Schools designed to 'remove apartheid from the pupils' hearts' - Business Day, 9th July 2012.

One of the most imaginative pioneers of multi racial education in Southern Africa, Deane Yates, died in Johannesburg last month aged 90.

One of the most imaginative pioneers of multi racial education in Southern Africa, Deane Yates, died in Johannesburg last month aged 90.

When he retired in 1970 after 15 years as headmaster of St John’s, Yates headed for Botswana to start a fully multi racial school offering top-quality education there.

Ideally, Yates would have done this in SA.

But it was politically impossible at that time, so Botswana it was, with the financial backing of Anglo American.

And so Maru a Pula, Setswana for Clouds of Rain but also meaning Promise of Blessings, was founded in Gaborone. Yates, who had majored in Latin and Greek, soon discovered that if he wanted the school built on time he had to supervise the job.

So he and Dot, his wife, who matched him in heroic determination, pitched a tent on site. But few pupils enrolled; failure loomed.

Then one day the vice-president of Botswana, Quett Masire, pitched up to enrol his daughter. Soon the president and his wife, Sir Seretse and Lady Khama, arrived with their two sons. By the time the Yateses left in 1980, Maru a Pula had 350 pupils and there were long waiting lists. And the school produced a black female Rhodes scholar, one of the first in the world.

It was time to return home and replicate the Botswana prototype. The New Era Schools Trust (NEST) was born. The schools had to be fully multiracial. They had to admit on a first come, first served basis, provided the aptitude was there.

They also had to be built on "no man’s land", not in a white or black "group area". Yates insisted that you couldn’t create a truly non racial school by taking a white one and admitting blacks or the other way round. You had to start from scratch. And you had to locate it within easy reach of both white suburbs and black townships.

At that time, the National Party government was still hostile to school desegregation. Those few schools, notably Woodmead, north of Johannesburg, which had begun admitting blacks had done so illegally after years of futile attempts to get permission.

Its former headmaster, Steyn Krige, became deputy director to Yates on the NEST board.

They drew up a "hit list" of 200 prominent South Africans (including some in exile) and set about mustering a critical mass of support for the NEST schools. Yates told them: "It is only by growing up together in their formative years that the boys and girls of the emerging SA will remove apartheid from their hearts." He spoke with passion but also from strength. And he was never a man to take no for an answer. He and Krige had, after all, proved at Maru a Pula and Woodmead that multiracial schooling, then still heretical in SA, worked both academically and socially.

Everything was done discreetly. Yates feared that if his plans leaked to the press there would be such a hullabaloo that the government would shut NEST down. But two top Nats were kept in the know: JP De Lange, chairman of the Broederbond, and Gerrit Viljoen, minister of national education and also erstwhile chairman of the Broederbond.

They realised there had to be alternatives to apartheid education. They wanted NEST to succeed. And they gave it political cover.

The first school, Uthongathi, opened in January 1987 north of Durban. The second, Phuthing, north of Johannesburg near today’s Diepsloot, opened in 1989. A third, Zonnebloem, was established in Cape Town in 1992.

Ironically, just as the schools got off the ground, liberalisation of the political climate accelerated. In 1990, the government announced that some of its own white schools could admit blacks on the Model C formula. These provided (cheaper) competition for the NEST schools, which relied heavily on private funding and their own fundraising efforts for bursaries. So NEST’s corporate funding dried up.

But Yates and Krige had bravely helped to pave the way towards the end of apartheid education even before the change of government in 1994.

- John Kane-Berman


(To read the article on the Business Day website please click here.)