Sazi Bongwe, Head of School 2021, addresses the #Classof2021 for the last time at the UV Speech Day and Valedictory Service.
I remember confiding in Mr Emant in the first few days of my term as Head of School, feeling flustered, anxious and apprehensive about the task ahead of me. In true Mr Emant style, he calmed me down, and as I walked out of his classroom he said to me, “Take walks.” Today I will try to take you on one of those walks.
I first arrived at St John’s in 2015 in Lower III, from a much smaller, less well known co-ed school in Kempton Park. I’d heard about the kinds of things that went on in boys’ schools like St John’s and so when I heard them tell my brother the pre-prep was in the same facility as the gym, I had very big questions for my parents. On our first day, we entered through the gate in the corner of Burger Field along St Patrick Road. I kept my head down so as to not attract attention from the body-building six-year-olds. Then I looked up, and for a short-lived, enchanted moment, held my breath at the sight of those buildings. They seemed to say to me, “Anything can happen now that you are here. You can rise to the top of that bell tower.”
“What is it about St John’s..?” Fr Philip Speight, a member of the Community of the Resurrection and writer of Venture of Faith asked. “What is it about St John’s that pulls at the heartstrings of those of us who have been a part of it? Isn’t it that we felt that we were members not merely of a school – an institution – but of a closely knit and very lively family … that stood for something much greater than just academic learning and sport, a family … of which, in the best sense of the word, we were immensely proud?”
If 2015 me walked around Burger Field and up to the Owen Nkumane Terraces, and by some miracle jumped three years into the future, he would have been facing the opposite direction, posing for the St John’s 2018 decennial photograph along with every single member of our community. And at that moment, he would look around and identify precisely what Fr Speight did – a close-knit and lively family. The feeling of being a part of a community that is bigger than me, but that nonetheless values and includes me.
If 2018 me had walked up to Long Walk, turned left and travelled towards the Prep and at the same time three years forward, he would find himself at the opening of the New Prep Building in a chair marked ‘Council’. Again, he would look up at a building and be left in awe. But this is symbolic of a much bigger idea: it will be the mark of our year in leadership as a prefect body and as a Matric group – that we have managed to hold in balance a sense of the rich tradition of the past and the progressive strides towards an all-inclusive and transformed school. I trust Mlibo Mlonzi and the prefect body of 2022 to advance both of these imperatives and wish them all the best.
Two-weeks-ago me would walk through the quadrangles, passing many faces along the way, and be left to reflect on his time drawing to a close. UVs, I tell you that we can be proud of the school we have left behind. We have led our school to develop many crucial policies, including “how to regulate a grade group”. Nineteen months without some of the core elements of what we do and yet still we screamed our hearts out on those stands – the storm tried to rain on our parade but we brought the water instead.
We have found reason to rejoice, rejoice. If you had told me last year that we would have established the first three student affinity groups in the 123-year history of St John’s for black, LGBTQ+ and female-identifying students, had the first majority people-of-colour prefect body, carried out drives in support of refugee girls and endangered wildlife, left behind a Community Engagement Committee and an Environmental Committee, achieved more academic certificates that I can remember a form achieving, I would’ve told you that you’d set your sights too high for us. But we have done all of that and more. As iron sharpens iron, so have we sharpened each other. Give yourselves a hand.
For me to be here is not something I take for granted. For my parents to be here listening to me is not something I take for granted. Because, while I started this story in 2015, it stretches back way further. My dad’s parents never saw his high school; he decided he wanted a better education and so he searched for a school and door-to-door for a place to stay with his report card and a dream in hand. My mom laughs at me when I complain about studying in the dark with load-shedding because that is how she got her education, studying by candlelight in pursuit of a dream. Being a part of that dream is my life’s greatest mission. I am who I am purely as a product of your hard work; you guys are my inspiration and I hope I can make you proud.