Cornwall Hill College has become the stuff of nightmares, says black pupil
A pupil at the prestigious Cornwall Hill College in Pretoria wept on Monday when she spoke about how she was in grade 4 when she had her first negative experience at the school.
“I was happily on my way to break when a teacher stopped me. She had this big frown that encompassed her whole face and swallowed me whole. She looked me dead in the eyes and said: ‘Your hair is unpresentable. It is messy and it is not the Cornwall way,’” said Singo Ravele.
“She told me I would look better if I chemically straightened my hair.”
The pupil said she was never the same again because the encounter led her to believe there was “something wrong with her natural, kinky hair”. She said she was never comfortable wearing her hair the same way again.
Ravele was speaking at the school on Monday when Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi visited to hear the grievances of parents and pupils who said racism was blatant at the school.
Last week Sunday Times Daily reported that a group of about 15 black parents held a silent protest at the Pretoria Country Club over the lack of transformation at the upmarket private school. The school had been holding its annual fundraising golf day and other parents were in attendance.
Speaking out seven years after the disturbing incident, Ravele said her humiliation had evolved to anger.
“Looking back at the situation, I feel angry. I am angry that anyone would dare tell a child in Africa that their African hair is unacceptable. I am angry that I was stripped of my African identity that one time, in one moment and by one person,” she said passionately.
She added that this wasn’t the last time she felt humiliated. In another incident, she said she was barred from speaking her home language with her classmates “while simultaneously having maths lessons turned into wiskunde [maths in Afrikaans]”.
This incident, she said, made her feel as though her home language and culture were inferior to Afrikaans.
When I look at this school now, I am haunted. I no longer see the beauty in the trees and the magic in the classrooms. I see the things that nightmares are made of. In these nightmares, I see a girl who struggles to love herself because the people entrusted with doing so couldn’t.Singo Ravele, Cornwall Hill pupil
“When I look at this school now, I am haunted. I no longer see the beauty in the trees and the magic in the classrooms. I see the things that nightmares are made of. In these nightmares, I see a girl who struggles to love herself because the people entrusted with doing so couldn’t.”
Ravele said she was speaking out to ensure other pupils coming through the system after her do not have to walk the same path.
“To the management and executive principal, I would like to leave you with this. All that little girl wanted was to hear someone in charge tell her they are sorry she went through what she went through and that it was unacceptable, and they would work very hard to make sure it would not happen again,” she said, adding the school needed to take accountability.
Last year, past and current pupils wrote testimonials about their experiences of racism and discrimination at the school, and claimed their complaints had fallen on deaf ears.
In a letter to parents in July last year, executive principal Leon Kunneke acknowledged “there are people in our school community who have experienced racism and/or discrimination at Cornwall Hill College and as a result have been hurt”.
“The board and management of the school wish to make our position very clear: racism and prejudice are morally wrong, are contrary to our school’s values, and have no place in our school,” he said.
Kunneke said the school “unreservedly apologises to all pupils, parents and staff members, past or present, who have experienced racism or any other form of discrimination at Cornwall Hill College”.
Ahead of Lesufi’s visit on Monday, school children stood at the gates while carrying placards criticising the racism. Black and white pupils stood in solidarity.
Some carried placards calling for more black teachers to be employed at the school. “Imagine the life-long trauma of racism,” read one placard.
Addressing the school, Lesufi said the incidents he was hearing about were unacceptable. “It ends here and it stops here,” he said.
He stressed that whoever hurts a child was not regarded as a human being.
“I want to emphasise with the leadership of this school: stop this obsession with the hair of our children,” Lesufi said.
“We are all human beings and all of us deserve to be happy.”
He said following his meeting with school officials, no-one would be mistreated going forward. He pledged that the school’s policies would be reviewed to ensure they accommodated pupils of all races.