Tribute to William Smith

By Dr Ntevheleni Brian Tshivhase (MBCHB,MBA)

I am a Medical Practitioner (Doctor), practicing at Thohoyandou, Vhembe district in Limpopo province.

My journey into the medical career was somewhat tortuous. It began in infancy some medieval ages ago. Initially it was just the most appropriate answer that a child would give when asked about a possible career path. But, growing up in strife, as a black child you are born with an instinct ‘to make a difference’.

I spent my entire youthful life in Venda, more specifically, a township called Shayandima under the Bantustan regimen of The Venda Republic. I became aware of my academic prowess at an early age. My parents were not surprised by my eagerness for numbers. I was a natural with Maths and Science.

My scholastic experiences took a dramatic turn between 1988 and 1991. After the demise of the erstwhile lifelong president (Mphephu), Venda which was then a relatively ‘calm’ place became a hotbed for South African politics.

We became politicised overnight, and suddenly became aware of how brutal South Africa’s politics was and how unequal the education system was. This ‘conscientisation’ happened at a very opportune time in my life- I was a teen. These were the peak years of trade unionism and student politics, South Africa was on fire. The schools were a constant battlefield and therefore our entanglement in politics was not avoidable. In and out of school, discussions were rife and very political and centred on collapsing the unjust system.

The people that were to play a role in my earlier politics were Boiki Tsedu (a schoolmate at Dimani) and Muthanyi Ramaite (my brother in law), who had been in SANSCO (the precursor of SASCO) as a student in Turflop.

Our anger and frustration at the system manifested through violent protests at schools and our community. In our specific circumstance, the targets were white staff members who invariably commuted   daily from their living areas at the Levubu farming areas –an exclusive farming community for whites only. They were ideally representative of the system we were fighting – White and in authority. Urban legend has it that most of them were receiving ‘a tolerance fee’ – an allowance for white teachers who teach in black schools.

Our struggle was mirrored by the national outcry, the call for the scrap of separatism in education, which was spearheaded by COSAS and SANSCO, later jointly through NECC (National Education Co-ordinating Committee) under the leadership of Irhon Rensburg.

Botha’s last days were brutal; we had no effective classroom schooling for three years. Our progression through grades comprised a bizarre examination approach where we were only allowed to go to school to write exams in June and November.

My brother-in-law (Muthanyi) had been aware of my academic prowess and keenness for the sciences and Mathematics. He gave me a set of NECC prepared study guides. These had been prepared for ‘catch up’ work for the winter school program for Matric. The program was coordinated from Wits. It was my first study guide set. He also told me of a TV program that was targeted in Maths, Biology and Physical Science.

Through hindsight, I think blind loyalty for my sister and a misguided view that listening to Muthanyi offered me some proximity to national politics, made me amenable to his suggestions.

It was a decision that would alter my reality and change my life for good. When I saw William Smith on TV, it was love at first sight. He evoked keenness in my Science and Mathematical abilities. His sense of humour added a comical side to his programs. The programs were concise and teaching method atypical but crystal clear and respite to most of us no longer engaged in effective classroom learning.

William was fun and engaging, he made Maths and Science cool. Yes he was white, but a stark contrast to the bitter Bantu Education sentiment we harboured against Minister Stoffel Van Der Merwe. He was a crusader for Maths and Science with his projector, and taught us big words like ‘conundrum’.

Because of William we learnt how to dream again about careers in Science and Mathematics. That Willian Smith received a Maphungubwe award is no surprise, many of us in the science fields are living testimony to the William Smith legend. William has inspired a generation.    

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