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Helpmekaar: assumptions breed intolerance

2017-08-01 15:21


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Richard Brown

My curiosity was recently piqued by an opinion piece titled: ‘Helpmekaar not preparing learners for the real world’.

By the end of the article I was somewhat peeved – and only partly because I'm a former Helpmekaar Kollege learner.

The writer of said article spent an afternoon watching his son compete against Helpmekaar in a rugby match, and deemed that a sufficient base from which to launch a string of rather strong opinions.

That one Saturday afternoon convinced him that Helpmekaar is an all-white, Afrikaans, racist school that's living in the past and doesn't equip its learners for university, the workplace or the “real world”.

He goes on to paint a rather unflattering picture of the school, almost equating it with an apartheid-era institution with a whites-only sign above the door. Helpmekaar is a 100-year-old institution and, for all I know, that may well have been the circumstances there 60 years ago, but the Helpmekaar I know is worlds apart from the Orania-like establishment he describes.

Now, admittedly, my whiteness afforded me certain privileges in this country that weren't, and for the most part still aren't, granted to my black peers. I can't and won't deny that the colour of my skin paved a much less potholed path than for my black brethren.

But the Helpmekaar that I attended over twelve years ago certainly didn't promote or favour whiteness. I was simply fortunate enough that my parents could afford the admittedly exorbitant school fees that an IEB education (including the American SAT exams) at a private school dictates.

The sad reality is that the majority of black households still can't afford the tuition. Those black families who do choose a private education for their children, understandably opt to enrol them in one of the many English private schools available. So, although unintentional, the result is a somewhat distorted reflection of South African society as a whole. To claim a deliberate fostering of exclusiveness or elitism is, however, nonsense.

The culture at Helpmekaar, at least when I attended (and likely still exactly the same under the excellent tutelage of headmaster Klaus König), is open and accepting of learners of any colour, and promotes and advocates tolerance, broad-mindedness, and kindness to everyone regardless of their race and creed.

The result was that we didn't feel “forced to acknowledge or applaud black competitors from other schools” – we did so willingly and consistently, irrespective of the colour of the opposition. Most of my peers grew into adults who still espouse and champion those same values today.

Oh, and we're surviving the “real world” just fine, thanks. Our schooling didn't render us “angry”, “frustrated” or “threatened”.

I'm not a huge fan of the word “Afrikaner”, especially not in the context that the columnist uses it, but I am proudly Afrikaans and I speak it every day, and I'm proud to have attended the first Afrikaans school in Johannesburg and the first Afrikaans private school in the country.

I'm a firm believer that children growing up in a household speaking a specific home language should be afforded the right to be educated in that language, Afrikaans included. The atrocities committed during the horrific years of apartheid by people who happened to speak the same language as I do, and the continued association of the language with them, shouldn't preclude me from getting a high school education in the language that I was reared in.

Furthermore, the Afrikaans culture of the school didn't inhibit me from studying in English after school or adapting to a mostly English-speaking workplace. In fact, the excellent schooling and preparation equipped me quite well. As a white man, I am far in the minority at my company (a fact I only just realised upon typing this, believe it or not – and not because I'm “colourblind”, but because I choose to see people rather than gender or race). Amazingly, and despite the “false and pretentious world” the writer claim I was raised in, I don't feel “angry”, “anxious”, “depressed” or prone to “mass race attacks” or “suicide”.

Either the supposed white-Afrikaans indoctrination at Helpmekaar failed dismally, or someone should check their facts before making wild assumptions without “knowing enough to make a call”, as he admits towards the end of his piece.

If it was written purely to bait people into a response, congratulations.

* As a footnote, consider the following sentence: “They speak the same language, they are all white and they almost look alike”. Now imagine a white person saying that of a majority black school and just think of the Penny Sparrow-like blow back a statement like that would receive. 

- Richard Brown is a former Helpmekaar Kollege learner.

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