From Pretoria High School for Girls to Jeppe High School for Boys: Anti-Blackness in our Schools

*Wandile Ngcaweni

Young women at Pretoria High School for Girls (PHSG) have decided to stand up and say no to institutionalised racism at their school. The protest marks the first protest for transformation at high school level since the 2015 Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall protests. Fallists have been indecisive and unclear on a road map to reach oppressed young people still in the high school system, so what is happening at PHSG is a beginning of something I and many Fallist have been eagerly calling and hoping for, the decolonisation of former Model C Public and Private Schools.

I know personally the suffocation black young pupils suffer at former all white schools. I went to the ‘oldest’ High School in Johannesburg, Jeppe High School for Boys. I and many other generations of black students over the years can testify to the paralysing and suffocating white institutional culture and norms present at that school.

Jeppe Boys like many top Model C public schools still make it their main mandate to supress anything that acknowledges and promotes black identity and pride. Being an all-boys school, patriarchal culture is deep rooted and cannot be separated from racism.

In 2014 I noted in a book chapter on “Liberation Diaries: Reflections on 20 Years of Democracy”, that hierarchies of power in my former high school; Jeppe High School for Boys, favoured only the white skin. White pupils are the first to be considered for Prefectship, for first team sport selection, white pupils are the first to be considered to represent the school in any capacity. White privilege made it possible to be taught by a non-tertiary educated former white student, whose unemployability gets him pity from the Head Master to be a teacher. No degree or experience, all it took was for one to be a university drop-out with a white skin and the teaching or coaching job was yours at your request.

I told of how black, well qualified teachers had to constantly fight to assert their existence, worth and even competence in the class room (to white students and white teachers).

I noted in the chapter how a teacher who taught IsiZulu, produced more A’s than Afrikaans teachers but still had to go through numerous hurdles, sometimes even threaten to resign In order to get a classroom with teacher-student friendly facilities. While her Afrikaans teaching colleagues had Wi-Fi, smartboards, and varnished floors, curtains and school sponsored laptops. Her teaching (our learning) environment in Zulu lessons at Jeppe were so hostile that to do well she had to be 100 times more exceptional than any other teacher, did I mention her subject moderator was a white woman who could not even greet her in IsiZulu? Racism truly exposes the low levels of imagination white people have when threatened by black excellence.

I argued that it was against the interests of the powers that be in the school to have black taught classes excel, I imagine it didn’t sell well in the schools prospectus fliers they gave out to traditional white parents on open days? I remember very well non-tertiary educated white teachers talk condescendingly to black staff members in the presence of black students. Junior white teacher could be as racist as they wanted because the Head Master, Anton Dempsey, had a carefree attitude towards racism. In fact I don’t ever recall a single white teacher or student being reprimanded for a racist sentiment.

But I do remember a Muslim student getting detention for not wearing “proper shorts” to inter-house athletics, even after he explained many times his faith did not allow for him to wear pants that go above his knees, evidence of both racial and religious intolerance.

The sad truth is that the problems of white arrogance we are trying to eradicate in the country today, also exist in institutions that are supposed to nurture children and young adults in the school system that is largely looked after by white racists who still hope to maintain the status-quo of racial-patriarchal superiority over all non-white races.

It is still evident at Jeppe, four years after I matriculated that, like in the country, white people will go the extra mile to protect and retain their grip on institutional positions of power and privilege. Even if it means intimidate and threaten to arrest young 14 year old girls as they are doing at Pretoria Girls High.

South Africa like at Jeppe has people who maintain that leaving power and control at the hands of white males and female gate keepers is best in order to “motivate growth” and instil institutional discipline that is measured by whiteness.

The current measuring stick on what a good school looks like is very anti-black. Which is why protectors of white privilege and heads of these previously all white schools across the country resist young black children who are trying to find their own identity outside the narrative of white assimilation. It is arrogance and racism that makes it unimaginable to white people to transform their institutional culture at School level to accommodate a population that is a majority in their own country.

Like Mishka Wazar very well notes, former all white schools structures are based on traditions, with traditional manners being instilled. Traditions of caurse that are all white and anti-black. I can also relate to Mishka in that being told to be grateful for attending Jeppe (a school I was paying for) because I was black, being constantly reminded that the last time the Matric pass rate was a 100% was when kids from the township were not welcome in the school. I know how it feels to be given detention because a White teacher felt disrespected when me and my friends spoke Zulu or Sotho during school hours “go to a Zulu school if you want to speak your language, here u speak English or Afrikaans” we were often reprimanded, I have friends who were constantly on the detention list because the school did not want to acknowledge that they had to take up to 4 taxis to get to school in the morning, no sensitivity to different backgrounds and violent realities of black pupils.

The colonial racist history of the school is very evident in the 100 year old corridors with art and portraits of old white men who were rich land thieves, like Sir Julius Jeppe, it is these people that the black pupils are expected to pay respects to, it is their narrow interpretation of what culture should be that black pupils are supposed to follow. Bigots whose wealth was gotten through thievery. We learn patriarchal modes of hierarchy, the younger boy is inferior to the older, the black is an other , the gay is non-human, and with this a rape culture is born and thrives inside as beyond the walls of the school.

The only time I will proudly call myself a “Jeppe Old-Boy”, is when black pupils’ complex existence is recognised, the day a black person can walk through the gates of all High Schools, Private or Public, and not feel like an other.

As Black South Africans who suffered hugely in the hyper-colonial former Model C school system, we can truly admit that we are led when we see young women from PGHS stand up and fight to recognise a decolonised school system.

Hopefully the fact that the protest in Pretoria has been started by young women, will create urgency and highlight more clearly the need to demolish the traditional, conservative, anti- gay, patriarchal, white, exclusionary systems and cultures that are heavily protected in the South African schools system. One thing is for sure, those young women have shown overwhelming levels of social-political consciousness, there’s not turning back, Whiteness must Fall!