ITS location on top of a hill is apt because from whatever angle you look at Kearsney College, it stands out as an exceptional institute of learning, a place where tomorrow’s leaders are cultivated and a beacon of hope.
The Botha’s Hill-based all-boys private boarding school, which is set roughly near the midway mark between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, celebrates 100 years of existence this month.
Planning for the school’s centenary began seven years ago, but Kearsney’s headmaster, Elwyn van den Aardweg, has accepted that much of the planned celebrations had to be curtailed because of Covid-19.
As plaguing as the pandemic can be, it has not hampered the school’s dynamism and their pupils continue to excel in all facets of their learning and all-round development.
Van den Aardweg was happy to announce, in spite of the challenges, the Class of 2020 produced arguably the best matric results in Kearsney’s history.
All their entrants achieved university entrance level passes, which has become an established norm at the school for more than a decade, with many pupils collecting distinctions in most subjects, including maths and science.
For the privilege of attending Kearsney, a high-fee paying school, their more than 600 pupils have the opportunity of being tutored by highly qualified teachers in technologically advanced classrooms and other learning spaces.
State of the art sports facilities and well manicured playing fields is another feature at the school.
Van den Aardweg said it was a great challenge ensuring everything ticked to perfection at Kearsney on a daily basis, but he was blessed to have an excellent team of teachers and non-teaching staff members, who are passionate about their jobs.
He described the school’s board as “good people” who had great vision and foresight for what needs to be achieved.
It is to the school’s advantage that being in the education business and a people’s person is in van den Aardweg’s genes.
His family tree shows that van den Aardweg’s father was a Baptist minister, and his mother was a professor of education.
He had a linguist grandfather who was a professor of African languages, and played a pioneering role in the development of the isiZulu-English dictionary. Together with his sister Olive, they translated the Lamba Bible, published in April 1957. The Lamba are found in the Ndola area of Zambia.
The headmaster's great-grandfather was a long-standing friend of Mahatma Gandhi.
The Zimbabwean born van den Aardweg was at a public school before arriving at Kearsney to take up the headmaster’s position in 2001.
With the school’s history deeply rooted in a Colonial past, he set his sights on tackling the concept of “exclusivity” at Kearsney.
“How do you make this beautiful school an inclusive asset for the wider community,” was van den Aardweg’s goal.
“We started a massive and broad ‘inclusion programme’ that included accepting boys from diverse backgrounds, and ones with academic challenges, ones who could never come here before.”
One of the enablers of their inclusion project was the funds raised through assistance from parastatals, industry, old boys and others to create a bursary fund to make diversity a reality.
Van den Aardweg said another progressive move was to run programmes that opened up their facilities to other communities as well.
He mentioned their festivals and sports tournaments brought some schools and their pupils in contact with private school facilities.
Van den Aardweg said last month’s civil unrest showed Kearsney had become the centre of bringing the community together, which is underpinned by the story of Nick Nzama, an old boy of the school.
Some years ago, Nzama, who lived in the Assegai valley, was taking a short cut through Kearsney to get to his school in Hillcrest, when one of their teachers confronted him.
It ended with Nzama securing a Kearsney bursary.
When attempts to loot nearby businesses were made, Nzama engaged with local Indunas (chiefs), brought businessmen and communities together in the school’s hall, urged attendees to work together and further attacks were prevented.
“It was incredible to see an old boy getting people together to protect the community.”
In the 1980’s the first boys of colour began to arrive at Kearsney and van den Aardweg still has regular contact with some of them.
He said each of them had their own unique story of the “hard times” and how they “survived the resistance” while schooling at Kearsney.
“At the time they were made to feel alien here. But today they are still loyal and still have an amazing love for the school.”
Van den Aardweg said he drew ideas from them on how to transform the school further and break racial divides across all its structures.
“There is this unequivocal commitment to democracy, upholding human rights and acknowledging the wrongs of the past and looking at what could be done to undo those wrongs, particularly as adults.”
One of their initiatives was the “imbizo”, where he got to meet with boys from all cultures, faiths and languages to raise issues about anything systemic that made them feel like outsiders or discriminated against.
One of the spin-offs from the imbizo sessions was the school’s new hair regulations, which has been roundly accepted.
Dealing with the perception that black boys were not academic achievers was another matter that got van den Aardweg’s attention.
“We knew that most of these boys arriving at the school came with a disadvantaged educational background. So, we were determined to produce a black dux student.”
They achieved that goal with Jubulani Nyathi, who is presently a student at the UK’s Cambridge University.
“We achieved that. He achieved that. He is now at Cambridge, Jubulani Nyathi.
“That issue needed addressing, now we don't have to go full out and look for excellent pupils, they are coming through naturally.”
He paid homage to the school’s founder, Sir Liege Hulett, who initially started the school at his family home in KwaDukuza, on KwaZulu-Natal’s north coast, with 11 boarders and two day scholars in 1921.
Due to an outbreak of malaria, the school moved to its present site, on land donated by Clement Stott and JJ Crookes with 78 boys and 10 staff.
Van den Aardweg said Hullet’s staunch Methodist beliefs and alignment with the church was godsend because by the 1930s the school was cash strapped and teachers took pay cuts so that bills could be paid.
“Some staunch Methodists saw the land in Botha’s Hill and got it,” he said about the school’s new foundation.
Over the years, life at Kearsney had become loaded with traditions like every boy is called by their surname as a mark of respect to him and the families they represent.
A newer one is the cairn, a pile of stones, set-up at the school’s entrance.
“We asked the boys to bring a stone from their homes when returning to school, after the hard lockdown so they could remember family members who died because of Covid-19.”
But van den Aardweg said they also removed some traditions that were “humiliating and abusive”.
He said he was surprised when saw a sock tied to the crossbar on goalposts at the main rugby field.
When he enquired further, he learnt that each year a group of boys would covertly tie the sock there and ensured it stayed on throughout the rugby season.
Van den Aardweg said he resolved to never ask about the group’s identity and how the sock got placed.
He credited his predecessor Owen Roberts for laying their strong academic culture foundation and said he and his team built on it.
Van den Aardweg was chuffed with the school’s 2020 matric results and was especially pleased that some of the boys, who had learning difficulties, achieved top passes.
To inspire the boys, he said some old boys, who had achieved, were brought on to act as role models.
Kearsney's other bragging right is their internationally renowned choir that was crowned champions of the World Choir Games on four occasions and bagged multiple other accolades.
While van den Aardweg was disappointed the centenary celebrations had to be watered down, he prefers to uphold the school’s motto, “Seize the Day”, and make the most of a limited situation.
He said it was a “massive privilege, a joy and humbling experience” to be Kearsney’s headmaster.
Kearsney College’s longest serving teacher
Anthony Willows has been serving Kearsney College as an educator since January 1993.
He specialises in maths and coaching tennis.
Willows has been a deputy headmaster since 2007, and has held a range of positions, including housemaster for more than 28 years.
While he has had a hand in various Kearsney programmes and events over the years, his passion for tennis has always shone through.
Willows, a former provincial and SA Veterans tennis player, started Kearsney’s annual National School Tennis Festival 25 years ago.
He has also organised numerous international tennis tours and initiated the building of the school's tennis pavilion.
His other passion is mountain biking and, as a competitive cyclist, he drove the establishment of a mountain bike cross country track through the school’s Conservancy.
His aim was to encourage boys’ involvement in a rapidly growing sport.
Willows became the school’s “Director of Student Affairs“ in 2004, a position that was created to manage prefects, student councils, Kearsney’s mentorship programme and new boy integration.
Inspired by the ‘Boys of Honour’ conference in Washington DC, where he represented Kearsney, he initiated their own Honour Code.
He is married to Belinda, a teacher at a Highbury Preparatory School in Hillcrest.