This is a slightly edited excerpt from “The Boyhood of a History Professor: Sekiba Lekgoathi in Conversation with Cynthia Kros and John Wright” by Sekiba Lekgoathi, Cynthia Kros and John Wright, in Archives of Times Past: Conversations about South Africa’s Deep History (Wits University Press, 2022), edited by Cynthia Kros, John Wright, Mbongiseni Buthelezi and Helen Ludlow.
Historians who specialize in researching early history have learned to use a wide range of materials from the past as source materials. What are these materials? Where can we find them? Who made them? When? Why? What are the problems associated with their use? The tests in Archives of Times Past: Conversations about South Africa’s Deep History explore particular sources of evidence on the era of southern Africa before the colonial era. Edited by Cynthia Kros, John Wright, Mbongiseni Buthelezi and Helen Ludlow, these essays are written by well-known historians, archaeologists and researchers who approach these questions from different angles and in an illuminating way. Written from personal experiences, they capture how these specialists encountered their knowledge archive beyond the textbook.
A History Teacher’s Childhood: Sekiba Lekgoathi in Conversation with Cynthia Kros and John Wright
Sekibakiba Lekgoathi grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s near what is now the town of Mokopane in Limpopo Province, tending to his family’s cattle and goats. Fast forward some 40 years, and in 2011 he became an associate professor of history at the University of the Witwatersrand. In 2015, he became head of the history department of this university. The story of his childhood told here is based on interviews with him by Cynthia Kros and John Wright.
Sekiba was the eldest of seven children. His family, led by his paternal grandfather, lived as tenants on a white-owned farm. In exchange, the grandfather worked on the farm.
In the words of Sekiba:
“So eventually, in the 1960s, the white farmer expected my father, as my grandfather was now quite old, to take over as the farm worker, and my father said, ‘ No way, I’m not going to be a laborer here,” so he ran away. He went to town, and the farm owner said, “Well, you know, he said, John ( my grandfather’s name is John – that’s his first name), now you’re going back to the farm. You work.’
“My grandfather’s eyesight was very bad at that age, and at that time the decision was made by the family that maybe it was time they left because we were expecting what he now goes to plow – be in the fields and do all the other manual work that everyone else was doing. Obviously it was a roundabout way by the farmer to get rid of my father. So they all left in 1967 – my grandparents, my mother, as well as my aunt and her children.
The family settled in Ntamaties in the village of Zebediela, about 40 km southeast of the town then called Potgietersrust. Here, Sekiba grew up, helping tend his grandfather’s cattle. In 1973, he started attending Mamogoasha Primary School in the village.
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“At the time I was in Standard 1 [Grade 3], I could read and write Northern Sotho. I actually had to learn fast so my mom wouldn’t have to go by or have someone else write a letter to my dad because my dad was a migrant worker working on the Rand. I think he worked somewhere in the Edenvale area not far from what was then Jan Smuts Airport at the time. But he will go later in the mines and he became a minor.
“If I remember correctly at the time, part of the reason I was eager to learn quickly was so I could help my mom write letters to my dad. My mom would dictate to me, ‘Tell me your father that the goats got lost, or that the jackal ate one of the little goats, or that the cattle were stolen. Basically, we are doing well, but we are struggling because we have no money Can you please send us some money so we can buy some flour or something Grandfather (my father’s father) was not well but now he is fine good.’”
Sekiba further explains how he learned to read and write.
“There were a lot of books in my house, religious books, Christian books. My mother had converted to this group, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they gave out a lot of literature and they had – some magazines and books and pamphlets – had a lot of pictures to illustrate the points that they were making, and they did many impressions.
Kros asks if Sekiba read the books that were around the house.
“That’s the point I’m trying to make. I gave them meaning through images. My impression was that the world is full of sin and you could get salvation through the Bible because it would teach you how to avoid sin, and then when Armageddon comes, you will be one of the chosen few who will be saved when everyone is going to hell. It was my view of the world, which was influenced by those books, and I think that’s part of what drove that desire to learn to read so that I could read the books rather than just looking at pictures and to think that’s what they are. actually say.
“So there were also these magazines that were distributed by the Lebowa government to schools, so from about grade 3 I was able to read and I read them and I got the concept of politics, although I didn’t understand them. Ok, so the Chief Minister of Lebowa is Dr. CN Phatudi. Oh! So that’s what Lebowa as a government did: he set up the school for the blind, and things like that.
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In 1978, after completing primary school, Sekiba went to Madibo secondary school in the nearby village about 3 km west of Ntamaties, where he did grades 8 to 10. He pursues :
“It was the era of corporal punishment and this school really – the teachers really abused the system, they really abused us. to walk to school and that lessons started very early – ten to seven. If you were late, you would be punished. Corporal punishment was excessive.
Kros asks about the medium of instruction.
“Listen, they were supposed to teach through English, but the reality was that it was just impossible to use the English medium, so eventually you find out – a lot of the teachers themselves had difficulties with English – so in an English class there would be a lot of Sepedi used.
“There was a disjunction between what the official policy said and what was practiced on the ground. The textbook (in general science, for example) would be in English, but in order for the students to understand what is in the textbook, the teacher would explain some things in Sepedi. It was hard. It was really difficult. We had debates at school, which helped a little to develop the ability to articulate – to try to articulate – in English, but it was really, really difficult.
Kros asks about the story.
“Actually, in elementary school, we did social studies. We went from Civics to Standard 1, 2 [Grades 3 and 4] then in Standard 3 [Grade 5] we had social studies (history and geography) and, if I remember correctly, a lot of the history we did was the history of fatherlands, which was presented as our national history. It was then that I saw pictures of Gatsha Buthelezi, Mphephu, Kaiser Matanzima on the cover of the book, and these were presented as our national leaders and we learned the history of all these homelands. This is what made our history. Nothing about the history of the continent, but certainly a big part of the history of the Voortrekkers.
Sekiba began learning politics while in upper primary school. A cousin who had visited the towns asked if Sekiba knew that there were in fact people who were imprisoned for their political beliefs. He whispered Mandela’s name. Sekiba knew nothing of Mandela or the ANC. These were not topics that students could talk about openly; they could only talk about it in low tones.
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In 1976, Sekiba’s two younger cousins (one was three and the other four) spent some time with relatives in Soweto. When they returned, they had learned to exclaim, “Black power! They could see the local bakery truck drive by in a cloud of dust, and they would raise their fists and shout, “Black power! Sekiba and his friends didn’t know what they meant.
Sekiba completed his 11th and 12th grades at Matladi High School in Moletlane, where there were fewer beatings. He enjoyed the history teaching he received, as well as the excursions to the cities. He passed his final exams at the end of 1984.
He wanted to go to teacher training school, but his family could not afford it. In 1985 he moved to Johannesburg, where he lived with relatives in White City, Soweto, before moving to Jabulani’s hostel. He worked as a packer in Jeppestown and sold cosmetics such as cheap perfumes, roll-ons and body lotions part-time so he could send money home. It was not a happy time; was that where he was going with a matrix qualification?
[A major turning-point came in 1986, when one of Sekiba’s friends and homeboys inspired him to apply for admission to the Bachelor of Education course at Wits, and he was accepted. That was the beginning of an academic career that saw him become head of the history department at Wits some 30 years later. But that’s another story.] If you wish to republish this article, please read our guidelines.