St John’s College: All take a deep breath

Douglas Gibson writes on the racism scandal at the elite Joburg private school

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 dozens of young men from St John’s died in World War 1 and World War 11, that was a serious crisis.  There have been many others in the school’s history, but there have also been many high points and splendid achievements for education, for the Anglican diocese, for Johannesburg and for South Africa.

Although I was not a pupil at St John’s College, my son was.  I served for some sixteen 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, either by whites or by blacks 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, Mr 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 hurt 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 Panyaza Lesufi intervened, Arlow resigned and left the school.  Good riddance.

Mr Lesufi presents himself as “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 Mr Lesufi will become a little humbler when his party loses power in Gauteng Province in 2019. Given that Paul 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, chair 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 be able to 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 and making extravagant demands 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 School; he was educated and equipped by St John’s to become an Oxford scholar. He was quoted in one newspaper as stating, “This is what happens at St John’s.”

The story of racism that he told dated back eleven years, when he sat on a disciplinary hearing when one of the boys was charged with unacceptable behaviour for throwing bananas or some such at black people and calling them names. Mr Mpofu-Walsh did not share with us the punishment meted out to the child, but this example of the racism at St John’s, surely a triviality, seemingly properly dealt with long ago, was used to besmirch the name of the school. Others, of course, 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, his father, Dali Mpofu, SC, chairperson of the EFF and former SABC head of the SABC, or his human rights activist mother, Terry Oakley-Smith, would have remained quiet. No one is forced to remain at the school and the pupils, irrespective of whether their parents paid the fees or whether they received the more than 100 Council scholarships given to black boys over the past two decades, could always have spoken out or else left rather than submit themselves to pervasive racism.

I accept completely that racist incidents do sometimes take place; boys can be horrible at times and since they occur everywhere else in our country, St John’s is unlikely to be an exception. If the president’s son, Edward Zuma, can set such a poor example with his foulmouthed racism, similar things will happen here too.

One suspects that at least some (not all) of the current frenetic activity is manufactured outrage, serving the private, political and personal agendas of a few of the activists rather than advancing the interests of learners and of St John’s College. Let’s take a deep breath and try again.

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand.

This article first appeared in The Star.