To be a change agent, you must walk the talk
His is a story much like that of the iconic social activist Martin Luther King Jr who, back in the 1960s, nurtured a dream of a united America free of discrimination and social ills.
For a young Mpeli Malebo, who was born and raised in a community rife with unemployment with very little value placed on education and literacy, the dream was to become a teacher.
He had always looked up to teachers, they truly inspired him. Armed with chalk and a blackboard, these humble souls were able to move people out of poverty and provide them with the necessary ammunition to become better citizens in the world. For their services, teachers were held in high esteem in the town of Ficksburg, situated in the heart of the Free State, where they were role-models to many.
“I wanted to educate people, it was always my dream,” he said.
“I have always wanted to inculcate a culture of learning within the community. I knew, even from a young age, that it was the only way of improving the lives of the people that reside there. It became a challenge for me to see how I could contribute and bring about culture change in the community.”
Mpeli did just that. After completing a teaching qualification in 1995, the educator quickly rolled up his sleeves and immediately got to work within his community.
He was first charged with moulding the young minds of learners from Masaleng Primary School, quickly moving up the ranks to become Head of Department (HOD) where he headed up mathematics, natural science and technology.
He occupied this position from 2003 to 2014.
From there, he went on to become principal of Tlhabaki Intermediate School until the end of 2015.
It was not until 2017 that he became the school head at Qhowaneng Public Primary School, where he currently serves.
Mpeli said he was there not only to lead but to teach and inspire, pushing through the initial icy reception he had received from the community at large. He understood their trepidation – change is not easy when one is in a comfort zone.
At that point this ambitious teacher had 23 years of experience - 16 of which were in management – backing him so success was almost guaranteed. Yes, the learners were ill-disciplined when he arrived and the parents antagonistic in the face of the changes he was making, but a breakthrough came in the end.
“If I am experiencing challenges I need only write a newsletter and ask parents with certain skills to come and assist and they respond very positively. I am never short of volunteers,” he said, adding that community support was all the more important for him and his school because of escalating unemployment and substance abuse.
“But none of these have ever impacted on the school directly. I have never ever had a burglary or vandalism in this school since my arrival here. It is understood and accepted that this is an institution of learning. This just shows how highly the school is regarded by this community.”
Other principals, faced with similar challenges, may have tried and failed, but Mpeli said true success came down to one's approach.
He explained: “There is a standard that I set, plus a culture which I urged all involved to adopt which I believe will take this school to the next level. I want to change this school so that in the near future it is seen as a centre of excellence. I want to see all the learners in a position to compete with other learners nationally. It’s not enough to just say I want learners who will pass. I want learners who are very strong in terms of articulation and are able to face the challenges of the world head-on. I want learners who will demonstrate good leadership skills.
“The motto of this school is 'work hard and succeed', but I personally believe that the motto should be 'let us be schooled into a centre of excellence'. This is my vision for the school and I'm setting myself a target of four years to complete this change.”
Another pressing issue Mpeli faced was a high absenteeism rate. Blame poverty and unemployment, the principal said, which leads to food insecurity. When the cupboards at home are empty, many parents are loath to send their children to school with grumbling stomachs.
The Tiger Brands Foundation’s in-school feeding programme provided much-needed assistance.
The Foundation gives the school's 1 104 learners a hot breakfast daily, knocking absenteeism down to a meagre 1%.
Eager for their breakfast, the pupils are punctual, with Grade Rs all the way to the Grade 7s seated at their desks before 7 am every day.
“The programme teaches both educators and learners the importance of proper nutrition. A lot of these learners come from an area where most of the parents are not working but the Tiger Brands Foundation has helped to improve the situation at home. You can imagine if, in each and every family, both parents are not working and just how stressful it is for them to let their young ones leave home without first having something to start their day properly,” Mpeli said.
This programme gives truth to the old adage “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”.
“School performance has improved drastically. Indeed, the Tiger Brands Foundation has brought about change in the lives of the community that I am serving,” he said, adding that despite the numerous challenges the school still faces, one of them being the lack of a proper kitchen, there is still hope for positive change.
He concluded: “As a principal, you must walk your talk. You must demonstrate leadership from left, right and centre. You must basically demonstrate what you want to see happening. This is what I am doing here. I'm leading by example and it’s simply beautiful to see the wonders this has done for the school.”