/ 11 March 2020

Can-do people achieve despite the odds

Luminous characters: Where Light Shines Through tells the story of remarkable teachers like Freddy Marubini. (Illustration: Lungile Mbelle/Artist Proof Studio)

Freddy Marubini, the head of maths at Thengwe High School in Tshandama in Limpopo, is a man who is used to getting his way. He sets ambitious goals and then exceeds them. He describes himself as someone who is always shifting his goalposts, spending little time relaxing in the glow of a goal scored. 

I met Marubini — dressed in sandals and short sleeves despite the winter chill, always ready with a smile and a joke expressed in his booming voice — when I travelled around the country meeting 16 can-do teachers. 

The journey took me from Gansbaai, a finger north of the southernmost tip of Africa, to Tshandama, about 80km from the Limpopo River. You can read about this journey, and what we can learn from these teachers, in the recently published Where Light Shines Through, tales of resourceful teachers in South Africa’s no-fee public schools. 

Marubini looked at me earnestly over the rims of his glasses, counting off the goals on his fingers. “You remember I wanted to get distinctions — we did that. I wanted learners to get full marks for maths. In 2018 four learners in the province got full marks for maths; three of them were from my school — so we did that.” His list goes on, and today Thengwe High — in a rural area about 24km from Thohoyandou — is one of South Africa’s top performing public schools in maths. 

“One thing is for sure, I don’t want to fail,” said Marubini of what drives him in his work. “I would call myself hyper, somehow. If I do something, I want to do it well. If I am a teacher, I want to feel that I do it exceptionally well.” 

I also met Jennifer Harrison, the softly spoken remedial teacher at Bedelia Primary School in Welkom, Free State. She spends much of her days on her feet, circulating among small groups of children, guiding them through the long journey of learning how to make sense from letters and words. 

Harrison’s humility wouldn’t allow her to express it in these words, but she is ambitious for her learners. She wants them to do well. She told me about the high school children she sees when she goes into town, who thank her for investing in them when they were in the early grades. 

Jennifer Harrison (Bheki Sibaya/Artist Proof Studio)

“I want to know that I have done a good job and that I have done it to the best of my ability,” she said. “I don’t want to be the person who has done a half-hearted job, floating along and just doing the basics. What’s the point of that? I want to be known as the person who gave her all.” 

At about the time that I met Harrison, I read Man’s Search for Meaning, a slim and beautiful reflection on the meaning of life by Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, who said: “Everything can be taken from someone but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s own attitude in any set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

Where Light Shines Through is a testament to the power of attitude to change the world. Through 16 stories of exceptional teachers, it shows that, while our attitude to life is often informed by our experience, our attitude remains our choice. It’s our attitude that brings meaning and purpose to life, and a life lived purposefully is a powerful tool with which to bring light to the narrative of darkness that sometimes envelops South African society. 

When I started writing the book in March 2018, then president Jacob Zuma had just been forced to resign by the ANC’s national executive committee after years of scandals and abuses of state power. President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his first State of the Nation address shortly thereafter. South Africans were worn out by the news cycle of the times.

Two years later, when the book started appearing on retail shelves this month, South Africans had watched, yet again, the disgrace that our Parliament has become during Ramaphosa’s 2020 address as certain MPs continued to fight for headlines and power. 

The Tshwane city council was placed under administration as political parties slugged it out for power. 

But can-do citizens from Cradock to Standerton were cleaning their streets, filling their potholes and repairing critical water supply systems as won’t-do municipalities continued to fail them. 

The interminable but necessary commissions of inquiry continue to grind through their work, but the public officials who had stolen time, money and creative thinking that could have gone into improving our education, healthcare and economy continue to walk free and emboldened. 

Imagine a South Africa where public officials were in service, rather than in power. 

The media covers the failures of our political and public service systems, but this book turns our gaze momentarily away from officials who are in power towards those who are in service. It allows glimmers of light to shine through the darkness of the South African narrative and reveals can-do teachers who are excelling despite the odds. 

It considers what we can learn from these teachers to influence how we attract, select, train, deploy and retain teachers to build the quality of the schooling system and the public sector more broadly. 

It characterises a can-do teacher and suggests several traits we should look for and encourage to build a can-do public service. Marubini and Harrison epitomise agency and drive. Other characteristics include care, resilience and a willingness to evolve. 

Ameera Khan is an English teacher at Promosa Primary on the outskirts of Potchefstroom in North West. On the day I met her she had a bemused expression on her face for much of the day, entertaining the jokes and parodies that played out in her classroom. She maintained order and the pace of the work within the twittery atmosphere of allowing children to be children. I saw a teacher seeking out the loves and talents of each child so that everybody had an opportunity to shine. Some depend on her for love and basic care that may be in short supply at home. 

When I met her, Khan had been diagnosed with a medical condition and was booked off for three terms to manage her fatigue and pain. She returned after two, despite the advice of her doctors, because her children at school depend on her for so much. 

“I could never walk out on these kids or abandon them,” she said. “There is such a need in this area, and that pushes me to do better. Sometimes I may lose patience or get tired, but I feel these kids really need someone to depend on. I always put them first.” 

That’s her choice. What’s yours? 

Kimon Phitidis is the managing director of Social Innovations, an agency providing programmes that supplement public schooling and research. Where Light Shines Through is available at bookstores and on-line retailers