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

Alie Fataar, photographed during his exile in Zambia, was a revolutionary teacher. Courtesy of Alie Fataar

Alie Fataar was a teacher. Perhaps that doesn’t seem glamorous and very important. But Fataar, who would have turned 100 this month, 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 fleeing into exile from the apartheid government, Fataar profoundly influenced five generations of oppressed pupils. 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.”

Fataar was the subject of my PhD thesis. Why does he 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 12 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, but the young man 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 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.

The combined Livingstone High School Standards 9 and 10 (Grades 11 and 12) classes in 1934. (Standing) Left to right: A. Solomon, C. Wade, Alie Fataar, P. Francis, N. Thomas, W. Ludolph, D. Hendricks. (Sitting) Left to right: J. Slinger, C. Parker, J. Henry, M. Dennis, T. Basson, W. Williams. (Front: mascot) J. Rhoda. Absent: I. Salie. Courtesy of Alie Fataar

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, African Peoples’ Democratic Union of Southern Africa and the Non-European Unity Movement.

He kept teaching while under surveillance by the notorious special branch. He was 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.

The organisation emerged in the first decades of the 20th century as an assimilationist “coloured” political entity. The concept “coloured”, like most racial tags, is shrouded in controversy even today. Here, for analytical purposes, it indicates the politically-inscribed community that emerged from the colonial sexual encounter with the enslaved, indigenous population at the Cape. This “community” was labelled “coloured” by the colonial and later apartheid regimes.

In the late 1930s literature from the Russian revolution was finding its way into Cape Town’s progressive intellectual circles. The league was captured by young radicals. The radicalised league and its teachers became explicitly and organisationally committed to the creation of a new world. Through their teaching, they aimed to undo the violence of the colonial and later the formal apartheid education dispensations.

It was a revolutionary moment in South Africa’s making. 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.

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. 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.