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As a Bishops’ old boy, I salute the matric class of 2020

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John Battersby is a London-based journalist and consultant and the co- author of two books on Nelson Mandela. He is the chair of trustees of the Canon Collins Education and Legal Assistance Trust which has benefitted 3500 students in southern Africa since it was founded in 1981.

The intervention of the 2020 matric year is an act of courage and concern for a respected institution sometimes at odds with the profound changes that have taken place in South Africa and currently unfolding worldwide under the banner of Black Lives Matter.

When I read the memorandum from the 2020 matric year at Bishops I was transported back 51 years as if by a time machine.

As I absorbed its contents I felt a huge weight that I have carried around for nearly half a century lifted from my shoulders.

Far from being too little too late – which was my first somewhat cynical reaction when I was alerted to the development by a friend in Cape Town – I think it was an unequivocal act of leadership.

Back in 1969, five years after I had matriculated at Bishops with mixed feelings of gratitude and discomfort about living under apartheid, the Reverend Clive McBride, a “coloured” Anglican minister, applied to the school for his two sons to enrol at Bishops.

I recall that there were many heated debates among pupils but in the end the student body was in favour of admitting the pupils.

However, the school’s governing body, the College Council, came out against the admission of the boys on the grounds that it could subject the boys to intolerable peer and societal pressure, not to mention the consequences of defying apartheid laws.

I recall mixed emotions dominated by anger, disappointment and deep shame.

It was the shame that I felt when I accompanied my father to a magistrate’s office in 1963 – after the Sharpeville massacre – to swear allegiance to the president of the day and salute what was already for me then the apartheid flag to become a naturalised South African citizen. 

That an Anglican Church school could deny admission to the sons of an Anglican minister based solely on the colour of their skin has haunted me throughout my adult life.

I tried to give vent to my anger by writing a letter of protest to the Cape Times to denounce the Council’s decision. My letter was firmly countered by the then chair of the Old Diocesans’ (OD) Union of which I was a member who vigorously defended the council decision.

It was the ending of youthful innocence and the day it came home to me with full force that to live under the enforced privilege of apartheid was to aid and abet the oppression of one’s black compatriots.

These were the thoughts running through my head when I read the declaration from the matric class of 2020 signed by 100 or so final-year students.

I was impressed that a matric class who had spent the previous 10 weeks of lockdown preparing for their final exams online had taken the initiative to ask if they could stage a Black Lives Matter protest. 

The legal protest went ahead at the school on Friday 5 June with physical distancing and lockdown rules observed and the memorandum was revealed after being drawn up against a backdrop of global protest over the murder of George Floyd by white policemen in Minneapolis.

The declaration was then sent to outgoing school principal Guy Pearson who sent it to parents saying that Bishops would continue to ensure that the principles outlined in the document prevailed at the school.

The intervention of the 2020 matric year is an act of courage and concern for a respected institution sometimes at odds with the profound changes that have taken place in South Africa and currently unfolding worldwide under the banner of Black Lives Matter.

It closed the circle for me on a conflicted relationship with Bishops over the McBride affair which has prevented me from participating fully in the activities of the OD Union over the years.

While I have attended several OD reunions both in South Africa and the UK, I have done so with a heavy heart and awkward feelings of ambiguity.

Thanks to the courage and foresight of the matric class of 2020, I am now able to do so with a lighter heart and become more active in supporting long overdue but welcome changes that these boys have set in motion.

As some of my contemporaries have pointed out, there are some flaws of language and detail in the declaration and it would have been preferable if they could have been part of the change rather than leave it up to the next matric class to implement.

They have also commented on the doctrinaire tone of the document. But their criticism is outweighed in my view by the spirit of the declaration and the instincts that led to it. 

I am inspired by the vision shown by the class of 2020 at a time of epic societal change fuelled by a global pandemic and an act of horrifying racial violence.

Their move is all the more powerful for being a collective decision and unequivocal both in terms of its content and in the means of delivery. 

It has made me feel proud that Bishops is the first school in the country to go public on the issue of discrimination.

A dozen or so other schools have been discussing and reacting to hurtful incidents of name-calling based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and national origin which have been circulating on social media.

For me, the 2020 matric year has removed a stain on the reputation of a school which has a proud history of academic and sporting achievement and forging the character of leaders in many fields in society over more than a century.

I am pleased that both the principal and the ODU have embraced the spirit of the declaration in a way that lays the foundation for ongoing dialogue leading ultimately to the change that is so sorely needed. 

“This will be an ideal opportunity to continue the engagement with all members of our community regarding these issues in our school,” Principal Pearson said.

He said he and the staff had worked hard to make Bishops a welcoming environment for all who learn and work here, irrespective of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

The school’s efforts, he said, had included the development of a Transformation and Diversity Policy, Social Sustainability Document, and an Anti-Discrimination Policy as well as engaging with boys, staff and parents in various forums and focus groups to give a voice to minorities.

I salute the class of 2020. DM

 

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