/ 17 February 2012

The rock star in Bidvest’s Joffe

“Brian Joffe’s going to be speaking at our awards function.”

“Hmm? I’m sure it’s another Brian.”

“No, it’s him. The Bidvest guy.”

“I think you might be wrong. The Joffe dude is the founder of a R56-billion conglomerate. Why would he be speaking at your school?”

“I don’t know. He hasn’t confirmed yet. But that’s what everyone at school is saying. It’ll be so cool if he does.”

“Yeah, it will,” I lied.

My nephew was receiving an academic award at his school, Greenside High, and what seemed to be a run-of-the-mill awards ceremony became ever more tedious at the idea of a captain of industry blathering on interminably about whatever it is captains of industry blather on about.

On the evening of the ceremony we walked past a group of teenagers staring at the R2.5-million Mercedes-Benz SL65AMG parked in the spot reserved for Joffe and I realised that my nephew was not the only pupil excited about a suit making a speech.

I expected to be yawning by Joffe’s third sentence, but I was not, because he turned out to be weirdly likable, if only for his insouciant approach. Joffe went to Greenside High in the 1960s and admitted to being “one of the stupid kids”.

“Where are all the other kids tonight? The stupid kids?” Joffe asked no one in particular. One of the teachers on stage quietly reminded Joffe that this was an academic awards event. “Pity. Because we were all stupid when we went to Greenside and we didn’t turn out so bad. Just shows. If you battle at school, your future will be very bright,” he said to raucous laughter.

Principal Nicola Whyte, a stern-looking woman, to be sure, did her best to smile benevolently when Joffe instructed the pupils to play pranks on their teachers. “You have to have fun at school and part of that fun is taking the mickey out of your teachers. You have to, because that’s the only way they’ll respect you.”

Joffe had everyone eating out of his hands. He was the perfect mix of irreverent, funny and informative.

He went on to praise government schools such as Greenside, saying “you don’t have to go to a fancy private school to get a good education. I think teachers are doing a great job at government schools like Greenside and I can’t say too much just yet, but we’re working on a plan to get some of you to spend some time at Bidvest.”

To a group of academic achievers, one of whom was a matriculant who had achieved nine distinctions, the Bidvest chief executive was the equivalent of a rock star. When he eventually, and briefly, spoke about the importance of the pupils’ achievements, he urged them all to work hard and to “be the future of South Africa”. Clichéd, yes, but an important statement nonetheless.

As the teachers plodded through all the wondrously difficult South African names with impeccable pronunciation, I realised just how amazing some of our schools are. However, that warm fuzziness turned to pity when I contemplated the pupils who are not exposed to a multitude of cultures and races at school. I felt even sorrier for rural pupils still waiting for textbooks in Limpopo.

But I was thankful that my nephew would not encounter the teachers I had in high school. One particularly optimistic maths teacher told me I would end up selling fruit on the roadside for the rest of my life because I could not do higher-grade maths in matric — an Indian kid sans a predisposition for maths and science was obviously irremediable.

I cannot say that journalism has been more rewarding than fruit sales might have been but I am pleased that Generation Y (or is it Z?) does not go to school with the words “we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control … teachers, leave them kids alone” — ringing in their ears.