Beetroot people

| November 9, 2010
By Dalene Reyburn

‘Be good. Be kind. Be brave.’

These were the parting words of Gill Alexander, for many years the Librarian of St Alban’s College, as she took her leave of the boys and staff at her final Assembly and Chapel Service in 2008. That simple, three-part mantra made a tremendous impression on me, and I have seen the wisdom of her counsel often since then.

Hope springs eternal

On a macro scale, South Africa lived that mantra during the recent Soccer World Cup. Bafana Bafana made us proud – they were good! So were our stadiums, our hospitality, our highways, our security measures. But more importantly, as we welcomed the world to our country and continent, our people were good, and they were
kind, and they were brave.

On a micro scale, the same kind of thing is happening in education institutions. When there is staggering evidence that, in many areas of South African education, ‘things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’,1 we need to look past the pessimism and recognise that many of our independent schools, though seemingly undisturbed and undisturbing, are increasingly magnificent in the extent of their influence.
There is hope. Independent educational institutions are bursting with people who are good and kind and brave – growing, reinventing themselves, inspiring and mentoring others. And the hope is in the fact that goodness and kindness and bravery are like beetroot. There’s no point even trying to keep beetroot separate from your rice or chicken or lettuce. It has a way of turning everything on your plate bright pink. Determined, unstoppable, powerful, prominent, it cannot be ignored or contained.
At St Alban’s College, three such ‘beetrooty’ individuals are Jan Kobe, Lucky Kutumela and Rachel Mathabe – people whose potential has been appreciated and proactively maximised. As a result, their bright colours bleed beautifully into the lives of others in the College community.

Jan Kobe: Be good

Loved and respected by the College boys, and particularly those of Ochse House where ‘Bra Jan’ was a cleaner for many years, Jan Kobe has a gentle, dignified manner of going about his business. His goodness – his unavoidably influential beetrootyness – emanates from a commitment to what is right. He is known for his focus on the task at hand, and for his integrity in making sure that it is completed in the best possible way. He is proactive and passionate. He believes that when a job needs doing, it should be done; it doesn’t matter by whom – title or job description is irrelevant. ‘Just do it’ is his philosophy.

Kobe was promoted to Cleaning Supervisor of the College in February 2010, and he has since initiated various improvements on campus in terms of maintenance and cleaning processes. He sets himself routines and rosters; he identifies new areas where his team can make a difference; he checks that high standards are being maintained and he writes letters to members of his team on a regular basis, thanking them for their work.
Kobe has a deep respect for education, and he speaks of the value of getting the simple things right – like getting bunking boarders to class on time! “Teachers should stand tall,” he says, “and should look forward to a first-rate future, because they are changing peoples’ lives.” After our Staff Conference in July 2010, he wrote to Tom Hamilton, our Headmaster: “Mr Hamilton, for years many of us felt that we just worked here but did not really belong. What has happened here in the past 10 years has given us pride and we feel like equals… Thank you for giving us our dignity.”

Lucky Kutumela: Be kind

Never without a smile and known for going the extra mile with thoughtfulness, Lucky Kutumela began working at the College as a gardener and was promoted to Garden Supervisor in 2007 and to Grounds Team Leader in August 2009. He was mentored by previous Estate Manager, George Weetman, particularly in the area of interpersonal relations. Weetman encouraged him to take control of his circle of influence and to make sure that a job was not just done, but done with excellence.

In his time as Supervisor and Team Leader, Kutumela has implemented many areas of innovation. He feels that team work and the work ethic in general around the gardens of the school, has improved. He doesn’t flinch in the face of emergency clean-ups or the like, but thrives on tackling whatever needs doing. “Lucky is a natural leader who models exemplary behaviour,” says Hamilton. “He never asks his team to do what he will not do himself. He has changed the face of our campus in his time as leader.”

Kutumela is proud of his spotless working environment, and is grateful to be part of a team that is ready and willing to work hard. However, the most gratifying and  energising aspect of his employment lies in the College’s focus on relationships: the “happy faces”, as he puts it, of the College community; the greetings and the humour and the compassion of boys, parents and staff. He has learned that taking time to get to know – really know – the people you’re working with, and working for, makes the job so much easier.

Kutumela’s dream for education in South Africa is to see more learners from disadvantaged backgrounds awarded bursaries at independent schools like St Alban’s. He has a Matriculation Certificate himself, and so understands the value of a sound education, and the resultant opportunities for personal growth and development.

He also continues to dream of even more beautiful campus gardens!

Rachel Mathabe: Be brave

Rachel Mathabe began her St Alban’s journey 16 years ago, working as a cleaner. Her integrity and moral courage were recognised early on, as was her heart for humanity. She is a ‘people’s person’ through and through, and yet she is simultaneously amazingly task-oriented. Despite very little formal education, Mathabe was promoted to the position of Assistant Librarian in January 2010. She is studying for her formal librarianship qualification and is making an indelible, beetrooty mark on the College’s resource hub.

Her passion is to teach the College boys the value of neatness and respect, particularly when they are visiting the library. She appreciates clear communication with the learners, and enjoys being able to guide them to the right resources. She is proud of the fact that the library has something to offer every learning area. Each morning, she
opens the library and lecture theatre, lays out the day’s newspapers for boys and staff to peruse, and gets down to binding, labelling or packing books. Mathabe has been thrilled to be a part of inclusive staff conferences over the past few years. She has also been afforded skills training opportunities, and has enjoyed the chance to visit other schools. A life-changing realisation she longs to share with her colleagues is that it’s never too late to learn – never too late to take a course, to write an examination, to read a book – because, as she puts it, “knowledge is the key that opens every door.”

Furthermore, she sees the value of facing difficulties in the educational milieu bravely, without succumbing to debilitating stress. “If we communicate and share and pray together,” she says, “we will make it through the challenges. The World Cup is over, but there are still plenty of challenges lying ahead for us as a nation.”

Pile your plate

Jan Kobe, Lucky Kutumela and Rachel Mathabe are three leaders who chose to seize opportunities and to develop their innate capabilities. As Hamilton says, “This proves that there are millions of people in this country with superior skills and talents that are submerged because they have no avenue to be revealed.” St Alban’s College has seen what can happen when we don’t merely recognise beetroot people (“Hmm, that beetroot looks delicious…”), but rather when we spoon great helpings of the stuff onto our plates, making sure that it runs and colours, mixes and transforms.

Dalene Reyburn teaches English at St Alban’s College.


1 ‘The Second Coming’ by William Butler Yeats.

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