From rebel to representative
Where did you go to school?
I started at a small private primary school and then went on to Martizburg College, both in Pietermaritzburg. I matriculated from there in 1969 and then went on to study further at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg.
What did you study at university?
I did a BA majoring in English and economics.
But I did mathematics as a subject, so when I trained as a teacher, I had these three subjects as teaching subjects.
Predictably, I’ve only ever taught maths.
When did you start teaching?
In 1979. I started teaching at Maritzburg College. It probably wasn’t a clever move to go back to the school that I’d been a student at and, in fact, I only spent a year there before moving to a very small private school in Mpumalanga, Uplands Prep School in White River. I taught there for about five years. I then moved to Pinetown where I joined a teacher training college. For the next 10 years, up to 1996, I worked at the University of Natal in Durban where I was involved in teacher training.
Why did you become a teacher?
Like many teachers in the country, there was a family tradition—my mother was a teacher. I also believed at a young age that education was important and it was something that I would enjoy.
Who was your favourite teacher?
Probably the person who put me on the maths track in Standard 7, Mr Forde. He was a role model, inspirational both in terms of his practice and in terms of what the possibilities of teaching were.
Any favourite memories of school?
Certainly when it ended! I can’t say I was in any way a model student, and probably something I’ve maintained through my life is a pretty healthy disrespect for authority that sometimes pitted me against the school. Schooling was a very happy time of life overall, but most of the better memories are of what happened outside of school.
You were involved in the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu).
Yes, for a long time—in another teachers’ union earlier, but since Sadtu was launched in 1991. I was elected on to its first national executive as the education vice-president, served there for two or three years, was deputy president for a while, and then in 1995 was elected as president of the union for that year.
Was it a difficult transition from being a union man to a departmental authority?
I think that transition was made, in a sense, much earlier because one of the first shocks I had when I became a teacher was shifting from someone who had rebelled against authority for many years to being a representative of authority. And I recognise for teachers that this is a very big trans-ition. You’re no longer under someone else’s authority, you now become the authority, and for many, that’s quite a traumatic move.
When I moved from the union into the department, I moved into the field of human resources and labour relations—essentially doing the same work but perhaps on the other side of the table. While there were some complications, I think it was a big advantage — we knew where the unions were coming from, we knew some of the issues they were dealing with, and we were able to find each other on those things that we disagreed on and move forward.
As someone once involved in teacher training, what would you say about our current training—especially for in-service teachers?
There are not enough opportunities, but there are other positive sides. When I was involved with teacher training, some teachers who were getting additional degrees were more there for the certificate and the pay consequences rather than trying to improve the quality of their teaching. Now I think that people who do go for further training are really there to try to develop in a particular area. That’s a good sign at least—but over all, no, there are not enough opportunities.
Which position have you enjoyed in education the most so far?
For a time I saw it as being the deputy director general for general education and training, which was very much around curriculum and teachers. Those are two things very close to my heart, so that was one position that I did enjoy. It was also a time we were revising the National Curriculum Statement, so it was certainly close to my professional interests. I’ve only recently become director general, so we’ll wait and see whether or not I enjoy this position.
What are the responsibilities of the director general?
In a system as big as ours, they are extra-ordinarily wide ranging — from early childhood development all the way through to adult education. In many senses, I feel a lot more comfortable with schools and colleges than with the universities — they’re not something I’ve had responsibility for before in the management sense. But overall we’ve got a very good second layer of leaders — the deputy directors general — and my approach and management style is to give them the overall direction and strategic sense of where we’re going, but thereafter leave them very much to carry through their own programmes in their own way with their own teams.
A message for our teachers? I have enormous respect and admiration for teachers, particularly those teachers who we know are going well beyond the call of duty, doing far more than they are formally called on to do—these teachers all of us should applaud. Regrettably, of course, there are some who are not in that category and we will be firm with them. But the vast majority of our teachers are extraordinarily dedicated, hard-working people and my main message would be to thank them for that.