Headmaster’s Assembly – 31 March 2017

An extraordinary man

It is remarkable how often a single encounter with a person can shape your thinking forever. Around 2005, when I was Headmaster at my previous school, Pinelands High School in Cape Town, I was sitting in my office one afternoon when a man came to see me unannounced and without appointment. He spoke to my secretary and asked to see me – this I could see from my office through the open door. She asked him why and I couldn’t hear that part of the conversation but as things turned out she asked me if I would see him. I agreed and this elderly and vaguely familiar-looking gentleman walked in to my office, introduced himself and we chatted for 30 minutes or so.

The reason he wanted to see me is that his grandson was in the school as a pupil in Grade 10 and his grandson’s friend had been in trouble at school. He had done something wrong and I was directly involved in his punishment. This gentleman thought that I had dealt with the matter too harshly and wanted to speak to me. He wasn’t there for his grandson and the friend did not know anything about it. He just heard about the what happened and about how I had handled it and was concerned that my actions were too harsh.

I explained the incident (which I do not recall now nor do I recall the punishment!) and I explained how important it was that an example was set to deter other pupils from doing what this child did. He disagreed with me and said that the child involved had learned the lesson already, didn’t have to be chastised forever and that in his experience “setting an example” was often not a deterrent at all. He said that despite us jailing thousands of people for theft, stealing still continued and he argued that someone who broke rules was probably going to break them anyway. He said that compassion and kindness in discipline often had a far greater effect on the community in terms of example. We agreed to disagree on some points and the gentleman left my office but I was deeply affected by the conversation and spent the rest of the afternoon sitting thinking about what he said.

Here was a relative stranger who took up an issue on behalf of someone else who didn’t even know he was doing so. He felt there was injustice and spoke up. He did so quietly, respectfully and in a manner that showed he listened as well. Here was a human being of deep compassion.This interaction changed my thinking particularly when it comes to discipline and consequences for teenagers who as we all know are works in progress.

This extraordinary man died this week and was buried yesterday at a beautiful and moving funeral service. He was indeed a remarkable man – quiet, humble, gentle, sincere, a true servant to people and a man who believed deeply in rooting out injustice and wrong. He was a remarkable and special man. He was Ahmed Kathrada.

Such was his influence that Jonathan Jansen, ex Vice Chancellor of the University of the Free State wrote this about him on Facebook:

“Show me another country where the Anglican Archbishop prays at a Muslim funeral; where a white man chairs the proceedings to remember a leader from a black liberation movement; where the widow of the black man being buried is a white woman who gave her life to the struggle for freedom; and where Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and other faiths come together in a broad swathe of South African humanity to remember a man who fought for all of us.

Where on and off the stage no one racial or ethnic or religious group dominated the event.

For a moment, just a moment, it felt good to hope again…”

“In one man’s dignified funeral, (we had) a moving reminder of who we are and what we can still be.”

I had the privilege to meet Ahmed Kathrada, this extraordinary person, for 30 minutes in a one on one conversation that changed my life. You will have these encounters too. Be ready for them – you never know when they will appear. Who knows maybe one day you meet someone who says something or does something that changes you completely. Maybe you will be the person that changes someone else – who knows?

Just be ready to allow people to interact with you, to be with you and to share their stories – you could be influenced for life.  


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