St John's College

St John's College: 125 years of excellence

This year, St John’s College celebrates its 125th anniversary. Our ‘Stone Fortress', as we call our campus, has stood the test of time and become a symbol of the school’s record of excellence, producing robust men and women who soar after their College careers.

In my position as Custos, I have had the wonderful opportunity to immerse myself in the rich tapestry of the school’s history and the vibrant campus it is today. However, St John's must interrogate the following question — how can we better reflect society's trajectory towards greater cultural diversity?

Picture the year 1898, a time when Johannesburg — a mere 12 years old — was still finding its footing as a city. In the midst of this gold rush, St John's College came into being. Founded on 1 August 1898 by an Irish priest named Reverend John Darragh, the school’s humble beginnings were in a house on Plein Street. Reverend Darragh served as the rector of the nearby St Mary's Church, today the Cathedral in the heart of Johannesburg's central business district, and took on the task of nurturing young minds and male voices for the church.

In understanding St John’s’ history, I enjoy drawing parallels between its weighty 125-year legacy and Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, which tells the legend of the Trojan, Aeneas, who, after the fall of Troy, embarked on a journey to establish a new homeland in Italy, ultimately to become the ancestor of the Roman people. Similarly, Reverend Darragh founded St John's College to be a new homeland of superb education.

The school's inception was modest, with only two desks and a mere seven pupils, yet St John's College carried the seeds of ambition and potential within its walls. It was soon to face one of many unexpected hurdles.

In 1899, the Anglo-Boer War erupted, casting its shadow over the land and forcing St John's College to temporarily close its doors. Resilient and determined, the school re-opened two months after the peace treaty was signed in 1902. With the war's end, the city resumed its rhythm, and the school saw rapid growth — the number of students swelled to 180, necessitating a move to a larger premises. Its new home was a wood and iron building near the Union Grounds, providing the school with the space it needed to flourish.

However, the tides turned against the school once again. The post-war government, under Lord Alfred Milner's administration, established state-funded schools known as the Milner Schools, such as Pretoria Boys, King Edward VII and Jeppe. Their superior facilities and relative affordability saw enrolment at St John's College decline.

Similarly, upon arriving in Italy, Aeneas confronted the native Latin people who threatened his great mission, and he waged a war to secure a place and a promising future for his displaced people. Virgil’s poem culminates in a climactic battle between Aeneas and the Latin warrior Turnus, which symbolises the conflict between the Trojans and the native Italians.

By 1906, the great vision and future of St John's College seemed jeopardised, and the possibility of closure loomed ominously. At this critical juncture in St John’s history, the Community of the Resurrection, an Anglo-Catholic order of missionary priests and lay brothers, came into the picture. Recognising the importance of preserving this educational institution, they stepped forward to ensure its survival. Taking the helm as the new Headmaster, Father James 'Okey' Nash understood that a radical shift was necessary if St John's College was to thrive. The school was relocated to a magnificent site on Houghton Ridge, then in the peaceful countryside and outside the soon-to-be sprawling city.

Aeneas faced numerous trials and challenges during his journey, but he persevered in his quest to establish a new homeland. St John's College faced its own challenges, including limited resources and the need to confront the societal and educational constraints of the time. Nevertheless, through determination and perseverance, the foundations of the school’s survival was ensured by the generosity of visionaries. Thomas Cullinan, a prominent diamond magnate, donated five thousand pounds, and the Johannesburg Chamber of Industries offered the land at half its market value, securing St John's College its new home. It was a remarkable opportunity — and a bargain of grand proportions.

To physically embody St John's grand vision, the renowned architect Herbert Baker, famed for his design of the Union Buildings, among others, was entrusted with the new school building. Baker, together with his junior, Frank Fleming, crafted plans that served as a testament to the institution's commitment to excellence.

And so, with a rich history rooted in perseverance and foresight, St John's College accelerated its journey to becoming a prestigious South African educational institution —from humble beginnings on Plein Street to its perch on Houghton Ridge.

Reflecting on both The Aeneid and the founding of St John's College, the two narratives share themes of purpose, vision and perseverance, underpinned by the pursuit of a greater goal. They highlight the transformative power of individuals and institutions that sought to shape the future and leave a lasting legacy.

Attending St John’s and walking through its cloisters, these pioneers’ purpose and vision is palpable. Their footprint is entrenched in who we are. Their ties to the British Empire and the Anglican Church underpin our identity and can be seen in our ethos, values, architecture, curriculum, uniform and policies. However, this identity must be carefully evaluated.

Looking at the context of our founding, the formulation of our identity was intended to be exclusionary: to quote our founding constitution, it was to be a “place for scholars of pure European descent.” Across the span of two centuries, the College has undergone constant metamorphosis to remain relevant, appropriate and acceptable to the ever-changing context in which it exists.

Society demands that St John’s continues to reflect the changing social sentiment. Living in a globalised world has several implications, including demographic shifts such as ageing populations, increasing urbanisation and changing migration patterns. These changes impact urban planning, social welfare, healthcare systems and, importantly, cultural diversity.

The ever-bustling city of Johannesburg is an exceptional local example of globalisation and cultural diversification. The city’s diversity contributes to evolving and expanding notions of community and culture and encourages us to question what constitutes representative identity, multiculturalism and socially inclusive spaces. South Africa’s evolving needs — and those of our global community — must be addressed by citizens who are equipped to engage with the global complexities of our time.

Schools, as gathering points for communities, naturally reflect the changes happening in society. In South Africa, these changes include more dominant Islamic and non-Christian voices, increasing atheism, queer visibility, ethnic and cultural pride, feminism and the rise of body positivity advocacy, among other evolving norms. How has St John’s responded?

In recent years, St John's College has made efforts to become more diverse and inclusive. It has taken steps to address the historical imbalances and promote a multicultural environment. It has worked towards admitting students from a broader range of racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. More recently, St John’s has adopted anti-discrimination policies, recognised academic, cultural and service excellence, and has increased LGBTQ+ visibility.

But this societal era requires more — a further leap of faith. How can this institution support its diverse religious student body, whose worship does not conform to Anglican tradition? How can it better reflect its identity as a “world-class Christian, African school” in its uniform and spaces? How can it decolonise its curriculum and reflect and support African perspectives? How can it facilitate gender expression?

These questions highlight the challenges St John’s still needs to overcome to fully reflect its constituent beings. Reflecting on its history, I have no doubt St John’s will continue to evolve. Its historic ability to shapeshift is emblematic of its courage to adapt to change. It has navigated significant historical events — British imperialism, two world Wars, the horrific and tumultuous decades of Apartheid and the subsequent transition to democracy and equality, and most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic. In each case, it has emerged as a relevant institution and a societal beacon of hope, which boasts a tapestry of Johannians who were — and continue to be — equipped to soar in body, mind and character.

Our ‘Stone Fortress’ represents the venture of Life, Light and Love that began 125 years ago. Today, St John’s must undergo a soaring leap of faith in purpose and vision — just like Aeneas and the Reverends Darragh and Nash — to address issues pertinent to the hearts of its students.

  • Majil’Aphiwe Nqumba is the St John’s College Custos (2023). Custos is Latin for 'guardian' and is the school prefect in charge of maintaining the relevance of school traditions.