Prize Giving 2014: Guest Speaker’s Speech – Mr Barry Jessop

On February 6th, 2014, posted in: Academics, Academics, Alumni, Archive, News by

Wynberg Boys' High School Prize Giving 2014Transcript of the Address delivered by Mr Barry Jessop, Guest Speaker at Prize Giving 2014

Wynberg Boys' High School: Barry Jessop

Mr Barry Jessop

Good evening ladies and gentlemen and young men of Wynberg Boys’ High School.

On Saturday morning my son, Peter, who matriculated from this school in 2011, asked me if I could take him somewhere.  I told him I had set aside much of the day to prepare this speech.  He asked why that was necessary as I had introduced speakers at prize-giving previously and surely it wouldn’t take me very long.  I told him that I was giving the main speech this year to which he looked incredulous and said:  “Whatever possessed Mr. Richardson to ask you?

With this underwhelming endorsement of my suitability for this task, I stand before you.

The one shred of comfort I take from my endeavors is that much, if not all, of what I say will have absolutely no effect on you whatsoever.  I asked both my sons what they remembered from prize-giving speeches and both replied:  “Nothing”.  “Surely there must be one person who stood out or something that someone said that affected you?”  I naively asked.

No – but we did like Marc Lottering when he spoke at the Valedictory”.

I am no Marc Lottering.

My challenge has therefore been to think of something that is vaguely interesting, topical and inspirational.  This has been no easy task for an attorney who spends his life drafting lettings and agreements and sorting out the minutia of people’s various problems. I showed my speech to my business partner, Graeme Dorrington, who was head boy at Dale College in 1982. His only comment was that I take out the big words as Wynberg boys will not understand them! I have left the big words in.

With some trepidation I have therefore decided to base my speech on a quotation from the well-known theologian and author of the very popular transcription of the Bible, “The Message”.  That person is Eugene Peterson who writes beautifully, perceptively and is always challenging.

The quote is as follows:

If I, even for a moment accept my culture’s definition of me, I am rendered harmless.

Education, particularly of young men in societies shaped by the old British Empire, has primarily focused on producing solid, law-abiding citizens who adhere to and enforce the ruling norms.  This is true of most of the great British public schools particularly those formed in the Victorian era as well as schools such as Wynberg, which came into existence at the very beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign.

Let’s briefly examine two generations of young men who were educated at schools such as these- the first in the UK in 1914 and the second in SA in 1977- my generation.

It was said by the Duke of Wellington that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.  Eton  focused on teaching Classics, on team sports, regular thrashings, rigid discipline, was characterized by endemic bullying and had no place for the weak or  the unusual. Churchill attended Harrow (what SACS is to Wynberg, Harrow is to Eton) which he abhorred as he was incessantly teased for having a stammer. The overriding ethos of the age, which was ostensibly promoted at these schools was of belief in God, Empire and Country, respect for a strict social hierarchy in which the rich and titled led and the rest followed, external adherence to the dictates of organized religion, with a strong emphasis on loyalty, courage and fidelity. Questioning was not encouraged, being different was severely frowned upon and obedience was paramount.

In 1914 when Lord Kitchener called for volunteers to fight against Germany, the response was overwhelming.  Very few people questioned the advisability of becoming locked into a major war.  Those that did were ostracized and victimized.

So when the bright, young lieutenants, drawn mostly from the famous British Public Schools  blew their whistles at the start of the next great push, they together with thousands of other young men, clambered up the ladders and walked into no man’s land where they were mown down in their hundreds of thousands. 1157 from Eton, 707 from Wellington, 61 from CBC, 42 from this school thousands of miles away from the Western Front.  On the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, there were over 60 000 casualties.  Compare this with the 58 286 American soldiers that died in the entire Vietnam War.

I was fortunate enough to visit Flanders in 2012 with my family. It was very affecting as a parent to stand in the company of my two lovely sons and hear the Last Post sounded at the Menin Gate, a tradition that has endured every evening since 1927 when it was built. The Menin Gate contains the names of 54 896 men who died in the trenches near Ypres, and who have no known grave.

The education these men received contributed to many of their generation being wiped out.

Let’s fast forward to 1977, being the year in which I matriculated.  What was the culture that prevailed when I finished school in Kimberley?  I attended an all-male, all-white school in which discipline was rigidly enforced.  My teachers were principally Irish Catholic Brothers who dressed in cassocks – white in summer, black in winter.  Most of the Brothers carried a small strap on their belts and if you infringed one of the many rules, you were simply told to put out your hand and were beaten.  Subject choice was limited, sport was compulsory, boys who played a musical instrument or did drama were frowned upon by the other boys and if you were Catholic you spent a considerable amount of time in Chapel (fortunately I am a Protestant). It was said of CBC that its educational philosophy was that of the carrot and the stick- without the carrot.  Outside of the confines of my school, SA society was racist, sexist and wholly and violently opposed to people who objected to the prevailing cultural ethos.

In 1977 South Africa was, in short, a fascist state led by a man who had been incarcerated during WW2 as he was an ardent supporter of the Nazis. And my generation of young white men generally accepted this state of affairs.  Young white men were conscripted and went off to the army in droves, and in the main turned a blind eye to the plight of most of the South Africans.  And when those problems came more and more to the fore, many of my generation “packed for Perth”.  My generation too, like the young men in 1914, bought into the cultural ethos and were rendered harmless.

So let’s now turn to you and to the cultural ethos in which you find yourselves at Wynberg in February 2014.

Wynberg Boys’ High School in 2014 is in many respects similar to Eton in 1914 and CBC Kimberley in 1977.  This is a strong classical boys’ school that functions by enforcing general conformity.. You differ in that corporal punishment has rightly been outlawed. But the core values that mark out a civilized society continue to be emphasized and modeled by your teachers. Timeless and essential values such as loyalty, integrity, courage, respect, diligence, perseverance.

However, the society in which Wynberg exists today is fundamentally different to the hierarchical, bigoted and closed societies that existed in the UK in 1914 and in South Africa in 1977.

You live in an open society that espouses non-racism, non-sexism, inclusivity, which is founded on a constitution and has freedom of speech and an independent judiciary.  South Africa, as a new nation, is still very much in its infancy and its cultural ethos is still being shaped.  This generation and the generations to follow will be instrumental in shaping our country’s future.

You also live in a global village.  That village is essentially shaped by western liberal thought and can be described at materialistic, superficial, driven by bottom-line factors and short sighted in its outlook, it is extremely individualistic, hedonistic and agnostic.  These global influences are, I believe, pervasive in our society and are probably more influential than the values that this school stands for as well as the values that our new democracy espouses.

So if you are going to buy into and assimilate these global values wholeheartedly, I would suggest that your future could consist of material wealth, pleasure seeking, temporary relationships, fatherless children, contempt for authority and a pervasive sense of isolation. You will have no involvement in your communities and you will in all probability be living in North America, the UK, Australia or New Zealand.  Whilst your life may have the outward trappings of success, it will be a harmless and ineffective life.

If the cream of young South Africans, and you form part of that cream, buy into this philosophy, this global culture, South Africa’s future is dire. What was achieved in 1994 will evaporate like the morning mist and South Africa will quickly sink into becoming just another failed African state. SA is at a tipping point once again as a result of many aspects of President Zuma’s presidency. We are no longer an emerging market that easily attracts capital. During his tenure SA has slipped from 52 to 72 in the index of the world’s most corrupt states. The rand is plummeting once again.

So is this doom and gloom? Must you qualify and get the hell out of here? Are our problems too big to solve?

Quite the contrary! You can make SA work and work well. It will not be easy- it will in fact be very difficult- and it may not be achieved in your life time but it will not be a life wasted. But you need to become involved and you need to be involved here.

You are in a uniquely privileged position at a crucial point in our history. You have at your disposal wonderful educational opportunities in a school staffed by men and woman who understand and are committed to timeless values I referred to earlier. They can equip you to properly function in the new South Africa. Not as unthinking robots but as informed, involved and integrated citizens. 

What is your responsibility?  As I have said from this stage before, it is to use every opportunity you have here and at any tertiary institution you may attend in the future. Ask, probe, challenge, discuss, understand, read, and seek. Study South Africans who are making and have made a difference. Not just Mandela and Tutu, but Zachie Achmat, Andrew Feinstein (who attended this school and exposed the arms scandal), Thuli Madonsela, Zapiro, Vusi Pikoli.

Understand where we have come from as a country and on whose shoulders you are standing. Your opportunities and freedoms have been sacrificially obtained. Do not waste them.

Take an active interest in the election this year. Try to understand why certain parties and politicians take particular positions. Whose interests are they protecting or purporting to protect? Why is land such a big issue? Who controls our resources? How do we deal with inequality? And poverty? What are threats to our judiciary and our press? Is BEE a good or bad idea? Is there a god and if so what does he require of me?

And in the midst of this clamour in seeking your niche in SA in which to make a difference make time to be alone. Not lonely, not isolated- alone. A space in which you can reflect and consider and re-assess and recuperate. Young men usually dislike quiet and prefer noise and activity. Silence is difficult as it often poses questions. It exposes emptiness and waste. But it offers you the opportunity to fill those spaces with meaning and light. Very few great ideas were birthed in noise.

So in conclusion- stay in SA and contribute. Travel the world and learn from your travels but do not take the culturally easy option and emigrate.  Even with all the problems that face us if I was in your shoes I would still bring up children here rather than anywhere else. Problems provide opportunities and opportunities provide growth. Remember the scriptural injunction that to whom much is given, much is demanded. Take up the challenge and make a real difference! So do not allow yourself to be shaped by the contemporary culture as it will render you harmless and it will impoverish SA.

Barry Jessop
Guest Speaker & Former Chairman of the Governing Body
5 February 2014