MUKONI Ratshitanga, the former chief of staff of erstwhile president Thabo Mbeki, called me towards the end of February asking for Gogo Nontsikelelo Qwelane’s contact details as he felt the urge to visit her after I informed him about this jewel of South Africa in December.
I shared the numbers and let Qwelane’s daughter know Ratshitanga would be in touch who while concerned with the health of her mother, was excited about the visit.
Ratshitanga tried both numbers but could not get through until it was too late and Qwelane’s breath left her body in late July.
Ratshitanga was so impressed by what the centenarian had achieved and eagerly wanted to record her story as the basis for future action, particularly in education.
This drive was captured by Mbeki at the fateful ANC National Conference in 2007 where he asked three times on how we will honour those who paid with limb and life to make us heirs and heiresses of the freedom they themselves could not witness.
The question was profound because it anchored the challenge on the ANC centenary anniversary in 2012.
Can we imagine what the rich history of a century would have done to South Africa as we embraced the virtues and benefits that liberation struggle would have bestowed not only to South Africa but to the world?
Mbeki’s farsighted questions were about the great history of valour, selflessness and determination that would have contributed in the consolidation of constitutional democracy and a better life for South Africa.
Instead of answering the question truthfully and honestly, SA gambled the futures that were hard earned.
The question of honouring them during centenary celebrations was instructive.
Ratshitanga’s determination to talk to Qwelane was not about political leaders of the Struggle alone, but that of the intelligentsia of the likes of Qwelane. On October 16, 2012, in Australia, a priest was named the oldest teacher in the world. Father Schneider, who was almost turning 100, was still teaching at St Aloysius’ College in Sydney.
This monumental progress was announced then by the Guinness World Records at a cocktail party that celebrated the then upcoming 100th birthday of Father Schneider.
It is not quite clear who actually holds the Guinness World Records for longest lived teaching career.
Qwelane might have been overlooked. If not, she is the undisputed woman to hold the world record.
This is even more important in the year of Charlotte Maxeke, who was an accomplished intellectual like Qwelane.
South Africa is in search of its soul. But like the lost sailors at sea, thirsty and battered, having tried to have some fresh water but in vain including from other seafarers, is blind to the fresh water from the Amazon River entering the sea. We are unable to dip our bucket where we are. Each time we dip our bucket it in the feeding frenzy that takes place even when the nation is at its knees with poverty.
We have paid scant attention to the jewel of our nation. As a teacher and one for at least eight decades, she has had more influence to future generations than anyone can imagine. It was in Australia in early September 2019 that another jewel, hazeline from the Cango Caves was punted to a mining investors conference in Perth. Time to dip our bucket where we are and not hanker after fake hazeline.
Qwelane should make it to the Guinness World Records if not as the first longest serving teacher, then as the first woman teacher to have taught until she was eight months from being a century old. At that because Covid19 forced closure on schools, otherwise Qwelane would have continued to do what she loved the most – teaching and developing a breed of thinkers.
Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General and the former head of Statistics South Africa. Find him at www.pie.org.za and @Palilj01
*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites