Professor Thamsanqa Kambule
Pogrund, Benjamin, The Independent (London, England)
Inspirational teacher who fought for high-quality black education in apartheid South Africa
It was an article of faith among many whites in apartheid South Africa that blacks were incapable of doing mathematics. Their belief was that black brains were simply not up to it. Thamsanqa Wilkinson "Wilkie" Kambule mocked the myth and gave the lie to it: he was black and a gifted mathematician; he was also an inspiring teacher who spoke with pride of several pupils who emigrated and went on to study nuclear physics, a field denied to them at home.
Kambule was the first black professor of mathematics at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. Later he was the first person to be awarded honorary membership of the Actuarial Society of South Africa; during the apartheid era he was not allowed membership.
Thamsanqa Wilkinson Kambule was born in Aliwal North in the Eastern Cape in 1921. He did not start school until he was 11 (not unusual for blacks at the time), but progressed rapidly when he went to one of the few outstanding black schools, the Anglican St Peter's in Rosettenville, Johannesburg. There, he discovered, "I knew maths was for me and I was meant for it. I became a fanatic."
After teaching in schools in Southern Africa he returned to Johannesburg to teach. In 1958 he was appointed principal of Orlando High School in Soweto. Over the next 19 years he walked the difficult and hazardous path of striving to ensure the best possible education for his pupils within the framework of "Bantu Education", the segregated and debased schooling imposed on blacks intended to perpetuate inferiority. Constantly watched and checked by government inspectors, he would laugh as he told friends how he had responded to their suspicious questions with logical answers which left them floundering. They did not understand the wry sense of humour behind the straight face.
Kambule's Orlando High achieved rare quality in black education and Kambule ensured it had facilities few black schools possessed. These included a library named after Sir Robert Birley, the former headmaster of Eton and a visiting professor in education at Witwatersrand University who took a special interest in the school.
Kambule's former pupils are spread today through the top echelons of South Africa. He used unusual methods to teach broader lessons of life. Once, while I was visiting the school, he took me into a laboratory where pupils were at work. They looked at me curiously from across the room. Kambule beckoned to one, calling out, "Hey boy, come here!" To be called "boy" as whites often did to black men was humiliating, especially in front of a stranger. The young man did not move. Kambule again called out, "Hey boy, I am telling you to come here!" The youngster reluctantly walked towards us, glaring at Kambule. As he reached us, Kambule softly said, "Since when do you come when someone calls you 'boy'?"
I have often wondered what effect the lesson had on that boy's life.
Kambule's concerns went beyond his own school: he led the Rand Bursary Fund set up by black teachers to keep pupils at school. …