Speaking notes for Acting Public Protector Adv. Kholeka Gcaleka during Nelson Mandela International Day activities at Morris Isaacson High School in Jabavu, Soweto on July 18, 2022
Representative of the United States, Tanzania and British Embassies;
Leadership of the Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke Institute;
Principal and Teachers of Morris Isaacson High School;
The National Youth Development Agency team;
Other youth formations present;
Learners of Morris Isaacson High School;
I bring you warm greetings from the Public Protector South Africa (PPSA).
It is indeed a great honour and privilege for the team and I to be here this morning. Our assembly could be characterised as a people tracing the footsteps of our first post-apartheid President, the iconic Nelson Mandela, in more ways than one.
In the first instance, we join the rest of the world in observing what the countries of the world, under the banner of the United Nations General Assembly, declared in 2009, the Nelson Mandela International Day.
This was in recognition of Madiba’s “values and his dedication to the service of humanity in: conflict resolution; race relations; promotion and protection of human rights; reconciliation; gender equality and the rights of children and other vulnerable groups; the fight against poverty; [and] the promotion of social justice”.
As we observe this day, the 104th anniversary of his birth in rural Mvezo near Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, we align ourselves with the focus for this year’s commemoration to promote community and home-based gardens.
The aim is to support fruit and indigenous tree-planting, thereby drawing the world’s attention to the nexus between the important matters of food security and climate change.
As this year’s theme goes, we are here effectively to show commitment to: “Do what [we] can, with what [we] have, where [we] are.”
Second, in making our way here this morning, we walked the path Madiba strode in 1993 when he visited this school. The visit was an important acknowledgement of the place of this facility in South Africa’s painful liberation struggle history, which is well documented.
This school was christened Morris Isaacson High after another icon, Mr Morris Isaacson, a Jewish man, who arrived on these shores circa 1896 from Lithuania in the Baltic region of Europe.
Starting his new life in South Africa as an immigrant, Mr Isaacson worked hard and went on to make a name for himself as a distinguished trade unionist, a hotelier and humanitarian.
At the height of the apartheid regime’s provision of inferior education for black people under the Bantu Education Act of 1953, Mr Isaacson pushed back against the oppression of the black majority by those who looked like him not just in words but in deeds too. Needless to say, this was back when it was not fashionable for people of European descent to do so.
For instance, he played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Mavis Isaacson Hall, not far from here in Moroka. Mavis was his wife. The hall served as a day-care for working mothers in Soweto. Notably, Mr Isaacson granted many black students bursaries through the Morris Isaacson Foundation.
But his name tends to be invoked more often in reference to this hallowed institution, Morris Isaacson High. This is because it was among the epicentres of the June 16, 1976 Soweto Uprisings, which altered the course of this country’s rebellion against the apartheid administration – the inspiration for Madiba’s visit a year in the run-up to the April 27, 1994 breakthrough.
Moreover, this school is known all over the world for having produced martyrs such as Tsietsi Mashinini. It will certainly be remembered for decades to come for having had a martyred teacher of Abram Onkgopotse Tiro’s calibre.
Isn’t it interesting that the school first opened its doors initially as Mohloding in the watershed year of 1956? As you are all aware, that is the year during which some 20 000 strong-willed women took the fight to the doorstep of raw apartheid state power, marching on the Union Buildings against pass laws!
Incidentally, when Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, among others, led than historic march, they were following in the footsteps of yet another icon, Charlotte Mannya Maxeke.
It is a well-established fact that Ms Maxeke herself helped organize the original anti-pass demonstration in Bloemfontein 43 years earlier in 1913, leading a delegation of women to go discuss pass laws with Prime Minister Louis Botha.
This move paved the way for her involvement in the founding of the Women’s League of the modern day governing party of South Africa in 1918, and rising to become its inaugural President.
Early this year, I spoke at the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development’s commemoration of International Women’s Day and reflected on the formidable force that Ms Maxeke was and her character as the embodiment of the value of education.
Not only was she a teacher, social worker and politician, she was South Africa’s first black woman graduate, having obtained a BSc Degree at African American-run Wilberforce University in Ohio, United States in 1901. Along with her husband, she also established a school in Evaton, in the Vaal.
Like Mr Isaacson, Ms Maxeke was clearly passionate about the education of black people. This is best demonstrated in a message she conveyed to her hosts in England, where she was on a visit in 1893, as she was preparing to travel back to South Africa. It reads, in part:
“Help us to found the schools for which we pray, where our people could learn to labour, to build, to acquire your skills with their hands. Then we could be sufficient unto ourselves. Our young men would build us houses and lay out our farms and our tribes would develop independently of the civilisation and industries which you have given us. Thirdly give our children free education.”
This message, which is as relevant today as it was 129 years ago, brings me to what our hosts, the Charlotte Mannya Maxeke Institute, which was set up by her close relatives to preserve her legacy, asked me to speak briefly on this morning. The good people at the institute said I should motivate the learners here on issues of leadership, education, choosing the correct career path and staying committed to schooling.
For leadership traits, I encourage you all to look no further than all the icons I have referred to this morning. That is Madiba for his compassionate, forgiving, reconciliatory and courageous guidance of a people split along deep racial lines; Mr Morris Isaacson for his belief in justice and equal opportunity for all and Ms Maxeke for her pioneering spirit and drive to overcome untold barriers while fighting for the emancipation of her own kind.
What of education and career-pathing? I find that encouraging young people to stay in class for better prospects at a time – when information at their fingertips, on smart phones and other devices, suggests that this is probably the worst time to be young in South Africa – is a hell of a daunting task.
According to Statistics South Africa, the unemployment rate among young people of ages 15 to 24 sits at 63.9 percent. Of those aged 25 to 34, the rate of joblessness is 42.1 percent.
The statistics authority said last month that only 2.5million of the country’s 10 million young people in the 15 to 24 age bracket are in labour force, meaning they are either employed or not.
The rest of them are outside the labour force or inactive. This means the latter group is inactive because they are “discouraged”. In other words, they have given up on finding jobs that suit the skillsets they possess.
Incidentally, the government has declared 2022 “The Year of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke: Growing Youth Employment for an Inclusive and Transformed Society”.
Anyhow, what does one say to cheer and reassure learners that education remains their best bet out of poverty when the future looks as bleak as it does, with many on the unemployment queue carrying university degree certificates?
I think the answer lies in what Tata Mandela says about the worth of education, which entails staying in school, arriving on time for classes, doing your homework, dedicating time for studying when not at school and being obedient to your teachers. He says:
“Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mine worker can become the head of the mine; that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation.”
Even in the darkest days of his life when he served a lengthy jail term with no prospects of freedom, something we can compare to the dark days of high unemployment among young people with no end in sight, Madiba was still studying.
In his world-acclaimed autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he writes beautifully about how self-development and learning was the one thing that kept him and fellow prisoners going on Robben Island. He writes:
“At night, our cell block seemed more like a study hall than a prison… Robben Island was known as ‘the University’ […] because of what we learnt from each other”.
And so, my children, education is all you have. With education, you will have the best shot at bettering yours and loved ones’ lives. Above all else, educated, you will have the best shot at freeing your own potential.
In keeping with the theme, the PPSA team and I have brought with us two small avocado trees for replanting in your garden and some garden implements, which we will use shortly and leave behind for the learners’ use.
I call on the learners to take care of the trees. More than a month from now, we will observe Arbor Week, which, according to the government, is a “symbolic gesture of sustainable environmental management” and an opportune time to plant trees.
According to Food and Trees for Africa, one of the leading Not-For-Profit Organisations with interest in food security, environmental sustainability, and greening, which has planted 4.6million trees over 30 years in homes and communities around the country, trees make communities and ecosystems more resilient to climate change. The organisation’s website reads, in part:
“Trees are the unsung heroes in the fight against climate change. Not only do they pull carbon out of the atmosphere, but they also help communities and ecosystems adapt to extreme weather events and a hotter planet. They slow flood waters, reduce temperatures in urban areas, and make people healthier and happier.”
In some cultures, farfetched as it may seem, it is believed trees represent life and growth. According to these beliefs, trees are representative of life, wisdom, power and prosperity. In fact, one writer has gone as far as to suggest that there are philosophers who regard trees as “observers witnessing the evolution of humans and the planet around them”.
We will therefore plant these two Avocado trees today. To the learners, whether they represent life, wisdom, power or prosperity to you, please water and take good care of them just like your teachers nurture and guide you. Like the watering of these plants, may your nurturing come to fruition in the future for the benefit of your communities and your country.