Stifling oppression with education on the border of two worlds
Colin Northmore, the former principal of Sacred Heart College, has made a lasting difference among refugees living in Johannesburg by providing them with a safe space to learn and teach.
Sacred Heart College is a school that sits between two very different socioeconomic areas of Johannesburg. On the one side is Houghton, a quiet, affluent, middle-class suburb, and on the other lies Yeoville, a bustling community that is home to many asylum seekers and refugees.
In 2004, Colin Northmore created Three2Six, an educational programme that enabled undocumented refugee children to get the basic education and qualifications needed to legitimately enrol in high school. As the head teacher at Sacred Heart, Colin used his position and the school’s facilities to build a bridging educational programme that would provide opportunities and stability to children who had already experienced so much upheaval in their short lives.
“Sacred Heart is on the border of two worlds; we can’t just serve one side of the street.”
Colin grew up in a typical white, blue-collar family in Springs. His father was a fitter and turner on the mines, and his family lived a regular, apartheid-era life, shielded from the cruelty and with little racial interaction.
After completing his degree in education from Wits University, Colin served as an officer in the SADF before embarking on a career as an English teacher in government schools.
It was because of his father-in-law that Colin’s passion for social justice was ignited. As the secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches, John Rees was persecuted by the Nationalist government for his dedicated work with oppressed communities. There came a point when he had to stop keeping records of his work as the security forces would raid his offices in an attempt to trace the people he was helping. An event that would echo through Colin’s own work many years later.
Sacred Heart College is a Marist Brothers’ school, which, during apartheid, was one of the only schools to defy the government by becoming multicultural after the 1976 Soweto riots.
By 2003 the school had started to lose its momentum as an institute on the frontline of social justice, so Colin decided to steer Sacred Heart in a new direction.
He realised that there were refugee teachers who were unable to teach, and refugee children who were unable to learn – all living within walking distance of well-equipped classrooms that were sitting empty in the afternoons.
“It all came together in my mind that the way Sacred Heart and I could make a contribution was in tackling xenophobia in our society by using the empty classes in the afternoons.”
Three2Six focused on three things; providing education, food (because you cannot learn when you are hungry) and a school uniform resembling those of the main school so learners were seen as fellow students and not outsiders.
It didn’t come without its challenges, however. Towards the fifth year of the project, a law started to make its way through Parliament that posed a real risk to the refugee communities. The law would enable police to raid the Three2Six offices to get information on refugees. So, like his father-in-law many years before, Colin was forced to remove physical records, putting everything on to an encrypted digital platform with a donor putting money aside to defend him if he was prosecuted.
Three2Six was a great success over the years, seeing dozens of students come in with no documents and little education, and leaving to become integrated into the formal education system. It’s a testament to the quality of the programme and the values instilled in the students that many of them returned to volunteer their time to the next generation of learners.
“I am proud and humbled to have originated the idea, but the teachers and funders were the real hands and the hearts of Three2Six.”
Colin left Sacred Heart College in 2017 to run an online school called Evolve, which focuses on unique and innovative learning experiences. The Three2Six project is still functioning and administered by Sacred Heart College, but it is now hosted by a new school, Dominican Convent, where it offers a full curriculum, integrated with local students in the same classroom.
Three2Six has continued to thrive since Colin left and has recently moved its entire operation to the Dominican Convent School. For a detailed understanding of the programme visit www.three2six.co.za. DM168
The Actionists was launched in early 2023 by photographer Thom Pierce. It consists of on-the-ground problem solvers, community activists, climate campaigners and human rights defenders who engage in direct action. They are people anyone can turn to in difficult circumstances: a growing community of people who care about the future of South Africa. Through a series of photographic stories, Pierce profiles these people. Through a website, discussion forum and social media, the aim is to provide ways for people to get involved.
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This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.