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Open Letter To The Fearless Belede Mazwai, Thank You

Desmond Thoabala, A Student Remembers His Exceptional Teacher, Ma-Mazwai

Dear Ma-Mazwai

We were listening to some songs from Belede on Twitter – an album produced in your honour by your musician daughter Thandiswa – when I was reminded of the original Belede – you Ma-Mazwai. If you haven’t signed up to Twitter there in heaven Ma-Mazwai you’d better do so because with today’s technology we no longer have to always go the graves to check-in on our ancestors – I see many people chatting to their late relatives there on Twitter. Such is the power of connectivity on this platform even pastors are engaging God through it.

Thandiswa has put together a fitting tribute to you in this album with her interpretation of powerful compositions by some of our great musicians who include Caiphus Semenya, Miriam Makeba and many others. Her rendition of Jikijela reminds us of the crisis of our education system during apartheid, youth politics and resistance. She laces her version with the speeches from the struggles of today’s students – Fees Must Fallists they call themselves – and painfully reminds us that even though much has changed, much of the struggles for which you fought so gallantly through your teaching and journalism careers – a lot still remains the same.

I will never forget the first day you arrived at our school in those turbulent days of the 80’s when midway through the academic programme, you walked in as one of new recruit teachers after the third generation of the founding Holy Cross sisters had permanently left the school and the township in fear for their safety.

I was in Standard 7 (grade 9) English when you walked into class with a cassette tape player. There in front of us stood this proud Xhosa woman. You may have been in your early to mid-twenties.

This was the first time in the history of the school that English was taught by a black person. In our amazement, you greeted and introduced yourself and without saying much thereafter you played the tape. And out blared John Lennon’s “Imagine”. We all listened attentively as many of us had never heard the song before or ever heard of John Lennon.

At the end of the song, you asked us what we thought of the song. Most importantly, what we thought of the message and how we would articulate it. As if that was not enough new information for one sitting, you then introduced and explained a concept – Practical Criticism.

You then gave us a task to write a critical analysis of the song/poem. We had to visit the school library more than we ever had in our schooling career. Some had to form work groups for Saturday visits to the city library on Fraser Street in Johannesburg for research purposes.

You defied  curricular prescripts and got us to intensely explore literary culture that was primarily oriented in political/gender struggles of the African people. By the ages of 13 and 14, we learned of literature beyond our own confines and its relationship with other art forms such as cinema, painting, sculpture, music, architecture, philosophy and history.

With each passing week, the lessons became more challenging. We had to critique many literary works including: “The Creation” (which led to some reading Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species”); Can Themba’s “The Suit”; Bessie Head’s “Maru”, Ngugi’s “Devil on the cross”;  Ellen Kuzwayo’s “ Call Me a Woman”; Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood; and many others.

It must be said that while many of us met your new way of teaching and your lessons with excitement, there were some who met them with scorn and rejected them.

Your lessons were not only confined to the classroom at Holy Cross. I personally gained immensely from the interactions, with writers and cultural activists, that you facilitated. I would have never gotten to know these great people were it not for you.

You later introduced us to the Heinemann’s African Writer’s Series Schools Reading Club, which together with Rev Beyer’s Naude, you co-ordinated. We met once a month at the YWCA in Dube, Soweto and here, we shared and debated books we had read.

Mothobi Motluatse, (at least once), the late Nadine Gordimer and Mirriam Tlali were among those who facilitated these sessions. I vividly remember one weekend we couldn’t meet at the usual venue in response to perceived or a real threat from the authorities. Mme Tlali offered to host the session at her home in Rockville, Soweto.

And all this time Ma-Mazwai, you were always there for us, for everyone and yet you were so young and could have chosen to do things which other young people did.

At school you were not only a teacher, you became our go-to person. We came to you with all our issues. You were our counsellor for all our problems; personal or otherwise.

At home too, we got to learn that you were the one person the family looked up to. You sister, Nontado Charity Simelane (nee Vabaza) said: “She was the one person we looked up to in our family….We knew she was way ahead of her time. Her ideas, ideals and contributions have and will still be of great significance beyond her death”.

Dr Dube, the current Head master at Holy Cross School says of you: “She didn’t quite develop Newtonian Calculus, however her radical ideas in pedagogical content knowledge was in the same league”.

Much later in life, after our paths had taken different directions, I came across a book that you, Esme Magwaza, Lerato Maleka and Lulu Sibeko had helped research. “Basus’iimbokodo, bawel’imilambo” (They remove boulders and cross rivers), Women in South African History. The book was edited by Nomboniso Gasa. How appropriate that the book’s message is on women at the forefront of humanity’s struggles.

Your life here on earth might have ended on that Easter weekend of 1992 but you remain a beacon of light in our lives. I believe I speak for many whose lives you have touched when I say: Thank you, Rea Leboha, Siyabulela.

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