Guest Column

Did we put the children first?

2017-08-06 06:06
Parents put placards outside St John’s College ahead of Panyaza Lesufi’s meeting with the school’s management. Picture: Ndileka Lujabe

Parents put placards outside St John’s College ahead of Panyaza Lesufi’s meeting with the school’s management. Picture: Ndileka Lujabe

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Reshard Kolabhai

By now, much of the country knows about the recent racial incident at St John’s College, Johannesburg, with allegations and debate raging fiercely on social media and in conversations.

Rumour is unnecessary for current purposes; let us take the school at its word.

To the point: What about the children? Are we speaking up for them? And are we acting in their best interests, as our society and Constitution demand?

I ask because, despite this incident being about confirmed serious abuse of children at a school by their teacher, the children often seem to be shoved to the outskirts of the matter.

The school has emphatically claimed to not condone racism in any form.

But was the perpetrator’s retention as a teacher of his victims not, by and large, a de facto condonation of racism against children?

Did the children’s interests never become apparent to the school? Or did the school find them not worthy of defending?

How, following the confirmed finding of serious racial misconduct, could the school not on its own conclude that Keith Arlow – the perpetrator – had to be dismissed even after considering the weak “mitigating factors”?

If a mitigating factor was that Arlow was a “good teacher”, the obvious question is for whom was he so? Is that benchmark of any meaningful worth if it works to keep child abusers in the classroom?

What kind of teacher is the school content to employ?

Or is the claim that the school “does not condone racism in any form” so weak as to be meaningless?

After all, Arlow was never fired – he resigned – and so despite the attempts to clear its name, the school never did punish Arlow further for his child abuse.

The issue runs deep

Arlow, for his part, was unrepentant until found guilty, even claiming that his mistake was to think the children were “mature” enough to appreciate his “jokes”.

The school later stated that its fault lay in considering the matter an internal issue, rather than a broader community issue.

But were these children not “internal”?

How is it that the relationship between Arlow and the school only “irretrievably broke down” after intervention by the South African public (and the MEC in particular), and the accompanying threats of further intervention and reputational damage?

The issue runs deep. The school held that its punishment of Arlow was in keeping with the school’s Anglican ethos of “Light, Life and Love”.

Yet its letters to the community make little mention of the child victims of the abuse, or what the ethos meant for these victims (who were still being taught by Arlow until his resignation was forced).

So how meaningful is this ethos? For whose interest does it operate?

These are pressing questions not only for the headmaster, but also for Bishop of the Anglican Diocese Dr Steve Moreo, who made recommendations that this form of “restorative justice” be implemented.

And it’s not just the school.

An Independent Schools Association of SA representative, on 702, went so far as to emphasise that in a disciplinary hearing such as this, the school is the victim, not the children.

The representative made no mention of prioritising the child victims of abuse.

Nor was the school’s conflict of interests mentioned: how could the school prioritise the harm done to the children if it would rather retain Arlow, or if it could attempt to preserve its image by signing confidentiality agreements, avoiding a scandal?

The children refuse to be silent

As for the headmaster, Paul Edey, the alumni are torn.

Some have only called for his resignation since the reputational damage to the school has become known.

Had Edey done a better job of “PR-ing” the incident, would the alumni be as outraged at the child abuse on its own?

Other alumni have defended Edey’s track record – but can his defence of Arlow to the detriment of child victims be condoned?

Is clamping down on racism in 2017 so unfamiliar a territory that we should give Edey time to warm up – to keep making mistakes, to keep allowing children to suffer abuse – until he learns to do better?

How can the school be excused for having never drafted an anti-discrimination policy?

For having made zero academic reference to human rights in all this, despite its tremendous resources?

Reshard Kolabhai

For not meaningfully engaging with the children as to the impact of Arlow’s retention?

For not empathising with the sentiments of South Africans at large, who condemn child abuse?

For keeping the details of the proceedings in the dark, away from scrutiny? How, with all these, can the school claim to be putting its children first?

It is clear: many discussions surrounding this incident have ignored the child victims at the heart of it all, hurting them far beyond that which they have already suffered.

We must not forget: children were abused.

Children reported the incident.

Children bravely fought to be heard, bravely testified in front of their abuser, and bravely endured when the victims’ interests were ignored for the perpetrator’s sake.

Children boycotted, children got their abuser to resign, and children continue to protest even now.

The children refuse to be silent. Yet, inexplicably, we still refuse to listen to them.

All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.

After all these children have done to defend themselves – and all South African children have done in history – the least we could do is try to hold the child victims at the centre of our conversations.

For how much longer must we keep making the same mistake?

Kolabhai matriculated from St John’s College in 2011


Should legislation be passed to compel schools to act in cases of racism and protect pupils’ dignity?

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Read more on:    johannesburg  |  education  |  racism


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