School in the thick of things

2010-07-20 00:00

FOREST Hill Primary School has a long history reflecting over a century of South African history and politics — not least the politics of resistance and the period of apartheid.

The school began life in 1902 in a time of informal segregation when it was built as a high school for Indian boys and known as York Street High. “This street doesn’t exist today but behind the present school there are traces of a street,” says current school principal Basil Manuel. “An old postbox is still there.”

The name was later changed to Woodlands High School and so it remained until the advent of the Group Areas Act in 1950. “The impact was really felt in the fifties and sixties,” says Manuel. “Woodlands High, being a school for Indian boys, had to move to an Indian area. There was a coloured school in Raisethorpe, so we swopped schools.”

In 1953, Raisethorpe Primary relocated to the Forest Hill site. In 1995, the school changed its name again when the Department of Education decided that calling it Raisethorpe Primary was confusing. In the same year a school called Forest Hills on the site where Heritage Academy is today in Prestbury closed down and the name of this school was adopted. “But people still refer to it as Raisethorpe Primary,” says Manuel. And Woodlands High still exists at Mysore Road in Northdale.

Back in 1902, the school now known as Forest Hills was the only school in a predominantly Indian area with a hall. “It was used as a gathering place for a whole host of things because then there were just no other public facilities,” says Manuel. “It was unique that it had a hall. It’s not that large because it didn’t need to be when it was built, but it could accommodate 200 to 250 people.”

Famously, Mohandas Gandhi, later the Mahatma, addressed audiences and attended meetings there. Mention is made of this in The Natal Witness of the period where the school is referred to as the “Indian High School, Willow Bridge” (see box).

The hall still exists and in the centre of its high ceiling can be seen a blocked hole, presumably where a bell hung down from the belfry above. The bell has long gone and no one has any memory of it tolling the children to class. “Earlier this year we had a terrific storm and got a water leak into the hall,” says Manuel. “We found the timber on the belfry was rotting. it probably hadn’t been touched in the last 100 years.”

Cyril Meintjies — or Uncle Pyppie as everyone at the school knows him — who voluntarily does the odd repair job when required, dismantled it, replaced the lead, and reconstructed the belfry with its distinctive spire. “There were big cracks in the wood. It was made out of deal,” he says. “It’s been replaced with pine.”

The post-apartheid period has also seen changes at the school. “Before 1994, the majority of pupils lived in the city,” recalls Manuel. “We were mixed in with the environment, everyone knew everybody.

“At one stage Indian children also came from Edendale where, prior to apartheid, Indian farmers lived. They walked here every morning.”

Today’s school draws its pupil population of just under a 1 000 from the black inner-city population, from Woodlands and also a large proportion from Edendale.

In November 1912, The Natal Witness reported the visit to Natal of Gopal Gokhale, a key leader of the Indian independence movement against the British in India. He was a champion of nonviolence and sought reform through existing government institutions. Gandhi invited him to visit South Africa in 1912. When Gokhale came to Pietermaritzburg, Gandhi travelled from the Transvaal where he was living at Tolstoy Farm to meet him at the station. Gokhale addressed a meeting at the city hall “which included all the leading citizens of Maritzburg, and a great number of Indians”.

The Witness later reported Gokhale’s meeting with “a multitude of deputations and visitors. At 10 o’clock there was a large gathering of Indians at the Indian High School, Willow Bridge. They were gathered to give the Indian view of the grievances to which it was desired to draw the visitors’ attention. The spokesmen were Ismail Bayat, the Reverend Joseph, Mr Royappen, Mr Naik, Mr P. Naidoo and M. K. Gandhi.”

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