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.”
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.”