SJC vs MHS: Two schools, two sides, two stories

Richard Wilkinson writes on the contested racial incident that has caused a rift between two of SA’s top schools

Every second year for quite some time now, St John’s College in Johannesburg (“St John’s”) has undertaken a whole-of-school trip to Michaelhouse in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands for a weekend of sports fixtures. Hundreds of boys board a fleet of buses for the six-hour journey to the other school and spend the weekend playing hockey, rugby, and other sports and games.

This school derby was not held in 2020 or 2021 due to Covid-19 and the resultant lockdowns. However, with the waning of the pandemic it was once against scheduled to be held at the end of May 2022.

On the afternoon before the trip a senior black pupil met with the St. John’s College headmaster Stuart West. The pupil related that he had been contacted by a Michaelhouse boy who suggested that something untoward could occur on the upcoming trip and that he (the black pupil) could be the target of personal abuse.

In any event, the St. John’s boys left by bus early on the Friday morning and were put up in the sports centre at Michaelhouse. Many parents also drove down and booked into the not inexpensive accommodation in the vicinity so that they could watch the games over the weekend.  

Apparently by the time of their arrival there was already chatter among the St. John’s boys that some kind of racial incident could be expected to occur. Over the past few years, a culture had developed at the school of hypersensitivity to real or perceived racial slights, as is best demonstrated by a grade camp which had been cancelled in circumstances which were remarkably similar to those of the Michaelhouse weekend.

The basic story behind this incident was that some (black) St John’s boys had been playing American rap music on a speaker and had been singing along to the words which contained the “n” word. A member of staff camp site had reprimanded the boys and stated that singing the “n” word out loud was not appropriate. Unfortunately for the staff member, she pronounced the “n” word while delivering this reprimand. The boys complained to their staff, the camp was cancelled abruptly, and the boys were brought back to Johannesburg.

The first games of the Friday afternoon at Michaelhouse passed without incident. The big and final match of the day was that between the first hockey teams of the two schools played from 6:20pm under floodlights. The other schoolboys were in the stands on the Northern side of the field, chanting, cheering, and banging on objects. With 7 minutes still on the clock St. John’s were leading 2-1 and were on the attack once again in the Michaelhouse quarter on the side of the field nearest to the stands and the chanting schoolboys.

On the blurry video that is available one can see a St. John’s player (A) on the dotted line outside of the striking circle on that side of the field. He is facing in the direction of his own goal in anticipation of being passed the ball by another St. John’s player (B) in possession. A Michaelhouse boy (X) is marking him and puts his left hand on his back. There are two other players moving towards them from the goal side – one from St. John’s and another from Michaelhouse. The St. John’s player (A) can be seen backing into his marker (X). The St. John’s player (B) in possession dribbles with the ball down the touchline towards the two of them but is intercepted by another Michaelhouse player. At this moment instead of breaking away from his marker and moving into space the St. John’s player (A) turns around aggressively – seemingly lashing out at the Michaelhouse player (X) with his hockey stick.

The referee, who was standing about ten metres away, sees this and issues a yellow card – which means the St. John’s boy will have to spend 10 minutes off the field. This leaves St. John’s with just ten players on the field for the rest of the match. After an initial moment of defiance towards the referee – in which he apparently asked something along the lines of “Did you see what he did?” – the St. John’s player then walks off the pitch.

Having left the field the black St. John’s boy (A) (the accuser) then claimed on the side-lines that the reason he had reacted as he did was that the white Michaelhouse boy (X) (the accused) had called him the k-word. The senior pupil who had warned Stuart West of a possible incident the day before happened also to be a player in the match, and apparently led the protests and effort to identify the alleged culprit in the immediate aftermath. He had however been some distance away from the actual incident when it happened.

What then occurred is slightly farcical. After the game, one of the Michaelhouse backs was fingered for having uttered this racial slur, but it was pointed out he hadn’t even been on the field at the time. Then another Michaelhouse player was confronted, but he vigorously denied the allegation. After some back and forth this was confirmed by the video recording of the game which showed he had been on the other side of the field at the time.

Finally, the St. John’s group managed to point the finger at the Michaelhouse player (X) whom the accuser had lashed out against. This boy (the accused) apparently said that the St. John’s player’s reaction had been triggered by his holding onto his shirt, while he was trying to pull away, and he categorically denied that he had said such a word. He also said he would be willing to take a mutual lie detector test to determine who was telling the truth. (This offer was not pursued by the schools on legal advice.) The investigation conducted immediately after the game was inconclusive. The accuser said he had heard the racial slur, and reacted to it, the accused denied having uttered the word, and said the trigger had been something else entirely. 

After their return to their accommodation many of the senior St. John’s students stated that they wanted the remaining fixtures terminated due to the “trauma” they had experienced. In a question-and-answer session Stuart West was also apparently challenged as to whether he had received prior notice that such a racial incident could occur and asked what he had done to prevent it, and he recounted what he had been told in his meeting with the senior pupil on the Thursday afternoon.

Early the following morning at 7:25am a statement signed by West and the Michaelhouse Rector Antony Clark was sent out to parents. This reported the “allegation”, condemned “all forms of racism and discriminatory behaviour”, said that the accused Michaelhouse boy had been placed on precautionary suspension, and announced that the heads of both schools had agreed that “it is not appropriate” for the remaining hockey and rugby fixtures to take place. The St John’s boys then boarded the buses and returned to Johannesburg. 

The cancellation of the weekend was widely welcomed by many prominent commentators as being a decisive stand against “racism”. In a post on Facebook on the Saturday night, Eusebius McKaiser described those who objected to the decision to cancel the Saturday fixtures as the “usual racists and racism denialists”. He went on to attack the “1652s” – a demeaning racial slur by which he habitually refers to white South Africans – for “gas lighting us by insisting that we are inventing racism, that we are myth makers.” The Sunday Times also ran a report on the alleged racial incident, and the cancellation. In his TimesLive column Jonathan Jansen condemned the accused Michaelhouse boy for his “filthy racial attitudes” before going on to denounce the boy’s parents for clearly having imparted these to him.

At this point a divide seems to have emerged between the two school communities over the incident. A preliminary internal investigation by Michaelhouse could find no evidence supporting the allegation against the accused boy. It was also regarded with considerable scepticism as it would have been completely out of character and against everything that was known about him. It did not, in other words, “ring true” to those who knew him, whether black or white. His precautionary suspension was lifted with the support of the entire school community.

According to a message sent out to the St. John’s community by Stuart West the following Tuesday, the St. John’s community had been left traumatised by the incident. This was even though the only person who had heard the alleged slur being uttered was the accuser himself. West wrote that “we heard the deep trauma expressed by our students on Friday night” and the school had planned a “comprehensive counselling programme” to deal with it.

With the agreement of St. John’s, Michaelhouse commissioned an “independent legal consultant” (the investigator) on Monday 30 May to investigate the matter. She started work the following day and was expected to complete her task “with as much purpose and haste as possible”. Yet although the interviews with the Michaelhouse witnesses were completed quickly, St. John’s stalled in granting her access, and her interviews with those witnesses, and most crucially the accuser, were delayed by several days.

The investigation took about two weeks from start to finish. The investigator handed her report to both Heads, recommending that its contents remain confidential. Michaelhouse released a statement on 28 June 2022 in which it stated the following.

“Based on the independent legal consultant’s written report and subsequent feedback, a clear ruling could not be made. As a result, in the interests of both boys involved, mediation was recommended. If the findings had demonstrated guilt, we would have proceeded with our normal process involving a disciplinary hearing.”

The following day, St John’s released its own statement. In the first paragraph it noted that the report was “confidential”. However, in the third paragraph the school quoted from it directly. It stated that the investigator’s report had concluded with the finding that: “there is sufficient evidence to corroborate and support [the St John’s College student’s] report that a racial slur was said to him. His key assertions are supported and corroborated by the video evidence or the evidence of others. The probabilities therefore support his assertion that a racial slur was said to him.”

The Michaelhouse statement and the St John’s statement are clearly not compatible with each other.

Given that the (rest of the) report remained confidential, it is not known what evidence or reasoning the investigator used to reach her conclusion, given that no one else has apparently heard the slur being uttered. The fact that, according to the video evidence, the accuser had seemingly lashed out at the accused could be read in one of two contradictory ways when it comes to the credibility of the accusation. 

And although there was a lot of noise from the stands the accused would have had to utter the word sufficiently loudly for the accuser to hear (and not mishear) what had been said, but just softly enough that four other players, in the close vicinity, did not hear it as well. 

It is also not clear which “evidence of others” the investigator relied upon and whether she was aware of any potential conflicts of interest among certain of the St. John’s instigators/witnesses when she did so. Although both sides initially agreed to a mediation process it was announced by Stuart West this week that the St. John’s accuser and his family had decided not to pursue this process as this would not “bring the lasting personal closure he seeks”.

This means, in effect, that a disciplinary hearing against the Michaelhouse boy is now to go ahead. Once again, a top lawyer has been employed by the school to conduct the hearing. This may (or may not) bring greater clarity as to what happened. Did the accused boy really utter a racial slur? Was he perhaps just misheard? Or has he been the victim of a monstrous calumny? 


Editor's Note: Politicsweb provided this article ahead of publication to both Michaelhouse and St. John’s College to offer them an opportunity to comment on and/or correct any errors of fact or omission.

In his response the Headmaster of St. John’s stated:

"Given that the issue will now be the subject of a formal disciplinary enquiry, St John’s College will not be commenting on the article, out of respect for this legal process and a desire not to prejudice its proceedings in any way. The decision to forgo our right-of-reply does not imply in any way that the hearsay comment and speculation that characterise significant portions of the article are factually correct or accurate."

In their reply the Michaelhouse Rector and Chairman of the Board noted:

"We are in the process of rebuilding the Michaelhouse relationship with St John’s College. We do not endorse any negative commentary in the article relating to St John’s College. We also have only commented on / corrected aspects that we [knew] to be factually incorrect. We are unable to comment on the personal opinions expressed by the author, nor are we able to verify all aspects of the article as the facts will only unfold during the confidential disciplinary process."