Mohammed Tikly was a truly remarkable person who left a substantial legacy both in his native South Africa and in the UK, Tanzania and Zambia, where he was in exile for over 30 years. He is best remembered by his comrades in the ANC and by the wider education community as the director of the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (SOMAFCO) in Tanzania, but he also contributed significantly to the development of multicultural and anti-racist education in London under the Inner London Education Authority and the London Borough of Haringey. His life reflects his times. It also exemplifies the strong links and personal histories that bind people together in the fight against the injustice of racism and colonialism in South Africa, in the UK and around the world. We remember Mohammed as a loving father, grandfather and uncle. He was a modest, soft-spoken, gentle and considerate person; he was the quiet revolutionary.
Mohammed was born just before the outbreak of World War II in Pietersburg (now Polokwane) in what is now Limpopo province. His father was a trader like so many in our family. Our great-grandparents arrived in South Africa as part of the second wave of migration from India to South Africa during the days of the British empire. Mohammed’s mother was severely epileptic and his dad was preoccupied with running the family business, so he was brought up by his extended family along with his three sisters, to whom he was devoted. Like so many others, our family was negatively impacted by the introduction of the Group Areas Act, and was forced to move the family business from the centre of town.
An intelligent and sensitive boy, Mohammed was profoundly affected by experiencing and witnessing the racism endemic during the apartheid days. While a secondary school student in Johannesburg, he joined a study circle organised with his fellow students, where they read the writings of ANC leaders such as Chief Albert Luthuli, Yusuf Dadoo (a prominent figure in the Indian Congress and the South African Communist Party) as well as those of Marx and Lenin. Mohammed went to the UK in 1959, originally to study medicine. In 1964 he participated in a seven-day hunger strike outside South Africa house along with other ANC comrades to draw attention to the Rivonia trial taking place at the time, fearing that Nelson Mandela and the others on trial would be sentenced to death. It was partly on account of their efforts and that of other protesters that Mandela received a jail rather than a capitol sentence.
Mohammed changed academic course and studied sociology, eventually qualifying as a teacher of social studies and economics. It was in London that Mohammed met Clare, herself a peace campaigner and activist, who became the mother of his four children. His children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces, inspired by Mohammed, have continued his legacy through their own professional and political activities. Following his participation in the hunger strike it was impossible for Mohammed to return to South Africa. Being separated from his family to whom he was devoted was a cruel blow, but in 1971 he was able to accompany two of his sisters on the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj).
Mohammed taught for several years in London comprehensive schools including William Penn School in South London, Archway School and Islington 6th Form Centre. In 1979 he joined a team of five colleagues who put in place the Multicultural Education Advisory Group under the Inner London Education Authority. He then went on to start up a similar group in the London Borough of Haringey. These groups worked closely with schools to implement a vision of multicultural education at a time when initiatives to better reflect cultural diversity and to challenge racism through the curriculum were in their infancy. As he spanned cultures and traditions, Mohammed was well placed for this role. He rarely mentioned it, but like many black people he was himself subject to racism in the education system and in wider British society.
In 1982 the ANC asked Mohammed to take on the Directorship of SOMAFCO. This meant leaving his UK family and moving to Tanzania. SOMAFCO was set up by the ANC on land generously donated by the Tanzanian government. The school enjoyed support from the international community. SOMAFCO comprised a primary and secondary school and a vocational education centre, and catered for the many youths who had to flee South Africa in the wake of protests following the Soweto uprising in 1976. Many of these young people were profoundly affected by exile and in some cases by experiences of torture at the hands of the apartheid regime. The school was significant in opening a window into what a new education system in South Africa might be like, but also provided a glimpse of the challenges of reconstruction that lay ahead.
In 1985 Mohammed moved to Lusaka to work at the ANC Head Office before returning to South Africa following the release of Mandela and the unbanning of the liberation movements. When the South African exiles returned home, the ANC was confronted with the problem of integrating the students into the education system at all levels in South Africa. Mohammed was asked to head the Batlagae Trust (Batlagae is a Setswana word meaning “those who have come home”) to assist with the reintegration of these students in South Africa.
In 2018 he was awarded the Order of Luthuli in silver for his contributions to the liberation movement. Mohammed was always a quiet and modest man. He followed world and local events and sports like soccer, cricket and tennis with keen interest. Unlike some other returnees, he never sought to better himself financially, and lived a frugal life. His pleasure came from the help he was able to afford to so many others, and part of his legacy is the tremendous esteem and respect in which he is held by his former colleagues and the many students he nurtured and mentored through the years.
Mohammed’s last years were beset by health issues including Parkinson’s disease, although he was still able to enjoy memorable times with his family in South Africa and in the UK. Mohammed was a devoted father, grandfather, uncle and brother. He kept contact with all members of the family, and was fond of joining in everyone’s activities, particularly those of the younger children. He is sorely missed by all of his family, friends and comrades in South Africa and the UK. His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter, more socially just future, in which the scourge of racism and all forms of discrimination are a thing of the past. In the Muslim tradition we say “from dust do we come to dust do we return (ILWIR)”. In the ANC tradition we say Hamba Kahle (go well) Mohammed, forever in our hearts and an inspiration to us all.