Statistician-general Dr Pali Lehohla
My tiny village of Qibing in Lesotho, where I was born and bred, had an economy that was driven by peasant agrarian production on the one hand and on the other by large scale migrant labour to South African railways, mines and clothing manufacturers.

There was also a school, Sermon Primary, which was established by the French missionaries. My mother and father taught at that school and all my siblings and I were taught at Hermon Primary and Higher Primary School and we had the strange pleasure of being pupils and children.

The architecture of the school resembled, as I realised 40 years later, on my maiden visit to Paris, that of the French. Not an interesting finding, obvious. Not so obvious though when you reconnect.

In the last three months of the year migrant labourers from all persuasions converged back home with goodies from Gauteng. No sooner had they continued to stream in than the schools closed and the festive mood was in full swing.

Over this period, the celebratory mood is accompanied by harvesting of wheat.

In song, unison and clockwork, the wheat will be mowed by columns of men followed by women who will be bundling the handfuls of wheat stalks into bushels.

These columns will be followed by girls and boys collecting the bushels to a three-man team piling the bushels into a rectangular base ending up with a prism. How is that for the study of geometry?

The design would protect the wheat from soaking in rain when the rain downpours come. The whole work party activity, Letsema, is punctuated with two breaks of eating and consumption of alcohol by elders and sour porridge, exa, sweet aid and ginger beer by children.

Pyramid

Within days the harvest will be moved from the fields to the village on ox wagons where it is again piled in rectangular base structures with a pyramid. By the second week of December the combine harvester from Wepener farms in South Africa will be going from house to house through the village to thrash the wheat.

By Christmas all households have their harvest in 180kg bags, some have gone to Jammersdrift for flour milling, and suddenly home baked white bread galore and the villagers would be content and ready for the new year.

From time to time at the end of mowing the wheat, a household would host the after-work party called a Moroko function.

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The function in the main is about celebrating the mowing activity and is accompanied by dancing by men as they lubricate their system with the consumption of sorghum beer.

As the minutes tick and hours pass the ructions may begin and suddenly men are on to stick fighting with sickles being part of the artillery and blood flows.

Such occasion was between the chief of the village, Ntsepe Masoetsa, a giant standing at above six foot tall and a veteran of World War II, and one known stick, spear and knife fighter who almost lost his lower lip from a knife fight during his sojourn in the factories of South Africa, Benoni Teele. The village called him Seshemo, because of the asymmetrical lower lip.

They were angry, had all spears drawn, ready for any eventuality. Old Mrs Teele, mother to Benoni, wailed with anxiety and I am told my mother, a respected school teacher, Ms Masekake, marched straight and stood between the spears, tongue lashed them and finally instructed them to drop their spears. They did so instantly to the relief of the village.

This was the power the teaching profession commanded, the power women commanded.

I witnessed only one of those traumatising instances more than a decade later and my mother had passed on four years earlier in 1964.

In 1968 old Makhala’s grey hair was soaked in blood from Benoni Teele’s spear and Mohapi Makhala’s younger brother had disappeared down the alley and he could not help his brother. It was traumatising and a bloody harrowing experience. No-one died though.

The story of Benoni Teele is an instructive one, he commanded terror. You would be so unlucky should your donkeys stray into his yard.

He was known to be ready with his spear to kill any livestock that disturbed the peace of his yard. But he was also terror to his family. So often you would hear screams as he terrorised his family with a spear. What is striking about his legacy was the demand for inheritance from his mother.

Old Ma Teele only had a rondavel to her name. Her son Benoni, would pull out bags of wheat, tear them apart with his spear in traumatising anger demanding inheritance from his mother. In wisdom his mother said “that which you are tearing apart and mixing with sand, the harvest and wheat, are inheritance Benoni”. In anger Benoni would tear more, demanding inheritance. His mother passed on.

On one such night of rage, in the winter of 1969, Benoni arrived home terrorising everyone with spears and all, the children tried to hide themselves in the chimney . He was not relenting as he went for them. His son, a well built and good stone and stick fighter could no longer stand the perpetual terror his mother and siblings went through. He entered the fray and stoned his father. There was a lull and silence in the dark. The wife and children wailed and we were all traumatised from our homes.

Bleeding

Chief Ntsepe Masoetsa minutes after learning of this was on his way and found Benoni bleeding. He asked Benoni “what is the problem?”

Benoni answered: “It is the children chief.” “What about them” the chief probed. “They are full of shit my chief” and with those words Benoni passed on, leaving the entire village traumatised, especially us children who were just about ten and younger.

But also terrorised by this was old Sema Morebotsane, who came crying, saying to my father, if death could take Benoni, it should be on its way to taking the rest. Old Mosesi on the other hand learning of the news went around the village singing and crowing himself to be the should-be-most feared in the village now that Benoni was gone.

What is the moral of this experience?

Often I find my beautiful South Africa behaving like Benoni. The question is what will its fate be? The impact of our conduct at the National Education Crisis Convention this past Saturday was so profound and replayed in an instance, my experience of five decades back.

Justice Dikgang Moseneke and his co-conveners continue, like my mother who stopped spear brandishing men from killing each other, to lead and they should steer us towards a solution.

But like my mother who was not always there to demand and keep the peace, the chief of the village, Ntsepe Masoetsa, witnessed one of his subjects Benoni Teele die at the hands of his own son.

The question, therefore, is whether Justice Moseneke and his team will always be there? And when they are gone who will be there to protect the candle of the nation, education, from being extinguished?

Our behaviour is a mirror showing this horrifying plot and prospect unfold in front of our own eyes. More horrifying are the statistics that show the deep crisis of education.

Dr Pali Lehohla is South Africa’s Statistician-General and Head of Statistics South Africa.

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