When the train pulls up at the small Dachau railway station in Bavaria, Germany, you are greeted by the sight of flowers.
Boxes and hanging pots all containing a wild and vibrant array of spectacularly colourful blooms adorn the platform. They seem out of place and yet so poignant. A message from the town’s Mayor hangs above the exit. It is more than two decades since I visited the place, but it reads along the lines of: “This village was the site of horrific atrocities committed by the Nazis. Now it is our home and a place of friendship and peace. We the townsfolk are committed to never allowing the memory of the horrors committed in this place to fade. Welcome to Dachau.”
Over the years I have been profoundly moved by experiences
of the many concentration camps in both Germany and Poland. I have visited
Auschwitz, Birkenau and of course Dachau. You can never un-see what you see at
these places; you can never un-feel the feelings. You may ask why one would
visit such morbid places; stand inside gas chambers and tiny huts in which
dozens of people suffered, starved and died. This may not be a thing for
everyone, but my freedom somehow compels me to do it. I believe that by
standing in solidarity with all of humanity that has suffered we never allow
ourselves to forget what was done to them. In this way we ensure that such
depths of evil and depravity are never arrived at again.
The Germans have paid much attention to never allowing the
memory of the holocaust to fade. Have we done as much in South Africa regarding
apartheid? Should we even be asking such a question?
Either way, the answer would seem to be that we have almost gone
the other way: “Can’t we just move on?”, we ask; “It’s been 25 years – must we
still keep being reminded of apartheid?” “When will we stop blaming apartheid?”
Are these questions valid or do we ask them because the memory has been allowed
to fade? Or perhaps some of us don’t really believe it was such an atrocity at
all? “Aren’t we over all that now?” Or the worst denial of all: “We were better
We removed the icons of apartheid: the flag, the racist
signs, the architect’s names on our street signs and airports (as we should have).
But in doing this we seemed to remove virtually all trace of the regime itself.
If you were to visit South Africa and not visit say Robben Island or the Apartheid
Museum (the two big attractions for anti-apartheid pilgrims) you would be hard
pressed to find any physical evidence of the apartheid regime at all. Have we
denied ourselves an opportunity to remember; to continuously seek healing; to
make restitution on an ongoing basis? I think we have – and hence – whilst few
physical remnants of apartheid remain – there are social and economic remnants
everywhere. The memory of apartheid is virtually nowhere, yet everywhere.
By erasing history, we run the risk of repeating it. Isn’t
this what is terrifying people about political killings, book burning, land
redistribution, attempts to muzzle the press, large scale corruption, incitement
of racial hatred etc? What is stopping us from rewinding the tape 25 years we
might ask? Is it just our Constitution (which very few of us have even read) or
is there something more day-to-day; more accessible – something we can all get
We must create spaces and opportunities for recollection to
happen whenever we can (as the media did with the 40th anniversary
of Solomon Mahlangu’s murder); where people can tell and retell the stories.
Not to foster guilt, but to keep the memories alive.
The notion of white privilege challenges many of us wit ou’s
deeply. It seems that no greater offense can be levelled at us than an
accusation of white privilege.
I heard a definition of privilege that came originally from
one of my gurus Dr. Brene Brown. I found it useful. She says that privilege is
simply the degree to which we have choice. As a rule, white people through
history have had varying degrees of greater choice/freedom/access – whatever
words you wish to use. Put simply, we have had greater choice in terms of where
we can “live, move and have our being”.
I find it difficult to deny that this is true – however
unpalatable I may find it. I just don’t want to think of my skin colour
privileging me over other human beings. But it does. I know that because I was
white I could move anywhere during apartheid. I could go to the beach. I could
visit any restaurant I wanted to. I could walk freely into any place of
worship. I could be up late at night in any area. I could go to any night club
or bar I wished to. I could vote. And
all of this was done with no fear of being arrested and jailed without reason,
beaten-up, tortured or even killed. This freedom to choose is the basis of all my privilege. At this point it has
nothing to do with money or hard work. It just is what it is because I am
Then I had the choice to study what and where I liked, I
could walk into any job interview, I could command a decent living wage – all
these choices, because I was white. I naturally got paid more because I had had
access to better education and because white people generally get paid better. I
could buy any shampoo or soap I wanted because most products were made for
white people. I could even put on a Band-Aid that blended nicely with my skin
By the way, nothing has changed materially since the demise
of apartheid/colonialism here or anywhere else in the world. White people still
have many more choices than most black people. Because white privilege is
systemic in the exact same way as racism is.
So, what am I meant to do with this knowledge? I think my
main task is to acknowledge that I have – and still do have – many more choices
than most black people. When I do this, I can begin to heal – myself and the
world around me. I can let go of the need to defend myself as a white person –
telling people how hard I worked and the struggles I had to “make it”; I can
stop telling people how tough my parents or grandparents had it. I can begin fresh
new conversations that are at their core humble and enquiring. I can start to play a meaningful part in
addressing the deep-seated imbalances of our world.
A black woman and another of my gurus once said this to me:
“Justin, enjoy your privilege, but use it to help others less privileged.”
What a challenge!
Cathy and I adopted Lolly when we were a bit older than some of you. I am of an age where I remember wooden desks with flip-up lids and a hole in the corner for an ink-well…although not even I’m that old that we still used fountain pens!
My teachers used green chalk boards, I had actual text books
and I played cricket and rode my bike without a helmet. My primary and
secondary school both had 30 kids per class. They had wooden floors and high
windows and certainly no aircon or screens or fancy halls or what are now
referred to as theatres. And I went to two of the poshest schools in Joburg –
Pridwin Prep and St Johns College Houghton.
Now of course I run the risk of sounding old and nostalgic.
I may be old but I’m not nostalgic. I mostly hated school – especially high
school. The reason for that is not that we lacked anything material, but
because of what schooling lacked on other levels; warmth; love; compassion, care,
balance. It was all about academic results, sporting achievement; cultural and
extra-curricular excellence; “developing the young person for the future”.
I have come to understand in my adult life that what the world
lacks is not necessarily smarter, sportier, more culturally gifted adults
(although these are all fine characteristics). What the world lacks is
emotionally intelligent, caring, balanced, conscious, present, unmaterialistic,
compassionate, non-racist, non-sexist, non-abusive, well-adjusted, well-read adults
who can live all-embracing lives in an increasingly fractured, violent and
But the funny thing is that when we look at schools for our kids, we don’t look for these things that will keep them (and humanity at large) alive and functional in the year 2030 plus (just for the purposes of location in history this is the AI, biotech era in which the caring/human careers – or those that can look after machines – will be the ones most highly sought after).
We look for astro-turf fields, sparking pools or what we now refer to as “aquatic centres”, dance studios with sprung floors and mirrors, smart boards, iPads and airconditioned classrooms with ergonomically designed chairs. Only the best for our little munchkins. But is it?
Because we don’t ask about their approach to the education of resilience or emotional intelligence – key attributes in this 21st Century workplace – or how the child of colour is educated to deal with a world that is structurally racist. We don’t ask about their approach to the empowerment of the girlchild or their employment policy and whether it demonstrates the racial and gender demographic of our nation (and this is particularly worrying because so many of us are people of colour or have children of colour – or are women!). Or how they deal with the introverted or very extroverted child, or the anxious/depressed child or the child of a single parent or the adopted child.
But who cares about all this if there is a “deli” where they can order their over-priced tramezzini off a personalised credit card.
Like you, we were unnerved by the closing of our high
school. And when a couple of teachers left and only a few people pitched at the
recent open days, we too went and looked at other schools in the area. It was
disturbing to say the least. Why would I want my 8-year-old kid to go to a
school that looks like a corporate head office; that has all the trimmings but
lacks even a modicum of soul or history? Are we really to be enticed by
chandeliers and the smell of drying paint?
Yes, Trinity is a lot more traditional, simple and less “corporate” in feel. It also doesn’t have all the bells and whistles. But then why do we all feel a sense of it being a very special little school? Perhaps precisely because it is smaller, friendlier, more family-oriented, and caring. Trinity is by no means caught in the past and is also not slavishly obsessed with modernity at the expense of a more balanced, down-to-earth, less-materialistic, less overtly-privileged environment. It offers smaller classes, exceptional teachers and a solid base of spiritual and emotional care for our children.
Why would we choose to move our children from this incredible environment? Upheave them to fulfil our desire for “all that sparkles”?
Just as an aside, Trinity is also the very best value
private school in our area; the cheapest and the most exclusive in terms of
numbers and personalised care and attention of our kids: Lolly’s teacher from
last year came to her birthday party!
But the point of this letter is not to encourage you to stay if you don’t want to. It is your right to leave. But this I do ask; if you are going to leave, leave quietly, happily and peacefully. Don’t feel you have to spend the rest of the year justifying your decision by running Trinity down. Don’t feel you need to go on about the great facilities at other schools.
The rest of us really want this school to succeed and here’s the thing – there are plenty of us who will choose Trinity for all the reasons others are leaving; we want our kids to grow up in a less materialistic, simpler, “less shiny” environment with some older-school values. By the way, I spend a great deal of my working time in rural and peri-urban government schools. Before moving schools, go and visit some of those for a perspective on how privileged we are to have Trinity literally on our doorstep.
Our aim is for Lolly to be at Trinity until she
matriculates. Maybe we will maybe we won’t – but Cathy and I are determined to
do all we can to help this special little school not only survive but grow and thrive.
We hope you join us – but we fully understand if you don’t.
Justin Foxton – aka “Lolly’s Dad”.
In South Africa we are no stranger to miracles; miracles of course that don’t only happen in buildings with crosses on the wall.
In fact, one definition of the word miracle that I like is: “a remarkable (and yes by all means replace this word with ‘supernatural’) event or development that brings welcome consequences”.
It dawned on me whilst listening to a talk by Max du Preez last week that South Africa has had a number of significant miracles that have taken place in the past 26 years that have either paved or saved our democracy.
There was the miracle of the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the unbanning of the ANC in February of 1990. Then there was the miracle of the peace that was experienced in the aftermath of the assassination of Chris Hani on 10 April 1993. What was designed to cause a race war became a rallying call by then ANC President Nelson Mandela: His words were the miracle: “Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for – the freedom of all of us.”
There was the miracle of the appointment of Adv Thuli Madonsela as our Public Protector on the 19th October 2009. It is common cause that her and her team – acting with supernatural integrity and bravery – brought to the public’s attention what is now known as state capture.
All these events went against the run of play – surely the main criterion for calling something a significant miracle. And believe me, there are plenty more happening every day.
But Max du Preez highlighted another and perhaps even more unlikely miracle than any of these. It happened at Nasrec in Johannesburg in October 2017 at the ANC elective conference when Cyril Ramaphosa was elected ANC President paving his way to the Presidency of the Republic. According to du Preez who was there, there were heavies manning the entrances handing out stacks of R100 notes to ensure the vote went with Nkosasana Dlamini Zuma – Jacob Zuma’s preferred candidate. As we know, it was only the 11th hour switch from then Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza that tipped the scales in Ramaphosa’s favour. If that hadn’t happened Jacob Zuma would still be our president. #shiversdownmyspine.
What of all this talk of miracles?
Quite simply, we have no evidence to support the often-touted view that South Africa will fail. We have only evidence of miracles happening just-in-time. If miracles are what cause our faith to rise, then we should all be full-to-bursting with faith that our country is headed in the right direction.
And finally, all the above miracles involved – in one way or another – the active participation of the citizens of this and other countries.