To my horror, my daily news readings found me looking at a picture of five murder-accused where I recognised at least 3 of them as definitely having gone to my former high school (IOL). They were either in my year or a year or two below me. This fact was confirmed in the article itself.
I was shocked not only by the brutality of the crimes for which they are accused but for the fact that they went to the same school that I did. The thought that I was in the same environment as possible murderers is chilling: it makes the magnitude and reality of their alleged crime hit closer to home without (thankfully) having to experience it. Darwinian self-preservation in full force, the question is selfishly asked, “Could it have been me?”
It was this commonality and selfish preservation which led me to think critically about our school, violent crime and societal patterns of behaviour. Admittedly, we all have different experiences in life and our outlooks are shaped by a plethora of differing experiential realities. One thing that we have in common is the schools that we attend and what kind of life lessons they impart on us. Some may even argue that a failure to even get to school leaves an indelible mark: it is a proposition with which I am willing to agree.
So if we accept that schools have this kind of potential and ability to influence how we view the world, is it fair to question whether this school in particular contributed to what may have been the thought-process (or lack there-of) of these individuals who allegedly committed this crime?
It would be unfair for me to say that the school actively taught violence or that it officially condoned it. It would also be unfair of me to suggest that it could have been the school alone which is responsible for their questionable behaviour, whatever the outcome of the case may be. But is it fair for me to critically examine institutional culture I know to have existed at the school during my time? And which continues to exist (given the stories I hear)?
If it means that this school and others like it will critically examine the role that they play in shaping the many young men who pass through their hallowed halls, then yes I believe it is. In a country like ours, which is so devastatingly characterised by gender violence, we must do everything that we can in order to ensure that we stop this decay. The well-being of would-be aggressors and their possible victims depends on it.
Let me begin by saying that despite my own run-ins with management and my less-than-sympathetic critiques of the school and its personalities, I am immensely proud of that institution.
The school is a shining example of how public schooling can work, and work incredibly well. To a large degree, it offers boys a good education as well as excellent extra-curricular activities. It presents them with the ability to interact with boys from far flung parts of the province, to build a sense of camaraderie through the shared identity of that unflattering green blazer! Even though its racial demographics are still off the national scale, the possibility for integration does exist and in many cases has been achieved. It has produced champions in all fields; its matriculants have ranked highly, taken top places at South African universities and gone on to win major scholarships ending up with degrees from places like Oxford! It has produced artists, entertainers, sportsmen, politicians and businessmen all of whom have gone on to achieve magnificently and all of whom undeniably owe part of their success to the school.
It has also done much for the surrounding area. By making itself a centre of excellence within the community, it has contributed to increasing investment in property and business: the area is desirable for families and entrepreneurs because activity revolves around a school that most parents want to send their boys to.
But it would be remiss of me to suggest that the school does not have concerning problems that need to be properly addressed. Agreed, no school is problem-free but the problems which concern me are not matters of mere administration. They are problems which speak to an institutional culture and which themselves have the possibility of leaving negative imprints on some of the boys who pass through it. In my opinion, it is not good enough to be satisfied that only a minority may go on to act like these young men stand accused of acting. One could go so far as to say that in South Africa, where rape and abuse of women is more prevalent that in war-torn countries, the minority’s problematic behaviour it too great an issue to ignore.
So what are the issues of which I speak?
One such issue is that of a culture of silence. Meaningful criticism and engagement is either ignored, swept under the carpet or mischaracterised as being disloyal. And where the stench of disloyalty can have you excommunicated, you are most likely to keep quiet. This is especially the case where the least charming or intelligent epithets are used to harangue you into silence. Sometimes it comes from on high. Other times it comes from apparatchiks. The point is: it happens. I know. My big-mouth got me into a lot of trouble. I was able to withstand that because my own ego allowed me to treat such behaviour with supreme disinterest. What also cushioned the blow was the fact that I belonged to a circle of friends who were like minded and unlikely to be silenced. We were a minority but we spoke for many more.
Related to this culture of silence then is the creation of a machismo-centric culture that is both exclusionary and oppressive. The creation of camaraderie is great. The creation of an exclusive identity of what a true man is however is very problematic. Usually because this identity, or at least my experience of it, is a euro-centric, heteronormative, outdated cultural stereotype that is valued and rewarded. You must be a straight, rugby-playing, hulking child-beast in order to succeed. Yes, we give our kudos to the high-flying academics and cultural achievers (it is in our interest to do so), but we really want you to be one of our type. And we reward those who are our ideal with praise, leadership and adulation – with the exception of a few token appointments of course.
The over prevalence of (unqualified) old boys who were usually doyens of the sports field as academic staff, whilst problematic in terms of academic standards and quality, is also problematic in terms of institutional culture. Retaining these big names who never seem to grow up and move on from their school boy personas means that the testosterone filled environment only gets that much more contentious, with staff not being separated enough in age or temperament from the boys they are supposed to teach.
Effective discipline is confused with the need to appear and/or be tough. Threats, cajoling, shouting, swearing and physical posturing are favoured tactics amongst the enforcers. They work more often than not. And more often than not they result in that culture cascading all the way down the rank and file. Poor grade 8s. This again smacks of a predominantly male culture.
And it isn’t only the boys who are oppressed or excluded because of these constructs. So too are the staff. Independence is not valued and if anything, the independent voices are either made irrelevant, undermined or driven out of the school. The few female teachers that do exist are treated with respect but are treated in the same way that one would a trophy wife. Nice to look at but not really important to listen to. Women staff must surely feel this institutional culture intolerable if not oppressive. It is a pity that so few have any ability to act.
Allowing for difference is important. And schools must be safe environments in which the right to be different must be protected. A failure to do so only engenders more problems. It incentivizes underground activity which is itself risqué because boys do not want to be found out. Be that in something as serious as their sexual orientation or as unimportant as a penchant for singing classical music. Most of them know they have to lead a double life for fear of being outed – the start of a possibly unending round of psychological and physical torment.
I remember vividly that a cheeky (straight) friend once asked what would happen if someone chose to bring a male partner to the revered matric dance. The official line, if my memory serves me correctly, was that they would not be stopped from doing so. But the school would not be held accountable for the actions of their classmates.
This culture of official indifference was prevalent in other aspects of school life. Whilst bullying was outlawed, it was also expected that a certain amount of ‘boyish’ teasing and muscle-flexing would happen. Psychological distress and in some cases physical abuse was only ever acted against when the consequences were severe enough that the brand could be damaged. And even then, whilst officialdom took a certain line, the conduct of those in senior positions or those closely affiliated to them made it evident that this sort of thing was ‘snitching,’ ‘unmanly’ and worthy of contempt. Again, the reasons to remain silent and bear it were strong.
The school is in a unique place to rid the boys that go to it of decades long constructions of masculinity. In actively tackling these ideas and in making young boys understand that violence, chauvinism and sexism is incorrect, my old school, and no doubt many schools like it, can do society a great service. In moulding impressionable young minds and making them more tolerate, less prone to using violence as a solution and being more open-minded, maybe we can undercut the prevailing perverse culture of male violence in South Africa. If the schools are successful there is no telling of the type of change this can bring when those young boys become men.