There are certain phrases one hears when young that, decades later, still have the capacity to chill one to the bone.
One of them is, “Bend over.” It’s not what you might think. I have never encountered a Catholic priest, nor was there an Uncle Pervy in my family. I have been frisked and body-searched a couple of times, sure, but that’s when I was older and the officers were kind enough to keep the search external.
The instruction to bend over came, instead, from the headmaster of my high school. A cross between the Marquis de Sade and Genghis Khan, he was a firm believer in the principles of democracy. Not, obviously, to the extent he believed that black people should be given the vote. But certainly he felt his sheltered white charges deserved the right to choose the cane with which they’d prefer to be whipped. Not being whipped at all wasn’t among the options.
There were four canes he kept behind his door. Probably inside a hollowed out rhino’s foot. They ranged from thin to thick, much like my classmates. The thinnest stung like buggery – not, as we have established, that I know what buggery feels like – while the thickest was more of a blunt trauma experience. Both left bleeding welts. Since this wasn’t a private school, none of us particularly cared about the aesthetic appearance of our bottoms. This was a government school. We were discouraged from exploring our sensitive sides, instead being shamed and bullied into playing the apex homoerotic sport of rugby. I can say this without fear because even homosexuals think the Springboks play like a bunch of gaylords.
But a mere lashing wasn’t enough for the Marquis. Upon entering his inner sanctum – that would be his office, not his orifice – he would briefly list the charges. Homework not done. Cheating in class. Hair too long. Legs too short. As far as kangaroo courts go, we had more chance of getting justice were an actual kangaroo in charge.
Bending over for one’s beating wasn’t nearly enough to slake Genghis’s insatiable hunger to punish the young. One was also expected to put one’s head beneath his desk. The reflexive straightening up upon each lash meant a righteous crack on the back of the nut.
Ah, yes. I’m very proud of my alma mater. St Bastard’s in Durban North produced a solid crop of brain-damaged sado-masochists with low self esteem, many of whom went on to carve out careers in journalism. More bludgeon than carve, to be honest.
Then, just as things were about to fall apart, that rough beast Democracy, its hour come around at last, slouched into Pretoria to be born. The National Party government had by then instructed white schools to select one of four models, A, B, C or D. Almost all opted for C, semi-autonomous with additional funding from parents and alumni.
The ANC did away with the classification, but whenever white people come across a functioning government school, they nod and whisper, “Must be model C. Bet the principal’s one of us.”
A newspaper headline caught my eye this week. It said, “Top Limpopo school goes to the dogs.” When I was a bright-eyed newshound at the peak of my bacchanalian powers, the low-slung snarling alcoholics on the subs desk were friends of neither cliché nor idiom. A headline of that ilk, had they to write it, would almost certainly have led into a story about a dog school.
I bought the paper on the strength of this headline because I believe dogs should go to school. In the foreseeable future, the smart people of Earth will be living on other planets in our solar system under the gentle but firm hand of Emperor Musk. Intelligent dogs, being smarter than stupid humans, will have to take charge. But they do need a certain amount of schooling first. Their table manners are atrocious and their driving skills even worse. Their unpleasant butt-sniffing, territory-marking habits also need work. What do I care, though? I’ll be on the sunny side of Uranus by then.
Returning to the newspaper and its lazy headline. The metaphorical dogs are in fact pupils at the once exalted Settlers Agricultural High School. They appear to have turned rogue.
Raymond Read, an old boy, warned his former classmates against visiting the school. “There’s barely anything left to see,” he cried. “You’ll just end up ruining your day.”
Some parents have begun pulling their kids out, saying the former model C school is awash in sex, drugs and alcohol. This sounds like the best school ever. Not for me, obviously. I wouldn’t want anything to do with sex, drugs or alcohol if it meant having to also write exams. Or even wear a tie.
The fees are are around R30 000 a year. Presumably the school governing body came to this figure after factoring in the cost of rehab and childbirth. Oh, wait. There is no governing body. They disbanded. This is also good news. Words like ‘governing’ harsh any kid’s mellow.
The school, and indeed the town itself, might never have existed had it not been for Lord Alfred Milner’s rural settlement policy after the Anglo-Boer war. You spoke English and wanted a farm, Uncle Alfred would give you one. Thanks to you and your ilk, Alf, we’re the ones who now have to bear the brunt of Julius Malema’s orchestrated outrage.
Founded in 1969, Settlers was the only English medium high school in the province offering agriculture as a subject. Along, presumably, with your bog-standard Eurocentric studies underpinned by hollow doctrines of imperialism and empire.
The school badge has an owl sitting on a plough, symbolizing the importance of ensuring that birds also do their share of work around the place. Their motto – “non nobis sed posteris” – means “Get off your arse and stop being a nobhead”.
There’s not much information on the town. An advert for Settler’s Service Station says, “Purchasing a tractor is not a matter to be taken lightly.” It’s what I’ve been telling people for years but they just laugh and walk away. Sometimes they run.
There are four residences accommodating just over 400 boys and girls “in a safe rural environment”. This must be one of the few places in South Africa where it’s safer to be in the rural environment than on the school grounds.
“We try to create an atmosphere of a home away from home,” warbles their website. “Learners are encouraged to bring their own colourful duvets and pillows and even bright curtains.” Increasingly, learners are encouraged to bring their own Rizla papers, vodka and KY Jelly. Progress is a marvel to behold.
According to the newspaper, some pupils are unhappy with the anarchy that has been unleashed at their school. We prayed for anarchy at ours. The only thing that stopped us from running amok was the threat of a beating and expulsion. All threats appear to have been lifted at Settlers Agricultural High and Lord of the Flies is playing out in real time.
The reporter found “algae-infested showers, damp walls and broken windows and doors”. Sounds like my house. Besides, this is Limpopo. It’s astounding that anything still has doors or windows. Girls are also having sex in their dorms. Not, as you’d expect, with each other, but with boys. I imagine this constitutes part of their biology practical.
One parent said she noticed scars on her Grade 10 son’s back. He and a few of his mates were taken to the soccer field one night and whipped with belts by a posse of matrics. This is shocking. They have a soccer field? At an agricultural school? What the hell happened to rugby? No wonder the Springboks … let me not.
One girl was reportedly traumatised after seeing a large amount of blood when a pregnant classmate aborted in the hostel. Then she was beaten up by five girls whom she reported to the matron for shagging in the dorm. Then she tried to kill herself. Her mother tried to get hold of Limpopo education MEC Ishmael Kgetjepe, but it seems he wasn’t taking calls.
The matric pass rate has dropped and fingers are being pointed at headmaster Chris Mabunda. “The principal drinks alcohol with pupils and police regularly remove drugs from the hostels where pupils smoke dagga openly,” said an SRC member who requested anonymity for fear of being wrapped in a petrol-soaked blanket, set alight and dropped into a pit of venomous snakes. A harmless prank, as the school might put it.
There was no comment from the principal because, according to the education department, he was on sick leave. Can’t blame him, really. I’d also be sickened with myself.
I hope the government hurries up with land redistribution because the Class of 2016 will take farming to a whole new level and I wouldn’t want to miss it for the world.