Triumph of the human spirit

Prof. Jonathan Jansen (pic courtesy Timeslive)

Written by Jonathan Jansen

The wrinkled old man addressing the captains of finance and insurance on the shiny upper floors of Alexander Forbes in Sandton was not supposed to be there.

He is the fellow who rises early in the morning to unlock the doors and to switch on the urns and the heaters in order to warm up the buildings for teachers and students at the famed Jeppe High School for Boys in Johannesburg; around midnight he locks up the school again and makes sure everything is in order at an hour when the youngsters and their educators are already tucked away in their warm beds. For some time the old man lived in the attic of the stables near a rugby field on the Jeppe grounds. So why is a school caretaker addressing the serious suits?

"This is only the beginning," says the old man at the podium with a boldness you dare not question.

"I am now planning for my PhD."

If you knew the story of the caretaker, you would be a fool to doubt that it was only a matter of time before you would have to call him Dr Martin Ledwaba.

He started as "the cleaner" at Jeppe in the early 1970s. It is the kind of language that concealed what he really did - serve as "science laboratory assistant" to the white schoolboys. The fancy title applied only to whites in the employ of the Transvaal Education Department.

But Ledwaba did not only prepare the lab materials for group work or teacher demonstrations. He was actively learning high school science as he went along. He would become the resident expert on every science experiment in the syllabus. Successive generations of boys would later testify that they passed physics and chemistry in part because of the knowledge gained from this unmatriculated cleaner doubling as an unofficial laboratory instructor.

His knowledge of science grew, as did his confidence as a teacher.

Ledwaba then decided to himself study matric biology and physical science by correspondence while doing his day job. But matric part-time was not enough. Ledwaba then pursued a formal teacher's qualification, and recently completed his National Professional Diploma in Education in the natural sciences. He is now a qualified science teacher, but decided this was not enough . The PhD beckons, and he gives the shocked suits at Alexander Forbes a wonderful fright by declaring specific dates for the achievement of the h onours, masters and doctorate. Wet lines run down the stern faces in the room.

There is a hidden history in the story of this newly minted teacher.

It is a story about black South Africans who, over the many decades of apartheid, gained great knowledge and competence in specialist fields while doing the menial work to which their race predestined them, in the thinking of their masters. Some were lucky, like Ledwaba, the science teacher. A more well-known case is that of Hamilton Naki, the gardener who turned medical assistant to heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard, and who was reputed have been exceptional in animal transplants.

Barnard himself once said of Naki that "given the opportunity, he would have been a better surgeon than me".

How many thousands more black South Africans - in nursing, medicine, law, teaching, accounting and more - learnt through observation and practice to equal and extend the competence of those privileged to carry title and recognition by virtue of their skin?

We had an interesting idea about how to deal with great learners and achievers like Ledwaba and Naki; it was a policy called "the recognition of prior learning". But this policy, instead of being a facilitative mechanism for tens of thousands of bricklayers, mechanics, engineering practitioners and more, became a huge administrative and bureaucratic barrier to those who could not enjoy formal recognition for their skills and experiences. Try it, and you will see how impossible it is for anyone to gain due recognition for prior experience.

My point is this: it is not only about pushing young people through school and university to address the social and economic skills we so urgently need for the 21st century; our task is also to recognise those among us who over decades built competencies across fields, despite the ruthlessness of job reservation and social exclusion, who can also fill the gaps in an underskilled economy.

I can think of no better demonstration of social justice than to give recognition to these incredible South Africans from the generation of our parents and grandparents.

(This story was provided and used with permission by Timeslive.)