The richness that Director of International Learning Alexei du Bois brings to Hilton College is immeasurably more than his Oxford PhD and master’s in education or his work with children in Khayelitsha or Kenya. It’s in his sensitivity, affability and empathy, his heart for justice and his affinity with young people.
And his grappling with his place in a broken world.
“When I was in primary school, in a grade five history lesson, I saw a picture of my great grandfather in a textbook. I think that was when I first got a sense of how unusual my family background was,” he says about being a descendant of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid.
Alexei’s father, who was a boy when his grandfather was assassinated in 1966, started to express his distaste for apartheid when he was an adolescent, and in his time at Stellenbosch University was involved in student politics, agitating for change.
“His memories of him are of a kind, loving grandfather… And so he sits with this dichotomy,” Alexei says of his father, who went on to get a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford and never returned to South Africa until after democracy.
But it is the life experiences of his maternal grandmother that Alexei says have been seminal for him. Russian-born, she was a geologist who came from a long line of academics. After the revolution, her family lived in a tiny flat with 16 other families, sharing a single toilet and shower.
She was also a pro-democracy activist who was arrested numerous times. When Alexei’s mother was a teen, his grandmother decided the family had to flee the Soviet Russia. Using falsified papers, they left under the guise of a pilgrimage to Israel. After spending nine months living in the stairwell of a church in Florence, the family secured asylum in Canada.
In Montreal, Alexei’s mother and siblings finished high school and went to university. “My uncle got a Rhodes scholarship to go to Oxford, where he was roommates with my father, which is how my parents met.”
Alexei’s parents married and when he was 18 months old, the family moved to the UK where his father began his career as a legal academic and his mother worked as a translator.
After South Africa’s first democratic elections, his father was offered a teaching position at the University of Cape Town and in 1995, they moved to Cape Town.
“Our home was not your archetypal middle-class white home. My mother spoke to us in Russian; there was a completely different set of ideas and values and ways of thinking about the world. And her involvement as a fundraiser for UCT’s student outreach programme meant that we were immersed in community work from primary school onwards.
“From about 10 or 11 years old, I started to feel an overwhelming sense of needing to be part of a solution to help others, partly because of my family’s involvement in the oppression of others, and also because of my mother’s experiences of dislocation and poverty.”
You could say that Alexei stumbled into teaching when, in his second year of university, he was offered a learnership position at Rondebosch Boys’ (prep school). He worked there for three years and ran the school’s community engagement programme, helping develop a partnership between Rondebosch Boys and under-resourced schools in local townships.
Bosch boys would stay with a host in a township for up to two nights and attend school with the host’s children. Bosch families would in turn reciprocate. “It was one of the most meaningful experiences of my teaching career. Other staff members would join me visiting the homes of host families in, for example, Khayelitsha. It could be really rudimentary, a one-bedroom shack. Visiting these homes and seeing the generosity of such disadvantaged people was very, very moving.”
Like his father, Alexei would go on to become an Oxford scholar himself, an experience he describes as transformative. Before coming to Hilton, he taught at Peponi School in Nairobi, where he worked as director of studies. His PhD is in education for sustainable development and his master’s is in comparative and international education.
Alexei is married to Carmen and they have two daughters, Giuliana (6) and Gabriella (4). They came to Hilton in 2019.
“At Hilton, I feel like I’m part of an organization that is committed to the wellbeing of the broader community. Things like the Vula programme and the significant number of boys on some kind of financial assistance makes me feel like I’m part of a whole that is contributing to a more equitable education landscape in South Africa. Hilton has an incredibly diverse student and staff compliment and is very intentional about breaking down barriers.”