Complex issue: Klipspruit residents took to the streets in August to protest against the appointment of a black principal at Klipspruit West Secondary School. The protests are galling, the writer says, because they go against every lesson he was taught at school. They put people in apartheid boxes without the possibility of change. Picture: VELI NHLAPO
Complex issue: Klipspruit residents took to the streets in August to protest against the appointment of a black principal at Klipspruit West Secondary School. The protests are galling, the writer says, because they go against every lesson he was taught at school. They put people in apartheid boxes without the possibility of change. Picture: VELI NHLAPO

My high school was a poor coloured school on the cusp of the Cape Flats. We had broken windows and waterlogged sports fields. Despite not having much, we made the most of what we had. The results are impressive.

Heathfield High School produced two Olympians — 800m runner Freddie Williams, who captained the Canadian Olympic team in 1992, and beach volleyball player Leigh-Ann Naidoo, a PhD student at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Performers such as Marc Lottering, David Isaacs and Lana English (lead in Phantom of the Opera) all went to Heathfield High School. My brother Larry Claasen is the editor of Brainstorm Magazine.

The school’s music programme was so impressive, it was invited to perform with the late Yehudi Menuhin.

Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel is so proud of his alma mater, he regularly invites pupils from Heathfield High to Parliament.

But by far the most impressive person to matriculate from Heathfield High has been Zuko Menziwa. He was in the first generation of black children to go to schools reserved for coloureds under apartheid.

Born in the rural Ciskei, with very little command of English, Menziwa managed to overcome all institutional and cultural obstacles to become SA’s first black marine engineer.

The school managed to do this without having a hall and with precious few other facilities for more than 40 years. A school hall was built only in 2015.

So, when elements in coloured communities resort to racist campaigns at nonperforming schools such as in Klipspruit, south of Johannesburg, it shows how much we have regressed as a society.

And when the blatantly racist Keith Arlow was initially allowed to stay on at the exclusive St John’s College, in Houghton, it was stomach-churning to note SA had not changed over 23 years. These schools are worlds apart, yet they share the same lack of direction in not putting their pupils at the centre of their decision-making.

At Klipspruit West Secondary School, some of the proponents of racism defended their actions by saying the school was so dysfunctional only a coloured principal could relate to and lead coloured pupils. This is despite a number of coloured principals falling short over a short period.

It is unfair to compare my old school with Klipspruit West just because they are both in former coloured communities. It is important to ask what Klipspruit can learn from schools that got it right. In fairness to the Klipspruit community, race is not the sole issue with which it is grappling. It is mired in a morass of other social issues, from crime to drugs and unemployment.

They knew that we had to be educated not only to make a good life for ourselves but also to build a just society

Too often when tackling these challenges in SA, race is the shorthand we resort to when issues are complex.

A humble school such as Heathfield High could teach important lessons to the likes of St John’s and Klipspruit West. An institution serves the pupil, not the other way around.

St John’s, with its Hogwarts-like façade and quirky English customs, has produced some black alumni who are angry and bitter at the institution — bitter because they were forced to conform rather than express themselves. It is in expressing themselves that young people are allowed to find purpose. Arlow could feel so confident about displaying his prejudice in front of his classes because it went unchallenged in hallways and the staff room. He felt sure that his prejudice was tolerated, encouraged and ultimately protected. He was not wrong.

Like all good organisations, Heathfield High had a sense of purpose. The teachers and principal knew the challenges that young people would face when entering a world still governed by the apartheid state.

They knew that coloured men stood more of a chance of going to jail than to university.

They knew that we had to be educated not only to make a good life for ourselves but also to build a just society. They wanted us to be agents of change and not just selfish people chasingself-enrichment.

I went to high school during apartheid and my teachers placed themselves in direct opposition to the system. They did this under the banner of nonracialism.

The most profound life lessons I received were from my English teacher Pamela Steyn, who happened to be white. She changed my life for the better in every way.

My most thought-provoking teacher was my history teacher Sam Govender, who taught us the difference between socialism, Marxism and communism.

Our athletics coach and maths teacher, the late Ishmael Collier, once ran an Olympic qualifying time and was a proponent of black consciousness, despite being of Indian descent.

Many teachers were members of the New Unity Movement and conscientised us.

Many Cape Flats schools that were designated for coloured children and expected to produce factory workers delivered into SA a cadre of young people who were agents of nonracialism and who were determined to change SA for the better.

Heathfield High was not alone in delivering purpose-driven pupils. Schools such as Harold Cressy, South Peninsula, Livingstone and Trafalgar have played, and continue to play, their part. There are many schools around the country that are less heralded and are doing excellent work under trying circumstances.

Schools do not have to be politicised, but teachers have to have a social conscience. They have to understand the role they play in shaping young minds and lives. This is why the incident at Klipspruit West Secondary was particularly galling for me at a very personal level; it goes against every lesson that I was taught.

It puts people in their apartheid boxes and says we cannot change for the better.

The lesson Arlow was trying to teach, was that in order to be better, "you have to forget yourself and be like me".

My former school was not perfect and we could have learnt a few lessons ourselves, but it is important to note that developing the person was always the biggest prize.

The Department of Basic Education can perhaps find insight in the report entitled Schools that Work II: Lessons from the Ground, which provides common sense lessons for every school.

It starts by saying schools that perform well have teachers who are completely committed to the young people they teach. Pupils regard them as second parents who create an environment for learning.

Arlow and some members of the Klipspruit community best take this into account. Put the children first and keep your prejudices at the door.

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