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MABINE SEABE: Our 'best' schools' alumni must help end racism at alma maters

The programmes, influence and structure of old boys and girls networks differ from school to school, but one thing that stands true is that they remain the largest constituency of often elite institutions. Like the workplace the demography of these networks is rapidly changing - they are younger and more diverse (not just racially) than ever before.

Alumni networks generally help in preserving the history, values and traditions of schools. It’s now time for these networks to be used as vehicles for societal good. These schools disproportionately as a bloc produce leaders in sports, politics and commerce, therefore their role in shaping society is immense and must be used and can be used for good.

My alma mater, St John’s College, in its school hymn calls for its young men (and women in post-matric) to “go forth from its gate equipped well to serve Thee in Church and in State”. This is a charge for us to claim a stake in society and in the area you ply your trade and the communities we occupy to foster change that is just and fair. The same can be distilled from the motto, values and mission of the country’s most expensive schools.

That is the call of the #BlackLivesMatter movement - for a just and fair society. And the same applies to movements such as #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall. In 2016, it was the call of Pretoria Girls High School learner, Zulaikha Patel; and it is the cry of students at South Africa’s so-called best schools - mostly private and former Model-C schools.

Learners are crying out for schools, institutions that should be places of inclusion, safety, development and social consciousness, to introspect, and for the application of justice and fairness.

Hair and dress codes written in the 1890s surely cannot still be in place. The books procured by the library must show that you are producing global African leaders - Zakes Mda should be as prominently displayed and taught as Charles Dickens. Incidents of racism should receive greater consequences than that meted out for wearing white socks instead of the regulatory black socks. It’s black children demanding at the most basic level that their names be correctly pronounced, and for LBGTQI students to be treated with equality. These are the simple yet important and growing cries of pupils at South Africa’s schools.

We should all be shaken into action by the murder of George Floyd in the same way we should be angered by the murder and cover up of Collins Khosa here in South Africa. But as we rightly march against injustice, show solidarity and raise awareness, what are we doing in the corners we occupy and the areas in which we are able to exert influence?

This is where alumni networks come in to play a direct and meaningful role in shaping a just and fair society, so that bigotry and discrimination aren’t perpetuated in school and subsequently in society at large.

In 2017, St John’s College, was the subject of an incident of racism by a teacher, and while the young men and women of the school raised alert bells on a number of occasions, the system (like those of governments and corporations) disastrously and unjustly failed them.

I reflect on this incident because of its proximity to me and as an example of the power and influence alumni (even if it is a small grouping) can have in transforming institutions they have an interest in.

The 2017 incident, which catalysed the formation of Open St John’s, was brought to the attention of Markus Trengove, who then raised it with Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, Omphile Ramela and me - all old boys. We were also supported by a handful of educators and parents who worked with us despite the risks that come with being lone voices against powerful and self-interested systems.

While we, as old boys, held different political affiliations and even views on how to approach this, we agreed that an injustice had occurred; members of our community (the students) were abused and victimised; and as beneficiaries of the school a befitting contribution would be to ensure that incidents of bigotry and discrimination do not happen again and when they do occur there is open and transparent accountability. We were also clear that the fight belonged to the students and our contribution would be as former leaders at the school and leaders in our spheres of influence, which was to be to be used to guarantee that the students and their issues were taken seriously. This incident could not be brushed aside, as was the case here and is still often the case when minors speak out against injustices performed by adults.

Like the demands currently being made by the the learners of St Anne’s College in KwaZulu-Natal, the 2020 matric class of Bishops College in Cape Town and their peers at schools across South Africa, it is not just about saying no to racism and its bedfellows but it is also about acknowledging it, acting against it and reforming the systems and policies which perpetuate it. This prevailing fight at schools includes calls against homophobia, sexism, and the working conditions of support staff.

As the Open St John’s movement gained momentum and the calls grew for deeper reforms, beyond just the sacking of a racist teacher, there were teachers and old boys, who at first supported (whether genuinely or not) the movement, then began to become silent about the injustices. Instead, their voices boomed about the methods we employed and the so-called radical calls for leadership figures to be dismissed. One teacher remarked in passing there was no problem, when we stated that we were “fixing what’s broken”.

It is worth noting that not a single stone was thrown and the St John’s campus still stands tall atop the Houghton ridge. This is by no means an adjudication of protests that turn violent but an illustration of the fact that regardless of how you fight and how legitimate the fight is, there will always be groupings and individuals who will find reasons to moralise, and crucify people who stand for justice and fairness.

As difficult a journey as it was, it was a moment that could not pass. Here was a generation of St John’s boys and girls - across race, class and sexuality - articulating and working against what many generations of students, like mine, struggled to meaningfully articulate and and act against despite our best efforts. Over a period of months they managed to positively change the trajectory of a 120-year old institution.

Once the dust had settled and sober minds prevailed, the school formed an Independent Representative Interim Committee, which pulled all the school’s stakeholders together to serve via nomination from the St John’s Community (students, staff, old boys and girls, the Anglican Church, the Council and various recognised associations and structures of the school) to fully and transparently interrogate the school’s systems, structures and symbols. I had the privilege of serving on this committee, which was sincere and committed in its work to truly make St John’s, as it claims, a world-class school. Over several months and many late nights we examined and amended, inter alia, the school’s policies, the Council structure, student admission and teacher recruitment processes, the school’s contribution to the community beyond its gates and its commitment to culling the beast of racism and other forms of bigotry. A thorough report for implementation was then handed to the school Council.

The process of transformation and healing is not done, it is an ongoing one that requires vigilance, oversight and a continued contribution from the alumni network. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, although not perfect, stands as a world renowned example of both what can be done when we all come to the table; it also stands as an example of what happens when we falsely believe that change is a once-off endeavour.

Schools can only call themselves the best and world class when they introspect, act and change. It is no longer enough to produce top marks, excel at sport and offer a long list of cultural activities.

No longer should schools be able to hide behind the smokescreens of culture and tradition to mask problems of systemic racism and bigotry that need to be rooted out.

If schools aren’t actively and regularly engaged in programmes and conversations about race, racism, inequality, sexuality, and all forms of discrimination and bigotry our schools are failing.

If you as an old boy or old girl of your school aren’t mobilising your peers to break the cycle of abuse you were exposed to by actively changing what your alma mater stands for and represents, your black square on social media, the sharing of content and raising awareness stands in stark contrast with what you are actually doing in the communities you are part of.

Mabine Seabe is the co-founder and director of Stratagem Consultants. You can follow him on Twitter on @Mabine_Seabe.