This is a lightly 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 specialise in researching early history have learnt 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 with using them? The essays in Archives of Times Past: Conversations about South Africa’s Deep History explore particular sources of evidence on southern Africa’s time before the colonial era. Edited by Cynthia Kros, John Wright, Mbongiseni Buthelezi and Helen Ludlow, these essays are by well-known historians, archaeologists and researchers engaging these questions from a range of perspectives and in illuminating ways. Written from personal experience, they capture how these specialists encountered their archives of knowledge beyond the textbook.
The boyhood of a history professor: 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, looking after 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 department of history at that university. The story of his boyhood as told here is based on interviews held with him by Cynthia Kros and John Wright.
Sekiba was the eldest of seven children. His family, headed by his paternal grandfather, lived as tenants on a white-owned farm. In exchange, the grandfather worked on the farm.
In Sekiba’s words:
“So eventually, come the 1960s, the white farmer is expecting that my father, as my grandfather was now quite old, would now take over as the labourer on the farm, and my father said, ‘No ways, I’m not going to become a labourer here,’ so he eloped. He went to the city, and the farm owner said, ‘Well, you know,’ he said, ‘John (my grandfather’s name is John – that is his Christian name), now you’re going to go back to the farm. You work.’
“My grandfather’s sight was very poor at that age, and at that time the decision was taken by the family that maybe it’s about time that they left because he was expected to now go and plough – be on the fields and do all the other manual work that everybody else was doing. Obviously it was an indirect way by the farmer of getting 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 40km south-east of the town then called Potgietersrust. Here Sekiba grew up, helping to look after his grandfather’s livestock. In 1973 he began attending Mamogoasha Primary School in the village.
“By the time I was in Standard 1 [Grade 3], I could read and write Northern Sotho. In fact I had to learn fast so that my mother would not have to go next door or get someone else to ask to write a letter to my father because my father was a migrant labourer working on the Rand. I think he was working somewhere around the area of Edenvale not far from what was then Jan Smuts Airport at the time. But he would later on go to the mines and he became a mineworker.
“As I recall, at the time part of the reason why I was eager to learn fast was so that I could help my mother write letters to my father. My mother would dictate to me: ‘Tell your father that the goats got lost, or the jackal ate one of the small goats, or the cattle were stolen. Basically we are doing well, but we are struggling because we don’t have money. Can you please send us some money so that we can buy mealie meal or something like that? Grandfather (my father’s father) wasn’t well but now he’s fine.’”
Sekiba explains further how he learnt to read and write.
“There were a lot of books in my house, religious books, Christian books. My mother had converted to this grouping, Jehovah Witnesses, and they distribute a lot of literature and they had – some of the magazines and books and booklets – had a lot of pictures to illustrate the points that they were making, and they made a lot of impressions.”
Kros asks if Sekiba read the books that were around the house.
“That’s the point I’m trying to make. I made sense of them through pictures. 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 the Armageddon comes you will be part of the chosen few who will be saved when all the people go to hell. That was my worldview, which was influenced by these books, and I think this was partly what drove this desire to learn how to read so that I could be able to read the books rather than just look at pictures and think this is what they are actually saying.
“So there were also these magazines that were distributed by the Lebowa government to the schools, so from around Grade 3 I was able to read and I would read them and get the concept of the politics, even though I didn’t understand them. Okay, so the Chief Minister of Lebowa is Dr CN Phatudi. Oh! So this is what Lebowa as a government has actually done: it has established the school for the blind, and things like those.”
In 1978, after completing primary school, Sekiba went to Madibo Secondary School in the next village about 3km west of Ntamaties, where he did Grades 8 to 10. He continues:
“These were the days of corporal punishment and this school really – the teachers really abused the system, they really abused us. They would beat us for being late in the morning even though we had 3 or 4km to walk to the school and classes started very early – at ten minutes to seven o’clock. If you were late then you would be punished. Corporal punishment was excessive.”
Kros asks about the medium of instruction.
“Look, they were supposed to teach through the medium of English, but the reality was that it was just impossible to use the medium of English so eventually you find – many of the teachers were struggling with English themselves – so in an English class there would be a lot of Sepedi used.
“There was a disjuncture between what official policy said and what was practised on the ground. The textbook (in General Science, for example) would be in English, but so that the students could comprehend what is in the textbook the teacher would explain certain things in the medium of Sepedi. It was hard. It was really hard. We did have school debates, which did help somewhat in developing the ability to articulate – to try to articulate – in English, but it was really, really hard.”
Kros asks about history.
“In fact in primary school we did Social Studies. We moved from Civics in Standard 1, 2 [Grades 3 and 4] and then in Standard 3 [Grade 5] we had Social Studies (History and Geography), and as I can recall a lot of the history that we did was the history of the homelands, which was presented as our national history. That’s when I saw pictures of Gatsha Buthelezi, Mphephu, Kaiser Matanzima on the front cover of the book, and those were presented as our national leaders and we learned the history of all those homelands. That’s what accounted for our history. Nothing about the history of the continent, but certainly a lot of the history of the Voortrekkers.”
Sekiba began learning about politics while he was in higher primary school. A cousin who had visited the towns asked whether Sekiba knew there were actually people who were held in prison for their political beliefs. He whispered the name Mandela. Sekiba knew nothing about Mandela or the ANC. These were not topics that pupils could talk about in the open; they could talk about them only in whispers.
In 1976 Sekiba’s two little cousins (one was three and the other was four years old) spent some time with relatives in Soweto. When they came back they had learnt to exclaim, “Black power!” They might see the truck from the local bakery going past in a cloud of dust, and they would raise their fists and shout, “Black power!” Sekiba and his friends did not know what they meant.
Sekiba completed grades 11 and 12 at Matladi High School at Moletlane, where there were fewer beatings. He enjoyed the history teaching that he received, as well as excursions to towns. He passed his matric exams at the end of 1984.
He wanted to go to teachers’ training college, 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 hostel. He worked as a packer in Jeppestown, and hawked cosmetics such as cheap perfumes, roll-ons and body lotions part-time so that he could send money home. It was not a happy time; was this where he was going with a matric 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.]