Durban - Inanda Seminary has gathered countless stories in its 150 years as a centre for educational excellence for African girls, which it celebrated last weekend.
One such tale featured in a sermon when chaplain Alice Fabian-Williams told how, in the early 1880s, veteran principal Mary Edwards enrolled a severely disabled Nomasonto Vezi, who desperately wanted to learn so that she could teach others.
“After several years at Inanda she returned to her home with a wheelbarrow for travelling. She was able to restart Sunday School and the day school at Umtshazi, developing the latter until it became too large for her to handle, and a regularly qualified teacher could be sent,” she read from the school’s history.
Fabian-Williams’s message was that because the likes of Vezi were able to put themselves forward and persevere, they could live lives of significance.
“They didn’t allow circumstances to limit them, but with faith and determination managed to move mountains.”
Later that morning, a drama troupe rehearsed a play, Trailblazing: Chronicles of Phenomenal Women, for the weekend’s festivities.
The playwright, academic principal Kim Simons-Thebe, had also delved into the school’s history.
She wove in present issues, such as how the girls struggled with identifying with the school and its tradition, “yet knowing what we talk about in terms of white privilege and trying to marry the two, and showing how, although lots was taken, we’ve still got lots going forward”.
American missionaries Daniel and Lucy Lindley founded Inanda Seminary in 1869 to provide quality education for African women to supplement what was available only for African men at the time. Also involved in its early days was the Reverend James Dube, whose son, John, became the founding president of the ANC.
The Lindleys’ great-great-grandson, also Daniel and also a priest, though retired and living in the US, is scheduled to preach at a celebratory service tomorrow.
Over 150 years, Inanda Seminary has been through ups and downs. One “down” was when the apartheid government cut off funding. However, an “up” was being able to remain a mission school when similar black institutions were taken over by the government and subjected to Bantu Education. It survived because girls were not considered a political threat.
“But they were a bit underground and many later went into exile and became involved in the first democratic government,” archivist Hlengiwe Langa said in the school’s museum, pointing at displays featuring Parliament Speaker Baleka Mbete and former parliamentarian, former deputy health minister and Aids activist Nozizwe Charlotte Madlala-Routledge.
“There was a headmaster, Dumisani Zondi, who used to take students to the university to listen to Steve Biko.”
Another “down” was in the early 1990s when potential Inanda Seminary girls started having access to former white schools. It became a more mainstream school and, in October 1997, the United Congregational Church in Southern Africa announced that it would close.
But 10 old girls wouldn’t have any of that and caused the next “up” by lobbying Nelson Mandela to help them save their beloved alma mater.
They were Esther Sangweni, Bongekile Dlomo, the late Norah Moerane, Doris Gogela, June-Rose Mazibuko, Florence Madlala, Zamakhosi Mpanza, the late Thelma Ngidi, Gloria Sosibo and Glenrose Nzimande.
“The Power of Ten” has since become a catchphrase at Inanda Seminary. It’s amazing to see how many schools didn’t make it through Bantu Education and apartheid, and this school did,” said executive principal Judy Tate.
“We’re grateful to God. That’s the only way to explain it.”
She and former school chaplain Susan Valiquette, another visitor from the US for the anniversary, also played a key role in resuscitating Inanda Seminary from its “down” in the 1990s.
The more than 400 girls who attend Inanda Seminary today enjoy state-of-the-art facilities, such as Chromebooks, in freshly-painted heritage buildings on a leafy campus, where they are all full-time boarders, going home only during holidays and for half-term weekends.
It’s not unusual to see them gathered in small circles for discussions with a teacher about issues going on in their lives.
“It’s to create safe spaces, so that the school is not just about work but social relations as well,” said academic director Peter Lisle.
“The teacher is not there to have all the answers, but to listen, advise and facilitate. The idea is to keep it a safe space.”
Instead of a prefect system, senior girls belong to committees that relate to an aspect of the school.
“It’s a more human way of leadership,” he said.
One such committee focuses on the environment and plans to encourage girls to identify the bird life on campus.
Inanda Seminary does not require prospective pupils to write an entrance exam. All that’s needed is an interview with one of the management team and to be able to read and speak English.
However, being fed from a range of schools - from Gauteng Model Cs to village schools - means there can be gaps in some students’ skills, for which the school provides interventions.
There’s a focus on science and maths, subjects that matric pupils like Billy Mbuyazi, from Centurion, will need to follow her dreams to study theoretical astronomy at the University of Cape Town; Mvelo Mthembu from Seaview will need to study forensic science at the University of the Witwatersrand; and Sithabile Ngcobo will need for chemical engineering, also at Wits.
Student Representative chair Londeka Shabalala, from Pinetown, hasn’t chosen a career but is clear about her other aims.
“I want to encourage people to have work ethics and stop corruption, for this country to grow,” she said.
Her vice-chair, Thando Thabethe, from oThongathi (Tongaat), values the school for having turned her into a critical thinker.
She imagines that at the bi-centenary, in 2069, the school will have changed in sync with major advances in technology.
Inanda Seminary is on the Inanda Heritage Route, which includes Mahatma Gandhi’s Phoenix Settlement. Information boards provide insightful information about the school.