‘Racism’ at St John’s: let’s take a deep breath and try again
As a former member of St John’s council for many years, I can say with authority that this school’s leaders are not racists
HUFFPOST quoted a concerned mother as saying the racist incident at St John’s College was “the most serious crisis in the 119 years of the school’s history”. Please. When young men from St John’s died in World War I and World War II, that was a serious crisis.
There have been others in the school’s history, but there have also been high points and splendid achievements.
Although I was not a pupil at St John’s College, my son was. I served for 16 years on its council and I believe St John’s is one of South Africa’s greatest schools; any old boy has reason to be proud of it.
Professor Jonathan Jansen made a profound statement recently: “It has taken hundreds of years to build up South Africa’s universities and we could wreck them in three months.” That statement could apply to St John’s. While absolutely agreeing that racism has no place in the school or in our country, we must not allow a hysterical over-reaction to end up smearing the school as a racist cesspool: it is not.
A teacher, Keith Arlow, regarded himself as a jolly joker. He made unacceptable racist remarks and many boys laughed at these comments from an authority figure. He was an idiot who failed to recognise that sometimes the butt of his “jokes” would pretend to laugh with the others, while hurting and cringing inside.
The school went through a labour law disciplinary process, found Arlow guilty, removed his seniority and some salary and other benefits, required that he apologise for unacceptable behaviour and gave a final written warning.
Some disagreed with that sentence; clearly the school did not deal with the issue and its aftermath as decisively or professionally as it should have. That being said, the penalty was not nothing. MEC of Education Panyaza Lesufi intervened, Arlow resigned and left the school. Good riddance.
Lesufi presents himself as an “action man”, especially when the media invited by him are present, but he has failed at ensuring reasonable education standards in many government schools for which he is responsible. His statement that Paul Edey, a highly respected educationist, “is not fit to be a headmaster” was appalling.
Perhaps Lesufi will become a little humbler when his party loses power in Gauteng in 2019. Given that Edey fumbled a radio interview and did not cover himself with glory, suggestions that his head must be chopped off are ridiculous. Similarly, calling for the axing of a fine man like Dr John Patricios, chairperson of the council, and his members, is not justified.
Many are disturbed at the attitude of some Old Johannians, mainly black, with not a good word to say for the school.
There is no loyalty or affection as felt by thousands of other old boys. Has St John’s failed them in some way, making them eager to denigrate the school?
Some self-examination may establish why this disaffection exists and ensure that present and future black pupils who become prefects, heads of house, and heads and deputy heads of school, as these have done, (disproving allegations of racism) will feel the pride and loyalty that a school of this calibre deserves.
It is absolutely right to condemn racism. If the school needs help in overcoming the legacy of the past, that must be welcomed in the interest of black and white boys whose welfare should come first.
Savaging the school and its leaders will not strengthen the school or its resolve to live up to its Christian principles and its great record.
Particularly sad is the case of one old boy, Sizwe Mpofu Walsh. Former deputy head of the school, he was educated and equipped by St John’s to become a Rhodes scholar (while hating Rhodes, he accepted the Rhodes money). He was quoted in one newspaper as stating: “This is what happens at St John’s”.
Mpofu Walsh did not share with us the punishment meted out to the child, but this example of racism at St John’s, surely a triviality, seemingly properly dealt with long ago, was used to besmirch the name of the school. Others have more serious stories to tell and one must listen to those.
I refuse to believe that if St John’s was a racist cesspit, Mpofu Walsh, or his father, Dali Mpofu, SC, chairperson of the EFF and former head of the SABC, would have remained quiet.
I accept that racist incidents do take place; boys can be horrible and since they occur everywhere else in our country, St John’s is unlikely to be an exception.
One suspects that at least some (not all) of the frenetic activity is manufactured outrage, serving the private, political and personal agendas of a few of the activists. Let’s take a deep breath and try again.