Temba Maqubela

Temba Maqubela has served on South Africa Partners’ Board of Directors since 1999. In April, 2014, Temba was honored by South Africa Partners at its gala, alongside South African Justice Albie Sachs, with our Desmond Tutu Social Justice Award. On the eve of the award, Temba reflected on his journey, his family’s legacy as educators, the transformative power of education and his commitment to the work of South Africa Partners. Temba is Headmaster of Groton School, in Groton, Massachusetts. 


What does the Desmond Tutu Social Justice Award mean to you?

It is absolutely humbling. If you think of a system like apartheid that dehumanized people, awards such as this are humanizing. I am really a junior recipient of this award next to a man I have admired all my life, Justice Albie Sachs, who did so much for the liberation of South Africa.

It is very symbolic that a black person and a white person are sharing such recognition in America. Up until recently it would have been unlikely to have something similar happen in South Africa. It is remarkable that two people who were once considered terrorists in their homeland are being honored with awards for human rights activism by an organization based in Boston. It’s symbolic to me that not far from where they had the Tea Party, they’re having another revelation. The world is getting smaller and Boston just continues to regenerate itself. Boston continues to occupy a very interesting place in that world.


You have been involved with South Africa Partners since its early days. Why has this relationship been so enduring for you?

The precursor to South Africa Partners was an organization called FREESA, Fund for a Free South Africa. I got to know some of the founders of South Africa Partners when they were in the trenches with FREESA fighting for a free South Africa. These people were fighting for some of the highest ideals of freedom in South Africa. To move to this phase of being a populist, liberated South Africa is recognition of the importance of that work.

Twenty years after South Africa was liberated we are continuing to do the work of partnership. In partnership, the emphasis is on no one being superior. Partnership is about inclusion and voices being heard; apartheid is about exclusion. The significance of partnership is that it is part of reconciliation, it is restorative justice. We all need to deal with the demands of the past. Every South African knows about the importance of that work.

The work that South Africa Partners is doing now is even more impactful. FREESA had the microphones, they were shouting from the rooftops, but they couldn’t be heard in rural areas. The work that is being done now by South Africa Partners is in some of the most obscure areas of the Eastern Cape villages, among poor people, among people who are ravaged by HIV and AIDS, the silent killer. South Africa Partners means that we are a group of partners in Boston and in South Africa who are committed to our common humanity, starting with children.


How does South Africa Partners’ work fit in with your vision of the world?

On my desk I have John Lennon’s quote, “All you need is love.” A prayer that comes from the late Yale University chaplain William Sloane Coffin is a prayer of love and talks about how as the world gets smaller, we need even more love, not less. That’s what my vision of the world is. The pain of the child in the Eastern Cape is felt by someone in Boston because the world has become smaller, and rather than needing less love because of that, we need more love. That’s what South Africa Partners really is about — we love one another, which is the greatest gift of all.

Why do you have to go that far to love somebody? Sometimes all it takes is for you to be taken away from your own environment to realize how important what you have is. This happened to me when I was arrested in my mother’s classroom by the South African police when I was 17 years old because of my anti-apartheid activities. The fact that her own son was arrested in her class is something that I’ve never really come to terms with. I never had an opportunity to say to her, that as a parent, I have a sense of how painful it was for her when four white policemen came into her classroom to arrest terrorists, and the first name they called was her son.

For me, to be honored with the Desmond Tutu Social Justice Award is really to honor my mother and people like her, because this woman educated so many of today’s current leaders in South Africa. We should not forget the role of women in South Africa’s struggle. The women in South Africa were the impetus behind the whole movement to defy the carrying of Pass Books.

There is a saying in South Africa that when you touch a woman, you touch a rock. If you go to the South Africa Partners’ office, it’s all women, women who are crushing all the hatred and bringing in love. Their vision is of a world of love. It’s real, it’s genuine, it’s authentic.


Is there an example of a South Africa Partners’ initiative that you feel is a particularly effective collaboration?

The concept of the latest program that is underway, the early childhood education program, is a continuum from cradle-to-college. It’s designed to transform the lives of children in the most neglected province in South Africa, which is the Province of the Eastern Cape. This area produced Nelson Mandela and some of the key leadership of the ANC — Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani and Robert Sobukwe. We are trying to restore the Eastern Cape to its historic place of excellence, through the health and education of children, starting with the youngest children, and all the way to providing a fund, named after my mother, for students to go to college. This cradle-to-college approach to education is critical to the future of South Africa — it is a struggle for the human rights of South Africa’s children.

The people of South Africa want to be educated. They want their loved ones to be healthy. Political rights are important, but people are also fighting for the freedom to educate their children, to ensure that their children live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Many years ago the Province of the Eastern Cape was the place of light. It was the place of education. People from as far away as Kenya used to come to the Eastern Cape to be educated. Mandela, Steve Biko, the leadership of the ANC, the current leadership of South Africa — all of them were educated in the Eastern Cape. But now it is the most neglected Province with enormous problems. South Africa Partners is working with local partners in the Eastern Cape to restore excellence by focusing on early childhood education. I cannot imagine anything more important right now in South Africa than giving the children hope and education. They are the future of South Africa.


Tell us about your family’s longstanding involvement in education.

Where do I start? In the 1890s my great-grandfather, John-Knox Bokwe, started a school in a place called Ugie, a school for poor people regardless of their race. That school is still standing and the pass rate is close to 100 percent. My grandfather, Z.K. Matthews, was the first black South African to graduate from a university in South Africa. He had five children and all of them were educated — two medical doctors, a teacher, a nurse and a lawyer. My grandfather had a saying, “You have no business trying to liberate and lead people if you’re not educated.” It is amazing for me to think that young Nelson Mandela was one my grandfather’s students and that in Mandela’s writings, he acknowledges the education and mentorship he received as a young man from Professor Z.K. Matthews.

Education is a tool of liberation — look at where education has taken me. I am now headmaster at Groton and before that I was a teacher at Phillips Academy for 26 years. My personal journey speaks not only to the power of education — it also speaks to the United States as a place of opportunity and merit, of giving people a chance. These two independent schools and the public schools in New York accepted me for who I am and my commitment as an educator.


The transformative power of education has been a major theme in your life and that of your family. Are there other examples that come to mind?

I’m going to give you three dates: 1959, 1976 and 2014. In 1959 my grandfather, Z.K. Matthews, resigned as a professor at University of Fort Hare with just six months left before he would have been pensioned after 25 years of service there. He resigned for two principled reasons — because the South African government had decided that no one who was an educational administrator could belong to a political organization or to the African National Congress and because he was vehemently opposed to the Bantu Education Act, which was the South African government’s effort to legislate an inferior education for blacks. My grandfather declared, “I won’t accept this.” He took a principled stand against exclusion.

His decision sent reverberations throughout the country in terms of how important it was to fight for freedom. This was around the time of the treason trial of Mandela and 156 other leaders, and during the state of emergency. My grandfather’s action was so influential that people said, “If a professor can do this for the sake of our liberation, we should also fight for our rights.” This helped to kindle the protest movement against the Bantu Education Act. In 1976, the children of Soweto were told that they were going to be taught in the Afrikaans language. Twenty thousand teenage students stood up and said, never. That was the beginning of the end of apartheid, because from 1976 until 1990, South Africa became ungovernable. The struggle was being waged by the youngest members. The first student to die was Hector Pieterson. He was 13 years old.

Now in 2014, twenty years after the end of apartheid, hundreds of thousands of the youngest children in South Africa are still not able to access the early childhood education services that are their human right. South Africa Partners has joined with local partners in the Eastern Cape to develop a scalable model for ECD that can work effectively in under-resourced communities and help build a future for the youngest children


What are the characteristics and values of South Africa Partners that foster partnerships and the feeling of belonging?

When I think of South Africa Partners, I think of Mary Tiseo, her humility and great sense of purpose. In South Africa, they gave Mary the name Nokwakha, which means she who builds. In a village where people do not speak any English, when she showed up, they said here comes the builder of our nation, they gave her that name. That means building something that will last for more than your lifetime, so it really is a big honor to be given a name like that.

Most people are comfortable just saying diversity, but they’re not prepared to take the next step of inclusion. You may have several faces represented; the question to ask yourself is, do they all feel they belong? Do they feel invited? Are their opinions valued? In South Africa Partners, we have white South Africans, black South Africans, white Americans, black Americans, and every voice matters. Everyone feels that they have a role to play.

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