Interview: Leepile Taunyane

Alex | Oct 02, 2009
"Alexandra has always been my home - I was a small boy there in the early 1930s and I am still living there today."

You have been President of the Transvaal United African Teachers' Association - TUATA - for more than 20 years now and also of the National Association of Professional Teachers' Organisations of South Africa. You are also Chairman of the National Soccer League and of the Premier League, but perhaps your strongest association has been with Alexandra. Were you born there?

No, I wasn't although I used to say I was. My parents came originally from the Free State but, you see, under apartheid you didn't dare say that you were born in the Free State because then if you incurred the displeasure of the law on any matter they would endorse you out and send you back to the Free State. So you always said you were born in Johannesburg. In fact, Alexandra has always been my home -1 was a small boy there in the early 1930s and Iam still living there today. It has been the great constant theme in my life.

Alexandra must have changed a great deal - and not for the better.

There has been a great deterioration there due to overcrowding - it is sad. It is really just a small community, you know, of about one square mile. In the old days, no one ever went without food or work because neighbours would help you if you were hungry, and they would also help you find jobs. There was enormous support and warmth. Today/ the overcrowding has brought great stress on schools, health conditions and housing, and perhaps above all it has destroyed the close relationships of that small community of old. But Istill live there and I am devoted to the place.

Your parents were migrants to Egoli?

Yes, my father was a caretaker in Sydenham and my mother worked as a domestic. My parents worked dreadfully hard and they saved to buy a little house in Alexandra. My father used to say that his job was like a load of coal being carried on his back and that his great ambition was that Ishould not have to do the same work that he did. My parents were determined that their children should have better lives than they did. My father used to say "you go to school in order to be better than I am". The fact is we went to school in a spirit of survival. The possibilities then were limited for Africans. If you succeeded at school you might become a policeman, a nurse, a teacher or a minister. That was about it. But there was a tremendous competitive feeling, quite a rat race. If you didn't get a matric you knew you were doomed to a menial job and you would walk the streets, so competition was razor sharp. The spirit in which children approached education in those days was very different from today.

Life must have been pretty hard then. You were born in 1928 and so you were growing up in the Depression.

Yes, it was hard. My parents had eight children, but by the time my father died in I 946 only three of the children were still alive. I had gone to school in Alexandra up to junior certificate and then I went to Orlando High. But when my father died I had to leave school, and I went to work on Western Reefs Mine because my mother needed support and I was helping to pay off the bond on my parents' house. Had my father lived, I would have tried to become a doctor or lawyer, but his death put an end to such hopes. I worked for a year on the mine but my sister Anna - she is now dead too - insisted that I went back to school, since she knew that that was what my father had wanted. So I went back and got my matric at Orlando High in 1950.

And then what?

Well, I went to do a teaching diploma at Bethesda Training College, north of Petersburg. I have always been a Methodist but this was a DRC mission. There were many mission institutions in those days and it is sad that they have gone. After that, I taught for a year at a primary school in Northern Transvaal. Teaching was then such a noble job, and the community really welcomed you as a teacher and were keen to have fresh ideas and stimulus. At the end of that year, I went back to Alex to be with my mother. But I was also very badly paid as a teacher and so I took a job in the construction industry, where I got to know the two men who formed the Longtill company. It was quite ironic, given my later struggles in Alexandra, that Longtill were responsible for building many of the large townships and some are still called after them. There is a section of Mamelodi, for example, which is still called Longtill.

Then you went on to Fort Hare?

Yes, I went there in 1955 to do a BA in systematic theology and biblical studies. Later I was to do a Unisa degree in education and sociology as well.

Fort Hare at that time was bubbling with political discussion and interest, but it was a tolerant place and there was always a sense of moderation and independence of thought.

There was no pressure on anyone to belong to any party or group. In my year, we were very conscious of the previous giants who had been at Fort Hare just before us - Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Robert Mugabe had left quite an aura behind them. My friends and I were very strong sympathisers with the ANC Youth League. There had been a big strike at Fort Hare in 1955 and a commission of enquiry was set up under Edgar Brookes. He was a fine man and the trouble was sorted out without difficulty.

Of course Nelson Mandela had been a leader of the ANC Youth League. Did you have any contact with him?

Oh yes. I knew Nelson in the 1950s. My mother-in-law was a street hawker and the police used to arrest and harass people like her. Nelson as a young lawyer would represent the arrested hawkers. I would go to court, and there I met him and got to know him. Also, when I was at Fort Hare my fees were paid by the Anglo American Corporation, and I used to work for Anglo during the vac. Nelson had an uncle who worked there too, and through that uncle I met him again on a more social basis. When he came out of jail in 1990 I was one of the first people he sent for. He told me that he had been following my career in education from the press and wanted to encourage me to continue with my efforts.

Did you carry your political leanings into your educational career?

No, certainly not. It has always been essential that a teacher should show no sign of partisan affiliation. After all, you are going to have children of all kinds in the school whose parents will have different affiliations, and it would be quite wrong and also counterproductive for a teacher to take a political line. When I finished at Fort Hare I went straight back to Alex, where I taught in Alexandra Secondary School. This school had been founded in 1939 by Reverend Mabiletsa and his son, the first graduate from Alex, became principal of this school. When I got to the school, two headmasters had had to be removed in the course of the year, both of them following financial regularities. My colleagues then chose me to be the acting principal and the inspector confirmed this, so that in only my second year at the school I became the principal.

The school was growing and we did a deal with the department of education to rearrange the budget in such a way that we were able to build a 12 classroom school. We got good results and there was strong parental support and a great sense of community involvement. The only problem was that the school remained a junior secondary school, so that to complete their matric the children needed to move away as far as Orlando High School. The reason for this was not educational but because the government did not want the school to become a high school. They wanted to remove families from Alex and turn Alex into a hostel city. There was a plan to build eight huge hostels: five for men and three for women, and the idea was to move families out.

This must have been a major crisis for you?

Yes, it was dreadful. There was no local government so my friends and I set up the Alexandra Liaison Committee to negotiate with the Peri-Urban Areas Health Board, and invited all political parties to help us. Helen Suzman helped us a lot. We were negotiating for two things: the first was to stop the hostel building programme which, we knew, would have a dreadful effect on the established community there. Secondly, we wanted to stop Alex from being disestablished as a family based community and stop the out-movement of families. We chose a DRC Minister, SP Buti, as chairman of the committee because we hoped the government would listen more to someone from that church. We worked and worked to reprieve Alex, to fight for its life, if you like. We got the most terrible harassment from the Special Branch - they just could not understand that people would fight so hard for their community.

Of course, in those days, Sandton was hardly in existence.

That's right. White settlement stopped at Highlands Park and there were no white houses nearby at all. It was an immensely long battle, which in the end we won in 1976 after 13 years of struggle. They had built three hostels but that was all. The government still wanted to reduce the population of Alex, but from then on the agreement was that it would be by voluntary migration only.

Now these were also years of great political conflict, the banning of the ANC and PAC, the beginning of sabotage and of great repression. But you seem to lave devoted yourself far more to non-political institutions.

Yes, that's right For me, the struggle for education and the struggle to help the community and one's own family were paramount. The thing that I so bitterly resisted at Alex was the way in which to get rid of the families the government tried to take away houses from people like my mother, who had worked so hard to own them. It was absolutely wicked - they bought them for a song. But I continued as principal of Alex Secondary School until 1975, when I was transferred to Katlehong High School - here again the idea was to transfer all teachers out of Alex as part of the dismembering of Alex. I stayed then as Principal at Katlehong until my retirement in 1993.

But didn't this mean that when more violent and radical protest began in the 1980s people like you, who were taking a more tolerant line, were regarded as sell outs by the comrades ?

Yes. By 1985 the Alex Liaison Committee had become persona non grata despite our role in winning a reprieve for the community and although we had always refused to have an Urban Bantu Council. When we realised that what was wanted was for all of us to resign, we said very well, if that is what people want, we will.

Did you also have difficulty with your pupils in this period?

No, never. I was always forthright and explained my position fully. Those were indeed difficult times, times of political madness. But somehow I always survived, though I often went home and shuddered and said to myself, how do I find the courage to say things like that? Throughout the period, what I insisted on was that we must always try to get people to discuss their points of view, to argue, to debate in a rational and moderate manner. I had to avoid taking any sort of position. I am an educationist and that is what that means.

What do you think of the rise of SADTU ?

Well, it's a very interesting development - a teachers' union directly affiliated to Cosatu and to a political party. It is certainly a different tradition from mine. You know, many teachers lost their lives in the 1980s when they were killed by school children, sometimes as a result of their own political partisanship - and it is very hard to hide these things. I always advised young teachers to keep their opinions to themselves. Similarly, when the Natal African Teachers' Union decided to affiliate to Inkatha, we in ATASA, the African Teachers' Association of South Africa, advised them not to do so on the same grounds - and in the end they pulled out. The thing that must be remembered is that governments and political parties come and go but education has to go on. Teachers should not be affiliated to political parties, and education is a higher value than any particular political programme. But, at the same time, individual liberty is vital. People must do what they want.

Do you not feel that some of these values have been lost nowadays?

Yes, I do. And yet today's needs are greater. Yesterday, we were breaking down walls, now we have to build them. We have to go from defiance to development. A whole new attitude is required and while individuals only make such changes gradually, time is meanwhile being lost. We are having to wait for people to make these individual changes when there's no time to lose, for the pace of change needs to be redoubled.

Do you think some of the plans for education are too ambitious?

Well, in a way, yes. Education is not a 100 metre sprint, it's a marathon. So, if you want to see proper change in 10 years, you have to act now. We cannot afford to be impatient. I am worried that impatience through lack of delivery or through lack of proper planning could erode the present atmosphere of goodwill. I also think it is crazy that teachers are leaving the profession now at a time that we really need them. The government says it doesn't have enough money, but it is very difficult to think of any area that is more important than education. They should make the cuts elsewhere.

Do you feel that the young graduates of today have the same values as you?

No. They don't develop themselves to the best of their abilities in the same way that we did, and they don't seem to have the same sense of community. In my days, our parents were all nobodies and education provided our only chance to rise above our circumstances. So we all worked hard. Today's students have far more parental support and more money behind them than we did, but they seem to feel that life should not deny them whatever they want and their approach is often rather slapdash.

Do you think things have got to get worse before they get better?

We're there already. The most hopeful thing to me is that in some cases parents are rising up in order to get teachers to do their jobs and really teach. We really need strong and forceful parents' associations, ones which really represent parents. We don't want parents' associations to be taken over by outside bodies or parties.

When I hear you talk, it's like hearing Mandela. It seems to me both you and he are more literate and articulate in the way you speak than many more recent graduates. Do you feel standards have fallen?

Yes. I don't think today's students are really working as hard as we did, and nor are they as articulate. You know, when I was doing standard eight, we had a teacher who taught us Macbeth. He would tell us, 'What I want you to learn is not just a play but the language of Shakespeare, and to do that you have to learn long passages by heart'. So I did, and today I can still recite them. They are part of my mental furniture. This wasn't easy for a poor child from a large family with parents who were not educated. I don't know whether the saying has any meaning for you, but we were always told that we had to work hard enough so that when you are emerge you are worth the price of the shoes you are standing in.

And all this time you were involved in soccer?

Yes, I have always loved soccer. I first wore the number six and then the number two shirt, and from early on I was involved in soccer administration. All my life I have loved the game - and have always followed the British soccer scene too.

When did you stop playing?

I played for the Alexandra school team until 1974.

At age 46 you were still playing in the school team?

Yes, and I only stopped because the boys mutinied and kicked me out. They said that if I was playing, I always stopped them from protesting to the referee and I would stop fights on the pitch and generally intervene too much. But I have carried on with soccer administration because soccer means a lot to the community and it was very poorly organised. In that sense, soccer administration offered a great opportunity to do community service.

How on earth did you manage all this - with soccer, soccer administration, running the Alex Liaison Committee and being a full-time teacher as well as being heavily involved in a whole series of teachers' organisations?

You are leaving out the fact that I am also married with five children! My life has been one in which the main thing has been to work hard, help your family, and serve the community. If ever I was criticised, all I could say is that I have always remained in areas where I could serve the community. Those are the things that are really important to me.