Professor Thamsanqa Kambule: Inspirational teacher who fought for high-quality black education in apartheid South Africa

It was an article of faith among many whites in apartheid South Africa that blacks were incapable of doing mathematics. Their belief was that black brains were simply not up to it. Thamsanqa Wilkinson "Wilkie" Kambule mocked the myth and gave the lie to it: he was black and a gifted mathematician; he was also an inspiring teacher who spoke with pride of several pupils who emigrated and went on to study nuclear physics, a field denied to them at home.

Kambule was the first black professor of mathematics at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. Later he was the first person to be awarded honorary membership of the Actuarial Society of South Africa; during the apartheid era he was not allowed membership.

Thamsanqa Wilkinson Kambule was born in Aliwal North in the Eastern Cape in 1921. He did not start school until he was 11 (not unusual for blacks at the time), but progressed rapidly when he went to one of the few outstanding black schools, the Anglican St Peter's in Rosettenville, Johannesburg. There, he discovered, "I knew maths was for me and I was meant for it. I became a fanatic."

After teaching in schools in Southern Africa he returned to Johannesburg to teach. In 1958 he was appointed principal of Orlando High School in Soweto. Over the next 19 years he walked the difficult and hazardous path of striving to ensure the best possible education for his pupils within the framework of "Bantu Education", the segregated and debased schooling imposed on blacks intended to perpetuate inferiority. Constantly watched and checked by government inspectors, he would laugh as he told friends how he had responded to their suspicious questions with logical answers which left them floundering. They did not understand the wry sense of humour behind the straight face.

Kambule's Orlando High achieved rare quality in black education and Kambule ensured it had facilities few black schools possessed. These included a library named after Sir Robert Birley, the former headmaster of Eton and a visiting professor in education at Witwatersrand University who took a special interest in the school.

Kambule's former pupils are spread today through the top echelons of South Africa. He used unusual methods to teach broader lessons of life. Once, while I was visiting the school, he took me into a laboratory where pupils were at work. They looked at me curiously from across the room. Kambule beckoned to one, calling out, "Hey boy, come here!" To be called "boy" as whites often did to black men was humiliating, especially in front of a stranger. The young man did not move. Kambule again called out, "Hey boy, I am telling you to come here!" The youngster reluctantly walked towards us, glaring at Kambule. As he reached us, Kambule softly said, "Since when do you come when someone calls you 'boy'?"

I have often wondered what effect the lesson had on that boy's life.

Kambule's concerns went beyond his own school: he led the Rand Bursary Fund set up by black teachers to keep pupils at school. Government funding was deliberately restricted and poverty among blacks was pervasive, so huge numbers of pupils lacked textbooks, or had to go to work to support their family. Often, a bursary amounting to the cost of a good restaurant meal was enough to ensure that a child stayed at school for another year. Kambule and his colleagues worked with the Rand Daily Mail newspaper to raise public money: for some years, more than 1,100 children a year were enabled to complete high school.

But it all came crashing down in June 1976 with the revolt by schoolchildren against government orders that various subjects, including mathematics, had to be taught in Afrikaans, rejected by blacks as the language of the oppressor. As the police shot and killed hundreds of protesting children, education in the townships fell apart. The children's slogan was: "No education without liberation." Kambule worked with other teachers to persuade pupils to resume lessons. He did not succeed: his school was damaged and the Birley library destroyed.

In 1977 he resigned, as did some 600 other teachers. He said it was futile trying to deal with the Department of Bantu Education. He took up a post teaching mathematics at Witwatersrand University. In 1988 he became head of Pace College, a private school in Soweto. It had 600 pupils, a tiny proportion of Soweto's 65,000 high school students, but was unusual because at that turbulent time, a total of only a thousand or so pupils were attending classes regularly. A report I wrote for The Independent in December 1992 recorded this searing scene at Pace:

"Tears running down her face, the girl begged: 'Please sir, let me stay at school until the end of today.' 'No,' was the reply. 'Go home and tell your parents you can't come back until they pay your fees.' The girl walked away, to join 400 other pupils also ordered home that morning..."

The stern voice belonged to the headmaster, Wilkie Kambule... "What can I do?" he kept saying. "We had 10,000 rand [£2,000] at the bank at the start of the month. At the end of the month I must pay a wages bill for the teachers of R95,000. This is a private college. Unless parents pay the R2,000 a year fee, we must close down."

With toughness like that, Kambule kept Pace going until he retired in 1996, aged 75. He then became principal of ORT Step College of Technology near Johannesburg. In 2002 the government awarded him the Order of the Baobab in Gold for his contributions to mathematics education, human development and community service. The universities of the Witwatersrand, Pretoria and Fort Hare conferred honorary doctorates on him.

Kambule's passion for mathematics continued in retirement and he taught privately at home. He had an exceptional talent: I know of a teenager whom he transformed from an F to a passing grade in one term.

Benjamin Pogrund

Thamsanqa Wilkinson Kambule, educationist: born Aliwal North, South Africa 15 January 1921; married (four sons, three daughters); died Pretoria 7 August 2009.

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