Decolonisation must begin at schools


I am a student at the university currently known as Rhodes. Our struggle for decolonisation remains urgent, and unfulfilled. Meanwhile, the struggle for decolonisation is impeded by university management. And yet, we must move for decolonisation in in all our institutions, starting with our schools, writes MISHKA WAZAR.

At my alma mater, Pretoria High School for Girls, we sang an old English school song almost every week while Edith Aitken stared at us out of an old wooden frame. She was the first headmistress of my school and crafted our school charter, which stated that the goal of the school was that “girls of different races and different denominations might meet in that commonwealth of letters which gave Erasmus and Shakespeare to the world.”

Regardless of whatever good intentions Aitken had, the first non-diplomat black girl still only gained admittance in 1991. The education system was still, and continues to be, Eurocentric, sexist, racist, homophobic and exclusionary to all people of colour. In high school English lessons, I read a Shakespeare play every year, but only one book by a South African author of colour: District 6 by Richard Reeves. The only book I read written by a woman was To Kill a Mockingbird.
Is that not a colonised system?

My school was founded by Lord Alfred Milner, a colonial administrator who said that segregation “was desirable no less in the interests of social comfort and convenience than in those of health and sanitation.”

He established eight English-medium high schools in South Africa to further his agenda of British imperialism. The schools were literally created to educate British boys to continue the process of colonisation, and educate the British wives who would bear their children and ensure the legacy of the empire.

These schools are: Pretoria High School for Girls and Pretoria Boys High School, Jeppe High School for Boys and Jeppe High School for Girls, King Edward VII School and Johannesburg Girls’ High School and The High School for Boys and The High School for Girls in Potchefstroom.

They were called the Milner schools, and till today have the reputation of being “good” schools, with high pass-rates and good discipline. But they are also the legacy of colonialism, of education systems designed to strengthen the imperialist system that took over this country and subjected its native population to subjugation.
These schools are suffocating spaces if you aren’t blinded by internalised racism and sexism. Almost all our teachers were white. White women teaching young women of colour. There is an inherent power play there. The structures of the schools are based on tradition, with traditional manners being instilled (enforced) in us while we wore our traditional war-time (literally) dresses.

Traditional to who? Not to me, or my black, coloured and Asian friends. And that’s the problem with these systems. They normalise Eurocentrism to the point that we think of ourselves as the other, even in South Africa. The citizen is the White, English, man and woman. We are the Subjects, subjected to rule. These schools are proud of their history. My brothers and I were taught to be grateful that we attended them, because the teachers came to school every day and we had books and desks. But no one ever questioned WHY other schools didn’t have these amenities. I never told my white teachers that the reason those schools were broken was because their ancestors didn’t want to educate people of colour, and so that legacy of schooling continues to exist as well.

Rather than turning us into “young ladies and gentlemen’” these schools teach us cognitive dissonance. To exist with both shame and superiority complexes, with a Model-C accent of course.
Decolonisation needs to start from secondary school if it will succeed at the tertiary level. Aluta Continua.


Featured image via Pixabay


  1. If you’re trying to decolonize the culture why are still referring to people of European ethnicities as “white people.” I thought the one of the points of decolonization is that “white people don’t exist.” That whiteness is a social construct.

  2. If you’re trying to decolonize the culture why are you still referring to people of European ethnicities as “white people.” I thought one of the points of decolonization is that “white people don’t exist.” That whiteness is a social construct.

    • Whiteness is at once a social, as well as an economic/material construct. Unfortunately, what whiteness means, economically and materially, in terms of privilege, power and oppression, isn’t as easy to ‘decolonize’ or negate by just appealing to its social aspect as ‘not existing’. I assume you mean to imply that its constructed nature creates problems with its ontology, but this is dubious metaphysical speculation about real world problems. On this view what part of the human experience really ‘exists’ that isn’t ‘constructed’? Perhaps only material reality, i.e what food you get to eat, whether you have to do a lot of physical work to live your life, how much income you receive etc. The world is fucking out there, man, there are massive inequalities and systemic violence and structures that reinforce this shit, while privileging a small minority, again, systematically, with exceptions of course. Decolonization, what many people see as ‘this attack on whiteness’ isn’t an attack on individual white people’s social being; it’s first and foremost an attack on the power structures that materially and yes, socially, oppress those excluded from the purview of whiteness.

      • So tedious. Garbage verbosity followed by trendy swearing. Such a poser. Do you also drink out of jam jars? It “isn’t as easy to ‘decolonize’” because you have created a spectre without definition. It’s also hard to defeat something that doesnt’ exist. Words empty of everything except emotion and approval from Wits’ soci”ology” department. And enough with this “don’t take it personally” nonsense. You sound like a right winger saying it’s not OK to be gay: “it’s not personal: hate the sin, love the sinner”, except in this case, you don’t even love the sinners. I thought you goobledegook-ists believed that the personal is the political anyway.

    • Take your schools back to Europe and allow South Africans to devise a system of education that addresses the needs of the majority of the population.

      • How can one take one’s schools back to Europe? They were never there in the first place. Would one need to take them on a ship? How many ships would we need to load all these schools? Would the schools not disintegrate during the voyage?
        And what are the needs of the majority. Do you want to learn how set good fires?
        How to destroy property? How to toy toy and party and dance all day long? What are your actual needs that you do not get in world-class schools?
        Please don’t talk sh*t. If you want to place an opinion, then wait until you have had a bit of education. You need it badly, Mate.

        • Rod; I am not your mate. ‘Take your schools back to Europe’ is a metaphorical construction. To be precise, it is a sentence metaphor, which is a type of metaphorical construction where a sentence can be grammatically and syntactically correct, but reads difficultly or nonsensically within the context it is presented in. In this instance, ‘take your schools back to Europe’ refers to the previous contributor’s ignorance in assuming there is true freedom, for the majority of people in choosing a school for their children. Even if that is construed as a relatively free choice; the metaphor speaks of the way in which the entire South African school curriculum is ill-suited to the needs and contours of the material reality, culture and knowledge systems of the African child, while still being enforced upon them WHETHER THEY LIKE IT OR NOT.
          I hold a masters degree from one of your European institutions; it seems you have a penchant for loose talk and blanket disparagement of the poor. This, to me, is a great reason to reject any kind of education you seem to want me to get: I’m afraid I have had too much of it already.

          • I’m sure Rod was also speaking metaphorically. His point remains that the schools can’t go anywhere are not imposed on anyone. Choices are available, including the School of Revolution you run, I presume.

            Don’t be in the business of breaking things you don’t like. Build your own things that addresses these “needs” of South Africans you’ve identified.

  3. Thank you for this perspective, but I think that by suggesting we need to decolonise secondary schools you don’t go far enough. We need to decolonise the lived experience of pre-school infants. And the experience is dictated by commerce as well as social structures. Only gender-conforming clothing available in the stores and white mermaids and princesses on t-shirts and white dolls to play with. And picture books for little one’s learning to read? Try to find a book that reflects an urban African child’s reality – they are few and far between. Lots of huts, beads, drums, and skins, celebrating a chimera of rural exoticism. We need tools and resources to teach our children well.

    Those schools (pre-, primary, and high) where there are no qualified teachers or teachers who shirk their responsibility are a result of the policy Bantu Education, but we cannot simply leave the blame at Apartheid’s door, we need to find active solutions so that we are not raising more generations of damaged children without opportunities.

    • OK, OK. Black barbies sound cool etc. By “we” I hope you are referring to consumers or the business you have started which sells barbies in many shades and genders.


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