The beautiful language of mathematics

| September 4, 2013 | 0 Comments

By Mosibudi Mangena

Iremember taking the train from Denneboom Station in Mamelodi several times a week, jumping off at Meyers Station just down the slope from here and spending time in the Unisa library in an attempt to finish off a BSc degree I had started at the University of Zululand.

Perseverance through prison bars I remember resuming studies at Robben Island prison for that same BSc degree after being promoted from Group D to Group C, and then being demoted back to Group D because I was not behaving too well,1 leading to the prison authorities taking away the Unisa study guides and textbooks from me, midyear. I could not write the examinations at the end of the year. Group Ds were not allowed to study. The privileges Group Ds had were one letter a month, one visit a month and a packet of sweets and one of dates at Christmas. My sister Moshadi Mangena had paid my fees. She is celebrating her 82nd birthday today. Happy birthday Sis, but sorry for wasting your money.

I finished the BSc and BSc Honours degrees while serving a banning order in Mahwelereng and then started studying for an MSc degree, which I completed in exile in Botswana.2 Because I could not attend a single graduation ceremony, this university organised a symbolic graduation ceremony for those of us who were prevented by the politics of the day from graduating in praesentia. We thank Unisa for that wonderful gesture.

However, this honorary doctorate is very special and I am profoundly grateful. Unisa has not only afforded me the opportunity to study under those unusual circumstances, but it is now recognising the humble contribution I have been able to make “in the advancement of mathematical knowledge as well as developments in science and technology in South Africa”, no doubt made possible by the education the institution has given me.

A sombre moment

However, our joy at this occasion must be tempered by the dismal performance of our children at mathematics at every level of their educational journey. It is a situation for which all adults in our country must take responsibility.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with our children, but there is a lot wrong with our society. We are, indeed, a strange society that wages an undeclared war against its own children. If we are not parents who don’t care when our children go to school at 09:00 and come back at 11:00; we are teachers who won’t teach. If we are not officials who won’t deliver learning materials to schools; we are thieves who steal chairs, desks and computers from their schools. If we are not a community who burns down their schools because we are campaigning for a road; we are another community that prevents them from going to school because we, the adults, are toyi-toying and quarrelling about something. We are indeed a strange society that, instead of keeping its children safe in the background, uses them to fight adult battles.

The tragedy is that we are not incapable of teaching our children, but that we won’t. Nobody can convince anyone that we are so incompetent that we can’t deliver books to our schools for the whole year. No, we can, but we won’t. We cannot be beaten by breweries and fizzy drinks companies who deliver their products to every corner of the country, not once a year, but all year round.

Our children can do it

When given an opportunity, our children have shown, again and again, that they do fly. Mr Ramugondo, the erstwhile principal of Mbilwi High School in Makwarela, Limpopo, once told me that there is no reason why every child of average intelligence cannot pass mathematics. He further declared that any child that passes Grade 8 has no reason not to pass Grade 12, and then go on to do well at tertiary level. Mr Ramugondo should know: after all, Mbilwi, which is a maths and science high school, produces 100% Grade 12 passes every year, or something close to that.

Those passes have nothing whatsoever to do with the reputation of Limpopo with witchcraft. If that were the case, every child in that province would nail mathematics. Their success has been everything to do with the fact that teachers at Mbilwi do teach. There are a few islands of academic excellence scattered around the country that demonstrate what our youngsters can do, when they are given love and other opportunities.

Maths — a gateway to the future

So, we are this society that short-changes its children on the beautiful language of mathematics; a language that knows no geography, culture or ethnicity. Whether you are an African, a German, a Russian, a Chinese or whatever else, the language of mathematics is the same. It is the only language through which cosmology, chemistry, physics, aviation, medicine, engineering and other such natural sciences that dominate our lives today, can be accessed and applied. Above all, it is a language that will not hurt anyone – not poets, soothsayers or sangomas. Our economy is heavily reliant on natural resources, which account for most of our exports. The only problem is that they are finite, they will not last forever. At some point in the future, they would be exhausted. What would we do then?

We must invest heavily in education

Among other things, we should be using the wealth we derive from our abundant natural endowments to provide our young with an excellent education, building our research institutions and facilities, and promoting research and development, so that we may move progressively towards an economy that is based more and more on knowledge. In fact, we can multiply our earnings from natural resources many times over by not exporting them raw, but adding value to them through the production of goods and other items that contain our labour and intellectual property. By the way, we cannot successfully industrialise our country if we do not produce, protect and exploit our own intellectual property. Otherwise it means that we should get the permission of others before we can manufacture anything.

Many rich countries in the Middle East that are blessed with huge reserves of oil, and are wise enough to appreciate the finiteness of their blessings, are feverishly working towards the diversification of their economies. To that end, they are doing all sorts of things. These include building aviation hubs, commercial centres, sports facilities and sport tourism, as well as engagement in knowledge generation on a respectable scale. We should be doing the same, if not more.

We must get on the right road

But the road to a knowledge economy is paved with lots of youngsters sitting behind desks sweating, consistently, year in, year out. Together with other subjects, we should teach them the beautiful language of mathematics. As Mr Ramugondo has observed, there is no reason why they should not pass the subject if they are of average intelligence.

With the good foundation we would have given them, there is no reason why some of them should not proceed to our universities and do well in their studies. We should then be able to produce academics, researchers and PhDs in sufficient numbers, who would contribute towards our march to the desired knowledge economy. The youngsters are fine, able and ready. It is us, the adults, who must mend our ways.


1. On Robben Island prison, all prisoners were classified by the authorities as one of four categories: A, B, C or D. A was the highest classification and conferred the most privileges; D was the lowest and conferred the least. All political prisoners, or who the authorities called “security prisoners”, were automatically classified as D on admission. The privileges affected by these classifications included visits and letters, studies and the opportunity to buy groceries and incidentals, all of which are the lifeblood of any prisoner. It normally took years for a political prisoner to raise his status from D to C. See, for example,

2. Mangena served five years in prison on Robben Island during the 1970s. See, for example, mangena.

Category: Spring 2013

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