Students are shot at by the apartheid police. Eighteen-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubo carries the lifeless body of 12-year-old Hector Pieterson. Antoinette Sithole, Hector’s sister, runs alongside. The picture taken by photographer Sam Nzima is shown across the world and the news is on all radios, newspapers and television stations.
The photograph is voted by Time magazine as one of the Top 100 images of all time. High school students and university students in Cape Town join in the protest against police brutality. South Africa would never be the same again. The militancy of the youth has taken everybody by surprise.
I was a student at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) doing a teachers’ course when we heard about what was happening in Soweto and the unleashing of the might of the police on young high school students. It was in this situation when I met a remarkable young teacher, Yusuf Abrahams, at Cathkin High where I did my student-teaching. Cathkin High School is in Heideveld.
Along with me, the late Rashaad Davids, who was also a student teacher from UWC, was mentored by this unassuming teacher who was to become one of the giants in teaching during the 1970-1990 period.
You could say we cut our educational and political teeth under Yusuf Abrahams who passed away last Thursday at his home on Lawrence Road in Athlone. Lawrence Road is a famous street in Athlone for its political significance. Many political meetings were held at the Catholic Church in Lawrence Road and one pays tribute to the priests and congregation of that church who willingly supported activists in their fight to overcome oppression.
Instead of what we thought was an unassuming teacher, Abrahams instead became a giant of a man to us. He held a BSc and a B.Com degrees from the University of Cape Town and had just returned from the US in 1971 where he spent four months at the University of North Arizona specialising in Physical Sciences education.
Rashaad and I were very fortunate to have Abrahams as one of our first mentors in teaching. For three weeks, in August 1976, he set us on a directed course.
The many discussions we had with him in August 1976 for three weeks set us on a directed course in teaching where we would follow our teaching careers at Crystal High in Hanover Park and South Peninsula High in Diep River respectively.
Something that stood out for us was his view that liberation and education go together. The one cannot do without the other. Two sides of the same coin.
This is a principle I believe in and prepared to work for. He encouraged us to read about the conquest of America by the colonialists and the subsequent conquest of the indigenous people and the cutting up of Africa by the greed of the colonialists.
He believed that to understand the nature of your oppression you would need to read, reread, think, rethink, analyse and then work for real change.
Abrahams was involved in many progressive organisations including the Teachers’ League of SA with teachers such as RO Dudley, Ben Kies and Ernie Steenveld.
He was involved in various organisations like the Muslim Youth Movement, Qibla and Movement Against Illegitimate Leaders.
He taught with the aim of conscientising the youth and bringing peace to a very troubled nation. He taught Rashaad and I that there cannot be peace without justice.
One thing I admired about Abrahams was when he retired from teaching in 1993 and went into his passion for fishing. He never forgot his roots among the people. He was very active in many movements after his retirement.
He fought tirelessly against the rationalisation of teachers in 1996, the closing of teacher training colleges in the 1990s, the introduction of outcomes-based education in 1998, the closure of poor schools from 2012 to this very day.
Sometimes families cannot understand the passion that some teachers have for education after they retire from teaching. When we visited Abrahams just before he died he was very lucid about his views on education. Here we sat at the feet of a master teacher and an expert in his craft still concerned about what needed to be done for the benefit of the majority of students in our country.
I salute a great person, family man, community leader, dedicated and committed teacher, progressive political activist and a man true to his word. Abrahams is a man whose name should be written into our history books and etched in gold.
* Brian Isaacs obtained a BSc (UWC) in 1975, a Secondary Teacher’s Diploma in 1976, BEd (UWC) in 1981, and MEd (UWC) in 1992. He is a former matriculant, teacher and principal at South Peninsula High School.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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