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THE WAY WE LIVED.   4. Our teachers – mentors, heroes and a traitor. [7min read] 

South African schools were hives of antistate activity. It was no coincidence that a student-driven revolution finally brought down the apartheid monolith.

In 1961 the state banned three of our senior teachers under the Suppression of Communism Act.  I was at school on the day that the police called at Livingstone High School and handed the banishment orders to what were arguably our best teachers.  They had to be silenced.  RO Dudley, Victor Wessels, and Alie Fataar, my dad, all needed controlling.  The restrictive Law prevented them from attending meetings  of more than two people. They could still teach, but not attend staff meetings.  

My Dad  flaunted these restrictions until he went into political exile in 1965 ,with a late-night crossing into Botswana.  Later he moved on to Zambia and finally to Zimbabwe.  His passion for teaching made him a successful teacher in exile[1].

Kenny Jordaan was an excellent history teacher.  The biased and distorted subject material must have angered him. He preferred a Marxist analysis of history. In 1963 he  fled to the UK and returned to teach in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1981.

‘Duds,’ RO Dudley, was an outstanding science and maths teacher.  Like my dad, an English teacher, he was a founder member of the Unity Movement, a Trotskyist group opposed to the state. Like many of his colleagues, he maintained his opposition to apartheid[2].

Our Afrikaans teacher, Victor Wessels was a bit of an enigma.  His lessons were all about politics.  As students, we worked our way though Die Lewende Taal textbook and mostly we did well in Afrikaans.

In the Cape Argus in 1963, there’s a photo of me standing outside the court where some of our teachers were to appear on treason charges.  Students were there to support our mentors. Neville  Alexander and Lesley van der Heyden, and others were on trial.

Dr Alexander was our only teacher with a doctorate [two of them] obtained in Germany. His initial detention was under the infamous Ninety-day Detention Law. After his trial, he spent ten years’ imprisoned on Robben  Island[3].

Leslie van der Heyden was sentenced to five years and banned on his release.  He went into exile in the UK.[Two of his sisters, Doris and Elizabeth, were sentenced to  five and ten years respectively for their involvement in the same trial].

We had at least one villain that we knew of at our school.  To be detained under the 90-Day Detention Law and released after a few days was a sure sign that the detainee’s spirit had been broken and was compliant as a state witness.  In the Neville Alexander/Leslie van der Hayden trial, we had one such teacher.  During the trial, I found a dead rat at home.  I took it to school in a paper bag and placed it on the traitor’s table before classes began.  A half-empty carton of rat poison was placed alongside the rodent.

Virtually all our teachers were members of the Teacher’s League of South Africa. Here was a national teacher’s forum that promoted equality of all by virtue of being human.  This mantra was contrary to government policy and many teachers at most senior schools, were banned, imprisoned or exiled for their political beliefs.  They were our life teachers, our mentors, and our heroes.

We learnt to question what it was the authorities wanted us to believe and, in the process, to seek an alternative, the truth, and, ultimately, democracy.

If handing out banning orders at schools was meant to intimidate pupils, the 1976 student-driven revolution reflected the ultimate failure of this attempt to subdue the determination of the students of the nation.


Who were your teacher heroes?  Add to this post and acknowledge them and their sacrifices for us.


[1] Yunus Omar. The Conversation.28.3.2017. Born into revolution: reflections on a radical teacher’s life.

[2] Bill Nasson. S African Journal of Science, 2010.  R.O. Dudley: teacher, educator and political dissenter (1924-2009).

[3].  South African History on Line, 2012.  Dr Neville Edward Alexander.


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