Two Stories about the power of getting a good education

Home | Two Stories about the power of getting a good education

I read this piece at the EE Read-In on Saturday 6 March, 2010. It was held at the EE Bookery on Roeland Street, Cape Town. The Tambo extracts come from Beyond the Engeli Mountains, the biography of Tambo’s life by Luli Callinicos. The Bizos extracts come from his autobiography Odyssey to Freedom.

OR Tambo
Oliver Tambo’s life and education show the painful but exhilarating contradictions between modern education and traditional life, and the resulting difficulties for identity, decision-making and leadership. Tambo’s boyhood name was Kaizana. His grandfather, named Tambo, was a Zulu who migrated into Xhosa-speaking Pondoland, the last tribal area to fall under colonial control. Born in 1917, Kaizana was named after the German King, Kaizer Wilhelm, who was at that time battling England, Tambo’s colonial enemy, in WWI.
How did Oliver Tambo get his name? His Biographer, Luli Callinicos tells the story:
On his first day of school, Kaizana discovered something that was as important as the reading, writing and arithmetic his father hoped the teacher would instill in the young boy. He learnt that schooling also required him to manage another identity.
‘The teacher approached me and asked me for my name. I have him my name and he said, “No, you are giving me your home name. I want your school name.” I told him I did not know my school name. “Well then,” he said, “you also have a second name, which should be the name of one of your ancestors who has died. So tomorrow you bring your name and surname.”
‘Returning home, I told my parents that the teacher did not want my name… The following morning, my father told me that my school name would be Oliver and the second name, Tambo…’

At first, Tambo was a reluctant schoolboy:
‘I did not like going to school, firstly because it was far, and I didn’t enjoy it. My father was aware of this and he sometimes lent me his horse to go to school just to encourage me. But of course, if I was going on horseback it was great fun; but when I didn’t have the horse, I would find excuses not to go. I would play sick, and I found the weather a great ally of mine. If it was raining then my parents would say, “No, don’t go to school.”
‘So my best day was rain. And I came to study the weather, the movement of the clouds every afternoon to try and make out what kind of weather it was going to be the following day. I became quite an expert. I had a deep interest, and I was absolutely accurate about whether it was going to rain or not. Always accurate. That stayed with me even when I was no longer at home. I looked at the clouds and I could say to people, “It’s going to rain”, and it rained. It’s still the same today. I usually tell long before people are aware of it. That’s how I learnt it – because I didn’t want to go to school.’
Apart from his preference for horse riding, other, more serious factors made Tambo reticent about attending his rural mission school:
He was becoming increasingly concerned that he was not contributing his fair share to the productivity of the homestead. ‘My father now had to look after cattle as if he were a herd boy,’ recalled Tambo. ‘[His friends] thought he was silly and stupid. “He’s got so many boys and here he is looking after the cattle himself,” they said – and he was just about the only one who did that. Our age group were at their homes looking after the cattle; their parents had no problems looking after cattle themselves. But we weren’t there. My father was determined that we should go to school.’
Would Tambo have become who he became without such a visionary and self-sacrificing father?
And there was a third factor that threatened Tambo’s education. His family was poor, not well-connected, and couldn’t afford the school fees.
‘As day followed day, the gloomy prospect of returning [loomed] larger and larger and my father and the rest of us were increasingly giving in to despair and sadness; but … Boetie S’Kumbu did not seem prepared to give up, and indeed, after several painful anxious days, he brought the great news that we were to be admitted to the school and would stay at St John’s Kraal as boarders… We came to know that the relief which thus case to us was provided by two women, Joyce and Ruth Goddard, who lived in England.’
But, in fact, this was not enough. Again Tambo’s education was threatened by poverty:
The Goddard sisters could not, in fact, afford the full amount needed for the boys’ education, so Oliver and Alan’s oldest brother, Willy, who was working in the coal mines in Natal, undertook to provide £6 a year, to match the £6 donated by the English sisters. Their financial help was to continue, to a greater or lesser extent as far as their means allowed, until 1940, by which time Oliver was a student at Fort Hare.
But good luck was not always something Tambo could rely on. In fact, due to having to move schools numerous times, he was forced to repeat Standard 6 three times. During his third year in Standard 6 he also developed TB in the chest, and had to undergo surgery which confined him to hospital for a while.
Tambo completed the majority of his high school years in Johannesburg, a completely different world from the Pondoland hills in which he had grown up. The standard of education was also higher, as he himself observed:
‘It was becoming clear that, from being at the top at Holy Cross, we were at the bottom at St Peter’s. Objectively, this was very good, for it offered us a challenge and an opportunity to grow if we were ready to take it; and we surely were.’
Having navigated these challenges, and not needing to walk miles in the rain anymore, Tambo began to enjoy school and thrive. But classroom instruction was not his only source of nourishment:
[E]very Wednesday afternoon … Selope Thema – journalist and subeditor of The Bantu World – would come to St Peter’s and give them an African history lesson that included the pre-colonial past as well as the recent history of the struggle against colonialism and oppression.
They called these sessions ‘workshops’. These workshops would have formed in Tambo a sense that education is about more than personal development, it is also indispensable to those who want to shape history for good or for evil; in other words, knowledge is power.
Finally, in November 1936, it came time for Tambo to write his Junior Certificate, school leaving examinations along with other black and white students throughout the Transvaal, who all sat for the same examination.
‘The results showed that Joe Mokoena and I had made history. For the first time in the history of education in South Africa, two African students had passed the JC with a First Class degree, regarded as a rare achievement for any student. For a society steeped in racist beliefs about European superiority, this incredible news … rocked the whole country, including the Transkei…’
A fellow student explained the reaction of the country:
‘We were then writing the same examinations as any white school… They excited the whole of South Africa that for the first time two black students can get First Class, First Division and come out with distinctions; the examiners in Pretoria were very surprised. They had to come and inspect the school, because they couldn’t understand how black people could acquire such high standards. [The examiners wanted to know] where they were sitting, because they suspected that they may have been copying. [But] they had been sitting far from each other when they wrote the exams’.
In fact, in that same year, only one other boy in the Transvaal managed to equal that – and he was white. By this time both Tambo’s parents were dead. He remembers wishing they were alive to experience this moment of triumph.
Tambo’s story is partly a triumph over adversity produced by his own talent. But the opportunities he had were also the rare sparkling exception resulting from his father’s rare understanding of the power of education, and his luck with financial benefactors. In his life-chances, he was the exception to the rule. During those years the vast majority of Pondoland children never saw the inside of a classroom, and if they did, did not have families that pushed them to pursue education all the way to completion. There were undoubtedly many other brilliant young mathematicians in those hills whose lives never unfolded in the unlikely and spectacular way that Tambo’s did.
George Bizos
George Bizos is one of the most celebrated lawyers in South Africa. He was part of the team that defended Mandela, Sisulu and others at the Rivonia Trial and helped to ensure that they were spared the death penalty. He defended the UDF leaders at the Delmas Treason Trial and represented Steve Biko’s family at the inquest into his death. Throughout his life he has defended poor people.
There is no profession which requires more hours of reading than law, and not just any reading, but careful reading over every word to find the missing fact, the legal opening and the winning line of argument.
Bizos grew up in a small rural village in Greece. He began school a year before Tambo wrote the JC examinations. In some ways Bizos faced even greater odds:
‘My primary school was not unlike those the children of Soweto attended during the apartheid years. In the 1930s there were no fewer than a hundred and forty of us of different ages in one room with a single teacher. A blackboard, an abacus and a slate were the main teaching aids. A tattered reading book was passed from one year to the next, while a new exercise book, a pencil and an eraser were all we had.’
But Bizos was also very lucky. His father was mayor of the little village. Therefore,Kyria Eugenia Kotsakis, who they called Daskala – the teacher, stayed in their house. This meant he got a lot of extra instruction and attention.
As Bizos recalls:
‘She managed the school with ease and grace. We were not afraid of her. Before we arrived at school she wrote exercises on the blackboard for the older ones to do on their slates or in their books, then she read lessons to us, the younger ones. She set exercises then moved to another age group and more advanced work.
                Daskala secured our discipline by appealing to our better natures.
This contrasts with Tambo’s first teacher who beat the children constantly with a leather belt.
Bizos continues:
‘The worst physical punishment she ever imposed on anyone was three moderate smacks with a flat ruler on the palm of the offender’s hand – but she was capable of administering tongue-lashings which put us to shame.
Right-wing Royalists started to gain power in Greece and Bizos’ father lost his position as mayor. On top of this, his family was poor. One day the school principal called Bizos’ father in and asked him to replace his son’s old and tatty shoes.
Like Tambo, Bizos had to leave home to pursue his studies. His father sent him to Kalamata where Daskala now lived. Bizos failed the entrance exam and therefore had to begin again in first grade.
During these years fascism was rising in Europe and then WWII broke out in 1939. One day it was reported to Bizos’ father that a shepherd had seen a group of hungry, frightened men hiding in the hills. In fact, these were New Zealand soldiers who had been fighting to protect Greece from Germany and Italy, and were evading capture. Young Bizos and his father set out to find them, carrying food. This encounter led to one of the many daring and selfless acts of the war: Bizos’ father used most of the family’s saving to buy a boat to help the New Zealanders sail to Crete, an island that was still under Allied control. Many of the villagers helped in this effort, providing food and finances. This heroic journey successfully rescued the soldiers, when the little boat was found by a British naval fleet. George and his father climbed aboard with the soldiers and were taken to Alexandria in Egypt. Bizos’ father would never see Greece or his wife again.
The two were told they could not return to Greece until after the war and so elected to go to South Africa. There Bizos’ father took small jobs and tried to make ends meet. George was looked after by members of the Greek immigrant community in Johannesburg. He would work in shops, and do odd jobs, but education was not very high on his priority list. He and his father achieved some fame when a Sunday Times journalist discovered their heroism and published the story with a picture.
At that time the likelihood was that George would never finish school. But as he tells us, ‘chance would have it otherwise’.
‘One day, while serving a customer, I noticed a young woman in the middle of the shop staring at me. She was wearing a blue blazer with white and yellow stripes and a badge on the pocket with the head of a goat sporting long, upward-turned horns. There was a motto underneath but I couldn’t read it, much less understand what it meant. As she waited her turn she stared at me. When I served her, she turned her head sideways, smiled and asked, ‘Are you not the boy whose photo appeared in the newspaper? With your father? The ones that escaped from the Germans?’ I said I was. With an even broader smile she reached across the counter to shake my hand. ‘What school do you go to?’ I told her that I didn’t go to school. She asked to speak to my father and, when I said he worked in Pretoria, she waited for Mr Bill to finish serving the customer.
She introduced herself as Cecilia Feinstein, a teacher. Although the shop was busy – it was late afternoon and many people got off the tram at the nearby shop – she bombarded Mr Bill with questions about me and my father. Why was I not at school? How could she get in touch with my father? How old was I? … Then she said she would come back in a day or two, by which time she hoped all would have agreed that she could take me to her school the following Monday.
… The young teacher came back and was delighted to hear the decision. Would I put on my best clothes, including the cap I wore when the newspaper photograph was taken, and be ready at seven the next morning? She would take me to Malvern Junior High, a school offering standards six to eight.
George joined Miss Feinstein’s class, and after a while, he began to flourish.
By 1943 Miss Feinstein told George that she was engaged to be married, and would no longer teach the class. But she continued to play a pivotal role, as George remembers:
‘I told her of my father’s wish that I become a doctor, and she said she believed I could do it. Such encouragement was new to me. When I had ventured to write about my dreams for the future in a class essay, my English teacher had added a note at the end saying that I was building castles in the air. Miss Feinstein said that she did not mean to criticize the school, but that for my dreams to come true I should go to a proper high school where I could matriculate. If my father and I agreed, she could arrange for me to start standard eight at Athlone High School…
Thirty years later Bizos decided to track Cecilia down. He called, but did not find her at home, but she returned his call. On the phone she said:
‘I thought that I must have been you who phoned earlier, but I just couldn’t wait anymore. I so badly wanted to speak to you. I have been following your cases, and I am so proud of you.’
‘And I am so grateful to you, [Bizos] said. ‘If it had not been for you, I don’t know what I would have done with my life.’
Many years later, in 1996, the University of Natal in Durban conferred an honorary doctorate of law on George Bizos. He was asked which special guest he wanted to invite to the ceremony. Cecilia Feinstein was top of the list. Finally, after more than fifty years, he was able to make a public acknowledgment of her role in his life.
As he says in his autobiography, titled Odyssey to Freedom, ‘I often wonder what I might have made of my life if she had not insisted that, refugee or not, I was entitled to the right to learn.’
OR Tambo and George Bizos are two South African heroes. They faced daunting odds but climbed out of adversity to succeed. But they were also both very lucky. People came into their lives at the right moments and helped them get a really good education. It’s likely that at that stage of their lives they didn’t even fully understand the value of a good education, or how lucky they were.
Today, as in the past, there are many young people as bright at Tambo and Bizos who never get that lucky break, who remain in the Pondoland hills herding goats, or in the corner shop serving customers.
The reason Equal Education exists is to give everyone a chance to use their talents. When that happens humanity benefits, because we don’t lose out on the contributions of the many other potential Olivers and Georges.