Sydney Vernon Petersen

Sydney Vernon Petersen, the founding principal was only 32 years old when he founded the Athlone High School. He was born on 22 June 1914 in the picturesque town of Riversdale nestled in the heath-scented foothills of the Sleeping Beauty Mountain in the southern Cape.

by Sydney Terence Petersen

He left his hometown at the tender age of 12 barely able to speak English to attend the Berlin Mission School in Searle Street, District Six where he had to pursue his education through the medium of English. He matriculated at Trafalgar High School in 1932 and qualified as a teacher at the Battswood Training College the following year before starting his teaching career at the Berlin Mission School in Ladismith where he taught for two years. He returned to teach at the Berlin Mission School for three years before joining Battswood Training College as a lecturer.

In 1945 he was appointed principal of the Battwood Practising School at the age of 30. Two years later he founded the Athlone High School where he remained for 28 years until his retirement. For a number of years he ran the Teaching Practice programme for part-time students at the Hewat College of Education in Crawford.

SV Petersen was a leading author and poet and his work earned him many accolades including the bronze medal for Afrikaans while a parttime student at the University of Cape Town, the Coronation Medal commemorating the accession to the throne of Queen Elizabeth II, for his contribution to Literature, the Gold Medal of the South African Academy for Literature, Science and Art in 1958 and the highest civilian award in the country and the South African equivalent of a knighthood: the Decoration for Meritorious Service (DMS) conferred by the State President in 1982.

He was invited to lecture at various universities in the United States of America in 1959 as part of the United States-South Africa Leader Exchange Programme. He was so devoted to his family that he insisted that his wife and son be allowed to accompany him to the USA and was the first person to be granted this privilege.

In 1960 he was sponsored by the governments of West Germany and South Africa to spend a year in Europe to afford him the opportunity to visit various educational institutions. During that time he taught for some months at a Rudolf Steiner school in Altensteig in the Black Forest at which institution he perfected his German. He was also invited by the Nederlands-Zuidafrikaanse Vereniging to spend some time at a poet’s retreat in Wassenaar where he was able to make contact with writers from different parts of Europe. In 1969 he was the guest of the British Government and toured various education centres with his very close friend Professor Richard van der Ross. He also served on the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s Board in the 1970s.

His literary works include his only full-length novel As die Son Ondergaan, an unpublished short story Verbode Vrugte and anthologies of poetry Die Engeling, Die Still Kind, Kinders van Kain, Suiderkruis, Alleenstryd, Nag is verby, Laat kom dan die Wind, En die wind waai voort and his only anthology in English Meditations on the Brink. He saw himself as an Afrikaner and was accepted in Afrikaner literary circles as such being invited to join the Afrikaner Skrywerskring. First and foremost, he saw himself as a South African and would not accept any other labels.

He died on 30 October 1987 and his ashes were scattered on the slopes of the Sleeping Beauty in view of Riversdale. He was posthumously honoured by having honorary citizenship of Riversdale conferred upon him which his widow received on 19 March 1988 at the celebrations to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the founding of the town.