Farewell Allen Thompson: A fighter for education

Covid keeps on taking, taking and taking. It does not stop. The rate people are dying because of this virus feels surreal. It almost feels as though the people who have died have all gone somewhere for a while and will return someday. It feels like we will see them again. And then it hits you: death is permanent. 

By now, many of us personally know someone who has died from this virus. It might not be a relative, close friend or a parent, but we have been affected by Covid deaths in some way or another.

In the education sector many teachers have succumbed to the virus and one can only imagine how traumatic it is going to be when teachers finally go back to school and they realise that one or two of their colleagues have died and they were not even able to bury them. 

My father, who is a teacher, lost a close friend and colleague over the December holidays from the coronavirus. He travelled with the man in his car and because of this arrangement they formed a close bond beyond a merely professional relationship. I saw the deep pain and sadness in his eyes when he talked about how his late colleague and friend will no longer be part of his daily trips to and from work.

I have been fortunate not to have lost a person close to me through Covid. But a person that I had formed a close working relationship with has died from the virus, and although we did not have a relationship outside of the professional sphere, his death hurt me deeply. 

It must have been around 2014 or 2015 when my relationship with the late president of the National Teachers’ Union (Natu), Allen Thompson, began when he was still the deputy president of the union, and since then we enjoyed a good working relationship. He was one of my go-to-guys when I needed clarity on issues in the basic education sector, even if it was not comment for a story. Thompson was always generous with his time and never made me feel that I was a burden or stupid when I needed him to explain things that could have seemed obvious. 

I usually started our telephone conversations by saying, “Just a quick one, Thompson” and we would go on and on — our discussions were never brief. This could largely be attributed to the passion the man had for education and never shying away from expressing his views. 

When a hot issue was unfolding in the sector I knew without fail that when I listened to Ukhozi FM’s current affairs show, Abasiki Bebunda, he would be a guest on the show speaking on behalf of teachers. Or I could listen to another current affairs show, Apha Naphaya, on Umhlobo Wenene FM and Thompson would be there. 

He was never too busy to unpack issues of the sector. I did not know the man personally but I can say without any shadow of doubt that he lived his purpose. He loved what he did and this was evident in the fire in his voice when he spoke about education.

At the 2019 release of the national matric results I noticed that there was a man following Thompson  around. He later told me that he had to get a bodyguard after an attempt on his life in 2018, followed by death threats. He was ambushed by heavily armed men while driving, but survived and drove himself to hospital after being shot in the shoulder. 

Natu suspected that there were people who wanted him dead after the union had exposed graft in the sanitary pads project in the KwaZulu-Natal department of education. Last year, the MEC of education in that province, Kwazi Mshengu, released a report that confirmed that there was wrongdoing in the handling of the provision of sanitary pads for learners in that province. When Thompson was passionate about something he did not let it go and would make noise about it, as was the case about the sanitary pads. 

Thompson’s death is still so hard to comprehend. It has been two weeks since he died and the gap he has left is palpable.  Without a doubt he would have had a lot to say about the decision announced by the department of basic education that schools will now open in February; he would have had a lot to say about whether schools, especially rural schools, have enough personal protective equipment; and he would definitely have had lots to say about how the department is failing to make proper consultation with unions about its decisions. 

What a terrible loss to the sector. 

Rest in peace, Thompson. You were truly one of a kind. 

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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