DR REEDERWAAN CRAAYENSTEIN pays tribute to Nabil Swart, a teacher and activist whose role in challenging the notion of worth based on skin colour and instilling values of integrity, honesty and courage in his students reshaped the education system in South Africa
WEST INDIAN psychoanalyst and social philosopher, Franz Fanon, says that every generation must identify its mission and either fulfil it or betray it.
Nabil Swart has died.
In a tradition that fosters respect for teachers in South Africa, Nabil Swart was popularly known as simply ‘Mr Swart’ and also affectionately as ‘Swartie.’
With his death, the structures of meaning-making for at least three generations must undergo radical transformations.
Brother Nabil was a father, a brother, a son and a teacher. When one talks about him, one recalls that he was a school teacher despite having the opportunity to live a comfortable middle-class life.
However, in a Fanonian sense, he took responsibility for his privilege. He came of age in the shadow of the murder in detention of Martyr Shaheed Imam Abdullah Haron.
One cannot talk about the role of Alexander Sinton High School without mentioning Mr Swart, who embodies the best of what we can be. Sinton, as the school was commonly known, was part of a network of high schools that served the communities of Athlone, Bridgetown, Manenberg, Heideveld, and Hanover Park.
In these schools, where our people faced numerous challenges, teachers like Mr Swart taught students that education is not solely about preparing for the job market.
It was more radical in terms of reshaping a system that told us we were worth less, that we amounted to less, and that we could only achieve less.
It aimed to change how we thought of ourselves, what we desired to be, and our place in the world. Mr Swart taught us what Imam Achmad Cassiem would often say: ‘Education, the oldest profession, teaches human beings how to live with other human beings.’
Mr Swart embodied this Socratic journey of questioning our assumptions and searching for the truth within ourselves and about our world.
Our world was one of apartheid, built on the false belief that one person was superior to another based on the colour of their skin. Mr Swart fearlessly spoke truth to power.
One must add that Mr Swart could be the activist teacher and deputy principal because the principal at that time, Khalid Desai, shared his vision and commitments.
May they both be blessed. American sociologist and social reformer, W.E.B. du Bois asks four questions.
First, how shall integrity meet oppression? Second, how shall honesty meet deception? Third, how shall decency meet insult, and last, how shall courage and virtue meet brute force?
At various times in the 1970s, when there was a need to take a moral stand, Mr Swart was never found wanting.
He was the epitome of integrity in the face of apartheid oppression. While some teachers kept their heads down and deputy principals were more concerned with teaching as a career rather than a calling, Mr Swart inspired many teachers at Sinton to view teaching as a prophetic calling, following in the footsteps of the prophets of the Bible and the Quran.
It was truly a blessing for him to have raised a son who became a teacher alongside him on the staff at Sinton.
Supporting them both was his wife, Aunty Ghayatunisa, a quiet yet principled presence. Please make dua for her because she is currently extremely frail.
They also have other offspring whom they have raised to be independent in society.
They have successfully nurtured them, ensuring that they do not have to worry about their well-being in society.
Aunty Ghayat has a wider Booley family who are also forces for good, including Boeta Cassiem and Shaikh Shuaib, to name a few.
Mr Swart comes from a family network that embodied integrity in the face of apartheid oppression.
These are middle-class individuals who took their privilege seriously. While many teachers with middle-class privilege chose indifference and turned a blind eye, Mr Swart understood that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, theologian, philosopher, and participant in the civil rights movement, taught us that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself.
He knew what was meant when American philosopher and psychologist, William James, said that indifference is the one human trait that even makes angels weep. Mr Swart made the conscious decision to live by his values and maintain his integrity.
He recognised that taking a stand against injustice was not just an act of solidarity with the oppressed, especially those who were less fortunate than him in his comfortable middle-class deputy principal life.
He chose to live by his values to preserve his own soul. When he looked in the mirror while brushing his teeth, he held himself accountable. Integrity mattered to him at that moment, and he had to be truthful with himself. In sacred texts, we are taught not to deceive others, and he understood that he should not deceive himself either.
That was the standard Mr Swart held himself to. Mr Swart was able to be the exceptional teacher he was because, for him, truth mattered.
This meant taking a critical stance on how the world operated, particularly in the context of apartheid, a system built on falsehood and deception.
Students and colleagues alike learned from him the significance of honesty, even in the face of imprisonment and torture.
Deception persists longer than it should when people are not truthful. Due to the risks posed to himself and his loved ones, only a minority speak out and say that the emperor has no clothes. Many will describe the beauty of the non-existent clothes of the emperor, while others will remain silent.
Mr Swart, however, remained honest in the face of deception, which led to his arrest on at least three occasions.
In one instance, he was imprisoned for nearly a year for his commitment to truth-telling and honesty. Yet, whenever he returned to Sinton, both the staff and students recognised him as someone who walked in the footsteps of the prophets.
It must have filled the hearts of his colleagues and his son to see how beloved he was by so many.
Mr Swart was able to do this because truth-telling and a dedication to honesty were values shared by his entire family. W.E.B. Du Bois asks how decency can confront insults.
When you are consistently subjected to institutional insults and made to feel inferior, unworthy, and lacking competence on a daily basis, it can erode your sense of humanity.
You might be so angry that you lash out without care. When every aspect of your life, every breath you take, and every move you make constantly reinforces the notion that you are inferior and unworthy, it becomes an insult deeply ingrained in the fabric of society.
You are a deputy principal in a school under the authority of the Department of Coloured Affairs, which is the sub-contractor for the Apartheid government.
The children you teach receive a per-head budget that is only a fraction of what is spent on white students.
How do you respond to this ongoing assault and insult that permeates every aspect of your life, whether inside or outside the school, at home, in the community, on the sports field, in the media, on public transport, or in government buildings?
Apartheid itself was an insult, and it was built upon insult. Mr Swart instantiated a commitment to truth and honesty, civility, courtesy, dignity, good behaviour, modesty, propriety, respectability, seemliness and righteousness.
He was always the teacher. These traits were not supplementary but constitutive of the Swart-Booley family complex. These are people who are forces for good. W.E.B. du Bois asks how courage and virtue meet brute force.
Courage is the primary enabling virtue. Without it, one might struggle to live by any other values.
When falsehoods are supported by force, they can manifest in various forms. Mr Swart was detained at least three times, and his will to speak truth to power never diminished or wavered.
When faced with armoured police vehicles, a militarised police force, tear gas, rubber bullets, and vicious dogs, it would be reasonable to have doubts.
However, Mr Swart exemplified courage and became a source of inspiration for his staff and students. They were strong because he was courageous.
They could endure the struggle for the long term because he exemplified what resilience meant. Many may not have known or may have forgotten that this middle-class family agreed for their one son to undergo military training to fight against apartheid. How many middle-class families made this sacrifice?
This is virtue and courage. These are the values that Mr Swart lived by. Mr Swart was a teacher, husband, father, brother, and son in a society where the odds were stacked against the majority of the people.
He chose to live a life of integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue. He recognised the mission carried on by those who followed in the footsteps of Imam Abdullah Haron and fulfilled his own mandate.
Mr Swart was a truth-teller, even though he paid a price for it. It is difficult to imagine the Muslim resistance movement, Qibla, in Cape Town without the presence of Mr Swart, Aunty Ghayat, their children, and the activist Booley family.
They played an integral role in every aspect of life in Qibla. Mr Swart has returned to where he came from.
May the angels welcome him, and may he receive his ‘Book of Deeds’ in his right hand, for he was not perfect.
May the encompassing Mercy make the decision that Mr Swart was deserving of mercy and compassion, surpassing mere justice.
We will always love and miss him. Our prayers are with Aunty Ghayat, the children, and the Swart-Booley family complex.
We have been blessed to have been a part of their lives and to have had them in our lives. May our hearts heal, yet never forget the loved ones we have lost, such as Nabil Swart.
A memorial for Nabil Swart will be held on Sunday November19 (which coincides with what would have been his 87th birthday) at 3pm in the Khalid Desai Memorial Hall at Alexander Sinton High School in Thornton Road, Athlone.
Please RSVP to Fazilét Bell at 073 903 8600 by Thursday November 16.