Parents Demand Changes As St John's College Faces Its 'Worst Crisis' In 119 Years Over Race Row

Students who had been the victim of racist incidents described their experiences.
A student walks past placards left at the entrance of the St John's College in Johannesburg.
A student walks past placards left at the entrance of the St John's College in Johannesburg.

St John's College is facing the "dark realities" of embedded racial problems that have been going on for decades, a parent said after an emergency meeting on Wednesday night.

Lerato Okeyo was one of the parents of pupils at the prestigious school who attended a meeting with the St John's College school council. The school admitted during the meeting that it was the "biggest crisis" it had faced in its 119 year history.

Around 500 learners, teachers, alumni and management gathered for a town hall meeting to discuss how the school could move forward, after geography teacher Keith Arlow was forced to resign by Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi after being found guilty of making racist comments to South African black, Indian and Greek students, as well as foreign students.

Okeyo told HuffPost SA the meeting revealed that there have been ongoing racial problems at the school.

"The racial dynamics emanate from culture, which has been embedded in the school for decades," she said. "The meeting really brought to surface the dark realities that the school is faced with."

Some pupils stood up to describe the race-related incidents they had faced at the school.

Okeyo was concerned some teachers were missing the whole point of the meeting and displayed a lack of understanding towards the issues being faced by students of colour.

"One thing that came across very clearly yesterday [Wednesday night] was that there is a misalignment in terms of how the teaching staff views the priorities versus how the boys -- both current as well as previous -- see them. As parents, our job is to elevate the boys above all else and other issues come after that."

A disciplinary committee handling the case decided against firing Arlow, instead reducing his pay and demoting him from his position as a senior teacher at the school.

In the resulting fallout, it emerged that parents including Wits professor, Sarah Nutall, had been raising alarm bells about racism at the school for months and had been battling to persuade the school to institute an anti-racism policy.

Nutall said about four teachers spoke at the meeting, however "teachers were anxious about their positions and did not seem like they were listening".

However, she added: "We had powerful testimonies from old boys and parents. It was a very important moment and a good start."

Nuttall said it was a significant moment in the school's history, as one of the boys who had been a victim of Arlow's racist remarks stood up to ask for an apology directly from the school council. Council chair John Patricios apologised for the very first time in front of all the students, parents and learners at the meeting. "This was a very powerful moment," she said.

The school's governance structures were also discussed at the meeting, following heavy criticism for the way the crisis was handled by a group of alumni falling under the #OpenStJohns movement. The group has called for the headmaster Paul Edey and council chair John Patricios to resign.

Okeyo said: "The school has very archaic governance structures which do not necessarily reflect what is required for the school to be effective in terms of its aspirations to be diverse and inclusive."

Parents involved in these meetings have asked the school to replace the council with a body that can better handle issues related to discrimination, racism and transformation.

"The main achievement of the meeting is that we agreed on a proposal for us to move forward as a collective. That proposal is through an interim structure which will reflect the views of concerned parents and other stakeholders, together with some of the council members, and that will be the entity that charges the way forward for the school," said Okeyo.

Okeyo said that she remains optimistic about the future and hopes to see changes at the school.