Elite school rocked by claims of racism

More than 40 current and former pupils at the exclusive St Anne's Diocesan College in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands have laid bare their experiences ranging back from 2014, accusing teachers and fellow pupils of discriminatory conduct.

The girls and women have contributed 70 accounts of perceived institutionalised prejudice at the school in a 6,000-word public document.

Ahead of a detailed response, the school's administrators have started consultations with pupil representatives and invited recommendations from the school community as well as the public on the criticism directed at it, and on the issue of transformation generally.

The complaints range from the k- and n-words being used against black girls, their hair being referred to as "bird's nests" and white pupils referring to black children at the school as "slaves".

The alleged perpetrators have not been called to account over their discriminatory behaviour, the open letter titled "Wake Up, St Anne's" states.

Former pupil Fikile Ntshanga said one teacher habitually made racist remarks towards the black pupils.

"She would speak about how much she missed apartheid and how black people have robbed her and her sons of various opportunities.

"I remember once after they announced heads of portfolios, [the principal] called us [a group of black girls] in to tell us we should think about how wrong it is that we cheer more for black people," she said.

Grace Masitha accused the principal of hypocrisy after he recently denounced the death of American George Floyd while, she alleged, he allowed racism to thrive in the school.

Principal Dave Arguile told Sowetan's sister publication TimesLIVE the school is in possession of the letter of complaints and was in consultation with the school's legal team and would revert with an answer when able to do so.

Bonolo Mokoka said one weekend, she was leaving the dining room with her friends at lunch time while laughing and chatting. "The teacher on duty shouted at us and said 'this is not a taxi rank' on one occasion, and 'this is not a shebeen' on another. She only used these terms because we were a group of black girls."

Katekile Dakile said a teacher referred to black people as "negroes".

"This was not in a novel or movie context. After asking her if she thought it was appropriate to refer to black people in this manner, she stated this is the way in which black people were 'defined'."

Accounts from current pupils were kept anonymous to protect their identity.

"There is a girl in our grade who said last year that she wanted apartheid to come back because us black girls make her feel uncomfortable. This was addressed to the headmaster but all he did was speak to us as a grade and nothing more," said a pupil.

Another said when she arrived at the school, she was mocked for her "black" accent "to the point where I had to fake a white accent".

"However, every now and then my accent will peep through in class when speaking or reading, leading to many white students laughing or mocking me. I have also been called a baboon by peers at times when I have been loud or excited.

"When I made it into the top class for maths, many people commented that it must be a mistake," she said.

In a statement, Arguile shared on the school's website, he said: "Our St Anne's transformation journey is not a new one. We have sincerely attempted to be open to criticism, to be courageous in bringing about change and to eradicate injustices of which we may previously have been unaware. Racism is ubiquitous and to suggest that members of our community are never guilty of racist behaviour, or that implicit bias does not impact on our actions or decision-making at St Anne's, would be naive. Furthermore, the value of admirable policies is diminished every time an individual experiences a contradiction thereof.

"I therefore confirm St Anne's intention to use this opportunity to sincerely examine what is needed to ensure that we are a school where all agree, and confirm via our actions, that 'Black Lives Matter'.

"I hope it will not be long before I am able to supply you with the details of agreed changes. In the meantime, I sincerely request that you pray for St Anne's as an institution, and for its pupils and staff."

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