DHS Days of Change

by  Sudeshan Reddy (Class of 1993)

In late December 2020, four men ,in their mid-40s, met in Johannesburg for the first time in nearly three decades and took a stroll down memory lane. On that sunny highveld afternoon, our quartet recollected our experiences as the first learners of colour at Durban High School – almost thirty years to the day – and how those three seminal years (for ourselves, for our school, and for our country) shaped us.

Every generation talks about living through ‘historic times’ but, looking back 30 years, it really was an era of unprecedented change. As our school year began in 1991, the United States began its war against Iraq (Operation Desert Storm) following the invasion of Kuwait a few months earlier. The fall of communism was underway as Eastern Europe transformed, the war in the former Yugoslavia began, democratization rapidly spread throughout Africa, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in India, Bill Clinton became President of the United States and by the end of that year, the Soviet Union would no longer exist. 

But it was in South Africa that meaningful change was directly felt.  The liberation movements had been unbanned, political prisoners had been released and a real sense of change was in the air. Those were the ‘transition years’ as we began our DHS journey 11 months after the release of Nelson Mandela and culminated in our matriculation five months before the first democratic elections.  Until 1991, schools like DHS (“Model Cs” as they became known) were not open to black learners. They were intimidating, unattainable and also unrelatable for many of us. Despite Durban being my place of birth, and that of my parents and my grandparents, and despite living relatively close to the school, DHS was never an option for me until the ‘new South Africa’ started becoming a reality. With the sweeping changes announced by then-President de Klerk in February 1990, which included the return of my father and my uncle from political exile, it was clear that a new country was emerging.

In December 1990, my mother informed me that my application to enter DHS in Standard 8 (Form 4) was successful and that I would begin my new schooling experience there in a few weeks. My schooling up to this point had been at all-Indian co-ed, government schools – another world, in many ways, from the pristine sporting fields, sparkling swimming pool, impressive buildings and established traditions of DHS.I had toyed with the idea of attending one of the newly-integrated schools and was ready for the change. This was, however coupled with a sense of apprehension – the intimidatingly-smart school uniform, the very different school ‘culture’, the focus on rugby and the general anxiety of change for any adolescent made me somewhat nervous. 

At 15 years old you are discovering who you are, your place in the world, your identity, your voice, who you love, and how you wish to shape your future. It’s a tough age to enter an all-boys school in Grade Eight, two years after most learners begin their high school journey and when most bonds of friendship are already forged. Add this to being the first generation of learners who look very different from those who preceded you for the previous 124 years, and it was all rather daunting.

At the Induction ceremony on a summery Durban evening, we were welcomed in the grand assembly hall by the Headmaster, staff and pupils.  We were informed of the referendum to integrate the School that had taken place a few months earlier and it was heartening that the overwhelming majority of DHS parents have voted to open the school to all races. Nevertheless, we also knew that there were some learners among us whose parents had voted to keep the school ‘whites only’ – and in some cases we had our strong suspicions, judging by their attitude towards us, as to who they were. 

I still remember walking through the impressive School entrance on St. Thomas Road in January 1991 and seeing a mass of unfamiliar faces and, unlike all my schooling experience up that point, almost none who shared my complexion.

Matric Prizegiving, December 1993

We were a group of 5 initially in 1991 (four Indian and one black African) and then three more Indian boys in 1992. We were thus a total of 8 matriculants who were not white who made up the first group of matriculants of colour – the Class of 1993. We tended to hang out together in the early days as most of us had come from co-ed so-called “Indian” government schools which were so very different from DHS. This of course changed as we forged our own friendships, some of which endure today. 

It was not a great first impression when, on day one, within minutes of entering Form 4A, I heard comments such as ‘coolie has joined us’ and ‘did you see coolie is in the class?’. I was horrified and after hearing the ‘c-word’ being used for the umpteenth time that day, was about to explode. It was when I turned around and saw the name written on the book of the guy behind me – “Steven Kewley”. At DHS, one is called by one’s surname – also something I did not realise at the time – talk about lost in translation!

As someone who loves debating – a skill fostered at DHS – I was frequently in heated arguments (which usually ended amicably) on a range of issues, from objecting to the rare occasions when the old South African flag would fly from the flagpole to the ignorant assumptions made about those who were not white. The frequent reference by some (and the silence of many) to Nelson Mandela being a ‘terrorist’ regularly led to fiery responses from me and ongoing robust debates. It did not help that mainstream media in much of South Africa at the time adopted a similar stance, so I also witnessed the power of indoctrination quite early on.

I enjoyed many of the opportunities that the School provided – public speaking, theatre, music concerts and being exposed to peers whose backgrounds and outlooks were very different to mine. Less fondly, I recall being forced to watch rugby on a few Saturday afternoons and the required ‘war cry’ – not something I enjoyed but I also knew that this was a key part of the culture of an institution which I had chosen to attend. 

                                         Ms. Montamarano and Ms. Jones, two of the inspiring teachers at DHS

I spoke up when necessary and recall raising my objections to a particular text from the Bible being read out that I believed denigrated Hinduism (the religion of my family). I was listened to by the powers-that-be but was reminded that I “chose to attend a Christian school.” Despite this response, that particular reading was not delivered again during my time at DHS, and hopefully never was again. Indeed, while there sometimes was racism and condescension, overt and covert prejudice and ignorance, there was also kindness and camaraderie, empathy and friendship. I am glad that the School of 2021 is more fostering of inclusivity and tolerance.

Fourth Form class photo  with Ms Watermeyer (who is still teaching at DHS) – 1991

As the momentum for change intensified, so did the evolution of DHS. I remember the formerly-compulsory Military Cadets session being replaced by civic lessons which were addressed by representatives of the various political parties in the run-up to the first democratic election in 1994. By 1993, some of the English set-works finally included South African and other African authors, the history textbooks studied Apartheid (in the dying days of National Party rule) and our theatre visits included local artists (I remember an excellent performance by Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the Natal Playhouse). 

The annual Speech Day was always well organized with speakers who motivated and inspired. My most memorable was the late Professor Philip Tobias, the world-renowned paleoanthropologist who addressed us in 1991 with wit, empathy and a focus on justice and equality. DHS also fostered my love of public speaking and provided me with opportunities that paved the way for the work I do today as a communication specialist at the United Nations.          

Looking back, one realizes that we adolescents at the time, were in transition too. In those three years, South Africa saw unprecedented levels of violence – coupled with a palpable sense of hope that a new, better, more just society would emerge. From the massacres at Boipatong, Bisho and St James Church to the CODESA negotiations, from the 1992 whites-only referendum to the kidnapping trial of Winnie Mandela and the murder of Amy Biehl, we bore witness to events that would forever change the course of our country’s history.  Sometimes, DHS felt like an isolated bubble and at other times it felt like we were living through history in the making. 

The assassination of Chris Hani in April 1993 and my attendance at his memorial service in central Durban stands out in my memory. I recall us formally applying for leave and the smug comment from the staff member who signed it as he noted “how interesting that there is a memorial for a communist.”  Needless to say, our attendance at the memorial was discussed throughout the school and I was asked about it by several educators and learners the next day.

I recall Mr Bennison (then the Headmaster) reminding us at our ten-year reunion in 2003, that the Class of 1993 was the last generation of what was an “abnormal society” – one that many had assumed to be ‘normal.’ For the white learners in the Class of ’93, conscription into the South African Defence Force was, for the first time, not compulsory. This was the first generation of white matriculants in many years who would not be forced to fight in the so-called ‘border wars’ in defence of an indefensible system and regime.  We never thought of ourselves as particularly ‘pioneering’ but, looking back, three decades later, I suppose we were. 

Thirty years on, I look back at my DHS years with appreciation of what an incredible opportunity – at a truly unique time in history – it was. How fortunate to have had the privilege of an excellent education, to get out of one’s comfort zone and to better understand one’s self in the process. My hope is for DHS to continue in a true spirit of tolerance and acceptance of the full diversity of society, while maintaining its tradition of impressive, holistic learning. One that, in addition to racial inclusivity, should continue to challenge bullying, homophobia, xenophobia and the many other prejudices that lessen our humanity.

In those seminal years, DHS was not a perfect institution. Despite the many attributes, there were traditions, attitudes and ingrained cultural traits that were, like much of South Africa at the time, not initially open to change, diversity and progress. But, like our complex country and indeed us as human beings, it has, and continues to, evolve – and that makes DHS, and us, all the richer.