South Africa: Madibane High School, 80 Years On

The high school in Diepkloof, Soweto, has survived countless apartheid laws, an eviction, relocations and the student uprising of 1976 during its 80 years of existence. Will it keep standing?

Eighty years ago, the Johannesburg Bantu School was founded in Sophiatown. This was 1939, some years before the formal enactment of apartheid and its subsequent laws.

Then came apartheid as law in 1948, followed by the Group Areas Act two years later, making possible the eviction of people from Sophiatown and, by extension, the school. In this intervening, chaotic period, the school experienced relocations and name changes until, in 1960, it moved permanently to Diepkloof, Soweto. There it became Madibane High School, named in honour of Harry Percival Madibane, the founding principal.

In its formative years, the school gained a reputation for producing top results and began to attract students throughout the Rand area (now Gauteng). It was the go-to school and carries in its student lineage some of South Africa's most prominent members of society from the spheres of sports, law, education, television, media, business, religion, medicine and politics. It's an admirable list, fascinating in part and laden with tales of inspirational achievement.

From the main road, one can hardly spot the school; not at first glance at least. Nothing hints, by way of signage, that you are about to enter an educational institution with so rich a history. There it stands, like an understatement, resembling something fragmented and forlorn, with no sign of its glorious past.

Always returning

Anglican cleric and human rights activist Desmond Tutu began his schooling at Madibane in 1945. It was at the school that he met English bishop Trevor Huddleston who, with others, used to hold daily assembly devotions. Although having missed a portion of his studies through illness, Madibane allowed Tutu to sit for his Joint Matriculation Board examination in 1950. He passed and followed in the footsteps of his father by going on to do a teacher's diploma. Tutu came full circle when he returned to Madibane High School as a teacher in 1955.

Matriculation, for most Madibane pupils, did not mean the end. They always returned. It was the culture. They went away to college and came back as teachers. And former learners who did not pursue teaching held the tenacious notion that their children should attend their alma mater.

Mme Matabane is one such former learner. She matriculated in 1973, then came back two years later to teach while student protests were going on in Soweto and other parts of the country. She recalls her time at the school with nostalgic fondness, regaling anyone around with tales of the past, slipping between bouts of glee and sadness. She bemoans what the school has become. But then she switches and bubbles out the names of her erstwhile peers and colleagues and what they have all achieved.

The pride is evident in her facial expressions when she speaks about the matric results of her times. "The school always ranked amongst those that produced excellent pass rates, keeping up with tradition instilled from its inception," says Matabane. She remembers the top pupil in Soweto in 1983, Abram Modingoana. "He was given a study bursary by Soweto businessman and philanthropist Godfrey Moloi."

Last year marked 50 years since Matabane first came to Madibane as a learner. She has been through it all, and is serving the school today, albeit in a voluntary capacity. There is a picture of her in the school's 1939-1982 yearbook. In it, she is surrounded by learners in the library she helped run.

She wore many other hats, too. She taught English, was a netball coach and helped run the library. She sings the praises of a Mr G Kandugure of Zimbabwean origin, who was at the helm as principal from the late 1970s through to the 1980s. The school operated an independent labyrinth of a system. For example, way before the 11 languages of South Africa were officially recognised, they were being taught at Madibane High.

There were heads of departments, too. Matabane recalls with affection one zealous Mr P Direko, who was the head of languages. The school functioned as if there was full governmental support, as if it had all the necessary tools at its disposal and as if the Bantu Education Act did not apply. The National Party government allocated too scant a budget to black schools, but Madibane strived anyway. Learner enrolment continued to increase, reaching nearly 1 700 at one point, all of them overseen by about 40 teachers.

Site of struggle against apartheid

Madibane High School was a sort of defiant statement against the act. Teachers, for example, came from as far away as Ghana. The point was to fully develop learners in all aspects, even if it meant crossing oceans to find teachers up to the task. There were plenty of extracurricular activities, too: cultural, environmental, musical, debate committees and sports. The teachers readily participated even though they were not remunerated for it. It was a culture they believed in and saw as part of the fabric of the school.

Ten years ago, Matabane, other retired teachers and former learners formed an anniversary committee. The school celebrated its 70th anniversary, but nothing of the sort has happened at this 80-year juncture. This may be a missed opportunity to pass on the history to the new cohort of learners.

Just like most high schools in Soweto, Madibane learners were involved in the 1976 uprisings. There is a monument on the premises in honour of those from the school who were part of the protests. Among the learners, there was Abel Lebelo, Joy Rabotapi, Trofomo Sono and Matthews Mabelane. They faced arrest in clashes with the apartheid regime police. Mabelane was killed at the infamous John Vorster Square police station, the police claiming that he fell to his death from the high-rise building. The recent inquiry into the death of Ahmed Timol brings into question such a claim.

A little distance from Madibane High, near the Diepkloof Square Mall, lies an enclosed bronze mural and a wall monument with pictures constructed by acclaimed sculptor Pitika Ntuli. It honours three uMkontho weSizwe members known as the Silverton Trio. The three - Humphrey Makhubo, Stephen Mafoko and Wilfred Madela - are former pupils of Madibane High School.

On 25 January 1980, the police intercepted them while they were on their way to sabotage a petrol depot in Waltoo, Pretoria. In the ensuing attempt to escape, they took siege of a Volkskas Bank in Silverton, Pretoria, where they held about 25 civilians hostage. Their planned mission was in retaliation to the hanging execution of Solomon Mahlangu, an uMkhonto weSizwe cadre. Mahlangu had been sentenced to death by hanging on 2 March 1978 and two courts turned down two subsequent appeals of his sentence.

Coincidentally, Ntuli knew the trio as they had been arrested together in what was then Swaziland at some point. But he only came to be aware of this when he was busy with the project and doing research. The monument, which was erected in 2013, is something of a wonder to those who live around Madibane High School. They have no idea of its significance, nor do they know that the photographs displayed are those of members of their community.

Alumni to boast about

The prominence of football in black schools and its importance as an escape for township folk is a story rarely told. It enjoys a huge following because, for a long time, there was no alternative. In its zenith, in the 1970s through to the 1980s, Madibane High School tried its hand at other sporting codes such as softball, boxing, athletics and netball. It was in football, however, that it excelled, recording numerous victories in many tournaments. At one point, the Madibane High football team represented South Africa in Peru in a world schools tournament.

The professional footballing outfits of Soweto, Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs lingered not far from this milieu of school football, often luring players to their setups. From the Madibane High School ranks, there emerged a player in Ratha Mokgoatlheng, who ultimately turned out for Orlando Pirates and thereafter, in a controversial move and something considered a travesty then, went on to ply his trade for Kaizer Chiefs. Today, Mokgoatlheng is a judge at the Johannesburg high court.

Mokgoatlheng stood out, not only as a deadly striker who banged in the goals but for playing wearing his spectacles. Mokgoatlheng's journey followed a trajectory of determination as he juggled his law studies at the same time he played for Kaizer Chiefs, much in the resolute spirit of his peers at Madibane High School.

When the credits rolled on television dramas in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Abe Pitse's name routinely featured. In those times, as he dabbled with writing and producing these epic dramas, he was a teacher at Madibane. These stories, such as Matswakabele, are classics and the excitement they prompt when playing on the SABC Encore channel on DStv attest to this.

Many other Madibane learners ended up in front of the camera. In the aforementioned yearbook, a picture from 1982 shows Nomsa Nene and Peter Sephuma rehearsing a Shakespeare play. Both went on to have highly commendable television careers.

Madibane High School also produced prominent figures in literature, poetry and music. On 12 January 2018, the Market Theatre hosted the memorial service of Keorapetse Kgositsile, South Africa's first poet laureate. One of the speakers at the memorial was Jonas Gwangwa, an accomplished musician. He spoke reverently of his departed friend and former schoolmate at Madibane. Before he and his band gave a musical rendition, he delivered a doting account of their time at the school and how they shared a desk till matric days and how exile separated them.

Then there was Can Themba

A name often missing when former Madibane teachers are mentioned is that of Can Themba. Before he emigrated to then Swaziland in the 1960s, the adulated writer and journalist was a teacher at Madibane High School.

Themba obtained his teaching diploma from Fort Hare University, which had a not too dissimilar ethos to that of Madibane High School. He would later on, while working for Drum magazine, hire Stan Motjuwadi, his former Madibane pupil.

In those times, the Drum newsroom was filled with the likes of E'skia Mphahlele, Bessie Head, Lewis Nkosi and Nat Nakasa. Themba would die in Manzini in Swaziland in 1968.

Still going strong

Lehlohonolo Molefe is now the principal of the school and has, against all odds, been trying to bring some semblance of worthiness to the matric results. In 2016, the school was among those that received a 100% pass rate in the country. The provincial education department acknowledged this, with Gauteng member of the executive council Panyaza Lesufi visiting the school to celebrate the achievement. There has been consistency, too, with the pass being above 90% in other years.

Madibane High School's history has many chapters that are untold, unknown and not celebrated. The likes of Matabane are playing their part, not only in the telling of so important and so rich a history, but also in making sure that the school remains relevant and functional in keeping with its legacy.

In moving forward to forge new chapters, the old ones need to be understood for what they represented and to recognise how the school managed to churn out so many important people in Soweto and the country as a whole.

Correction, 16 March 2020: Nelly Matabane matriculated from Madibane in 1973, not 1974 as previously stated.

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