Dr Pali Lehohla, the former Statistician General. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi
Dr Pali Lehohla, the former Statistician General. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi

The real numbers: Remembering great teachers – Especially of mathematics

By Opinion Time of article published Oct 12, 2020

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By Pali Lehohla

JOHANNESBURG - October 5 was World Teachers’ Day and was established at the dawn of South Africa’s democracy to continuously address the status of teachers.

In 1998, while launching the results of census 1996, late president Nelson Mandela veered from his prepared speech and focused on education.

Madiba said he wanted schools that were properly equipped so our children could be able to grasp sophisticated concepts. “I am 81, but I don’t know what internet means.

I can see people pressing a button, what happens after that I do not know. Now, we want to change that situation and the response of business is marvellous,” he said.

As a son of teachers who dedicated their life to the profession, I benefited for being taught by them and as an intellectual project. I have to be proud of this day, but I have to be deeply concerned about the parlous state of our education.

We cannot but take a moment to celebrate the oldest teacher in Africa if probably not in the whole world. Nontsikelelo Qwelane is a deserving candidate.

Now only two months shy of being a centenarian, Qwelane started teaching in 1940.

When I called her on Monday, she asked who I was as she was hiding from being asked to say something about her eight decades of teaching.

“I have taught everyone in South Africa and if you did not come through my hands you should be the very odd one.” Qwelane, the late Professor Thamsanqa Kambule and Frans Jenneker became friends of Statistics South Africa, and their determination to education remains a major inspiration for many yet to be born.

Kambule only started Grade 1 at the age of 11 and went on to become a great mathematician who joined an all-white maths faculty at Wits University.

He believed no child is incapable of learning mathematics.

The first step, he used to say, is to break the fear and build the confidence.

He remained active until he met his death in 2009 at the age of 88. Jenneker was forbidden by apartheid as a coloured man from teaching maths. He continued to do so secretly from his home till he met his untimely death at the age of 83 in 2006. Qwelane is the recipient of Batho Pele Award, the Presidential Baobab Award and the Presidential Mapungubwe Award for excellent service in education. She served on South Africa’s Statistics Council.

Qwelane believes that we should never give up on any child with most simply misunderstood because they are gifted differently and neglected because of their “otherness”.

In the darkest corner of Covid19 and the ubiquitous 4IR, the words of Kambule, Jenneker and Qwelane should ring loud on how we equip our children for life.

They deserve to be remembered as great teachers.

Dr Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South African and the former head of Statistics South Africa.

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