OPINION | Bishops: Looking for excellence in all the wrong places

The chapel at Bishops Diocesan College in Cape Town.
The chapel at Bishops Diocesan College in Cape Town.
Bishops Diocesan College website

As the alleged wrongdoing at Bishops Diocesan College shows, equating wealth with virtue is a bad idea, writes Helena Wasserman.

Being a parent takes you down some unexpected avenues, and last month I ended up in a world that was completely foreign to me: a provincial school chess championship.

It took place over a weekend in a small town, where hundreds of children from all over the province came together for a weekend of cut-throat chess.

Being South Africa, the divide between schools with resources, and those without, was stark.

I watched as some school children arrived in SUVs. They were all dressed immaculately, and some ate their meals separately, in the boarding school lunchroom, as pre-arranged with the host school. On the other side of the income spectrum, children from township schools emerged from crammed taxis, and shared small packets of no-brand chips. They then proceeded to wipe the floor with some of the poshest schools in the country.

PODCAST | THE STORY: Inside the Bishops sex scandal

Game after game, these children, who during breaks practiced their moves on cheap, miniature chess sets carefully positioned on toilet paper to protect them from the grass, came out on top.

At the end of the weekend, township school teams were ranked first in four of the six primary school age categories.

Seeing these kids – many of them girls – in their torn jerseys, calmly demolishing their opponents, was one of those lump-in-the-throat moments all South Africans know so well.

This is what happens when the playing field is level-ish. Apart from the expensive experts who coach the higher-income schools, for once, having money wasn't going to set you apart.

To be great at chess, you don't need an astro-turf playing field, a multi-million-rand science centre, a digitised school library, or math teachers who have actuarial degrees. You need intellectual stamina, grit and the hunger to practice for hours. Even if you come from a poor school that has been starved of resources and neglected for decades and where children die in pit latrines – even amid poverty and daily crime, you can be excellent at chess.

I kept on thinking about this masterclass in the limits of privilege, and the power of potential, as the bombshell broke at Bishops Diocesan College last week.

Let's face it, a similar scandal at another school would have lasted half a news cycle at best. But this was Bishops (motto: Pro Fide Et Patria, "For Faith and Fatherland"). The coverage went on and on, in part because of the schadenfreude that the R21 000-a-month school's veneer of respectability has taken a knock. (As the joke goes, a pastor once asked mourners around an open grave whether they have anything else they would like to say. One put up his hand: "I went to Bishops.")

As the alleged wrongdoing at the school shows, equating wealth with virtue is a bad idea. And in case you are still struggling to figure out why a teacher said to be sleeping with her pupils is wrong: Imagine if the genders were reversed, or if it was your child who was involved.

Reading all the breathless reporting about Bishops, and seeing it describe itself as "an institution of excellence" made me think about the excellence I saw last month, from children with almost no resources at their disposal, who battle massive obstacles every day.

It goes without saying that there are millions of kids in poor schools who have the same (and better) intellectual capabilities than those in rich schools, combined with a fierce determination. More support is needed for these children, from all of us. Perhaps also from Bishops and other rich schools. They may already have solid bursary programmes – but can they put a little more Fide in their Patria by investing even more in smart kids and perhaps a little less into their own resources?

Even more important than charity, is the need to adjust our perspectives. Considering the vast inequalities, perhaps it's time to reconsider what excellence really looks like in South Africa. Maybe we need to spend even more time cheering on those who succeed against the odds than obsessing about the wealthy's fall from grace.

- Wasserman is editor of Business Insider SA.

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