Remembering a man of multiplied wisdom

2009-08-22 10:52

 AS Deputy Minister of Education with the responsibility to promote maths and

science education between 2001 and 2004, I launched the Dinaledi project. To

start off, we selected 102 schools from all nine provinces, which were to

receive focused attention in the teaching of these subjects. Today the number of

those schools has been increased considerably.

Among other things, we organised enrichment sessions, workshops and seminars

for both learners and teachers from these schools where they interacted with one

another, but also with experts from universities and elsewhere. Professor

Thamsanqa Kambule was from “elsewhere” and it was the first time I worked with

him. I had known him by reputation for years and it was a huge honour to

collaborate with this giant in this venture.

To the bemusement of the kids, I always introduced Kambule as “’n tier van

wiskunde” (a beast of maths), a slang expression we used in our youth to

describe anybody that excelled in whatever they were involved in.

Kambule was an embodiment of simplicity, humility and brevity. He’d stand in

front of the children, crack a joke and then go straight to the heart of the


He would tell the teachers that it was impossible to be a good teacher if

they did not love both the kids and the subject they taught; that if students

did not understand or failed maths, it was not their fault, but that of the

teacher; that understanding a mathematical concept was more important than the

language used to teach. So, don’t fuss about language, focus on the


He would say all this in his own nice and unique way so that nobody felt

threatened or put down. This was in line with what my wife, Thabile, experienced

as a teacher at Orlando High School under Kambule as principal.

She says he was firm, principled and consistent, but in a fatherly way that

induced loyalty and respect from both teachers and students. He could control,

and if need be, discipline, even the most thuggish of students with amazing


A teacher asked him at one of the Dinaledi Autumn Schools, as we stood

chatting during tea time, how he could maintain the interest of his learners

teaching a dry subject like maths. Kambule got agitated, saying he could not

understand anybody describing maths as dry.

“I don’t stand in front of my class and parrot the Pythagoras theorem, for

example. I start off by telling my students a story about Pythagoras, the man.

When and where he lived and what he was like. I would tell them about angles –

acute, right and obtuse angles, where they feature in everyday life. I point out

how life as we know it is unimaginable without ?angles. Mathematics a dry

subject? No!” he said.

But Kambule would be in his element when we met the kids in any of our

programmes. He knew how to come down to the level of the children with ease.

In his own grandfatherly way, he would tell the kids, amidst their

exclamations and smiles of amazement, how he kept a textbook of algebra at his

bedside so that he could solve at least one problem every day before


His influence went much further than he knew. I believe the man who inspired

our love of mathematics at Wallmansthal Secondary School was himself a disciple

of the great TW Kambule.

Mr Masupye challenged us to solve as many mathematical problems as we could

and he availed himself after school and even at home to work with us. He would

give us old tattered books with tricky problems and challenged us to pit our

wits against them.

After helping me with a maths problem in the staff room one day, Mr Masupye

sang the praises of one great mathematician in Soweto called Kambule.

There was no doubt in my mind that my teacher revered this great mathematical

brain he had just told me about.

Can you imagine what could happen if we had just a thousand ‘half’ Kambules

in our schools today?

  • Mangena is former science and technology minister

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