Waterford school in Swaziland reflects on its historic role

Russell Palmer, a journalist from South Africa, described it as like landing on another planet, a feeling of having suddenly arrived in an environment so different from what he has known that there is overwhelming bewilderment. The place was Waterford school, just 22 km across the border in Swaziland, but a brave new world in its attitude to race.

The first multiracial school in southern Africa was born in direct opposition to the apartheid regime, which branded it “sick” and “unnatural”, and became a haven for the children of struggle leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. On Saturday, it celebrated its 50th anniversary with colourful parades, performances and reflections on its courageous role in the continent’s history.

“We were here during the era of apartheid and this school was an absolute beacon of what was to come,” said former student Amanda West, a last-minute replacement for Archbishop Tutu as guest speaker after he withdrew due to illness,.

“As a student population we were wildly involved in the politics . . .This is an astounding place.” Eighty-six nationalities have studied there over the years. Then came a series of cultural performances and a finale symbolising how Waterford rose like a phoenix from the ashes of school closures in South Africa. Students ran food stalls selling everything from Mozambican prawns to American chocolate chip cookies and staged a debate on African leadership in the school hall.

For Ms. West (50), who works in marketing and lives near Tunbridge Wells in Kent, it was a moving spectacle. She was last here in the seventies shortly after events such as the Soweto uprising and murder of Steve Biko. “It’s no exaggeration to say the student diaspora was on top of and absorbed in every political event happening in South Africa.” Among Ms. West’s friends was Zindzi Mandela, one of two of Nelson Mandela’s daughters to attend.

‘Wake-up’ call

The seed of this “South African school in exile” was planted by a 1955 article in The Observer newspaper in the U.K., written by the priest and anti-apartheid campaigner Trevor Huddleston and headlined “For God’s sake, wake up!” His warning of what apartheid laws would mean for education inspired Essex teacher Michael Stern to emigrate to South Africa.

He became head of a black school in Johannesburg but it was shut down and he was appointed head of a white school. Frustrated, Stern went on a work-camp in neighbouring Swaziland, then a British protectorate, and came up with the idea of a secondary school for all races or, as he put it, “a happy human mixture”.

The school opened in 1963 on part of what had been Waterford farm, owned by Irish immigrants, high on a hill overlooking the capital, Mbabane. Another supporter was the Swazi king Sobhuza II who would rename it Waterford Kamhlaba (“of the earth”). There were 16 boys and a basic curriculum, including English, maths, science, history, geography, a choice of languages — Afrikaans, Zulu, Latin, French, Portuguese — divinity, art, woodwork, forestry, engineering and music. It was a revolutionary act under the nose of the white-minority regime. Mr. Kenyon, who lives in Stockwell in London added: “Michael said it was unnatural for people to be divided by the colour of their skins. It was a huge statement. It was kicking against bricks just over the border. A lot of students couldn’t go home because South Africa assumed Michael was a communist.”

In the past half century, nearly 5,000 students have passed through the school, including Ian Khama, the President of Botswana; and Mr. Mandela’s grandson Mandla. Today, the school has 600 students from 50 countries and 55 academic staff from 20 countries80% of the student body is African . Fees range from £3,477 to £9,224. Nearly a third of students receive bursaries, meaning that children from townships and refugee camps rub shoulders with the sons and daughters of royalty, diplomats and tycoons. Many go on to prestigious U.S. universities.

Waterford’s mission has broadened from opposition to apartheid to concerns around economic inequality and international dialogue. It is part of the United World Colleges movement.

Although students undertake community service projects, this idyllic and idealistic microcosm can seem remote above an impoverished, HIV-hit nation, the last absolute monarchy in Africa. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013

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