed these words, and educate girls in developing the skills to look at others with fresh, unbiased eyes, and grateful, loving hearts.
I would like to share with you four of the ten principles which we, as a staff, have adopted to guide us in decisions, and assist us when dealing with conflict, as I believe that they are particularly relevant in this context. They are summarised as follows:
1. Spirituality: We support the Christian Anglican ethos of the school, remembering that the focus of Christianity is love, honour and humility (not judgement).
2. Balance: We are committed to a Liberal Education, which teaches balance within the context of a Christian school, in order to prepare girls to thrive in the outside world.
3. Honour and respect: We honour all humans as unique individuals, irrespective of who they are. We treat all humans with dignity, as equals.
4. Conversations: We deal with facts openly and honestly, as opposed to perceptions. We respect and look for good in others, maintaining effective, diplomatic communication.
These principles, as mentioned, must assist us in handling all situations. Our objective is to educate in order for girls to achieve well academically, whilst simultaneously encouraging them to develop good judgement, ensuring that we remain grounded, and accept all around us. If we adhere to these principles, in conjunction with those mentioned earlier, I believe that we will remain relevant as a leading independent school, and embrace our wonderful culture as a diverse, unique and colourful nation.
Please don’t forget our 120th birthday celebrations on Friday, 8 September, as well as the official opening of our new Pavilion, which is almost complete. Please RSVP to Jenny Westwood if you are attending (firstname.lastname@example.org). Please also let us know if you wish to attend our Speech Day with guest speaker Dr Mamphela Ramphele on 6 October. Have a relaxing, enjoyable half-term.