My Anti-Apartheid Activism Serves as My Moral Compass
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because learning is the best way to fight dehumanization.
By Poornima Apte
Temba Maqubela, OZY Educator Award winner
I still remember it like it was yesterday. I was 17 and attending biology class at St. John’s College, a boarding school in South Africa where my biology teacher was my own mother. In a few short weeks, I was to graduate and move on to medical school. But the authorities had caught wind of my anti-apartheid political activism. Before I could react, I was whisked away, along with a few friends and detained.
Political activism is not new to my family. My great-grandfather, who had a basic high school education, took a white man to court for impugning his character. From then on, it became a mantra in our family to seek scholarship as a way of finding humanity. My maternal grandfather was the first Black man to earn a degree from a South African university. He went on to teach in South Africa and in the United States.
That pivotal moment at St. John’s shaped my life in profound ways. It lit a fire in my belly as I escaped South Africa and sought refuge in Botswana, ultimately seeking political asylum, along with my wife and young son, in the United States in 1986. I believe it’s necessary for any people who have been dehumanized to find their ubuntu — their humanity toward others — and to fight for social justice.
This is something that is constantly front of mind as headmaster at Groton School, an hour’s drive northwest of Boston. The school already has an illustrious history of being open to diversity and inclusion. The founder, Endicott Peabody, had invited Booker T. Washington, a former slave and educator, to speak and have dinner here. Martin Luther King Jr. spent two days here. I have taken that spirit of inclusion and amplified it because of my own personal history.
I have taken that spirit of inclusion and amplified it because of my own personal history.
Through a program called GRAIN (GRoton Affordability and INclusion), we are striving for more inclusion. I have always asked: Who is at Groton today, and who will not be here tomorrow if we don’t address inclusion? Inclusion benefits everyone. Education in a diverse setting brings about not just competition but also collaboration, because we’re pulling together different sets and talents. GRAIN froze tuition from 2015–18, increased the number of students on financial aid and guaranteed that we would consider all applicants without regard to their ability to pay.
I fully recognize that merely adding diversity to our rosters isn’t enough. Through our GRACE (GRoton Accelerate Challenge Enrich) program, we also are addressing the preparation gap that students might face in keeping up with the academic rigor at Groton. For four summer weeks after ninth grade, students are coached in a variety of disciplines to emerge stronger and ready to take on educational challenges.
When I attended the University of Kentucky in Lexington for graduate school, people had all kinds of horror stories about being a Black man in Kentucky. But I can tell you we received so much kindness from ordinary people. In 1994, for the first free, democratic election in South Africa, they arranged for a van to drive us from Lexington to Atlanta, the closest place where we could vote. When I got an award and a chance to visit the Clinton White House, they did that again, because we didn’t have the needed resources. These are ordinary people. We forget about them and then wonder why they don’t vote the way we want them to vote. We don’t give them their dignity. You forget the talent in the missing middle at your peril. Which is why we have to fight to include all voices.
I often remind my students that it is ordinary people who set in motion extraordinary processes that enable strangers to find their dignity and regain their humanity. We all have a limited time on this earth, and it’s with a sense of urgency and agency that we have to approach this.
- Poornima Apte, OZY Author Contact Poornima Apte