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HomeReviewBook Review — Open Schools Era (1976-1986)

Book Review — Open Schools Era (1976-1986)

Dr Mark Potterton reviews a book about the history of Catholic Schools in South Africa by well-known educationalist and Marist Brother Jude Pieterse, in collaboration with Robyn Picas.

Pieterse, J. in collaboration with Picas R, (2020). Open Schools Era (1976 -1986) Johannesburg: Marist Brothers 124 pages. R250

The Open Schools Era by Br. Jude Pieterse, F.S.M., was published in April. Unfortunately, the book launch never took place because of lockdown restrictions.

About the author

Br. Jude, a Marist brother, was one of the central figures in the desegregation of Catholic schools in South Africa. He was appointed chair of the Education Council of the Association of Religious in 1975. In the ten years he served in this role he was integrally involved in negotiating with the government for change in Catholic schools.

During this time Br. Jude participated in countless meetings and consultations with bishops, principals, teachers and government officials. He kept meticulous minutes and wrote several letters corresponding with the various political parties at the time, which became the source material on which this historic book is based.

Some of the personalities and leaders in Catholic Education during that time.

Pioneering equal access to education for all

The book tells the story of what the Catholic Church in South Africa did to ensure that Open Schools became a reality. This was a time when religious congregations quietly defied apartheid laws and opened their schools to students all races.

The book develops a deeper understanding of the challenges and struggles faced by the owners of the former white Catholic schools. The role played by the archbishops and the congregations of teaching sisters and brothers is captured, together with the anecdotal and human stories behind the events and meetings that happened.

The Open Schools Era is an important historical record of the ground work done to prepare children, parents and teachers for the New South Africa.

Working with Robyn Picas, Br. Jude has managed to richly describe the excitement and angst of the time. The Open Schools Era is an important historical record of the ground work done to prepare children, parents and teachers for the New South Africa. Some have said that this “open” schools movement within Church schools that provided a catalyst that led to the eventual desegregation of state schools.

Br. Jude later became Secretary General of the South African Catholic Bishops Conference. In that role, on 17 July 1989 he wrote to the Minister of Justice saying:

“It has been brought to my notice that prisoners who have received the death penalty are debarred from pursuing any formal studies. Given that there are those prisoners who on appeal have the death penalty set aside walk out of prison free, given that there are those who have their sentences commuted to a jail sentence, and that there are many who spend considerable length of time awaiting their execution, a request is hereby directed to you that, if for no other reason that of Christian compassion, the appropriate steps be taken to allow prisoners on death row to pursue formal studies.”

The Minister replied saying that while he was not unsympathetic, he regretted that he could not be of assistance.

State vs Church

The historical context of the period, particularly the Bantu Education Act, is covered in the first chapter. Then Prime Minister Verwoerd said that education should stand with both feet in the reserves rooted in the spirit of being over “Bantu” society. In referring to the role that Churches played in education, Verwoerd argued that good relations between the races cannot exist when education is given to the “control of people who create the wrong expectations on the part of the native himself”. He wanted “native” education to mirror the policy of the state and to be subservient to the white population.

Destructively, the Bantu Education Act gave the State powers to obtain full control of the training of teachers, even at faith-based institutions. Verwoerd argued that the Church used the training of teachers to further their own interests and said that black teachers should not feel superior to their communities or desire to become integrated into the life of the European community.

This also provoked a crisis in the Church because bishops regarded the Catholic schools as a pivotal part of the Church’s evangelising mission.

Historian Sr. Brigid Flanagan observed that this also provoked a crisis in the Church because bishops regarded the Catholic schools as a pivotal part of the Church’s evangelising mission. Many felt that, without schools, the Church would lose its influence, vocations would diminish, and many Catholics would fall away from the Church. Religious instruction at state schools would be incapable of combating the consequence of secularised education, and there was no guarantee that the Church would have free access to state schools to teach religion to Catholic pupils.

The difficult transition

The strength of the book lies in chapters three to eight where the negotiations with the State are captured with documentary richness. The pioneering role of the religious sisters is highlighted, particularly their eagerness to open their schools as soon as possible. Br. Jude notes that the religious teaching brothers were more cautious than the sisters. An extract from a newspaper article by Sr. Margaret Kelly reflects the feeling of some of the sisters:

We rejoice that at least we have a Catholic school with the staff and pupils from all the parishes in the city. Both staff and pupils experienced Christian community in all its richness of language, colour, gifts and sharing. In this atmosphere it is easy to learn the Christian virtues of understanding, tolerance, respect and love in the interaction within the microcosm of the school forces us to look out on the city and country around us and to see the problems in the macrocosm.

The integration of Catholic schools did not go unopposed, and Sr. Evangelist Quinlan recalls that some white parents removed their children from open schools and wrote letters of complaint to the government. The parents acknowledged the need for integrated education but were fearful for their children’s education. One parent wrote and said: “We admire you. We know it must happen. But not with our children”.

Headlines from some newspapers at the time // The Open Schools Era

The book contains several newspaper clippings which reflect the feeling of the time. One headline read: “Schools threat sparks new row,” and went onto explore the tension that the education policy provoked within the nationalist government at the time, particularly between the conservatives and progressives.

The timelines at the start of each chapter provide a useful sequence of events. The photographs of the different role players in the book make the book very human, and the extracts from letters conversations and other documents add to the authenticity of the book.

The Open Schools Era reads easily and is a valuable resource for both teachers and students documenting a tumultuous period in the history of South African education.

To order the book (R250), contact Br. Mario Colussi at An E-book is available. Please click here to download a flyer with further information on how to obtain the book.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.