THE BLOG

Everything Must Change At St John's, Says Professor Sarah Nuttall

St John's needs to radically confront themselves, their legacies, the failures of non-racialism and take action.

02/08/2017 09:35 SAST | Updated 02/08/2017 11:21 SAST
St Johns College

On a Tuesday morning in September last year, I left my office at Wits and drove to St Johns Pre-Preparatory School. I walked up to the headmistress' office and sat down with her. I am worried, terribly worried, about racism at this school, I said to Jane Lane. I can feel it in my bones. I am uneasy. I am worried about and for my son. I want to talk to you about it and work out what to do.

I am desperately worried about the ignorance of parents and the things boys are beginning to say to each other, much of which has obviously come from their homes. What was haunting me, I said to her, was the realisation that, even at the age of six, the age of my child who has recently entered the school, we, as parents and as a school, would have to see that it was not enough to talk about care, diversity, difference. We would have to address race and racism directly.

The headmistress did two things over the next two weeks. She asked me to speak to all the teachers, including interns, in the Pre-prep school. I did this a few days later, asking her to then convene a meeting with parents, to be led by black parents, so we could hear what their thoughts were on this issue. At this first meeting with Pre-prep staff members, we discussed ways to write texts for schools in order to teach anti-racism to very young boys -- rather than relying on books from elsewhere, or outdated ways of having this conversation. I relayed incidents and ambivalences I struggled with in relation to my own son, and other boys of colour.

I told them that one of the many things I took from the student movements at Wits and elsewhere was the degree to which racism inside of apparent friendships, was some of the most damaging of all. I insisted that private schools like St Johns needed to radically confront themselves, their legacies, the failures of non-racialism and the need to take action now. Universities, I told them, had received necessary critiques of how they operate and in whose interests; private schools were next. Either lead the way for change or you will suffer the consequences.

Next, she escalated the issues I had raised in a meeting with Paul Edey, headmaster of the school. She came along. My son read his Harry Potter on the couch outside his office. I told Paul Edey that racism was a clear and escalating problem at this and other schools, St Johns needed an anti-racism policy urgently, an office dedicated to this issue, that it could be produced immediately, that it was time to act now. I insisted that school governance structures, which remained largely white as far as I could see, needed to be reviewed and changed right now; I asked if I could broker contact with the Wits School of Education to draw in senior black teachers right away.

I suggested who I thought would be most skilled in talking to boys and teachers about racism; I asked to convene a group of parents and begin work in that terrain. The headmaster said to me that the school does all this already; and that the school did not need people to come and talk to the boys. The school year was over. My child, eight years old, moved to the Prep school. In late January, I went to see the headmaster of the Prep, Patrick Lees. I told him that I wanted to contribute, with others, to the formulation of an anti-racism policy for adoption by the school. You have an anti-bullying policy, you have a policy on social media, you have other policies that are sent home to be signed, I said.

South Africa is long past constitutionalism with regard to confronting racism; non-racialism, we must accept, has not worked in defeating racism.

You have no anti-racism policy. No breakdown of what racism is, how a boy should proceed if he is a victim of racism or if he witnesses a racist incident -- where does he go, who does he report it to, and what action will be taken. Let's start work on drafting the beginning of a policy that we could take to parents and teachers, consulting carefully along the way. That could be put in place before the end of the year. Patrick Lees agreed. I had teamed up with other parents, the relatively few I had begun to know well, both black and white.

We met in our living rooms, looked at anti-racism policies from elsewhere in the world, we drafted, redrafted, added new content, collected anecdotes from parents about what racism (now) looks like, what forms it most often takes, how it needs to be specifically countered and stopped. Three more times, I went to the prep headmaster's office to make a 7 am meeting in my tracksuit and trainers, after the early morning school run. We began to draft an invitation to all parents and teachers from the Pre-Prep and Prep schools, a date was set, then changed because of a school play, then set again.

Then, I was called in. A second school official now told me, we do not want policy. We would like an approach that works with an idea of dignity for all. We don't wish to single out racism. What about a statement, a charter perhaps, on equality, that we could refer to. I remember the long silence in that room. I disagree with you, I said. South Africa is long past constitutionalism with regard to confronting racism; non-racialism, we must accept, has not worked in defeating racism. It may even be that as racism declines in some quarters it rises on a tide of resentment and white supremacy, in others.

Or it happens simultaneously, within one school community. How must that feel to those who suffer its form of schizophrenia? Our disagreement was deeply political of course, but it also took us to the heart of the problem: the problem with an ethos which is built on the untruth that if you ignore race, all will eventually be well. The only way to go forward was now to call the meeting to discuss 'anti-racism' only, collect stories of racist acts and words, and talk about how to enable our children to be knowing, caring, highly aware, non-racist and non-sexist citizens. The question of the policy would be raised inside the meeting, I and other parents working with me, decided.

This was about two weeks ago. Date set, time set, already more than 100 responses to our invitation to parents and teachers, and still more than a week to go. The aim and intention of the meeting: the beginning of a broad conversation about an anti-racism policy for this school, and a rollout to all schools thereafter. More fundamentally, a conversation with parents about race and structural change at the school level. And then the story of Mr Arlow breaks. It was the first time we heard his name, his crimes, or the school's response. Paul Edey gives an incompetent interview on 702. He shows himself unable to offer leadership, self-reflection, or to condemn the excessive racism of this case.

There is a debate to be had, and I have it regularly with myself and others, about whether one should place a child in a privileged private school in the first place. One part of that debate is the view that forms of stubborn white power must be fought everywhere, including in highly privileged spaces. St Johns is a great deal more diverse than it was ten years ago. What does this mean if Arlow and his ilk are still in there, hiding in plain sight? Or, now that we are rid of him, that so little has been done to address real transformation in this school. So many schools are fighting racism and a lack of transformation in their ranks.

Those stories have to be told now. If the school won't listen to them, they must be told in public. And they now are.

When once a class bully said to my son 'you have a disgusting face', was it bullying or racism? It was both. What did my son do? He reported it straight to his teacher. The teacher dealt with it immediately, and the parents were called in by the headmistress. That boy has not done it or anything else like it again. But when I heard a white College boy speaking in the corner of a sports stand to his friends one evening, in front of several girls, in favour of apartheid, I had no direct line to report it to, no one person who would call him in and punish him for his hate speech.

Last night I joined St Johns boys, alumni, several staff members, and parents to protest peacefully outside of the Council meeting room where a meeting of the full Council was at 5 pm. When the Council didn't show up, rerouting their meeting elsewhere, we went into the room and had our own meeting. At that meeting, St Johns boys, both black and white, talked to us about what they had experienced -- in relation to racism, and also sexism and homophobia -- and seen and heard from their peers. They also said that they were speaking of a school that, in the words of one, 'has given me so much and taken so much away'.

This for me was the instant a new momentum came into being. Those stories have to be told now. If the school won't listen to them, they must be told in public. And they now are. These stories are the key, the beginning of the way to change a school which is now being held to account for the shocking non-dismissal of a disgustingly racist teacher, and for failing to meet its duty to protect boys of colour from racism. This school has a number of clear thinking, politically aware people in it, at all levels.

I have met them, I know what they think. They need collectively to listen to all the stories they can, embrace the rage that is being felt and has been felt for a long time, adopt an anti-racism policy as a start, and act visibly, determinedly and with speed to enable St Johns to become a different kind of institution altogether.