South Africa: Culture war over equity rocks elite school

By Audrey Simango

Posted on Tuesday, 22 November 2022 11:40
Bishops Diocesan College in Cape Town, South Africa (facebook)

One of South Africa's poshest private schools is caught in the tug of war between the country's traditional elite and reformers agitating for a radical rethinking of the pathways to privilege in the rainbow nation.

Controversy over gay rights and slipping sports rankings has sparked a furious debate over modernisation and diversity among students, parents and alumni at Bishops Diocesan College, the elite Anglican boys’ school in Cape Town.

The conservative faction defends what it deems to be the school’s traditional culture, spirit and identity, while reformists counter that “tradition” is little more than a pretense for the preservation of historical privilege, a racially charged topic in post-apartheid South Africa.

“All our church schools face transformation challenges,” Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba, the influential head of the church in South Africa, recently lamented about Bishops’ culture wars.

Rockstar graduates

The school charges R289.000 ($16,700) per year, more than 10 times the average monthly wage of R24,000 ($1,300). It was founded in 1849 by Robert Gray, the first Anglican Bishop of Cape Town. The goal was to provide Christian education to boys in the then-thriving Cape Colony.

Graduates from Bishops include some of South Africa’s most influential policyholders in statecraft, sports and business. Alumni include Raymond Ackerman, founder of PicknPay, South Africa’s leading supermarket multinational, and Mark Shuttleworth, whose company created the Linux-based Ubuntu operating system.

Situated in the picturesque hills of Cape Town, Bishops is South Africa’s “status symbol” school, says cleric Tendai Muchatuta, head of the All Nations Church in South Africa.

The task team did not identify anyone resisting transformation, but the import of their report indicates that it is a minority in schools.

At the heart of the current debate is a scathing, anonymous eight-page letter shared publicly in September by the conservative parents’ camp fuming that “our school is no longer a happy place for boys, parents, and an increasing number of teachers who have lost pride and respect in the school.”

A historic decision to fly the LGBTQ+ Pride flag at Bishops that month was the final straw that unleashed tensions that had been bubbling for months in conservative circles.

These include concerns that the school was slipping in rugby results (itself a sport of white privilege in South Africa); concerns about the role of the Anglican Church in the school’s identity; and the Bishops principal’s championing of transformation and diversity at the school.

Tradition Vs Values

An opposing camp supports the school’s determined leader, Tony Reeler, who is considered to be one of the best principals of his generation.

They shot back that “tradition” and “values” are terms that protect the privilege of South Africa’s historically advantaged white upper class and that it takes a strong leader to enact needed reforms.

An administrator for the school told The Africa Report that the school was on vacation and would not be available to respond to questions.

The fight at Bishops Diocesan College mirrors the larger racialised showdown over educational control and enrolment at elite private schools in South Africa as changing demographics and wealth distribution empower middle-class Black, Indian and Coloured (multi-racial) families.

South Africa is home to 22,740 state schools and 2,154 fee-paying independent schools, which include elite private schools like Bishops. The latter is changing with the times, with Black students now accounting for more than half (54.4%) of enrolment at formerly white independent schools, with white students now a minority, with just 29.4%.

Claims of racism

These better-resourced independent schools are called Model C schools in South Africa, a throwback to the apartheid era when Whites were eligible for Model C schools while Black and Indian students were consigned to Model A and Model B schools.

Sensing that tensions at Bishops could escalate and destabilise the church’s elite schools, a task force of Anglican bishops and priests was already probing cries from students and alumni over claims of racism in elite Anglican schools.

The task force is led by professor Mary Metcalfe, one of the country’s most experienced and respected educators.

Anglican schools are a reflection of South Africa’s society – sometimes at its worst – concluded a report handed to the Anglican Church of Southern Africa in March.

Our school is no longer a happy place for boys, parents, and an increasing number of teachers who have lost pride and respect in the school.

“The task team did not identify anyone resisting transformation, but the import of their report indicates that it is a minority in schools,” Archbishop Makgoba told The Africa Report. 

Makgoba emphasised that elite Anglican schools in South Africa are at different places in their journeys of transformation, and insisted that all schools have taken positive, forward-moving actions to deal with the legacy of the country’s painful past.

Fight for equity

Carter Mavhiza, an independent economist in Johannesburg, described as “damning” the findings that posh Anglican schools are a reflection of the dark underbelly of the country’s deep racial chasms.

“It becomes a money play,” Mavhiza says. “If a formerly white school is seen to be aggressively pursuing equity and diversity too much, some affluent white parents withdraw their children” and “the schools get poorer materially.”

The Anglican Church in South Africa says it is aware of the implied need to make elite schools like Bishops more affordable and accessible for historically underprivileged non-white students.

Archbishop Makgoba said the church has been instrumental in starting new, low-fee schools.

“The church has over the decades urged schools, with considerable success, to provide financial assistance for students who cannot afford the fees,” Mavhiza says.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options