Connect to share and comment

Soweto principal transforms school

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

With the school renovated and a sense of discipline instilled in the staff and learners, the students’ education results began to improve. In 1997, Bhukulani’s pass rate for the matric — a crucial set of exams in the final year of high school in South Africa — was only 21.5 percent. A year later it had increased to 70 percent, and in recent years it has hovered in the mid to high 90s. Last year the pass rate was 94 percent, and Mathe, backed by a strong team of teachers and deputy principals, says he is determined to achieve 100 percent this year.

Success in the matric exams is essential to the pursuit of higher education and important in landing good jobs but South Africa’s national matric pass rate last year was only 60.6 percent — continuing a downward trend. The matric exams have fairly low low standards: In order to pass, students must have a 40 percent mark in three subjects and a 30 percent mark in three more subjects. Bhukulani’s results are far above the national average.

These days there is a huge demand to study at the school, which has seen its enrollment grow from 611 students in 1998 to the current 1,208, with parents swamping the front doors on opening day every year, demanding that their children be let in.

“We are turning away hundreds and hundreds of students because of lack of space,” Mathe said. “It’s hell.”

There are still challenges — for example, Mathe laments the low achievement of South Africa’s black students in mathematics, due to a lack of basic math skills and problems understanding English. Many students are multilingual, and English may only be their third or fourth language.

Mathe still faces structural problems with the school, and explains that he is concerned about the lack of a hall for holding student assemblies and visitors on parents’ days — currently, the best they can do is to set up chairs in the parking lot, regardless of rain or chilly winter weather.

The school has become a source of pride for the community and the provincial department of education. South African President Jacob Zuma, on a visit to the school last year, praised the success of students and said that he wished he could have attended the school, “so I could be a better person.”

Sphiwe Dhlomo, a Bhukulani graduate who went on to complete a Bachelor of Commerce degree and now runs his own business, described Mathe as “very humble,” and said that it was “his vision that made things happen for Bhukulani.”

“He’s really been instrumental in what I became,” he added. “It’s difficult for any black student in the townships. Usually no one pays attention to them. He has turned around the perception of township students.”

The strong matric results of Bhukulani students stand out compared to those of many other schools in Soweto, the most populous black urban residential area in South Africa. A nearby high school, for example, only achieved a 19 percent pass rate for the matric last year. Mathe says that the neighboring school is no different than his own in terms of the student body makeup and funding. The difference, he explains, is one of discipline, leadership and management of the school, and “that’s it.”

Mathe, who frequently uses acronyms to illustrate his points about leadership and management, says that what keeps him going are the “three Ds”: dedication, determination and devotion, along with the “three Ps” — perseverance, persistence and prayer.

“The buck stops with the principal,” he said. “I try to lead in the best possible way.”