Livingstone High School principal Theo Bruinders and his staff live up to the school’s motto of embracing excellence, writes Gasant Abarder.
Cape Town - You may miss it when you’re driving down Imam Haron Road, Claremont, as right now it resembles a construction site. But don’t be fooled by appearances. Inside the modest buildings and grounds lies a centre of excellence for maths and science.
This Friday Files edition is not about a single person, but rather about a passionate principal and a team of dedicated teachers.
As I enter Livingstone High School I am welcomed by principal Theo Bruinders. He is a serious man with a frown etched on his face as he reflects on the 90th anniversary of the school.
Livingstone is proof that you don’t need state-of-the-art facilities to compete with the best - although it’s much needed.
For decades the school has consistently produced matriculants in the top 20 or 30 achievers in the province, has more than 80 bachelor passes and the cream of the crop when it comes to maths and science results.
“Our alumni are all over the world. In fact, they are true to our school song, We roam the wide world over’,” says Bruinders.
Livingstone was founded in an era when high school education for black and coloured children was an afterthought for the government of the day.
“We had 13 mission schools in the area. Of course during the apartheid days they were not interested in establishing high schools. The parents of the area felt it necessary that there must be a high school established in the area.
“We had a group of teachers (from the Teachers League of South Africa, supported by the African Peoples’ Organisation) as well as parents who started building the school. They forced the hand of the state. We had very influential people and teachers who were very much involved in the politics of the day. They fought to get a school going.
“In 1976, what was always important for Livingstone is that we always said Education for Liberation’. There was definitely a political consciousness at the school at the time. We had people like Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi who attended in that particular era.
“I still think that we embrace those values of activism. I think people still, in their private capacities, are active - maybe not to the same extent as before. But I would want to believe there is a political consciousness that exists.”
As Bruinders speaks, a young lady pops her head into his temporary prefab office set up as construction is under way at the school.
“It gets hot in here in summer,” he says.
Again, appearances are deceiving.
The young lady is not one of the pupils as I initially thought. It’s science teacher Samantha Heneke.
On her watch, two Livingstone pupils finished first in the prestigious national science olympiad, Minquiz, as representatives of not only the school, but also the Western Cape.
The accolade was achieved although there is hardly a functional science lab, no computers and little tech at the school.
We are soon joined by maths teacher Ronnie Jugmohan, English teacher Lynette Arendse and life sciences teacher Ashley van der Horn.
When you listen to them, you begin to understand why Livingstone keeps its proud 90-year tradition of consistently producing some of the province’s best matriculants.
Jugmohan says Livingstone is unique because it offers so-called “pure maths” up until the end of Grade 11. Only then, in their matric year, can pupils opt for maths lit.
The Department of Education wants to know how they do it. Jugmohan says Deputy Minister of Education Enver Surty even paid the school a visit a few years ago and sat in his class in the hope of bottling that X-factor.
But more than the excellent maths and science results, Livingstone trains its pupils to be critical thinkers.
“If we were to look at where South Africa is in terms of the list of top maths countries, we’re very low. That is something, in our humble opinions, we turn around at this school.
“A number of our students go into the science, engineering, medical and accounting fields. Of all the engineering disciplines currently; we are still one of the top feeder schools.
“Our students are doing well at Stellenbosch University, UWC, CPUT, UCT. It simply means that we are actually producing quality matriculants.
“Our curriculum is tough and we don’t have easy subjects at this school. Most of our students sit in the sciences and it’s tough, yet we hit a bachelor rate way above 80. Last year it was 86 and we’re aiming to grow it even more.
“We draw students from all over who are historically disadvantaged - although I need to maybe remove the historically’ because we’re still disadvantaged - who we turn around.
“That for me is a big plus that Livingstone High School over the years has done this. There was first disbelief, and a suggestion that we take the cream of the crop, which is not true. I sit with files where we have turned students around.
“First, it’s the commitment. When you walk into Livingstone High School as a teacher, don’t ever believe that this is going to be a holiday because we have structures in place to assess teacher performance.
“What to me is important at this school - and I think our mission statement says it - is we embrace only one thing: excellence. There is no place for mediocrity at this school.
“But that is firstly something you as a teacher need to embrace. It doesn’t matter where you come from. If you come from a shack, that’s fine. But that does not make you a loser and it’s that kind of belief you want to instil in every pupil at this school, but also every teacher.”
Bruinders started as a teacher at Livingstone 35 years ago and for the past six years has been the principal. From the first day he set foot in the school, he knew it was different.
“On that first day, I made a conscious decision that this was going to be the place for me. It’s an honour but also a challenge to be the principal of Livingstone High School because here we talk about expectations and following in the footsteps of the great principals.
“It’s always going to be a challenge. I will not say a burden as much as it is a challenge, but it keeps you humble.”
Bruinders inherited a proud legacy. Little has changed in terms of the ethos of Livingstone since it opened its doors on February 26, 1926.
EC Roberts became the first principal and, through the years, the school survived the Group Areas Act when Claremont was declared a whites-only area.
But there were many battles of which Livingstone was at the heart as the injustices of apartheid played out over the country.
In the 1960s, the state ordered out all black pupils from the school amid fierce opposition from pupils. In the 1970s, it was told to do away with white teachers. Yet it still produced top results during the tumultuous 1980s despite pupils and teachers’ activism.
In 1963, Dr Neville Alexander and three other members of staff were arrested and detained, and the following year Alie Fataar was forced into exile.
Through the strife, the school was ahead of its time, producing the first woman principal of a co-ed high school in South Africa in Ray Carlier in 1955.
In its 90th year, Bruinders believes he can unlock the school’s true potential by leaning on the star power of Livingstone’s distinguished alumni.
Last weekend, at the 90th anniversary gala dinner, one of them, Independent Media executive chairman Dr Iqbal Survé, pledged a R1 million commitment to support the school’s efforts.
Other notable alumni include former Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool, South Africa A team coach Vincent Barnes, and so many more - doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, teachers.
“It’s very important that we need to keep connected with the alumni. Many have walked through these humble corridors and they have made a success of themselves.
“I feel that as a school we can only become strong if you have the alumni giving back, whether it’s skills, finances or whatever their contribution.
“It is important that we get these individuals on board because there are lots of skills out there and they came through the hands of Livingstone High School.
“We are in desperate need of those skilled individuals - even if it meansthat we need to conduct workshopsor if they can assist with a business plan for the future.”
The future is a plan premised on the past: achieving excellence at a school that is accessible for working class families.
“We have never ever turned people away. In fact, if you were to read our history, you’d know that we drew people, and we still do, from all over. When the government said black and Indian pupils couldn’t be at this school we said No’ and stood our ground.
“Now, strangely enough, because of the history of the school and the performance of the school, we still compete and we’re rated among the best schools. We attract people from all walks, even whites. They are also at this school.
“What they realise is that we talk about quality. Now quality doesn’t necessary only have to be at the Westerfords of this world. Quality is right here and people and parents are looking at it carefully and saying: Why must I actually pay that fee? Why can I not come to this institution?’
“And I must say the strength of this school was always the staff and we still have a highly committed staff. They drive, and drive fiercely, a very challenging academic programme.
“Every year our pupils are recognised among the top 20 or 30 and they go to the award ceremonies. That bears testimony to the hard work of my colleagues.”
But Bruinders’s vision for Livingstone goes much further. He wants to partner with other schools - richly resourced and poor - by pooling resources to prepare well-rounded South Africans of the future.
“Schools must, as far as possible - and this is something that didn’t happen in this country and is still not happening - share best practices.
“We have a situation where people just down the road are well-resourced. Let’s share the practices.”
It’s a generous offer: a collaborative effort to strive for academic and all-round excellence. And it is being incubated and bottled at Livingstone High School.
What are we waiting for?