Johannesburg private school called out for racism, says it is 'deeply saddened'

Alumni include late ANC leader Oliver Tambo and musician Hugh Masekela

17 June 2020 - 08:41
By Kgaugelo Masweneng
Former pupils at a Johannesburg school are calling it out for entrenched racism and prejudice. File photo.
Image: Cathy Yeulet/ Former pupils at a Johannesburg school are calling it out for entrenched racism and prejudice. File photo.

A group of former pupils of a Johannesburg private school, St Martin's, have levelled complaints against the institution, saying it enables racism to thrive among the staff and pupils.  

Keamo Mosweu, ex-deputy head boy in 2017, said the school say to be a “black Eton” among private schools for having had alumni such as the late Oliver Tambo and Hugh Masekela. But in its current form, the school is not a true and complete reflection of everything these heroes fought for.

“Sadly and infuriatingly, the issue of systemic racism and other intersectional issues are still rampant within the school’s corridors and is something which I have witnessed and experienced first-hand. You see, having gone to a school where these historical greats walked the same corridors, one would have hoped to learn more about and celebrate more of one’s blackness; one’s African-ness.

“When I called out students I was met with remarks like 'relax bro, it’s just banter!' Added to this, in high school, I became the centre of controversy surrounding the boys' hair code. At this time I had dreadlocks while the white kids had comb-over styles of hair which were longer in length than what was prescribed in the hair code at the time.

“Instead of arguing that their hair code is unfair what resulted was that the very same people as in grade 6 would mock my dreadlocks saying that my head 'looks like worms, which is what you Tswana people eat, right?' — alluding to and making a derogatory joke about the fact the Mopane worms are an indigenous food eaten in my homeland (Botswana),” Mosweu said.

He said the image of the school has always taken priority over disciplining those who were discriminatory. “You wanted us to believe that if we were more silent we would be accepted as examples of ‘good blacks’.”

The school said the complaints were under investigation.

“We have received and taken cognisance of the document received from our past and present students and, as a school, we are deeply saddened. We wish to consider the contents of the document carefully and give it the attention it deserves.

“This is a grave matter that we need to take seriously and deal with sensitively. We do not wish to provide you with a rushed response, but rather carefully deliberate the issue before we formulate a reply to your request for comment,” said Gillian O’Shaughnessy, head of marketing at the school.

The former pupils have written two documents detailing their experiences and another with demands.

For Lungile Nhlapo, the last straw was when they were told not to play rugby at their best in order not to outshine the other students.

“We were approached as a team by [a female teacher] who told us to water down our provincial skills so that everyone could be happy. We were essentially told to not play to the best of our abilities and threats to remove us (black players) from the first team were made ...

“All of this happened because [some] white students had written letters and had their parents contact the principal complaining that we were not playing together and that their children were uncomfortable,” Nhlapo said.

Nhlapo alleged they were not allowed to also involve their parents.

Gaba Guliwe said the problem with St Martin’s is that the prejudice, racism and discrimination is woven into the school’s culture, through its comments such as “don’t speak that language in my class” or “this is not the township”.

“It is so intertwined and hidden to the point where it felt normal and accepted, because of how frequently teachers and staff members used those comments and for those who did speak out, they were labelled troublemakers.

“The school subconsciously made it feel wrong to be black, constantly calling kids by the tuck shop playing umgusha 'hooligans' or even asking me to grow my dreads in a different way,” Guliwe said.

Another student, Filipe de Sousa Machado, said St Martin’s is a toxic space that breeds racism, homophobia and classism.

“My earliest memory was when I was in grade 3, getting changed in the bathrooms when the boys decided to start intimidating and verbally bullying me by using homophobic slurs. I remember spending the rest of the year changing in [a] classroom after school because I was so scared and so upset with what they had said to me.

“The white students were racist bigots who would refer to people of colour as k*****s and would never receive any form of punishment, because it was a culture that was so ingrained in the system. This is also the same school with the same racist students that would mock and discriminate against other students for being feminists, for being homosexual, for not being as wealthy,” said the disgruntled former student.

De Sousa Machado ended up leaving the school.

The pupils said their stories stand in defence and protection of the experiences of current and former students.  

They demand a written acknowledgment of anti-blackness, racism and colonial culture at St Martin’s School; as well as:

  • A written commitment to the representation of more black and women of colour as teachers and coaches.
  • The hiring of a professional to assist in the transition to a conscious, considerate and safe learning environment for all students.
  • A written commitment to the protection of LGBTQ students.