Waterford School, which completed its golden jubilee this year, was Southern Africa's first multiracial school. However, the country it is located in remains one of the world's poorest.

A section in The Hindu ‘This day that age’ gives glimpses of major developments that took place ‘this day’ fifty years ago. It was a pleasant surprise to read earlier this month, a storylet on the Nehru government’s formal approval to the ‘Central Schools’, given in 1963.

Kendriya Vidyalaya (KV) (Hindi term for Central School) as a sangathan (organisation); as a movement; as a philosophy, would always hold special importance to many Indians, myself included. I feel the role of such institutions in nation building cannot be overemphasised. KVs have played a great role in Indian education sector in bringing pan-Indian outlook to a great many sections of our society and would have to uphold their high standards if all the objectives of Right to Education are to be achieved.

This year marks the golden jubilee of many other trend-setting movements/events – birth of feminism in the U.S. in 1963; Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, signalling the beginning of the Black Rights Movement; Beatles’ and Bob Dylan’s music revolutionisng the world of rock and pop. These newsbits did not exactly surprise me.

However, this news item, describing the genesis and growth of Southern Africa’s first multiracial school — also batting at 50 — at the height of apartheid, swept me off my feet. More so when I juxtaposed it with the fact that the country which has accommodated it -- Swaziland -- is also home to the last absolute monarchy; it’s citizens have a life expectancy of just 48 years; and 63 per cent of its population lives on less than $1.25 a day. Though its adult literacy rate is 87 per cent, its performance in terms of other Human Development Indicators (HDIs) could be considered among the worst. More than half its women in the 30-34 years age category have tested positive for HIV.

The country also has the world’s longest state of emergency — four decades — giving the king absolute control.

So perhaps the school is an island of excellence in a sea of mediocrity?

The roots

When the Waterford School was started, Swaziland was a British Protectorate. The roots were sown in the U.K. by a 1955 article in The Observer — the Empire being yet to come to terms with the loss of its imperial ‘jewels’ — by anti-apartheid activist-priest Trevor Huddleston. Titled “For God’s sake, wake up!”, it created ripples that metamorphosed into a reservoir of knowledge, a platform for scholarship of the highest standards.

Michael Stern, a teacher from Essex, pursued the idea and laid the foundation. It started with 16 boys and its curriculum consisted of what could be considered a curious mind’s delight: It had maths, science, history, geography, woodwork, forestry, divinity, engineering and music. Its choice of languages would make any aspiring polyglot jump in excitement — Afrikaans, Zulu, Latin, French, Portuguese (a notable absence is Sanskrit) besides English.

The article quotes Martin Kenyan (83), the school’s longest-serving trustee, as telling that the act of founding and running the school was akin to “kicking against the bricks just over the border”. Bruce Wells, the acting schoolteacher tells it was a very provocative move like "showing a finger to the South African authorities”.

The current political and economic scnario in Swaziland shows that running the school still involves ‘kicking against the bricks’, this time with a wink, with a monarch at the receiving end.

The God king

Though Swaziland is home to the biggest Coca Cola plant in Africa and also to an iron-ore reprocessing plant, more than half its economy is controlled by one man — King Mswati III.

Some grisly details on the king’s escapades during the month-long annual ceremony, known as Incwala, made me feel extremely uncomfortable -- to put it mildly -- even after discounting the fact that the foreign policy columnist has had limited exposure to the country.

Incwala is a month-long public holiday when the king goes into seclusion and emerges at the end, ‘invisible’. It is known as the country’s prayer month, the reason being: The king doesn’t consider himself a human, he considers himself God.

Some of the details bear quoting [though they are almost impossible to verify]:

"The king dominates his power by ‘penetrating a black bull’, which has been beaten into semi-conscious immobility..."

“Afterward...Mswati has public sex with two of his wives...They are used only for traditions and are not allowed to get pregnant.”

This when the country’s Constitution declares its fundamental rights on par with that of any democracy, guarantees their enforceability and says that they are applicable irrespective of gender, race, colour, political opinion, religion, creed, age or disability.

The king (though he is in control of about half the economy) has immunity from taxation for all his income and property. Immunity of King from accountability before law applies even after he demits office (assuming he does so in his lifetime).

The two -- Waterford and Incwala -- coexist, in the same country. When this irony is pointed out, acting headteacher Bruce Wells says that their approach is to change the world by providing education. He says that though they disagree with the policies of the regime, they refrain from being too vocal about it.

A better understanding

This quote from a Zimbabwean student Dalumuzi Mhalnga (24) shows why the school -- where children of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu have studied -- can play an important role in improving lives of the Swazis:

“I’d never hung out with a Muslim or atheist before… I’d never gone to school with a white person. Your world view changes. There is so much that everyone brings to the table.”

William Stern, who died in 2002 at the age of 80, would have been smiling in the heavens on hearing this. He had this to say when he started the school:

“We are trying to prove nothing except that there is nothing to prove. At the worst we shall find it as difficult as starting any new school anywhere; at the best we shall have made our small contribution to better human understanding in southern Africa.”

The school has done more than its bit to enable better understanding. However, it remains an island of excellence in a sea of superstitions and absolutism. Hope it is able to do for Swaziland what KVs have traditionally done and (to a great extent) continue doing for India.