OPINION | Open letter from St Cyprian's head girl: Time for brushing aside racism has passed

St. Cyprian’s in Cape Town.
St. Cyprian’s in Cape Town.
People’s Post

Past and present pupils from various Western Cape high schools have spoken out over this past week about incidents of discrimination and racism they have experienced. St Cyprian’s School head girl Malaika Ngwenya penned this open letter to parents, high school pupils and past students. It is published with both her permission and that of the school. 

An open letter to the St Cyprians community: 

I write to you as a black student and your head girl. 

Being black means that even in places where we should feel safe and welcomed, we feel alienated and isolated. As a black girl, we carry this baggage, which distorts our perception of how life should really be, and this is just exhausting. 

This along with the societal responsibility and pressure to continuously advocate and protest that my life matters, and that I deserve the same treatment as my white peers. 

We cannot still be learning in environments that appreciate and praise eurocentric ways. It cannot be that young girls in our school are the centre of attention during break because they have an afro and the white kids think their hair is 'cute'. Why should we give up our comfort for the sake of white kids? 

In Grade 9, we were reading the Color Purple by Alice Walker and one of the characters spoke about how being dark is perceived as not beautiful. The teacher then turned to me, the only black girl in the class, and asked me to explain what this means, and essentially just why dark is perceived as less beautiful.

It is this subtle racism where I felt "othered", and I felt my blackness was being used in order to extend the reach of the lesson for the other students.

I look to the educators at St Cyprians for ways to enhance your teaching skills that do not involve alienating and targeting certain students in the room. Educators, you have to do better. Why is it that small kids are refusing to mingle and play with each other because of each other's racial differences? These are kids, they do not know or understand racism and discrimination. What they are doing is repeating ideals that are shared around the dinner table. 

I look to the parents to educate themselves. Educate themselves about the climate in which we are living, then educate the children. Know and understand that what you say and how you raise your kid will impact the way your kids treat others. Understand, that child who was told that she cannot play with that certain group of girls because she is 'brown' will have that incident play in her mind, where she will begin to look within herself for flaws and will blame herself for something she could have never change or prevent. 

ALSO READ | SA schools react as pupils detail experiences of racism

Parents you have to do better. 

The school cannot run normally as if nothing has happened. We cannot continue to post videos on Instagram as if no one has raised a concern and worry about how our students are living and coping. We cannot claim to hold values such as Respect, Integrity, Compassion and Accountability, but not follow through in those values in our teaching, our interactions, our systems, and structures. 

We cannot claim to have an appreciation for diversity, but only show that in magazine covers and Africa Day videos. 

We need to start acting on our ideals and our values. The time for brushing over certain incidents has now passed.

We need to unite and stop institutionalised racism. I do not want a divided school; I want the accepting community I know St Cyprian’s can be. We have a new principal and I hope this allows us the chance for a new era of inclusivity and diversity at the school which I know she is constructively focusing on. 

I am a girl in blue, and I am saying enough is enough and I know we can do better, especially for our little girls in blue who should not have to experience any sort of divide and discrimination in a place of learning.

Below is a letter sent on Sunday by the Principal and Chair of Council to the St Cyprian’s community:

7 June 2020 

Dear Members of St Cyprian’s School Community 

The leadership of the school has intentionally refrained from a knee-jerk response to the recent allegations levelled against the school by past and present students on social media platforms under the #yousilenceweamplify moniker/banner. Given the manner of delivery and Covid-19 lock down reality, it has been impossible to engage constructively with the individuals concerned. We have sought to reflect on the content and intent of the postings and listen to the message. 

ALSO READ | Motshekga says schools ready to reopen: Here is the breakdown by province

We are cognisant that all successful socio-cultural transformation journeys start with cultural assimilation and end with the celebration of the value of diversity. At the outset, those in the minority are silent and a false harmony sustains. As the journey progresses, those who have been part of the minority find their voice and a period of disharmony ensues.

This can be a confusing time for the promoters of positive change who are confronted with the reality of unknown unknowns – read, unforeseen mistakes and failures. But in truth, this period of discord is a necessary path to achieve the ultimate destination - elusive though it may seem. 

At St Cyprian’s School, we strive to develop the character of our young girls in order for them to take their place as women in the world post school.

Key elements of this process are voice and agency. We promote it and advocate for it continuously. We regard school as a safe space for these skills to be nurtured. The world beyond the boundaries of our school is manifestly not a safe space for women and girls as the scourge of gender-based violence especially in our own country bears grim and depressing testament. 

However, we acknowledge that due to systemic and structural racism contained within the foundations of our school, and because schools such as ours are microcosms of society, SCS has not always been a safe space for our students who are people of colour, past and present. We are working to deconstruct what is problematic within our system and to embrace the growing diversity within our community.

ALSO READ | Anti-racism campaign: Ramaphosa expresses regret over deaths of Collins Khosa, 10 others

Some of the plans have already been launched such as the establishment of our Transformation and Diversity Committee and others have been stalled due to lockdown.

Further plans include:

  • ongoing diversity awareness and sensitivity training for staff and students;
  • an intern programme to train teachers either to serve on our staff, or if we do not have a vacancy, as a general service to South African education;
  • workshops aimed at reworking the curriculum within each subject so that it is inclusive and transformative;
  • and the appointment of a Director of Equity and Belonging.

This person will be on the same level as a Deputy Head and sit on all Management Teams. Her/his responsibility will be to organise and run workshops; mentor interns and girls; oversee and champion an inclusive environment, and be the voice on senior committees ensuring that issues of redress are always on the agenda and foremost in our minds.

The ultimate objective of this role is to coordinate a holistic and integrated approach for the St Cyprians school community encompassing the Council, Transformation and Diversity Committee and faculty. Finally, we also have the benefit of a strong relationship with our alumni via the SC Union which has initiated a direct engagement with members on these challenging issues. 

As a community committed to positive transformation and diversity, we will not shy away from constructive challenge and criticism. Indeed, we welcome it. We celebrate it. We will not always agree with it but first we will endeavour to hear it. What we perceive is that the young women of St Cyprian’s School are displaying voice and agency as they navigate the challenges which confront them. We will continue to encourage the development of constructive voice and agency amongst our girls.

In the expectation, hope and prayer that this will translate into broader benefit for our school, society, and world. 


Hugo Nelson and Shelley Frayne Chair of Council and Principal 

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