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“The Rock at 80”

THE SATURDAY falling on the very last day of a heatwave stifled November turned out to be one of joyous reunion as alumni descended on the grounds of one of South Africa’s famous educational institutions to celebrate its 80th anniversary, in Orlando East, Soweto.

“The Rock at 80”

Former pupils and teacher of Orlando High School had a rendezvous to remember as attendees also gathered for the commendable exercise of reporting and showing evidence of progress made pending what the alma mater’s current principal, Thozama Mrwetyana, described as phase two of on-going efforts to renovation of some of the institution’s features to deserving status. 

These include upgrading the library into a digital one, as well as manicuring the T W Kambule Garden of Remembrance, a space dotted with recently planted trees and incorporating an impressive rockery with a huge boulder atop of which has been installed a blue heritage plaque donated by the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation in September, serving to acknowledge the school as being of historical importance!  

The latter feature, located next to the car parking at the entrance, is named after one of the school’s erstwhile teacher, the late mathematician, Thamsanqa Wilkie Kambule.

On the day, former students, mostly middle-aged and now occupying positions of note in society, also got the opportunity to lay their eyes for the very first time, on an immaculate roll of honour installed along a passage leading to the school’s administration block. 

Their countenances registering marvel at esteemed names appearing thereon, it became a moment of satisfaction for one artist, Peter Mashinini, to come across his as his curious eyes scanned the list. 

They made for impressive reading, alumni of “The Rock” including former president of the Republic, Kgalema Motlanthe, Kaizer Chief’s chairman, Kaizer Motaung, dancer, Nomsa Manaka, journalist, Joe Thloloe, Princess Irene Buthelezi, artist, Louis Maqhubela, Madiba’s children, Makaziwe and Makgatho Mandela – to mention but a few.  In addition to Mashinini (who was once commissioned by the country’s postal services to do a series of stamps), those featured on the roll and present at the occasion, were Manaka and Thloloe.

Noteworthy was the presence of the singular person who has been the passionate driver behind efforts to turn the institution into its deserving status, one Vuka Tshabalala, an Orlando East local who has to date accumulated a resume of feats supposed to had been performed by councillors.

Described as a concept developer, Tshabalala spearheads the James Mpanza Legacy Foundation Trust, whose concern is towards the preservation of the area’s history and ensuring recording important aspects for posterity. 

Lending their moral support for the cause, since the occasion was not so much a party as it was actually an interaction of ideas geared at figuring out ways of improving the school’s well-being, were stakeholders from the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation, viz, Flo Bird and Merle Ruff. 

Back in September, Bird – the foundation’s founder – had been instrumental in the installation of the heritage plaque and now she had come back to witness the revealing of the roll of honour, which her entity also donated to the school.

Also in attendance were representatives of the Motsepe family, whose foundation has committed itself to fund the digitisation of the library.  Their involvement is a commendable one and can be viewed within the context of being a “charity begins at home” since their late patriarch, ABC Motsepe once taught at the school.  So close are the ties that in fact, the family’s former house is situated diagonally opposite to the school’s entrance.

The centrepiece of the event was a lecture delivered by University of Johannesburg academic, Dr Tshepo Mvulane-Moloi, who literally conducted his session in a teacher-to-student-in-a-classroom interactive manner.  

Drawing on knowledge gleaned from his own research regarding the school’s history, the young educationist also allowed the audience to contribute their own recollections of the institution.  Pending Mvulane-Moloi’s time on the podium, what became immediately clear was the need for the thorough recording of history and fact about the institution. 

He rightly exploited glaring omissions such as those of the name of the first pupil on the alumni roll of honour, a man named Grant Khomo, who became a captain of the Springboks – albeit of the black team – as well as a footballer and a professional tennis player. 

Saliently scrutinizing misrepresentations, he also questioned why the roll only contained 83 names as opposed to the requisite 100 – pointing out that the faux pas didn’t subscribe to the “top 100” rationale usually called upon.

Back in 1939, when the school started out from where is currently located the Orlando Communal Hall and amidst the objections of naysayers who claimed that the school would never succeed, one of the first two teachers who pooled in their lot with it, was the late, “Lion of Azania”, Zephania Mothopeng. 

Other notaries such as Eskia Mphahlele and Minister of Education Angie Motshekga were to follow into pan-Africanist’s footsteps.  Mentioning the cabinet minister, speakers didn’t mince their words regarding their disappointment with her absence at the auspicious occasion.

Neither does such no-shows of political principals such as herself rankle well with parallel efforts by figures like Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane – the executive director of the Historic Schools Restoration Project (HSRP), an initiative to revive South African secondary schools with historic significance by transforming them into sustainable institutions of educational and cultural excellence – who called on the government to assign such schools a special category and designate them as academies.

The chairman of the Orlando High School 80th Anniversary Committee, Dr Elijah “EXO” Nkosi, who matriculated from the institution in 1980 and was a classmate of the present Anglican Archbishop, Thabo Makgoba, declared with vigour that the commemoration was “the beginning of bigger things” for the school.

The on-going endeavours of Tshabalala, Moloi and Manaka, who acts as the 80th Anniversary Committee’s public relations officer, in addition to funding commitment by the Motsepe Foundation, will no doubt go a long way that in the other phases to be tackled, one of the first high schools in Soweto, will eventually realize the status it deserves in history. 

After all, taking cue from its Latin slogan, Nihil Sinelabore Motatibus Datur – there is nothing you can achieve without hardwork!

Image Jacob MAWELA(Gathered around the TW Kambule Garden of Remembrance are Vuka Tshabalala, Johannesburg Heritage Foundation’s Flo Bird, Orland High School Principal, Thozama Mrwetyana and the JHF’s Merle Ruff).

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