23 September 2023

Institutional Memory: Remembering the Good and the Bad

Yesterday morning we participated in TGIF[1] via Zoom, where Nick Koning spoke on "The good and bad of institutional memory." He said he had gone to Selborne College, a high school in East London, and would be taking that as an example, as the whole place was full of reminders of the past. 

The perimeter fence was marked with the names of old boys. There was a Jubilee Tower, a new structure, but it was meant to look old, and to be a reminder of the past. The school hall was full of sporting pictures of the past. He had walked into all this as a 14-year-old boy, and was filled with the sense of past achievements, which helped to give him the ambition to achieve similar things.

Every new pupil at the school had to pass a test on all this historical tradition before they could wear the school uniform, and that was a mild form of initiation. Among the names was one who had been awarded the Victoria Cross because he had killed a lot of Nazis. Another was Mark Boucher, a former pupil who was celebrated as the best wicket-keeper in the world, and had learned to pay cricket at Selborne College. Nick himself played hockey, and was inspired by this to be the best.

The way the past is remembered is the superpower of such institutions, inspiring people to raise their horizons.

There was the annual Founders Day ceremony, full of pomp, highly traditional and very colonial. The head boy was called the Custodian of the Keys, a practice that dated back to when the war memorial, called Bob, was erected after the First World War, and the Administrator of the Cape handed over the keys to it to the head boy. So on Founders Day two lists of names were read out -- that of past Custodians of the Keys, and that of those who had died in the First and Second World Wars. This reinforces the idea propagated by the school motto -- that reward is to the brave, who save the world from bad people.

But there were no people of colour on the lists that were read out, because back then it was an all-white school, and it was only in 2002 that there was, for the first time, a black Custodian of the Keys.  We all know the reason for this, it is a familiar thing, but still an ugly one, and we need to remember the ugly facts of our past too.

What is forgotten is as interesting as what is remembered. White exclusivity is not remembered. The horror of SA society, and the shock of it is forgotten. The glorious past is not as glorious as has been remembered. There were good things to remember, but the way we remember it is better than  it actually was.

There were also some bad things, some bad traditions. Among the lists of names were detention lists, which were mostly of black children, and so a problem. Why were black children more often in detention than white children?

In 2017 one of the pupils drew a caricature of Hector Pieterson, where the people in the famous picture of him being carried after he was shot were portrayed as dogs. There was the continuing use of racial slurs by teachers, but little is said about these things in the institutional past, though they could be used as an educational opportunity.

Though Selborne College was only one school, there are many others that preserve institutional memories and traditions in various ways, yet I thought how different it was from my own school life. 

When I went to St Stithians College in 1953 it was a brand new school. There was no past, no tradition. There were no new boys to initiate, because we were all new together. The headmaster, Wally Mears, said there were no rules, and that we, by our own behaviour would make the rules. The first founders day, on 11 August 1953, was marked by the laying of the foundation stone of the school chapel, and yes, it was an all-white affair. But the only names remembered were those of businessmen who had left money in their wills for the school to be started, or those other businessmen and lawyers who had administered the trust fund. There were no past pupils, only present ones.

In more recent years I have attended the Founders Day services, usually at five-year intervals, so this year was the 70th anniversary of the founding of the school. But it struck me that the remembered past is not much like the real past, and there is not much interest in the real past. I had suggested that they should try to arrange a reunion gathering of the foundation pupils who were there in 1953, and they suggested one for those who had been in my matric class in 1958, which was not at all the same thing.

In 2008 I had gone to a head boy's lunch, where some of the current pupils met some of the past pupils and teachers. I ppoke to Tshegofatso Rangaka, then head of Collins House, who was keen to know about traditions, but I had had to tell him that I couldn't think of any, because the school had been so new. I got the impression that there was a kind of hunt to discover traditions, and perhaps he was under some pressure to pump the past pupils for traditions. 

By that time St Stithians was 55 years old, and there were lists of names on boards up in the dining hall, and the one who had been head boy in my matric year, Bruce Young, was the first on the list, but his name was spelt wrongly, as B. Going, and no one had noticed or bothered to check. The remembered past was not the real past, and an imagined past would do just as well as the real past, as long as it was a tradition.

There are mixed memories of the past, some good, some bad. I don't recall the teachers ever being racist -- they gave us "a liberal education with a Christian teaching" in accordance with the wishes of the businessmen who had left money for the school to be established. 

We ate in the school dining room, wearing school uniforms with blazers even in midsummer. On one particularly hot evening, when the headmaster's wife, Nan Mears, was sitting alone at the high table supervising us, someone dared me to go up and ask if we could take off our blazers. 

"Certainly not!" she replied. 

We were all white, and had to learn to behave like gentlemen. There were black waiters, who brought our food and cleared the tables afterwards. One day one of the waiters appeared with his head shaved, and we all remarked on his new hair style. Only many years later did I learn, to my shame, that in his culture it was a sign of mourning, and that someone in his family must have died recently, but instead of expressing sympathy, we kids insensitively teased him about his hair style. Such things could have become educational opportunities, as Nick Koning suggests.

The best example of forgetting the bad is illustrated in the way St Stithians treated its second headmaster, Steyn Krige. He was my geography teacher from 1954 to 1958, and was only deputy headmaster when I was there, and he died in 2011 -- my memorial for him is here. The school named a hall after him, and published an obituary for him, and noted that when he left St Stithians he went on to found Woodmead School, the first fully non-racial school in South Africa. What they did not mention, and what seems to have dropped out of the institutional memory, is why he left St Stithians. He was fired in an acrimonious row that made the front pages of the Sunday newspapers back in 1969. What was never made public was the reason for his firing, and that has been conveniently swept under the carpet.

I think it is important to remember the past. Shakespeare said "The evil that men do live after them, the good is oft interred with their bones" (yes, I learned that at St Stithians). While that is often true of individuals (think of what people recalled on the recent death of Gatsha Buthelezi), in institutions the reverse tends to be true -- the good things are remembered, especially by the people who enjoyed them, the bad things tend to be forgotten. Partly for that reason I at one time wrote a series of blog posts, Tales from Dystopia, to remember some things that might otherwise be forgotten. Unfortunately I had to give it up, because the Wordpress platform became increasingly difficult, and finally impossible to use. But have a look, and maybe it will jog your memory about the past. 



[1] TGIF, in this context is a gathering that takes place in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Stellenbosch early on Friday mornings, so people can come and get some mental stimulation before they go to work. There are speakers on various topics.

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