This Youth Month, St Benedict’s hosted the fourth edition of its annual Embrace Symposium – a forum for all stakeholders in education to explore how to promote social justice in South African schools. The purpose of the one-day event was ultimately to help build progressive, transformed institutions. Schools that are inclusive, embrace diversity and prioritise transformation. A venue packed to capacity, bore out the relevance of the 2023 theme: “Creating an inclusive school space through sport and culture”.

According to the organisers of the symposium – David Edwards and Geraldine Pillay, co-chairs of Transformation, Diversity and Inclusion at the school – this year’s theme was chosen so members of the greater school community could work together, to start finding ways to make all schools safe spaces for students who not only break the mould, but create entirely new moulds of their own. While not something that could be achieved in a day, the  goal was to start the conversations.

Andre Oosthuysen, Executive Head of St Benedict’s said, “The symposium provides an annual platform to unpack issues affecting society, especially learners and educators. It focuses on how to create a climate that embraces our country’s diverse cultures, beliefs and value systems. As schools grapple with these and other challenges, collaborative events like the Embrace Symposium, which facilitate dialogue, stimulate debate and explore solutions, have grown in importance.”

St Benedict’s believes real inclusivity means every student, and staff member, is comfortable to be their authentic self and to have channels to express that through daily activities and interactions. “We want members of our school community to have a strong sense of belonging – irrespective of the skills and talents that make them feel different – and we are committed to achieving this goal.

“While diversity includes everything that makes us unique, inclusion involves harnessing these differences to create value. We believe inclusion is a celebration of our common humanity and it means pupils, regardless of ability or disability, are given equal opportunity to grow according to their potential, in an environment that’s respectful and supportive,” said Oosthuysen. “Sport and culture both have a vital role to play in fostering these ideals.”

In the realm of sport, its unifying experience breaks down barriers and builds bridges where boundaries usually exist. From participating to supporting on the side-lines – sport provides opportunities for students from different backgrounds, abilities, and interests to come together, collaborate, and develop meaningful connections. “As schools we need to find ways to include our entire community in the sporting experience. By participating in sport, students are included in the joy, sorrow and learning that sport provides.”

The symposium’s speaker line up included disabled Olympic and Paralympic athlete, Natalie du Toit. By sharing her incredible stories of triumph over adversity, this inspirational retired athlete emphasised the power of sport to change lives. With opportunity, determination, support, and belief in self – anything is possible in and through sport. She reminded the audience that for people to succeed in sport they first need to be given opportunities. Only then can they grab them and go on to follow their dreams.

Pillay, who is also an Olympic medallist, said that through inclusive sports and cultural programmes, students with disabilities, different ethnic backgrounds, or diverse talents can find a supportive and nurturing environment where they can grow, thrive, and contribute to the school community.

She added that despite the strides made for equality and equity, society still suffers from prevalent inequality and inequity, with differently abled people not being fully integrated into sport and cultural programmes. “We need to foster inclusive practices that create spaces for differently abled learners within schools, so they don’t feel excluded from any sport or cultural activity. Pupils should feel seen and have a sense of belonging.”

Puseletso Mabote, a King Edwards VII School student who lost his right leg when a truck ran over him at age five, was another compelling speaker who shared his story. While physically different, this young man aims to inspire and he does. He defied all odds and today holds the junior world record in the men’s 200m T63, a feat he achieved at the 2019 World Para-Athletics Junior Championships. Showing the world that his disability does not define him was a powerful take out and a robust reminder that the blood in all our veins is red – regardless of our appearance or ability.

On the topic of culture and the arts, Director at the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, Dr Ismail Mahomed said that arts, and theatre particularly, are dynamic agents for learning, adding that culture creates cohesion. It facilitates healing in society when negative experiences are reimagined and the absence of the arts has contributed to the polarisation of society. He said theatre encourages engagement and inspires society to reach out and build deeper connections; growth and development that does not come from classroom learning.

He reminded delegates that the woke movement is not necessarily disruptive – adding that it awakens critical thinking in young people. The kind of critical thinking that is required if we are to build a generation of leaders. Mahomed said schools need to be dynamic spaces that allow counter views. Unlike the rules of the maths or geography class, the arts and sports classes are about developing the bigger human being. Developing young people who can reflect and critique and envision the kind of better society we want and need.

Bennies old boy, Letlotlo-La-Bakuena Letlatsa, who goes by the stage name 9umba, is a Gold, multi-platinum and SAMA Award winning producer and international DJ. As a pupil who was not at all sporty, Letlatsa spoke about how he found his safe space in arts and culture, admitting that he often defied the curfew and spent many late nights at the boarding house mixing his tracks and making music. This he said was the springboard for his craft.

There are multiple challenges to overcome in the context of school inclusivity and Edwards said that one of these is ensuring that no one feels that someone else’s need to belong, or to be included, is being prioritised over the other. He added, “Like every school we are sometimes driving a narrative which may be contrary to what boys are being taught at home. While we can teach boys to love, accept and celebrate differences, it’s the conversation that happens around the dinner table that will have the greatest impact. If the same message is shared at home and at school, we have a greater chance of having an inclusive space and we encourage and invite our community to join us in adopting a narrative that celebrates differences.”

While a Catholic school, St Benedict’s welcomes boys of all faiths. Oosthuysen said, “We teach the value of a life lived with faith as one of our core values. In this inclusion, we don’t dilute our Catholicity but build an understanding of how to celebrate our own beliefs amidst people of other faiths. This is the perfect breeding ground for dynamic and rich conversations. We extend inclusivity across all our pillars and prioritise growing personality and social and personal capital through the development of the whole self.”

The symposium also ignited thoughts about the various areas with which schools need to grapple including the awards systems and their relevance, as well as Sports and Cultural policies in schools.

In closing Oosthuysen said, “By providing opportunities for students to participate, appreciate, and embrace diversity through sports and cultural activities, schools can create an environment where every student feels safe and respected. Through these avenues, learners develop essential life skills, build connections, and learn to celebrate the richness of human diversity, fostering a more inclusive and harmonious school community. As one of our guest speakers, publisher Thabiso Mahlape said, we must think about our own story while also considering the stories of those around us. This is what ensures that we drive a culture that celebrates inclusion and diversity. By coming together at Embrace, and deliberating these issues with like-minded people, pupils, subject experts and academics, those in the profession can leave better informed and inspired to create meaningful change in their schools.”

Drafted and distributed on behalf of St Benedict’s and to contact for further information:

SIMONSAYS Communications
Melanie Stevens
083 303 9667 / 011 465-9815