We've learnt our lesson, says St John’s College
Renamed buildings, trips to Hillbrow and revised curriculum part of shake-up at elite Joburg school
Naming school buildings after struggle stalwarts, embracing African literature, drawing up an anti-discrimination policy and crafting an employment equity plan that will give preference to the hiring of suitably qualified black South Africans.
These are some of the measures that St John’s College in Johannesburg has implemented to restore its image in the wake of last year’s public outrage over a teacher’s racist remarks and the way the matter was handled.
A 25-member Independent Representative Interim Committee (IRIC) was appointed in September 2017 to drive transformation at the Anglican school after geography teacher Keith Arlow was found guilty of making racially derogatory and inappropriate remarks to black pupils.
Arlow allegedly said black boys “look the same from some angles”, and he told a black boy that it was good he was “thinking like a white boy”.
In a statement issued in July 2017, the college said Arlow had resigned, which contradicted an earlier statement by the Gauteng education department that he had been fired.Dr Jon Patricios, council chairperson of St John’s College, told Times Select that the IRIC had proposed that all issues involving transformation and diversity at the school be examined, including pupil admissions, staffing, curriculum, heraldry, cultural symbols and the naming of buildings.
Changes that have already been made, as well as those yet to be implemented, include:
The appointment of Dudu Mashele as senior mistress for transformation and diversity;
Reviewing the curriculum by the heads of department, specifically with respect to the balance between a global outlook and an African context;
Getting Grade 9 pupils to explore the themes of migrancy, xenophobia, race and culture by taking walking tours through the suburbs of Hillbrow, Yeoville, Berea, Sophiatown and Brixton, which they probably would not have done before;
Dividing teachers from St John’s Preparatory School into small groups to discuss chapters from Nene Molefi’s book, A Journey of Diversity and Inclusion in South Africa; and
Naming buildings after struggle stalwarts such as the Hugh Lewin History Block after Old Johannian Hugh Lewin, and a quadrangle after Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
Headmaster of St John’s College Paul Edey said: “The naming of the Tutu Quad after a man who has brought so much joy and love to our country was greeted with exuberance and warmth by the entire Johannian community.”The college said its English department had made a concerted effort to “decolonialise” the syllabus long before “decolonisation” became part of the global and national lexicon.
“We have added substantially to the list of South African and African texts taught in our classrooms, whilst still acknowledging the value of much of the literature taught in the past, and which we continue to teach, because of the role it plays in exploring similar issues in the global context.”
Some of the prescribed texts that were taught and continue to be taught include The Billion Dollar Soccer Ball (Michael Williams), Master Harold and the Boys (Athol Fugard), Buckingham Palace, District 6 (Richard Rive), The Suit (Can Themba), Cry, the Beloved Country (Alan Paton), Disgrace (JM Coetzee) and Born a Crime (Trevor Noah).
St John’s College said its English department “was constantly reading widely and seeking new South African and African novels and plays to teach in our English classes”.The school said the focus of its trips to Johannesburg suburbs was to encourage pupils “to think about the space they first and foremost occupy in the city”.
“The boys went on tours to Ponte City, Sophiatown and Brixton/Langlaagte, areas that some of the young men would never think of going. This was to break down barriers, mentally and physically, and try to create a space for them to think about what their perceptions are.”
The trips were also aimed at allowing the boys to make up their own minds about what they saw and to go back to their homes and report and possibly influence family members.
The history syllabus at St John’s Preparatory School was revised to include sections such as South African public holidays and the history associated with each holiday; the contribution of Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters; early African trade routes and the kingdom of Mali and Timbuktu.
On the topic of the civilisation of ancient Egypt, the history department said: “Although it has become quite a controversial topic, with some experts disagreeing on the skin tone, we as a department make it quite clear that the ancient Egyptians did not look like Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton!”Lewis Manthatha, a house master and history teacher, said there was a need for textbooks written from an African gaze that underpins social justice and the concept of ubuntu.
“We need our black academics to start writing our textbooks and re-documenting black African history.”
Commenting on teachers from St John’s Preparatory School reading and discussing chapters from her book, Molefi said it was a great idea because they were not only reading but discussing it in small groups.
“It forces the reader to reflect on the insights and tips and share their own life experience of diversity, and most importantly how the lessons can be applicable to them in their environment.”..