The Miseducation of All-Boys’ Schools

By Lelo Macheke (@SuburbanZulu)

Reflecting on the endemic ‘brotherhood’ culture that normalises violence in private all boys’ schools, Lelo Macheke gives us an account of his experiences and how the performance of hyper-masculinity affected him as a homosexual, black teenager. 

lelo macheke

I attended an Anglo-Saxon all-boys’ private high school which has state-of-the-art facilities and occupies an impressive chunk of land in the evergreen suburbs of Sandton.  Although I initially wanted to pursue my high school career in a co-gendered environment, I seemed to be surrounded by figures who recommended my going to an all-boys’ school. The general argument of my persuaders- including the school I ended up attending- was that all-boys’ schools in South Africa have long histories of producing important and respectable gentlemen. As a teenager who was relatively insecure about his homosexuality, the idea of being moulded into a figure that society would accept was especially desirable.

Once I began my high school career, the socio-academic culture there altered my sense of reality. It was not long into my high school career until I realised that my ability to distinguish between life at school from life outside of its boundaries, was in fast decline. The manifestation of the hegemony at school psychologically and physically reduced my life outside of its boundaries to a series of trivial appearances. School became the new and legitimate reality for me. More so, my commitment to a male-driven Eurocentric hegemony was my life’s new mission.

Brotherhoods: Normalising and Moralising Violence

Undergoing the process of being educated at a Eurocentric prestigious all-boys’ school is synonymous with being a deified figure in training. The violent culture of my high school experience was not always overt or physical, it did occupy a constant and phantasmal omnipresence of militancy.

The tropes of manhood and masculine morality at these institutions are often tropes which are often constructed in proud secrecy – they are never questioned and they implicitly ban members of wider society from participation.

The existence of these tropes is often achieved through what may be commonly known as a ‘brotherhood’.  The ‘brotherhood’ is a collective-based ideology which obligates boys who attend these prestigious institutions to embrace their school environment as a second home. The ‘brotherhood’ is an ideological womb which gestates supposed juvenile boys into mature gentlemen. This womb is heavily embellished by empirical values such as unity and respect. Yet, these values can only be understood and thoroughly practiced through reinforcing a timidly vicious hierarchy.

It is a general rule in these brotherhoods that boys in younger grades ought to respect boys in older grades. Yet, the nature of this respect is defined by unwarranted obligation and different grades of violence. Strategically constructed and ritualised punishments of a younger boy by an older boy for is accepted as a young man who is merely rehearsing his manhood. On the same hand, an older boy who participates in senselessly punishing a younger boy is often encouraged to view his own violent actions as humorous and educational- if not heroic.

During high school, many of my peers endured emotional, mental and even physical abuse from older boys on a daily basis. Their attempts to seek justice were delegitimised, because it was considered throwing a ‘fellow brother’ under the bus. My peers would then internalise their frustrations, causing conflict among themselves.

As a grade 9 scholar, I recall being told by the matric disciplinary committee that my tears were offensive to the school’s effort in making a fine gentleman out of me. This came after reporting to them that I had been verbally tormented, punched in my genitals and had my face pressed against an open urinary by one of their matriculant peers.

The matter was reduced to my not having a right to seek justice, because my assault was just as bad as why I deserved to be assaulted -my mistakenly urinating in cubicles designated for senior students. I was then advised to forgive this individual for his actions as he already had a “reputation for being the rich school menace”.

The violence of these incidences is most often coupled with being obligated to sit next to your abusers during assemblies, sports games and school marketing days while singing war-cries which miraculously knot the ‘brotherhood’ bond even tighter.

My entire high school career was a journey through which I travelled feeling the need to be constantly armed. This is a feeling which is considered to be a badge of honour in such spaces.

Hyper-masculinity and Intimate Spaces

My experience of being in a Eurocentric prestigious all-boys’ school was particularly crude as a homosexual black teenager, because I was required to assimilate into a culture where the only consciousness worthy of existence was one which was hyper-masculine and white. The incessant and obscene performance of masculinity are often a prerequisite feature of boys’ school culture. This culture is widely accepted the best of times, or irresolutely tolerated at the worst.

Organised annual camping trips to private reserves were spaces which where the performance of hyper-masculinity often startled me. In a matter of fleeting suddens, my white male teachers would burst into a choir passionate men singing Afrikaans folk songs from their conscription in South Africa’s townships and the Mozambique border during the 70’s and 80’s.

They would instruct us to sing along, looking onto the white students in hopeful expectation of them knowing these songs.  We sang these songs repetitively as we hiked for up to 20kms per day on these camps. Those who did not sing for any given reason were regarded as disruptive to the cause of unity which the camping trips were designed to forge.

Our form of bonding occurred during the times listening to our teachers and camping instructors woo us as they reminisced about the political organisations they worked for and the amount of people they murdered during their conscription. In an attempt to show off and relive their supposed days of glory, they would even demonstrated certain assassination methods which were reserved for certain killing operations. “Petrol bombs don’t work in open veld.  Only in urban areas and townships. Enclosed spaces are perfect for those” one of the camping instructors explained one night during a camp in grade 10.

The practice of hyper-masculinity is often located in the sacred rites and rituals which are performed to unify boys. During my high school career, I recall sitting in such unsupervised and private assemblies in which enable boys congratulated themselves for not being subjected to rape and abuse workshops or sexual education in Life Orientation syllabus.

During these assemblies, a catalogue of made-up certificates and trophies would are awarded boys ranging from the most promiscuous, to the most drunk. There was even categories which awarded black boys who had been with the most white girls or black boys who only dates white girls.

Boys who are openly known or suspected to be homosexual/bisexual are targeted during these ceremonies, as their names are mentioned in belligerent poems that symbolise condescending mimicry of effeminate comprehension that is blatantly assumed to be the way non-heterosexual men communicate.

PowerPoint slide-shows depicting incriminating screen-grabs of conversations which show infidelity are usually of great anticipation during the ceremonies, as they often triggered violent animosity between boys on school grounds for weeks afterwards.

The attitudes and performances of acrobatic hype-masculinity in the spaces mentioned above are principle contributors in forging strong interpersonal bonds and unifying boys in intimate settings. These settings are such which demand the negation of the individual identity and perpetual absence of the true self in order to enliven a ‘brotherhood’ which is uni-conscious and hyper-masculine.

Problematising Spaces of Privilege                                       

It has been two years since I have matriculated. Yet, I find myself progressively perplexed at how I am undergoing a process of remission from a contemporary patriarchal system of subdued slavery which prepares men to be seated on ideological thrones. Spaces of privilege are not they moral utopias, neither are they sites which demonstrate social perfection.

It is important that society begins the inconvenient, but necessary work of problematizing the spaces on which we benchmark our material success as they are too easily absolved from also being held accountable for metamorphosing the manifestations of patriarchy and reproducing certain calibres of violence we see in contemporary South Africa today.

1 Comment
  1. I went to a private all-girls’ school in Pretoria and heard of similar stories from my brother school. But obviously they did not disclose this extent. My brother went to my brother school when I was in Matric and I was pretty nervous for him. Sure he has a cool and strong character, but it was the things I didn’t know that made me nervous. So I stuck to him to make sure that he does not waver from who he truly is. Reading this article does not shock me, it actually gives a more clear perspective to the regime in these prestigious single-sex schools that at the end of the day form you to be the person you were not meant to be.
    There are tons of students and single-sex school alumni that need to read this and open their eyes to what is actually being done. They think it’s ok, it’s part of the culture, it will prepare you for the world. But actually what it is doing, is forming a breed of people that They desire. And the moment they see you are way too different and unmouldable, they take that threat and turn it into the student being a “problem child”.
    Simply sharing my thoughts, thank you for sharing this. Mind-changed :)*

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>