Sanctuary: The Sunflower Learning Centre at Zonnebloem College, Cape Town, was built by the Chris Otto Foundation Trust. The centre comprises colourful murals and fittings inspired by nature and fun features, including breakaway nooks and a tree of knowledge with a trunk doubling as a bookshelf. Picture: SUPPLIED
Sanctuary: The Sunflower Learning Centre at Zonnebloem College, Cape Town, was built by the Chris Otto Foundation Trust. The centre comprises colourful murals and fittings inspired by nature and fun features, including breakaway nooks and a tree of knowledge with a trunk doubling as a bookshelf. Picture: SUPPLIED

In 1858, the first Anglican Bishop of Cape Town, Robert Gray, and the governor and high commissioner of the Cape Colony, Sir George Grey, collaborated to establish what Grey described in a letter to the bishop as an "industrial school of a superior order" for the children of chiefs of "the interior of Africa".

Gray and Grey’s objective, writes historian and author Janet Hodgson, was to give the children "a liberal and Christian education and then send them back to their homes to be an example and help to their people, arguing that they would be of far greater influence among their tribesmen than any European missionaries, teachers or government agents".

Hodgson’s University of Cape Town master’s thesis — the History of Zonnebloem College 1858 to 1870: A Study of Church and Society — is being peer reviewed by HSRC Press.

The school was initially located at the bishop’s residence, Protea Farm, which became Bishopscourt and is still home to Cape Town’s Anglican archbishop. About a year later, the church and British government bought a section of a farm called Zonnebloem on the edge of the city above District Six where they permanently relocated the school.

Although Zonnebloem College’s purpose has changed often since then, it has remained an educational campus and still belongs to the Anglican Church.

The estate is now home to Zonnebloem Boys’ Primary School, Zonnebloem Girls Primary School, Zonnebloem Nest Senior School and the Children’s Art Centre.

Proud tradition: Children of Xhosa chiefs at the Zonnebloem College in 1860. The college was established in 1858. Picture: SUPPLIED
Proud tradition: Children of Xhosa chiefs at the Zonnebloem College in 1860. The college was established in 1858. Picture: SUPPLIED

Remarkably, Zonnebloem College’s first dedicated library, the Sunflower Learning Centre, opened only in April 2017. It was established by Zephne Ladbrook and Karen Breytenbach of the Chris Otto Foundation Trust.

The seeds were sown when Ladbrook visited the primary girls’ school about three years ago to discuss learning difficulties experienced by an employee’s daughter.

"I met her teacher and head of the school and all roads led to the school needing a library," says Ladbrook, daughter of now retired cofounder of the PSG Group Chris Otto.

"We then realised that in addition to the 330 girls, there were 330 boys at the boys primary school on the campus who probably also needed a library. We chatted to the teachers and head at the boys’ school and decided the library should be available to both schools."

There were discussions with the Western Cape education department, the church, schools and potential partners. The department agreed to the plan but said it could not fund it.

One of the campus’s challenges is that it is in what the government designates a "privileged location", with Table Mountain rising behind it and Table Bay shimmering before it. The schools are therefore classified quintile 5, implying that they serve the wealthiest communities, and they consequently receive minimal funding from the government. But only 25% of the pupils live close to the school; most commute from poor neighbourhoods.

Our physical environment plays a role in shaping what we think and feel about ourselves and the world. We wanted to create a safe and happy space for the learners of Zonnebloem
Zephne Ladbrook

The church offered to accommodate the new centre in an old room, used for grade R boys. The foundation built a new classroom for grade R and added and continues to fund an office for Community Keepers, a nonprofit organisation that helps schools invest in pupils’ social and emotional wellbeing.

Ladbrook and Breytenbach enlisted the help of an architect, interior design company, building contractors, artists and designers to work on the new centre. The result is a bright, spacious room with colourful murals and fittings inspired by nature and fun features, including breakaway nooks and a tree of knowledge with a trunk doubling as a bookshelf.

"Our physical environment plays a role in shaping what we think and feel about ourselves and the world," Ladbrook says. "We wanted to create a safe and happy space for the learners of Zonnebloem, a place that will impart in them the desire to learn and encourage them to be curious about the world.

"We also wanted to instill in them a sense of dignity and assure them that they deserve good opportunities and are worthy of pursuing them," she says.

The foundation relied on the expertise of The Bookery, an organisation that opened its first library in an underresourced community in 2010 and more than 50 since.

In addition to providing technical guidance for the Sunflower Learning Centre, The Bookery also donated a starter pack of 4,000 books. The two full-time librarians, Cynthia Ngxukuma and Sonica Petros, have received more than double the number of books since.

"It was the first time most of the children had experienced a library," says Ngxukuma. "We had to teach them the absolute basics, like how to handle a book, turn the pages and use a bookmark. But seeing the pleasure they experience in the library when they read, come here after school to do their homework [the idea is that the library will double as a safe aftercare centre] and take books home gives me great pleasure.

"It’s a fun place and even though rules apply, we don’t subscribe to the old-school ‘shhh, this is a library’ approach. They are children, after all."

Several authors have visited the library, which continues to collect books and look for opportunities to collaborate with other like-minded organisations and individuals. A recent visitor was playwright, author and president of PEN SA Nadia Davids, who is a Zonnebloem Girls’ Primary alumnus.

Davids grew up in Walmer Estate and attended the school from sub A to standard two (1984 to 1987). "I had some excellent, resilient, dedicated teachers who taught under difficult circumstances during a time of profound political injustice," she says.

"I think I received the best possible early education that the Department of Coloured Affairs allowed for, but that was because of a combination of committed teachers and a long community and family-based history of valuing and supporting education. It was a good education despite the government, not because of it."

She was "profoundly moved" when she visited the new centre. "There is something truly important about not only providing a space for children to read but also signalling to them that they are valued, that they not only have a right to read but it’s a right that should be protected and nurtured.

"It was easy to imagine myself at six, seven finding a corner and curling up with a book and it was utterly delightful to hear that the kids do exactly that whenever they have the chance," she says.

The Sunflower Learning Centre is just the start of the Chris Otto Foundation Trust’s involvement at Zonnebloem, says Ladbrook. Priorities for 2018 include improving security at the school, adding a computer centre, introducing music, providing additional mathematics and science classes, improving sports activities and increasing the number of teachers.

"We have helped plant the seeds and now we want to help grow an orchard," she says.

Please sign in or register to comment.