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SA: Mbeki: Oration by the former President of South Africa in honour of the late Prof Wilkinson Kambule, Orlando East (20/08/2009)

20th August 2009


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Date: 20/08/2009

Source: Office of Thabo Mbeki


Title: SA: Mbeki: Oration by the former President of South Africa in honour of the late Prof Wilkinson Kambule, Orlando East

Directors of Ceremonies,
Distinguished members of the Kambule family,
Principal and students
Fellow mourners:


The first time I was in Orlando East to attend a memorial service was in 1962. We gathered then at the DOCC, 47 years ago, to bid farewell to an outstanding South African who, unfortunately, is little spoken of today, the late Dr A.B. Xuma, medical doctor and former President of the African National Congress.

When I was told that we would be here today to bid farewell to yet another outstanding South African, Professor Wilkie Kambule, a faulty memory suggested that we might have returned here in 2006 to pay tribute to yet another titan among our people, the late Ellen Khuzwayo.

However, a little bit of research confirmed that it was elsewhere in Orlando East, at St John's Anglican Church, that we convened to honour Mme Ellen Khuzwayo.

It is not by accident that on this day, when we gather in Orlando East to celebrate the life of an eminent compatriot who belongs among the small group of eminent South Africans who are Esteemed Members of the Order of the Baobab, Wilkie Kambule, the mind recalls and associates him with other luminaries such as A.B. Xuma and Ellen Khuzwayo.

And so can we say that whenever and wherever the sacred roll of our heroines and heroes is called, so will we, for all time, find among these, the name, Thamsanqa Wilkinson Kambule, Esteemed Member of the Order of the Baobab.

Long after he had passed his retirement age, Professor Kambule moved among us inspired still to inspire us to follow in his footsteps to advance the goal to whose realisation he had dedicated his life, the nurturing of the excellent South Africans whom the eminent African-American teacher, scholar and freedom fighter, W.E.B. du Bois, once described as The Talented Tenth.

Thus did some of us harbour in the sub-conscious mind the comforting but false notion that Professor Kambule would always be with us - a towering tree as majestic and magnificent and life giving as the baobab.

And thus is was that when I heard the sad news that Professor Kambule was no more, I recalled the lines from the poem by W.B. Yeats, Red Hanrahan's Song about Ireland:

"The old brown thorn-trees break in two high over Cummen Strand, Under a bitter black wind that blows from the left hand; Our courage breaks like an old tree in a black wind and dies, But we have hidden in our hearts the flame out of the eyes Of Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan."

And so must we, at the sudden departure of Thamsanqa Wilkinson Kambule, cry out that our own ‘old brown thorn tree has broken in two high over our land'.

But happily, it was not a ‘bitter black wind' that broke our old brown thorn tree, but the merciless hand of death about whom another poet had said, as we must say,

"Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so...
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die."

(John Donne: Death Be Not Proud.)

Death indeed cannot take Wilkie Kambule from us because the example he set, of what the generations that live and the generations of the future must do to build a new nation, will never die, but will live on forever, an indestructible monument to an outstanding patriot.

Of this great patriot, this we must also say that his ‘courage did not break and die like an old tree in a black wind'. During the most difficult periods our history, he refused to betray the young whom he had elected to serve as a custodian, and to disappoint the expectations of their parents and the nation.

When the circumstances demanded it, in the aftermath of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, he did what I am certain he would otherwise never have chosen to do - he walked out of his beloved Orlando High School in an act of priceless courage, to defend the right of the young of access to knowledge, to assert the right of the young to life and freedom in the land of their birth.

"Red Hanrahan's Song about Ireland" is a passionate tribute to the many generations of Irish patriots who, for many centuries, engaged in struggle to liberate their country from English colonial rule.

Yeats says that even when they lost the many battles for their freedom which they fought, these patriots did not despair, rather, to deceive the English, they ‘hid in their hearts the flame of freedom out of the eyes' of the nation, determined to fight on.

This surely all of us must know that when Principal Thamsanqa Khambule walked out of Orlando High School, he too ‘hid in his heart the flame out of the eyes' of the nation, knowing that his work was not yet done, that much remained to be done to nurture our own Talented Tenth.

Of this Talented Tenth, drawn from among the African-American population in the United States, W.E.B. du Bois had written in 1903:

"The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men (and women). The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races. Now the training of (human beings) is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers. If we make money the object of training..., we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily (human beings); if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, (human beings). (Human beings) we shall have only as we make (person)hood the object of the work of the schools; intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of (humans) to it - this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man (and woman) mistake the means of living for the object of life."

In the obituaries that have been published since his death, it is said that Wilkie Kambule was a brilliant mathematics and science teacher. I am certain those who are here among us today, who passed through his excellent hands, will bear testimony that what has been said in the obituaries is right.

But I believe that we must go beyond this well deserved eulogy and ponder what W.E.B. du Bois meant when he said, with regard to the training of human beings: "Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers."

Thus must we place Professor Kambule among those whom W.E.B. du Bois described as the seers, who could so communicate knowledge that the truly educated, in addition to such skills as they may thereby acquire, gain "intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of (humans) to it", and would not "mistake the means of living for the object of life".

As did Wilkie Kambule for his people, victims of colonial and apartheid oppression, W.E.B. du Bois foresaw for his people, descendants of slaves, the day when truly the doors of learning and of culture would be open to them, both of them conscious of what this would mean for the liberation of their peoples.

Dreaming of that time, in 1902 du Bois wrote:

"I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of Evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what souls I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?"

As did W.E.B. du Bois, throughout his life Wilkie Kambule set his eyes on the Promised Land. He held it to be an incontrovertible truth that the knowledge that the oppressed would acquire through disciplined learning, would itself serve as a powerful weapon in the struggle to reach that Promised Land.

Well might he have imagined himself sitting and engaged in learned discourse with Shakespeare, Balzac and Dumas, and Aristotle and Aurelius, and Euclid, Pythagoras and Archimedes.

And well might he then have asked the question of white South Africa, as did W.E.B. du Bois of white America - "Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?"

It was to ensure that the African child reaches Mount Pisgah, from which, as did Moses, it would see the Promised Land, that Professor Kambule became the seer whose life we celebrate today.

In its heyday, the Lovedale Missionary Institution in the Eastern Cape counted itself among the premier mission schools in our country, the esteemed alma mater of many Africans in our country, and others from Southern and East Africa.

And yet one its outstanding Principals, the Rev R.H.W. Shepherd, relating its history during its first century, up to 1941, wrote:

"Lovedale has been true to the ideas of Dr Stewart whose views on (Native) education were summed up thus:

(a) It should be largely industrial, with a good general education up to at least Standard IV.

(b) There should be a normal course of training for three years for a more limited class, in order to afford a sufficient supply of teachers.

(c) There should be opportunity for a much smaller class of Native students to go as far as University matriculation.

(d) Native students should be allowed to go, at their own expense, to any point in education, on the same terms and privileges as Europeans."

Out of this mould could never emerge even the Talented Tenth of which W.E.B. du Bois spoke, much less afford it the opportunity to ascend to the top of Mount Pisgah.

Thamsanqa Kambule set out to break this mould. Thus must it be that we salute him as truly a great revolutionary, the kind of architect of the new South Africa for which our country cries out.

We have gathered here today, in this humble hall, to salute a peerless teacher, educationist and seer.

We have gathered here today, at this modest public place which would tell inspiring stories if it could speak, to say a final welfare to an outstanding son of our people who fought for our liberation on an important front of human development and emancipation.

We have gathered here today, in the old township of Orlando East, to make a commitment that we will, for all time, honour the memory of Thamsanqa Wilkinson Kambule as an exemplar and pathfinder, by striving to do everything we can to live up to the example he set.

I have spoken here of honour and know it to be a sacred injunction in our culture, and an honourable thing, to honour the dead - they who, born again in another world, are our ancestors.

I believe I know also what Antony meant when, in Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" he said: "If I lose mine honour, I lose myself."

To honour the memory of Thamsanqa Wilkinson Kambule and thus honour our word and our obligations, I believe that we must pose to ourselves and answer some difficult questions.

One of these is - whence will come the teachers of the calibre of Wilkie Kambule who understand that their profession is a calling, requiring of them to take on the custodianship of our youth and our nation as a labour of love?

Another is - what should we do to inspire all parents to understand the tasks of parenting, and thus join hands with the teachers to ensure each one of our children, in their millions, is brought up to be the kind of well-rounded human being whom W.E.B. du Bois and Wilkie Kambule saw as the product that must emerge from a progressive system of education.

Yet another of these questions is - what shall we do together to place this firmly in the national mind that ours will not be a winning nation that will have eradicated poverty, underdevelopment and the loss of human dignity, unless we take it as our collective responsibility indeed to ensure that the doors of learning and of culture are open to all, including the poor, and that in this context, among other things, we develop among our youth the passion to comprehend the abstract representations of the dynamic material world, the mathematics disciplines which are the keys that open doors to new knowledge, which Wilkie Kambule taught - algebra, geometry and trigonometry.

And one other question is - surrounded as all of us seem to be, by a pervasive and corrosive national atmosphere that seems to celebrate the personal accumulation of wealth as the very essence of our national value system, and despises all other values that affirm human solidarity and humanism, what should we do, together, to cultivate, once again, the values of ubuntu without which the new world which W.E.B. du Bois and Wilkie Kambule visualised and fought for cannot be born?

Fundamentally, we must answer the question - what must we do to create the ‘new South African citizen', who must necessarily do service as the midwife of the new society?

This we must learn from Wilkie Kambule, that this is an immensely difficult task, which will only be done when it is done.

Soon, we will all leave this Community Hall to go our separate ways, each to carry out his or her daily tasks. As we walk away from the ashes of the mortal remains of Thamsanqa Kambule, leaving them as we must in the custody of his family, what shall each one of us say to ourselves, in the privacy of our hearts!

Will we say we have done what we had to do to bid a heartfelt farewell to Professor Kambule, and therefore that our work is done!

Or will we say that the immense privilege of having had Wilkie Kambule in our midst obliges us everyday to hear his voice and, hearing it, to respond to its urgent message to reaffirm our humanity, in practical ways!

In the novel, "God's Bits of Wood", by the late Senegalese writer and film maker, Ousame Sembene, Fa Keita urges his comrades "to act so that no man dares to strike you, because he knows you speak the truth, to act so that you can no longer be arrested because you are asking for the right to live, to act so that all of this will end, both here and elsewhere: that is what should be in your thoughts...That is what you must explain to others, so that you will never again be forced to bow down before anyone, but also so that no one shall be forced to bow down before you."

Fa Keita sought to educate his comrades as Wilkie Kambule and W.E.B. du Bois sought to educate their wards and peoples.

What remains to be answered is - do we have the will and the capacity to learn!

Just over 10 years ago, in April 1999, I spoke at an occasion convened to honour Professor Kambule. Then I cited passages from the novel, "Astonishing the Gods", written by the eminent Nigerian thinker and creative writer, Ben Okri.

Ben Okri imagined a world in which a man "has just discovered his mission in life and become conscious of a new world". Among other things he wrote:

"The universities were places for self-perfection, places for the highest education in life. Everyone taught everyone else. All were teachers, all were students. The sages listened more than they talked; and when they talked it was to ask questions that would engage endless generations in profound and perpetual discovery."

Thamsanqa Kambule devoted his life to the empowerment of our youth and people to embark on the exciting journey of profound and perpetual discovery, devoted to the highest education in life.

Well might he have imagined himself sitting and engaged in learned discourse with Shakespeare, Balzac and Dumas, and Aristotle and Aurelius, and Euclid, Pythagoras and Archimedes.

Now that he has, like these giants of thought and perpetual discovery, departed the world of the living, it may be that Wilkie Kambule will, through interaction with these great minds, at last have the possibility to solve problems of algebra he had failed to solve at Madibane High, at Orlando High, at PACE College and at the University of Witwatersrand, and convey to us the answers we need, to ensure that we do indeed honour his life's work.

Death be not proud. Death, thou shalt die!

Thamsanqa Wilkinson Kambule will live on.

I thank you for your attention.



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