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Soweto principal transforms school

Mduduzi Mathe's leadership turns once derelict school into top performer.

Mduduzi Mathe, principal of Bhukulani Secondary School in Soweto, South Africa, with a class of 9th grade students in an isiXhosa language class. Under Mathe's strict leadership, Bhukulani has been transformed from a dilapidated, crime-ridden institution that was about to be closed down into a leading public high school. (Erin Conway-Smith/GlobalPost)

SOWETO, South Africa — When Mduduzi Maphindikazi Mathe took charge of Bhukulani Secondary School in Soweto, the sprawling township south of Johannesburg, the dilapidated school was on the verge of being shut down.

The buildings had no window panes or doors, and the classrooms were sparsely equipped with broken chalkboards and too few desks.

“It was terrible,” said Mathe. “This school was a mess.”

But more worrying than the physical condition of the school was the rampant crime on school grounds. “It was a place used by criminals to do whatever they wanted, including raping women,” he recalled. “There was virtually no education going on.”

The provincial education department was even considering converting Bhukulani high school into a police station, to better respond to the area’s crime problem. But Mathe convinced the education authorities that he could turn the school around.

“I had a plan,” he said, telling the story from his modest principal’s office in the revamped high school, sitting at a desk piled high with books about leadership, mathematics and science. “It was obvious to me that I had to take over this school.”

Mathe, 50, was raised in Soweto’s Orlando West area, one of seven children born to poor schoolteacher parents. He attended public schools in the township, but when he was in 10th grade, his education was interrupted by one of the key moments in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid.

Mathe joined marches during the Soweto uprising of 1976, when black students protested and clashed with police over the forced use of Afrikaans as a main language of instruction in black schools. South African police violently cracked down on the students, and hundreds of people — many of them young schoolchildren — were killed.

Schools in Soweto were kept closed that entire year by nervous authorities, and Mathe’s parents eventually decided to send him to stay with his brother, a university lecturer in another province, so that he could complete his high school education.

Mathe went on to finish a Bachelor of Science degree and get a teaching diploma at the University of Zululand. While on a break from his studies he returned to Soweto and visited Bhukulani school, asking the principal if he could help students with their math and science lessons. The principal hired Mathe straight away, and for five months he taught at Bhukulani, and when he completed his university degree, in January 1986, he became a full-time teacher.

Mathe went on to become the head of the math and science department and deputy principal before leaving on a study break to finish his PhD in math education at the University of Johannesburg. When he returned to the school in 1997, as acting principal and then principal starting in 1998, he found a crime-ridden disaster.

Under his plan to transform the school, Mathe’s first priority as principal was to restore discipline for both students and their teachers, who were just as often late to class or absent and full of excuses. Teachers were told that reporting to work on time was “non-negotiable,” and slowly things began to change. “If there is a lack of discipline among educators, then it spills over to the learners,” he said.

He held a community meeting to ask for support from residents in the area, a suburb of Soweto called Zondi 2. “I said to them, we are under a new management,” he explained.

Mathe even moved into a house next to the school to show his commitment, to allow him to work long hours at the school — and to discourage criminals from using the school as a safe haven. “I deliberately bought a house so that I would be next to the school and be of service anytime,” he said.

A supporter at the department of education helped to arrange sponsorships, including one from an NGO, to enable Mathe to make repairs and paint the classrooms, “so that it would look like a school.”