Our History




Founded in 1889 in the dust of the gold rush, Sacred Heart has been providing an excellent standard of education for more than one hundred and twenty years. Based on the Marist principles of our founding Saint Marcellin Champagnat, we offer a values based education that aims to produce children who can think critically and succeed at what they set out to do.


During the Anglo-Boer war the school was used as a hospital for Boer and British soldiers. In the 70’s and 80’s fugitives hid on this and other Marist properties so that security police could not find and arrest them for resisting the policies of the apartheid government. In 1979, after a decision by the Catholic Bishop’s Conference, Sacred Heart College opened its doors to children of all races.


We are the pot of gold at the end of the Rainbow Nation and our students and staff reflects the wonderful diversity of South African society.


Sacred Heart College traces its origins to the arrival of two Marist Brothers in the mining town of Johannesburg in 1889.  Although they started teaching five pupils, within ten years the school was 800 strong.  Initially situated in Koch Street in the centre of Johannesburg, the school moved to the outskirts of town in Observatory in 1924.  The school remains on those premises.

In its 126-year history, Sacred Heart College has undergone a number of changes.  For the bulk of its history, until 1976, it was an all-boys’, all-White school that provided a high quality academic and sporting education, firstly for Catholic boys but always with a large percentage of other faiths and denominations.  In the 1930’s, there was such a large Jewish enrolment that the Rabbi came to school every Friday to give classes.  in the 1950’s and 1960’s the school welcomed Chinese pupils although this was not approved by the government.

From 1976 the school was led by Brother Neil McGurk who had an inspired vision of what education could be in the South Africa of 25 years ago.  The Marist Brothers’ understanding of their mission led them in 1976 to defy government decree and open the school to boys of all races.

However the newcomers did not present a real challenge to the school as they were expected to accept the norms that existed at this all-white, all boys, top rugby school.  The real cultural revolution probably took place four years later when in 1980 girls were first admitted to the school when it amalgamated with two near-by convents.  “Marist Brothers’ – Observatory” reverted to its religious name, “Sacred Heart College”.

By 1984 the political and concomitant educational crisis in the country was reaching catastrophic proportions.  The college was inundated with an ever-greater number of Black applicants from the troubled townships.  Many of the leaders of the uprising approached the Church, and Sacred Heart College in particular, to ask them to assist with the education of youngsters from the townships.  Many of them were the children of the political leaders of the struggle but there were hundreds of others who were the children of the emerging Black middle class who needed a stable and non-disrupted educational setting for their children.  Brother Neil McGurk and the Marist Brothers welcomed this challenge despite the difficulties of appeasing conservative White families and of adapting the curriculum to suit the changing student body.

And so Sacred Heart College started a period of profound change.  Firstly traditional authority structures based on the Prefect system were no longer acceptable in a situation where such authority structures were widely discredited through the political struggle in the country.  In 1989 a Student Representative Council was introduced which attempted to involve students as responsible leaders in the school, rather than as extensions of the headmaster’s discipline authority which the Prefect system was seen to represent.

Secondly, the existing methodology of History, Geography and several other subjects was seen as creating citizens who did not think critically and were unable to question the social structures of the day.  So in Grade 7, 8 and 9 the subjects were discontinued and a new integrated curriculum called Integrated Studies was introduced.  It used a skills-based and differentiated approach to accommodate learners from varying language and educational backgrounds in the same classrooms and aimed to relate the learning in the classroom as much as possible to life experience.  For example, Black and White pupils visited each other’s homes and wrote up interviews and reports which were later used in assessment.  There was also a programme of learning outside the classroom, with field trips, museum visits and guest speakers, as well as an internal programme integrating culture, poetry and literature with History and Geography.  These ideas were distelled into ten titles which were published by Maskew Miller Longman.

Although many of these initiatives were against educational regulations at the time, it was difficult for the government to challenge the school’s curriculum and other innovations because the school held the moral high ground.  There were still, however, a number of confrontations with government officials.  For example, the school fought long and hard to discontinue cadets which was seen as contributing to the military culture prevalent within White society at the time.  There were also numerous battles over the subsidies to the school, particularly as the school refused to accept the quota system whereby the number of Black students had to be limited in order to retain a subsidy.  Although the school never adhered to the quota, the State never stopped the subsidy, fearing, one believes, the political embarassment that may have resulted.

Because of its educational and political role in the 1980’s, the school was favoured by many of the exiles after the unbanning of the ANC in 1990.  Also, teachers from the school were invited by the ANC to assist with the closing down of the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Tanzania and the assessment and relocation of those learners to South African schools.  Because such large numbers were involved, Brother Neil McGurk immediately set about transforming the Yeoville satellite campus into a Community school that would be available to the returning exiles and the broader Yeoville community.

This development, coupled with the large expansion of the College in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, led to extensive building at the school.  New classrooms, a community hall with indoor sports facilities, a new Art, Design and Technology centre and various other extensions ensured that the college was able to continue providing a high quality of education both academically and in the fields of sport and other extra-murals.

Because of his commitment to education in a broader sense, Brother Neil, has always played a role in the broader politics of education.  Thus the school was also actively involved in a range of other educational initiatives, such as helping to rescue the threatened White Johannesburg Girls’ School in Hillbrow by transforming it into a non-racial co-educational school accommodating the changing demographics of the area.  It was also a founder member of the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) when the Joint Matriculation Board closed in the late 1980’s.

Brother Neil McGurk became increasingly involved in a project of upliftment for schools in KwaZulu Natal and started to work full time for the Sacred Heart Research and Development Fund.

So, what does Sacred Heart College look like today?  The school consists of 1100 learners from Pre-Primary School to Grade 12.  It has approximately 35% White pupils, 40% African pupils and 25% Indian or Coloured pupils.  It is still the school of choice for many of our national and provincial government ministers, MP’s and MPL’s and a number of cabinet ministers have their children at the school.  Most of the school’s families are professional, in that both parents are teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, academics and other professionals.

Families choose to send their children to Sacred Heart College for a variety of reasons.  Some choose the school because of its co-educational nature or because a child can remain on the same campus from Pre-school to Matric.  Some attach importance to its excellent academic record.  Some are drawn by its religious affiliation and identity – it is approximately 40% Roman Catholic, 70% Christian, 20% Hindu and Muslim and approximately 10% that consider themselves religiously unaffiliated.

Its unique characteristic, however, is its representation of the mosaic we call “The South African rainbow nation”.  Its Feast Day will be celebrated as a Roman Catholic Mass in which all children, whatever their religious affiliation, will participate, and yet it will also celebrate the Hindu “Festival of Lights”, again attended by all, where some of the Hindu children will form ritualistic and sacramental Hindu dancing within the sanctuary of the Catholic chapel.  It operates on values of tolerance and respect.  Friends and Matric Dance partners are selected without regard to race.  It is an educational experience that is based on the values of the gospel, of respect, of open dialogue, of critical reflection, of justice and fairness, of promoting peace and respect for one another.

One doubts that the good Brothers of 1889 foresaw all these changes, but it is likely that they would be pleased and proud if they could see the school today.