Stories and Traveltips

ID #5355

In the Good Old Days, Graeme College, Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, South Africa.

Many would have one believe the world was a utopian paradise in “the good old days”. Schools were better, children were more disciplined, standards of living were higher, crime and corruption were less of a problem, roads were better maintained, etc. No doubt some features were better but this was not true in all instances, as illustrated by the following story.

I had an idyllic childhood growing up in Killarney -- my grandparents' boarding house in Port Alfred. At least that is how it seemed to me. People were kind and considerate and there was little friction between people of different races, religions, etc. The underlying philosophy was based on Christian values such as love thy neighbour; treat others as you would be treated and so on. However, being young, I was unaware of the desperate poverty, the lack of job and other opportunities, the racial discrimination and prejudice that surrounded us.

In 1960, when I was 10 years old my mother remarried and we moved to Krugersdorp on the West Rand. There the environment was different – much more harsh than the benign, tolerant attitudes with which I was familiar. The prevailing philosophy was Calvinistic – i.e. people are inherently bad and one had better knock it out of them or they will come to no good. Friction and intolerance between race groups was the norm.

I did not get on with my stepfather so in mid-1962 my sister Deirdre decided to send me to boarding school in Grahamstown. She decided on Graeme because both she and my sister Myrle had attended its sister school – Victoria Girls High School (VG) -- with distinction. In Johannesburg I climbed aboard a steam train for the 1000-km (25-hour) journey – the first of 37 such “adventures” during my schooldays. On the train I met boys from Graeme and together we made our way to Grant House, after which I became immersed in the day-to-day activities of the school.

Many unfamiliar rules and regulations existed in the hostel. For example one was required to keep one’s bed and locker neat and tidy, keep one’s blazer buttoned at all times, wear a basher whenever one went into the city, and so on. In spite of being unwritten, such rules were rigorously enforced – two cuts for each infringement. I was once given a hiding because someone else accidentally tore my blazer!  Fagging was universal but was for the most part benign.  Most of us quickly learned how stay out of trouble. Some even flourished under the harsh discipline. There were of course exceptions – boys unable to adapt to the uncompromising environment -- but they were a minority.

We attended church twice on Sundays and usually walked to and from church in twos or threes. On one occasion the housemaster, Frank Rumboll, decided that we should to walk to church in crocodile. This was insulting because “girls walk to church in crocodile.” Perhaps more importantly, we were never told the reason for his decision, which I believed was arbitrary and unjust. Nevertheless most accepted it with good grace. However one evening, after returning from church, Frank assembled us in the entrance to Grant House and told us that he was going to give the entire hostel a hiding because we had made too much noise in crocodile.

I protested, saying that I had not made a sound throughout the walk. Which was true – I had been thinking about something or other and had not said a word. Frank smiled wickedly, told me to go upstairs to the dormitory and then proceeded to give everyone else a hiding. It took him several hours to finish the task.

What surprised me was the reaction of the other boys. They accused me of cowardice because I was unwilling to take a beating. For them it was an act of bravery. From my perspective it wasn’t cowardice -- it was ignorant to accept a hiding for no reason. Had they denied any wrongdoing Frank would have been in trouble. How could he justify such an act? He would have to prove that every boy in the crocodile was making a noise – something he was unable to do. Incidentally we were no longer required to walk to and from church in crocodile after this incident.

In 1964 the headmaster, “Bok” Rowles, instituted weekly tests for all subjects. Pupils who did not achieve the pass mark were punished with 4 cuts for each subject failed. However, for reasons that were never explained, I was required to obtain 100% in such tests. As one might expect, I thought it unjust to be singled out in this manner.  I was interested in science, maths and commercial arithmetic and could get close in those subjects. However I found it impossible to achieve similar results in the other 3 – history, English and Afrikaans. So I received between 12 and 24 cuts each week. Most who experienced it will agree that “six of the best” was severe punishment. So 24 cuts in one week was simply abuse. As a result, my backside was black and blue and my bed linen was covered in blood much of the time. This went on for several weeks until “Black” week when matters came to a head.

Black Week started off badly. On Monday I was given two cuts for being caught with my blazer unbuttoned. Then I failed to obtain 100% for all 6 subjects and received a further 24 cuts. So by Friday morning I had received a total of 26 cuts. However worse was to come. Ironically our first class on Friday morning was religious instruction and the teacher was none other than Bok Rowles. When he walked into the classroom and announced that he was going to conduct desk inspection my heart sank – I had spent several months carving my name into my desk and had used coloured ink to liven up the artwork -- one had to be blind to miss it.

I covered my desk with books hoping that Rowles would not see the damage. However he was clearly aware what I had been up to – he stopped deliberately at my desk and told me to remove my books. I stuttered and stammered but he insisted. When I did so he looked at my desk and said: “See me in my office after school” with a shocked look on his face.  

After school I waited outside his office until I was the only person left in the corridor. Rowles came out of his office, summoned me inside and told me that he was going to give me another 4 cuts. While willing to concede that I deserved a hiding for damaging the desk, I was at my wits end. He indicated that I should bend over but I made no move to comply. Instead I said: “Mr. Rowles – I have had 26 cuts this week and I think that is enough”. His eyes widened and all colour drained from his face. Clearly he was unaware of the beatings being carried out as a result of his policy. He thought for a moment then told me to go back to the hostel, after which his policy of weekly tests was abandoned and the beatings stopped.  

Only later did I realize that, at that moment, I had held the careers of the teachers involved in my hands. Had I gone to a police station and laid a charge of assault, they would have been in trouble. However I was 15 years old, 1000-km from home and far from the emotional support of my family. Nor was there anyone in whom I could confide. Unsurprisingly, therefore, I did not have the presence of mind to take such a drastic step.  

However it raised several difficult questions. Have a look at the attached standard 9 (grade 11) class photograph. Do we look like hardened criminals? Why would grown men treat children in such a manner? Was it because of the Calvinistic philosophy so widespread at the time? If I remember correctly, staff members included Rowles, Attie Maree, Frank Rumboll, Trevor Long, “Cabbage” Terreblanche, “Molly” Moore, Dudley Schroeder, Ernie Hobbs, Jack Siebert, Don Munday, Louis Nel, Justus Potgieter, Beresford  Pavey, Trevor Penny and Roy Simpson. Some were good men who went on to become headmasters at other prestigious schools in the region. Some even professed to be Christians who had read the Bible from cover to cover. If that is the case, why did they not take steps to stop the abuse? "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing" (Edmund Burke).

Shame on you!

The fact of the matter is that might is not right. However, given the opportunity, many are willing to abuse one’s rights to advantage.  One should therefore be vigilant in one's defense. But it takes courage because those in positions of power and authority cannot be relied upon to do so. So in a sense I am grateful – this lesson served me well since my schooldays at Graeme. But it left me with a deep-seated hatred of cruelty and injustice. And the ability to recognize such behaviour for what it is.  However others were less fortunate and, fifty years later, still struggle to come to terms with what happened.

When viewed through rose-tinted glasses the past may appear romantic or attractive. But such perspectives lack objectivity -- the truth is that many things were wonderful. But it is equally true that many shameful things took place, particularly in South Africa.  The misguided belief that “…people are inherently bad and one should knock it out of them ASAP or they will come to no good” is a distortion of the Christian message and responsible for more shameful things than many would care to admit.

Alan McIver
Cape Town
April 2012

Names of those in the attached photograph (left to right) include: Back Row: Stanley (Tubby) Long, Colin King, George Yamoyany, Tony Thornton, Trevor Rose and Benny Nel. Middle Row: Trevor Snyman, Noel Wise, Ken Leach, Jonathan Ossher, Ricky Prowse, Gerrit Fourie, Charlie Emslie, Vernon Mills and Jack Lambert. Front Row: Norman Bull, Vincent (Skollie) White, Stuart Robinson, Ronnie Futter, Dudley Schroeder, Walter Ferguson, Andre Potgieter, Terence Howell and Basille Glanville. Seated in Front: David Saunders, Jesse Coleman, Noel Lawrie, Alan McIver and Mike Coetzer. 

attached files: School Photograph Graeme College Grahamstown South Africa_1.jpg

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Last update: 2014-02-28 22:35
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.21

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Comment of Steven Lang:
Dear Mr. McIver, I have read your article and request permission to publish it in Grocott's Mail. This year Grahamstown is reflecting on the 200 years since it was established and I think that your article would provide an interesting perspective. best wishes Steven Lang
Added at: 2012-04-09 08:40

Comment of Christopher Rimmer:
Hi Alan, I think it is high time that some of the abuse that went on at Graeme College was exposed and some of the perpetrators, named and shamed. I attended the college as a boarder during the early 1970's and experienced a very similar pattern of abuse you describe above., although my experience also included sexual abuse from junior hostel master, Larry Soul who later committed suicide on Jack Siebert's farm in 1976. Child abuse is child abuse and it should be exposed as such without the benefit of a statute of limitations for the perpetrators. Best Wishes, C.R.
Added at: 2013-08-18 22:54