Principal of iconic school tackles drugs
THE Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto will always be remembered as an institution that played a pivotal role in the June 1976 student protests against the apartheid state.
Leaders of the June 1976 movement, such as Murphy Morobe and the late Teboho “Tsietsi” Mashinini, cultivated their socio-political knowledge at the school, which has left an indelible mark on the history of South Africa’s anti-apartheid Struggle.
Today, almost 41 years later, the school is waging a new war against arguably the greatest threat to township youth today – drug abuse.
This fight against drug abuse is spearheaded by headmaster Steven Khanyile.
He laid bare the effects that such abuse has had on not only his pupils, but the community of Soweto – detailing the debilitating crime and grime caused chiefly by substance abuse.
Khanyile has joined forces with musician Kabelo “Bouga Luv” Mabalane, who is also from Soweto, and other community members, as part of the Anti-Substance Abuse Social Movement campaign.
It was launched in December, when Mabalane led a march from Khanyile’s school to the Orlando Police Station.
The route taken was symbolic, as it was a re-enactment of the 1976 course that the more than 20 000 Soweto students were supposed to have walked before hundreds of them were mown down by apartheid’s security state.
Khanyile told The Star it is important for him to be a part of the anti-substance abuse campaign, as he can no longer endure the pain of seeing former students, including young people from the community, in dire situations due to drug addiction.
Khanyile added that, as a teacher, he had refused to sit by and allow his pupils to fall by the wayside.
“We don’t want to produce learners who will end up nowhere in life because of drug abuse.
“So, as a school, we must be seen to be serving and enlightening the community, while also coming up with solutions that assist the community to deal with harmful social ills resulting from substance abuse,” he said.
“That is just one part of what we are serious about as a school and where we need to continue to focus.
“How do we kill the issue of the effect that drugs have on our community? What is painful is that we have learners who abuse (the drug) ‘nyaope’ and don’t get anywhere in life, because it makes them lose their ability to think positively about the future.”
Khanyile became the head of Morris Isaacson in 2013.
He emphasised he does not see his current role as a prestigious one. Rather, he said, being the head is a “huge privilege” that he refuses to take for granted, adding he is a public servant whose duty is to continue positioning the school as a community leader.
“I can’t just be happy to be here – there is a lot that needs to be done in terms of trying to maintain the school’s name, as it is attached to history, but also in ensuring that this school continues to do good things for the community and for the country,” Khanyile said.
“If this school played an important role in 1976 by producing leaders, how do we make sure that this big name is still relevant today in terms of dealing with societal problems? “That is just one part where I feel that I need to work a bit harder. That is why I have tackled the issue of drugs, because I can see the effects they have on the community.”
Khanyile is not merely paying lip service by expressing his concerns about the effects drugs have had on the youth. He is also taking action by rescuing pupils who he sees heading down a terrible path because of drugs.
Examples of this are Grade 12 pupils Katlego Mosala and Sibusiso Makhatini.
Mosala, 20, and Makhatini, 21, told The Star they were embroiled in a degenerate life of drug taking before seeking assistance from Khanyile, who was more than willing to assist them in getting their lives back on track.
Mosala said he began experimenting with cigarettes and dagga in primary school, a few years after his mother passed away, when he was eight.
When he arrived at Morris Isaacson in 2013, he began smoking nyaope because of what he said was the anger and frustration he felt in his life, caused by being an orphan.
“When things weren’t going well at home, I would get angry at thinking of why my life might have been better had my mother still been alive. All of these things led me to abuse drugs and other substances in order to numb the pain that I was feeling,” he said.
“There was also a lot of peer pressure involved, as my friends would smoke nyaope in front of me.
“They would say to me: ‘Man, just take one puff; it won’t hurt you at all and you will feel much better’. But I also have to take responsibility for my actions, as I allowed myself to get sucked into smoking nyaope – never again.”
Mosala added that the school helped him to check into a drug rehabilitation centre in February 2015.
He returned in April to begin the second term of the academic year as a Grade 10 pupil.
““I have yet to fail a single term since my return from rehab,” he said.
Makhatini has a similar story to Mosala of personal problems that led him to a life of substance abuse.
Makhatini said he was raised by his single mother who was an alcoholic. When it became apparent his mother could not take care of him adequately, he said that social workers placed him in the Walter Sisulu Child and Youth Care Centre in Soweto.
He added that things went further south after his mother died in 2008, when he was adopted by a Soweto family who he said would often mistreat him – and this led to him sniffing industrial glue.
“For example, I would be hanging outside and chatting with my friends and we would lose track of time.
“When I would arrive back home at around 7.30pm, my guardians would kick me out, telling me to go back to where I had come from,” he said.
“There was a boy who was homeless and who slept on my street. He was heavily sniffing glue. It was common knowledge back then that glue was sniffed by homeless children.
“That is when I also started sniffing glue because I would occasionally sleep outside. The first time I sniffed it, I remember it numbing the pain and anger I was feeling.
“I focused mainly on how good the glue made me feel, not realising how destructive it was going to be in my life,” Makhatini said.
He returned from a drug rehabilitation centre at the end of February this year, after his headmaster had checked him in towards the end of last year.
Makhatini was supposed to complete matric last year, but he never wrote his final exams because of the effects the glue had on him.
He credits Khanyile for assisting him when he sought help, saying he wants to make his headmaster proud.
His views were echoed by Mosala, who said that Khanyile “always had their back”.
Mosala hopes to study law next year, as he wants to defend people, especially the youth,
‘I have tackled drugs, as I can see the effect on the community’
who are downtrodden, like he was a few years ago.
“But I also want to be rich, my brother,” he said.
Makhatini, on the other hand, hopes to study business management next year and enter the corporate life, because he believeshe is entrepreneurial.
“But I also want to go into the corporate sector because I look good in a suit and tie,” he joked, pointing to how neatly dressed he was in his uniform.
Both pupils said they aim to work hard this year, so that they can achieve good marks in order to qualify for bursaries, as they know their families won’t have money to put them through university.
Asked whether prospective sponsors should trust them, seeing as they had lived a drugfuelled life, they said: “We are not prisoners of our past, but the pioneers of our future.”
Khanyile said he was confident both were on the right track and would not let themselves and their families down, which was more important than them trying not to let him down.
“They must do it for themselves, not for me,” he said.
THE FIGHT IS NOW AGAINST DRUG ADDICTION: A worker is seen sweeping near the Tsietsi Mashinini Statue at Memorial Acre, facing the Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto.
COUNTERING ABUSE: Steven Khanyile, principal of Morris Isaacson.