‘Racism’ at St John’s: let’s take a deep breath and try again

The Star Early Edition - - NEWS -

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.

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