Letter to the Editor
I woke up to tweet on Saturday morning referencing something negative about Selborne College, East London’s “prestigious” all-boys school which I attended from 1992 to 1996. I immediately went to reading about the poster controversy where a matric pupil used as inspiration Sam Nzima’s iconic image of Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying a dead or dying Hector Pieterson during the Soweto uprising of 1976 for an artwork he hoped would reflect the matric class’s grief at leaving high school. Pieterson’s sister Antoinette is running beside them in that picture in case you ever wondered who the lady in the pic was.
I am not here to parse the artist’s intentions because as kids, we all do dumb things. He has since apologised and explained he never meant to reflect prejudice or racism. I will take him at his word. But let’s agree that with hindsight, this was an outrageous desecration of that historic moment in a country still struggling to bridge political, class and racial divides that are stubbornly persistent. The subsequent image of 25 white boys drinking beer around the poster at a gathering at the Old Selbornian Club (OSA) was a stark indication of the work that remains on issues of transformation, integration, political sensitivities and self-awareness. I will return to this later.
The controversy brought back painful memories of my time at Selborne College. I was among the first batch of brown and black children sent to these former whites-only schools soon after the unbanning of the African National Congress, the release of Nelson Mandela and the subsequent changes that took place. My mother took me to walk the grounds of Selborne one Saturday morning explaining that this is where she wanted to send me the following year and that it was important I made a good impression during my admission interview. It was a palatial campus with sprawling sports fields, a swimming pool, several tennis courts and a shooting range. Compared with what I had experienced (in terms of facilities NOT education) attending St Johns Road Primary on the other side of the tracks, this – I thought – was going to be a very cool adventure.
The poster story hit a nerve and I found myself very emotional, a mixture of anger, frustration and pain. It reminded me of all the racist experiences I was confronted with – white boys my age, 13 or 14 years old who didn’t appreciate the sudden influx of people they had little clue about.
In my first year in 1992, a group of boys left a huge accumulation of spit on my neatly folded blazer that was on my book-bag during a lunch break. I was disgusted that anyone would do that to another person and marched straight to the librarian, then a Mrs Anne Stonier, who threw an absolute fit. We were able to identify the boys and the matter was referred to the Headmaster, Mr Tim Gordon. I was subsequently called to his office to explain my side of the story and he promised to handle it.
The perpetrators were called to his office and that was the last I heard of the matter until, at the end of the term, my parents received a letter from Gordon, accompanying my report card, asking them to reprimand me for bullying the very same boys at the school. He never addressed those concerns to me, never asked me why I was bullying rugby players double my size, he just took their word and wrote a letter of complaint to my parents. Fortunately, my mom and dad believed me and tried their best to encourage me to keep my head down and get on with it. Gordon left the school soon afterward so we didn’t bother to pursue the matter any further.
I was bullied by a white racist who would torment me daily. He would ask me why I didn’t go to a brown high school (he used the word ‘coloured’, I don’t ) and demanded to know why we didn’t go to our own schools in the townships. I was asked why my English was so good and why Afrikaans wasn’t my first language like “Cape Coloureds”. We once got into an altercation when he took my notebook off my desk after I had refused it to him and handed it to his friend to copy my homework. I objected and a scuffle ensued before he was dragged out of the classroom by the teacher. A few moments later, he was back in the room with a smug look on his face. Nothing of consequence happened. As kids do, everyone laughed while I was traumatized. None of them intervened, none lifted a finger to help, they just laughed.
Once in Standard 7, a white boy told me that they didn’t mind me as much as the “kaffirs over there”, pointing to a group of our black peers who were minding their own business, bothering no-one. It was such a terrifying moment that I froze, not sure how to respond. I would later feel embarrassed at my lack of response but it stuck with me over the years and has informed my actions in later life.
I had a boy grab my ankles through my grey school pants as I was going up some stairs because he wanted to “see if I had fat legs”, I was constantly asked why my dad was so fair in complexion and whether he was white – it bothered them that this might be the case. A group of white boys ridiculed me because I wasn’t made a prefect in 1996, moments after the all-white prefect body was paraded during the school assembly. I remember conversations with some of my black peers who were less surprised by this than I was. The members of staff were, of course, complicit in this sham but perhaps still lacked the cultural sensitivities to recognize what message this would send to a diverse student population.
I posted some of my thoughts on social media and a white peer wrote back commiserating over what I had experienced by quickly pointed to the school’s unreserved apology about the poster while explaining that he had witnessed a transformation at Selborne into one of the “most diverse and top boys schools” in the country. I then asked him why there were only white boys gathered around that poster drinking beer at the OSA. Where were the black boys, the brown boys? If this was a farewell type event for the newly matriculated in 2017, why did it remind me of 1985? This is a group of boys who started their schooling in 2005 – that fact should give us all pause.
To deny that the country has made progress would be disingenuous but without consciously addressing the systemic racism that persists would be irresponsible. One black friend wrote to me saying her son attended Selborne until 2015 and that the changes had been artificial and that she’d never recommend the school to anyone. That is not my view – Selborne was not all bad and I continue to have good friends from my time there – black and white. I have fond memories of many of my teachers, being chair of the music society, playing tennis and cricket and taking 9 wickets, yes 9 for the second team in my last game for the school. I immersed myself in the school’s culture, school plays, cultural performances, joined the new guard for the Founders Day Parade (the only brown person in a sea of white) – I was, after all, proud to be a Selbornian. Part of me still is.
What I hope these memories will do is allow us to have an open and frank conversation about the hardships black and brown and Indian and every “other” pupil had to endure at Selborne and schools like it in the early 1990s. We were shoved or prodded into places unfamiliar to us and had to make it work without much help from the adults who themselves were probably confused or overwhelmed by the changes happening all around us.
What the poster demonstrates to us is not necessarily racism but a profound ignorance of who we are as a collective people. If, 21 years since I matriculated from Selborne, any brown or black child feels the way I felt back then, then we are failing at the transformation project. That a group of matriculants gathered to celebrate their passage in life doesn’t better reflect the demographics of our country, then surely the glass is only half full.
Since leaving Selborne, I have had many experiences and opportunities in life that have restored my faith in people of all colours. We overcame these obstacles at high school because options were limited and for children from disadvantaged communities, education was seen as key to a better life. It was thus almost impossible for us to be distracted by bigotry.
But let’s not deny that it happened and that many of us probably deserve an apology from many of you reading this. Most importantly though, let’s understand the full picture of those days in the 90s and ask if things have really improved. And if they have, I’d much rather hear it from a black or brown person first.
Sherwin Bryce-Pease is a SABC Correspondent based in New York and current President of the United Nations Correspondents Association. He writes in his personal capacity.