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Born into revolution: reflections on a radical teacher’s life

Born into revolution: reflections on a radical teacher’s life
June 2, 2017
June 2, 2017 June 2, 2017

DR YUNUS OMAR

ALIE Fataar was a teacher. Perhaps that doesn’t seem glamorous and very important. But Fataar, who would have turned 100 on March 26, 2017, is one of the many South African unknowns whose life and work can point the country today in a direction it ought to follow.

Fataar and his comrades developed an unparalleled educational project during the darkest days of colonialism and apartheid. Their work from about the 1940s explicitly debunked the pseudo-scientific racist notion that intelligence and human worth were unequal by virtue of physical characteristics such as skin colour and the texture of one’s hair.

In the 27 years between starting his career as a teacher and going into exile, Fataar profoundly influenced multiple generations of pupils in South Africa.

He instilled in them the virtues of critical citizenship and a profound, articulated anti-racism. His mantra, and that of the progressives he worked alongside, was: ‘There is only one race – the human race.’

Why does Alie Fataar interest me so much, and why am I now writing this reflection on a life that has been relegated to the margins of South Africa’s education resistance history?

Quite simply, because he exemplifies the type of teacher South Africa sorely requires today if its classrooms are to be used to develop a new generation of critical, engaged students.

Fataar and his comrades showed that South Africa needs teachers who know that teaching is, by definition, an acutely political act. It requires a critical outlook that is independent, fearless and sustained.

Who was Alie Fataar?

Alie Fataar was born on March 26, 1917 in Claremont, a working class suburb in Cape Town. 1917 was a significant year. In Russia, the revolution was to shape the world in significant ways. World War 1, the ‘Great War’, continued to maim and kill millions. South Africa was a colony of Great Britain, which introduced apartheid-style legislation that oppressed the country’s not-white citizens. In 1918, Nelson Mandela was born.

Fataar was the youngest of twelve children. His father, Salamudien Fataar, was a tailor at Garlicks, a fine goods retailer and his mother, Janap Moosa, was a washerwoman.

Fataar’s father was not literate, while his mother was fairly literate, but the young Alie was obsessive about reading and progressing through education.

When he enrolled at Claremont’s Livingstone High School in 1929, he continued a pattern established during his primary school years, placing him consistently at the top of the class.

Livingstone shaped Alie Fataar. There he encountered soaring intellects in teachers like Hassan Abrahams and E.C. Roberts. They were members of the Teachers’ League of South Africa (TLSA), and declared unequivocally that their students were anybody’s equal – simply by virtue of being human.

This thinking was revolutionary at a time when South Africans who were not white were considered and treated as inferior.

After school, in 1935, Fataar enrolled at Cape Town’s Zonnebloem College of Education.

In 1937, he landed a post at his alma mater, Livingstone High School. As a senior English teacher he revelled in the responsibility of moulding his students into people who rejected an imposed inferior status, and who aspired to actualise their full human potential.

Fataar was banned in 1961 under the Suppression of Communism Act and was no longer allowed to play any role in organisations like the TLSA and the  African Peoples’ Democratic Union of Southern Africa (Apdusa).

He kept teaching while under constant surveillance by the notorious Special Branch. He was interrogated and accused of breaching his banning order several times, and fled into exile in 1965.

Between then and his return to South Africa in 1993, Fataar lived in three newly decolonised African states: Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. He initially struggled to find work but then began a ‘second life’ in education. He taught in all three countries and worked for both the Zambian and Zimbabwean governments as an education specialist. He eventually retired when he was 71, having served education in Africa for an astounding 51 years.

He was 76 when he returned to South Africa in 1993. He engaged robustly with public education, globalisation, and the militarisation of public life, through newspaper articles, letters to the editor and community radio forums that had been established in the post-apartheid era. His appetite for political debate and engagement was not dulled by age.

Radicalising teaching

Fataar was not the only radical thinker and educator influenced by the Teachers’ League of South Africa.

In the 1930s, literature from the Russian revolution was finding its way into Cape Town’s progressive intellectual circles.

The TLSA was captured by young radicals, and these teachers became explicitly and organisationally committed to the creation of a new world. Through their teaching, these intellectuals created the vision of a new, just society through writing, publishing, debate, and a fierce contestation of ideas both against the enemy, and within their own ranks.

It was a revolutionary moment in South Africa’s making. Historians and public intellectuals such as Ciraj Rassool have written about this project that aimed at nothing less than ‘taking a nation to school’.

This was arguably the most contested and creative political space and period in South Africa’s history.

But its details are not included in post-apartheid’s struggle narratives, and so these radical teachers are not known.

Yet it’s they who created a fierce counter-educational narrative to the dehumanising tenets of colonial and apartheid education.

And their work remains relevant today.

The ideals of a teacher born 100 years ago need to be inserted into the country’s official narratives.

Alie Fataar, who died on
June 9, 2005, left a legacy of teaching as an act of defiance in the face of intellectual dishonesty.

Quality teaching, he taught us, is teaching with a social justice orientation, geared towards the creation of a radically new society.

Dr Yunus Omar holds a PhD in Education from the University of Cape Town. This is an edited version of an article that appeared in ‘The Conversation’.

Alie Fataar is photographed here in 1961 with his 10A class at Livingstone High School, in Claremont, Cape Town. In the same year, Fataar was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act. Photo courtesy ALIE FATAAR

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