UCT students ignite Catholic girl school to stand against racism and classism

Springfield Convent High School was urged by students to change the school environment to be more inclusive of minorities.

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 22.50.52.pngimage source: Gareth Heüer. 16 October, 2015.

Cape Town – Six ex-pupils of Springfield Convent High School, who are currently UCT students, spoke to the matric class of 2016 in August 2016 about how the school had prepared them for university. However, the UCT students mainly spoke about how the private, all-girls’ school had never prepared them for the social aspects of life outside of Springfield and specifically addressed how minorities within the school, mainly women of colour, felt that their identity wasn’t accepted or included within the environment. This mobilised the current students to demand drastic change from school authorities and to confront the ignored racism and classism within the institution. 

After UCT students spoke to the Springfield students, girls started to speak between themselves and in classes about issues such as racism, classism and lack of representation. Girls of colour and their peers, such as Laura Kelly, a 2016 matric student involved in the movement, noticed an overall ignorance and blindness to social issues and issues concerning black and coloured girls. Laura Kelly states the topic brought “divides amongst the grades.” A matric student of 2016, Thando Mcilizeli, a leading force in the movement for more diversity and representation within Springfield, drafted a petition. The petition was signed by a third of the high school population, stating their recognition of racism and classism within Springfield. The girls, now eager for a platform to discuss their concerns, took the petition to headmistress, Barbra Houghton, who students believed was unequipped to handle the issue, says Laura Kelly, as the headmistress appeared to not identify with the strong feelings held by the student body.

A week following, a failed attempt to address the high school occurred when Houghton brought in UCT’s director of Discrimination and Harassment Office, Francois Botha, who angered pupils by not allowing discussion between his audience members. Mcilizeli stepped in and called for another platform for minority voices within Springfield to express their concerns. This second attempt ended in many girls leaving it, frustrated and emotional, as Houghton appeared to not understand the struggles of the girls of colour. The headmistress was hesitant to attempt another mass meeting, but followed through so that the students of colour could educate the high school population through the telling of their stories of racism and the consequential trauma on an open platform. This was mediated by psychologist and human rights activist, Nomfundo Walaza.

Bethany Lane* and Megan Harrison*, matric students of 2017 who attended the meeting recalled pupil’s stories they listened to. A student voiced her experience of how her hair was said to look like a “rat’s tail”. Another student spoke about how her lunchbox, filled with traditional isiXhosa food, was insulted with remarks such as “it smells,” and “it looks like dog food.” When approaching a teacher about the racist remarks, the teacher told the girl, “I think you best not bring that kind of food again.” One student had heard another pupil saying, “She needs to go back to the township where she comes from.” A repetitive story was told by black and coloured students of  racial profiling. Harrison states that her friends are frequently asked if they are only at the school because they were granted a bursary. Girls of colour voiced how they have also been psychologically impacted, needing to go to therapists, expressing their stories of self-harm, and have felt alienated or like an outsider in the school environment.

Now, the new head girls of Springfield Convent for 2017, both girls of colour, have changed the Code of Conduct at the private school to accept more diversity, religions, and cultures in the rules around dress code and accessories. A grade 10 and 11 student have started “The Diversity Campaign” club where girls of colour and of different religions outside Christianity and Catholicism can meet in a comfortable space to tell their stories, express themselves, and feel more included and accepted within the school environment. Although there is still uncertainty if the new initiatives will make lasting change, students are hopeful.

* names have been changed to protect the identity of students currently at the institution

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