Maverick Citizen


I was the barbarian at the gate of Pridwin Preparatory School

Since our children began at Pridwin, we were taken aback at the institutional and systematised, very subtle and highly sophisticated racism, says the writer. (Photo: Unsplash / Logan Weaver)

On Wednesday, June 17, the Constitutional Court ruled that a clause which allowed a Johannesburg independent school, Pridwin Preparatory School, to terminate a contract between them and parents ‘for any reason’ was unconstitutional. The court ruled that before such a decision could be taken, a fair process or oral hearing must be held.


I am CB. The mother in the case AB and another v Pridwin Preparatory and others. On Wednesday 17 June judgment was handed down in the Constitutional Court regarding a case that began in 2016 in the South Gauteng High Court, following the cancellation of two contracts that we signed with Pridwin, by the then headmaster, Selwyn Marx. The cancellation of the contracts effectively expelled my children, in Grade R and Grade 4 at the time.

There has been plenty written in the media about the cancellation letter, but the salient points of the letter written by Marx on 30 June 2016 include that he was allowed to effect the cancellation utilising the proviso in Clause 9.3, which gave him an unfettered right to do so, with “no reason”. He also remarked, which has been repeatedly trotted out in the press, that the children were “model pupils”, and the cancellation had nothing to do with their conduct, only ours, as the parents.

The Constitutional Court ruled that Marx’s actions were unconstitutional, invalid and against public policy. We were successful in all the points of law upon which we challenged Marx’s choice to terminate the contracts. The judgment is being hailed as precedent-setting and a victory particularly for children who are educated within the confines of independent school contracts, but who cannot defend summary cancellations the way we were able to, due to means and privilege. 

While the counsel acting on our behalf warned that this case would attract media attention, we were totally unprepared for the sheer force of the scrutiny. Today, a day after the judgment, feels a fitting day to respond with some of our feelings.

Mostly I feel disappointed. That the caricature of the uncivilised brown person attempting to tear down the gates of civilised Jerusalem has been put to such effective use by Marx, and has so successfully managed to capture the imagination of the media and the judiciary. Even a win has not managed to quell that image. While the facts of the case are clear in the court papers for all to see, what the majority don’t realise is that, as this was a case under review, and not a trial, the courts were bound to the Plascon-Evans principle, where the version of the respondent, being Pridwin, was considered to be fact. Pridwin, led by Marx, took full use of the opportunity to perform a character assassination in order to defend his summarily cancelling the contract.

Since our children began at Pridwin, we were taken aback at the institutional and systematised, very subtle and highly sophisticated racism. My husband felt early on that we should remove the children. I, however, am of the belief that one cannot effect change externally, and that more people like us needed to stay in order to sway the prevailing status quo. What I didn’t bargain for was the sheer force of numbers, both parents and management, who are heavily invested in maintaining “the way we have done things for 90 years”.

Elite private schools appear to have become the last bastion of whiteness in South Africa, and sports fields are the battlegrounds. These schools accept brown and black children because they are legally bound to, but God forbid they will hand over even an ounce of prestige or success in the form of sporting kudos. A simple audit of my son’s school yearbook from 2016 at Pridwin (which, while Marx was there, maintained a strict 60/40 ratio of white to non-white pupils), shows that white boys are over-represented in the first teams of all sports.   

Going back to the infamous cancellation letter, model children do not emanate from intolerable and difficult parents. I am grateful that in myself and my husband my children have an example of standing up for what is right, and just.  

As a brown kid, one has to be exceptional in order to be included, and then still, kowtow to the jock mentality prevalent in the environment. Old boys’ beers after work, gin and tonics at 9am on the side of cricket matches, my son being called a “match fixer” because he is brown by one of the drunk parents. Being told by a parent while the head stood by, in a public forum at the school, when describing my son as a terrorist, that the school is Christian and I could leave any time I liked.  The culture is one of macho, toxic masculinity and white superiority. As this culture is clamped down on in other spheres in South Africa, it is worsening at elite private schools where the parents, old boys and management believe they still have a grip on power.

Both my husband and I come from a culture of social justice and standing up to oppression. Our history and religion demands it. We do not wear our privilege lightly and are acutely aware of the responsibility this privilege brings. We are active citizens and could not believe that these enclaves of discrimination and racism exist more than 20 years after democracy. We attempt to raise our children with similar values, and to be strong champions of the underdog.

Going back to the infamous cancellation letter, model children do not emanate from intolerable and difficult parents. I am grateful that in myself and my husband my children have an example of standing up for what is right, and just.  

The timing of yesterday’s judgment, the day after Youth Day, and following weeks where pupils and ex-pupils at elite private schools in South Africa came out in force about the structural and institutional racism they experienced , appears to be serendipitous. Ex-pupils talked of the sheer gratefulness of being allowed into the hallowed halls of these institutions post 1994, which prevented them from “rocking the boat” and calling out the ill-treatment they received. They spoke of not wanting to disappoint their parents, who were working hard to afford to send them to these institutions.

My husband and I, at every step of the four-year journey, have searched long and hard within ourselves our reasons for continuing. We were bullied, ostracised, parents were banned from being allowed to talk to us. We lost friends, our children lost friends. The judgment from the Supreme Court of Appeal, which went against us, was so poor in law, that it felt unacceptable to leave that as the last word on the matter. We needed closure, the country needed closure. Sometimes in life one finds oneself in the arena, whether by design or accident. It is what one chooses to do once you find yourself there, that is the making of a person.

Finally, on a personal note, one wonders why the media and judiciary have struggled to see our actions simply as altruistic, and justice as the main driver? Is it because brown people are too unsophisticated to have such advanced motivations? Or is it because the cliché of the brown barbarian at the gate of all that is civilised fits more easily with the hardwired prejudice that sits within all of us? DM


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