Founders’ Day: Headmaster’s Address

Wynberg Boys' High School Founders' Day 2014Lessons from the Trenches

The following speech was delivered in the Founders’ Day Ceremony on 22nd August 2014 – commemorating the 173rd year in the history of the school.

A very sincere welcome to all our guests from the Wynberg family – Old Boys, Parents, other Principals. Thank you for coming along to share this special occasion with us – arguably the most important ceremony in the life and traditions of this school. Thank you, Dr Verwoerd, for agreeing to deliver our John McNaughton Address today. After your Grandfather, you are the third Verwoerd to be at our school as obviously your son, Wian, beat you to it when he spent a term with us seven years ago.

Everyone in this audience knows the historical significance of 2014 and the fact that we are commemorating two historic events. The similarities between 1914 and 1994 are startling. 1914 saw the start of a war which would change the world forever. 1994 saw the start of a new South Africa which would change this country forever.

A hundred years ago seems an impossibly long time to us. Today we recall it in black or white, sometimes sepia tones. We have all seen grainy pictures of soldiers going to war singing, ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’. One soldier, Julian Grenville, young enough still to be at school where he should have been, wrote back to his mother saying: ‘This is such fun. It is Iike a picnic where you don’t know where you are going to.’

Some picnic it would turn out to be!

In France on the battlefield of the River Somme over a million men died in the trenches. We have all read with horror the stories of life in those trenches. Some years ago, I took a school trip to the First World War battlefields and wandered around the area where there had been so much death and killing. Now it is all peaceful and the local farmers are growing wheat and barley. We could never have guessed that a war had ever been fought there except that everywhere we went, we found road signs indicating yet another immaculately maintained cemetery.

If you kick the soil of these fields, it will not be long before some relic of the war turns up. I am not sure if it is permissible any longer, but on that trip I was allowed to take home an empty shell casing which I had picked up on the battlefield of Dellville Wood where so many South Africans died – including many whose names we will hear read out later by our Head Prefect, Raythaan Addinall, as he fulfils the wishes of Headmaster, Edward Littlewood, who many years ago faithfully recorded the names of those of ‘his’ boys who did not make it back from the battlefields of France.

That shell casing I picked up was an unexploded gas shell. I walk past it every day in my house when I leave for school – and every day I wonder how many people it would have maimed or killed had it gone off. I contemplate its journey from factory to front line – and I think, yet again, what a waste! Surely there could have been a better way?
The war is now long gone but is largely remembered by us for the senseless destruction of millions of young lives. Young Wynberg boys – just like you – were among the casualties of Delville Wood, but unlike you, they were destined never to realize their potential. Of course, a similar sentiment can be said about the wasted potential of millions of young South Africans in an era which came to an end with the inauguration of Nelson Mandela twenty years ago.

To encourage enlistment in 1914, young men in England were told that it was their duty to enlist and their mission to ‘save civilization’. Doesn’t that sound vaguely familiar to those of us who did military service in South Africa before 1994?

The well known author, HG Wells, said, ‘We are on an enterprise on behalf of humankind … we are fighting not for aggression, but in defence of principles vital to civilization.’

At some stage, every Prime Minister of South Africa from 1948 to 1994 made the same point.

When war was declared by Great Britain on the 4th of August 1914, cheering crowds flocked to Buckingham Palace. The philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who was amongst the crowd, later remarked that it was clear that ‘the average man was delighted by the prospect of war.

Those cheering crowds had no idea of the carnage to come; no idea that this war would lead to the Second World War; to the Korean War; to the Vietnam War; to the Cold War; and they definitely had no idea that it would be directly responsible for the Palestinian Crisis today.

There was a similar cheering crowd in Johannesburg at Jan Smuts Airport in 1960 when the South African Prime Minister, Dr H F Verwoerd, returned from the Commonwealth Conference in London and announced that he would be holding a referendum in which he would be proposing to take South Africa out of the Commonwealth and declare a Republic in which only his white compatriots would have the vote.

That cheering crowd was not to know that there would be 34 years of political, economic and sporting isolation; that our racial policies were destined to make us the most unpopular country on earth and that our people would be polarised and torn apart. I wonder what that cheering crowd would have thought had it known that the man they were shortly to incarcerate for 27 years would be President 34 years later. In fact, the name of that very airport where they were cheering was later renamed Oliver Tambo Airport after a leader very few South Africans of that time had even heard.

Now 54 years on in 2014, what have we learnt? We have definitely learnt that the First World War did not succeed in being ‘the war to end all wars’. We have learnt – both from the First World War over the last one hundred years, and in South Africa over the last 34 years, – that our version of civilization cannot be saved by wars or by repressive legislation.

Here at Wynberg, in this hall, in our tutor groups, in our classrooms, music rooms and sports fields, we are learning every day that respect for other cultures, religions and viewpoints is the only way to build a school and a country.
Today is our Founders’ Day. It is the day we pay tribute to the builders who have served our school over the past 173 years; to the thirteen Headmasters; the hundreds of Teachers; the thousands of Pupils and later Old Boys; and the hundreds of thousands of parents who have enabled us to stand proudly in 2014 and say, regardless of the backgrounds we come from, that We are Wynberg Men.

Earlier this week on television, President Obama reminded the peoples of the world that our purpose on earth is to build. Today is Wynberg’s day to reaffirm the belief that we have learnt from the divisions of the past. Today we commit ourselves to building our school into a better place; to building our communities into better places and to building meaningful relationships with one another. Doing all this enables us to build our country into the special place we all want it to be.

KC Richardson, Headmaster, Wynberg Boys’ High School