Bless Alfie and his blazer.
It’s funny to think that the old boy pride of one of my dad’s friends from the pub, would be a determining factor in sending us to Jeppe, but sometimes decisions made on a whim or according to gut feel turn out to be the best decisions of all. Alfie, one of the regulars at the pub my dad used to frequent, would wear his old Jeppe blazer whenever he went out for a drink. He would tell stories about the school, recounting not only his own time there, but it’s storied history. He must have been one hell of a raconteur, because his stories had an impact on my father who decided that we had to go to Jeppe. My folks moved from the apartment in Joubert Park and rented a house in Emperor Street in Kensington, which is less than thirteen solid flaps of a cruising hadedas wings from Jeppe, an institution that was to play host to some of the best years of my life. Other than the excitement of a new school, I was excited to be home. 12-years-old, I’d already been a boarder for three years, a quarter of my life. I had scars and stories to tell. Being so close to the school, I may as well have been a boarder.
Started to accommodate the children of mineworkers, Jeppe has been around in various forms since 1890, just four years after the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand. The school badge features a gold bar representing the ore of the Witwatersrand amid black and white waves (the colours of Trinity College Cambridge, the alma mater of one of the first headmasters J.H.A Payne). Initially, it was St Michael’s, then Jeppestown Grammar School, then Jeppestown High School for Boys and Girls before the genders split into two separate institutions, Jeppe High School for Boys and Jeppe High School for Girls. During its various iterations, it transformed from a private school to a government school and it even closed down during the Anglo-Boer war. One of the old establishment schools of Johannesburg and South Africa, it - along with mortal frenemies King Edward VII, plus Pretoria Boys, Pretoria Girls and Potchefstroom High - was one of the ‘Milner Schools’ founded by Viscount Alfred Milner to promote British education for the English-speaking population after the Boer war. While Boskop and Haenertsburg made me bilingual and Grenville taught me to stand up for myself, at Jeppe I felt I would at least be about as normal as any other kid.
When I arrived in Grade 9, I was in awe at the size and grandeur of the magnificent property the school sits on Roberts Road in Kensington. The sprawling, tiered grounds had been donated to the school by its namesake, the Randlord Sir Julius Jeppe. One of the boarding houses Tsessebe House used to inhabit his old home, before it was demolished in the 60s due to structural safety reasons. The main school buildings were designed by architect John Ralston, a disciple of the great British Empire architect Sir Herbert Baker and it shows in the giant stone blocks, the prominent facade and the cool, echoing corridors that have seen thousands of boys pass through. The grounds, divided between sports facilities, classrooms, boarding houses and even war memorials and dotted with well-established jacarandas and other trees.
It was into this rarefied air of history and legacy that Garth and I stepped into in 1982. For a 14-year-old who had arrived from much smaller country schools, the size and history of Jeppe was awesome in the true sense of the word. I took to it like a duck to water. I loved everything about Jeppe - the vibe, the energy, the strong monastic environment, the traditions, the colonial British feel to it. I loved walking down the corridors lined with photographs of schoolboys from 1916, the 1920s, checking out the names of who made the shooting team or the rugby team, and the names of those who went off to war and never came back. It was at Jeppe where that inner core of me that loves history, that became a history teacher, truly awoke. I started to understand more about the world and the generations that had gone before me.