In his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell seeks to unravel “the story of success” – exceptional success, not just great achievement.
He defines an outlier as a “statistical observation that is markedly different from the norm” and asks: why do some people achieve so much more than others? How come they lie so far outside the ordinary? What is the secret of their success? He tries to find the answers by examining the lives, times and circumstances of legendary figures like Bill Gates, the Beatles and various sports stars.
In each case, he finds the fortuitous combination of three key factors:
• Natural ability combined with enormous personal effort; and
• The proverbial “hand of fate” – a confluence of circumstances that make exceptional things possible.
I decided to test Gladwell’s thesis after the recent release of matric results. It is appropriate to use the term “Outlier” to describe a 17-year old boy, who lives in a backyard shack with his single mother and three siblings, and achieves 7 distinctions in matric, including 97% for higher grade mathematics and the top award in the Western Cape for life sciences.
A shy, finely-built young man, Asavela Rawe arrived at the annual “matric achievers” ceremony in the school uniform of Masibambane high school. As I handed him his award (in my capacity as Premier), I resolved to find out what lay behind his exceptional achievement. When his classmate Monde Simbosini (three distinctions and 98% for higher grade mathematics) was also honoured, I was even more determined to find out more about the school that serves the poverty-stricken community of Bloekombos and achieved a 95% pass rate with 24 subject distinctions.
The purpose of my investigation was to address this simple question: what is the government’s role in creating the circumstances that offer children the opportunity to excel? If this can happen in Masibambane, what must we do to enable it to happen elsewhere? How much of Asavela and Monde’s academic success can be attributed to opportunity, intelligence, personal effort, and plain good luck?
During my investigation, I concluded that all these factors played a role, each a tributary flowing into a river, reinforcing one another to create the momentum for exceptional achievement.
Having sourced the cell number of the school’s principal, Mr Rajan Naidoo, I gave him a call. I apologized for phoning him on a Friday evening during the school holidays.
“No, no”, he replied. “I am at school. We always start the matrics a week early, so that they settle into the learning programme before the other pupils arrive.”
That said a lot about the ethos of Masibambane.
I asked Mr Naidoo if I could visit the school, and possibly meet the key matric teachers and the chair of the governing body. I also enquired whether it would be possible to speak to Asavela and Monde as well. “Come tomorrow morning at 11,” he replied without hesitation. The next day, Mr Naidoo welcomed me to the school accompanied by his daughter, Vinolia, a second year law student. She reminded me that we had met before at the opening of the state-of-the-art operating theatres at Red Cross Children’s hospital. I then recalled the lovely, petite young woman who had given a moving speech about the doctors and staff that had saved her life through a combined liver and kidney transplant.
While doctors were battling to save his daughter’s life, her father, then a deputy school principal in Durban, had applied for teaching posts in Cape Town, so that he could be near his desperately ill child. He was appointed principal at Masibambane in 2003, at that time one of the weakest schools in the Western Cape.
“The hand of fate”, I thought to myself as I applied Gladwell’s thesis.
On the final weekend of the holidays, the school property was a hive of activity – a gardener weeding, a cleaner sweeping and a handyman painting a classroom. “We are preparing for the opening of school next week” he said as he showed me the stacks of text books and stationery ready for distribution on day one.
He proudly walked me around his school, formerly a derelict provincial building which was converted into a school in 2001. He explained how he had driven each improvement, including a sports field with an embankment where pupils can sit and cheer their teams. There is a computer laboratory, a science laboratory, a small library (with a rack for daily newspapers), a kitchen for the feeding scheme, a new hall and toilets. The absence of any sign of vandalism was striking.
“Opportunity,” I thought to myself. Decent basic facilities are necessary to create opportunity, but entirely insufficient on their own. What Mr Naidoo said next, delivered in his characteristic matter-of-fact way, demonstrated why Masibambane is a school capable of producing “outliers”.
“When Vinolia came out of hospital, I wanted her to be near me, so I enrolled her here, at Masibambane,” he said. “I believe principals should be prepared to enrol their own children in their schools, to show they have confidence in the quality of the education they are providing for other children”.
He paused and added: “Vinolia was probably the first Indian child to attend a township school.”
We entered the new administration building, where a small gathering was waiting at a table laid with refreshments.
There I was introduced to Mr Yusif Sium, the school’s mathematics teacher; Mr Andre Kleinschmidt, who teaches physics and life sciences; Mr Shimeless Zeleke the maths literacy teacher; Mr Phumzile Dosi, the English teacher and grade 12 co-ordinator; Mr Thabiso Motsana the life orientation teacher; and Mr Michael Vena, the chair of the school governing body. There were also the star pupils, Asavela and Monde, together with Asavela’s mother, Lungiswa, who works at the “fruit and veg” section of Checkers in Kraaifontein. She told me she had not seen Asavela’s father since her baby was one month old. “That is why I say he died,” she said. Monde’s parents were visiting family in the Eastern Cape.
Mr Naidoo told me he and the governing body applied a strict “merit selection” policy when recommending teachers for positions at the school.
It was not always that way.
“When I came to this school, I confronted a governing body that had a different approach. Some were even prepared to accept bribes from applicants to be nominated for positions. Everything was politicised. It was difficult to change that approach. We had some conflict about it. But I knew the school would only succeed if we applied merit selection”. He recalls the backing and support he received from an outstanding senior circuit manager, Mrs Ntombi Dwane, who helped him implement the new policy.
“Today I follow a strict policy of keeping party politics out of this school. We take decisions on their merits. We employ our staff on the basis of their ability to teach our pupils,” Mr Naidoo emphasized.
This was immediately apparent as I spoke to the teachers. Their own stories show an astounding confluence of excellence and effort, influenced by the inevitable “hand of fate”. Mr Sium, for example, is an Eritrean studying actuarial science part-time at the University of Cape Town. He earns his living as Masibambane’s maths teacher.
The team ethos and mutual support were tangible. But the greatest insights came from the pupils themselves.
Asavela and Monde told me how they were able to stay at school until 9 o’clock at night, so that they could study in an environment conducive to learning. They negotiated the after-hours use of their classrooms with teachers, and worked in groups to assist others with their homework. Prefects were given the responsibility of locking up when they left. They were accountable for the state of the premises the next day.
Then Asavela made the following observation: “Monde and I would not have done so well if we were not competing with one another. We are good friends, but also competitors. That helped a lot. We will carry on as friendly competitors when we go to University.” Both will study actuarial science at UCT next year, and Mr Sium has made a commitment to continue teaching and supporting them.
I asked Mrs Rawe whether we could visit her home – two shacks in the backyard of an RDP house in Bloekombos. Her baby was asleep on her bed. She told me the tiny premature boy had spent 5 months in Tygerberg hospital, where she had remained with him. With his mother away, Asavela had spent most of his matric year taking personal responsibility for his younger siblings as well as himself. All of his belongings, including the computer he had won as a prize for his matric results, were neatly stacked in a small pile at the bottom of his narrow bed. I realised that he had come to the matric achievers function in his school uniform because it was probably the only suitable outfit he had.
Above his pillow, he had written on the shack wall in red koki: “A true gentleman is a true genius in calculation. A true legend lives on”. Those words gave him inspiration, he told me.
We then went on to visit Monde’s house. He lives with his siblings in a backyard shack of his parents’ RDP house, where he shares a bed with his brother.
The rest of the space in the shack is taken up by a rickety home-made table on which stands an ancient Dell computer.
“You must never get rid of that computer,” Asavela said to Monde. “That computer helped us to succeed”.
Monde told me that his uncle had been given the computer by his employers when they upgraded their systems. Together Monde and Asavela set it up – and through their own efforts turned this stroke of luck into yet another opportunity. At school, during the day, they downloaded matric papers and worked on them late into the night, on the old computer in the shack. “The computer kept freezing, but we kept starting it again,” said Monde.
That comment captured it all.
We often talk about the “opportunity” society. On that Saturday I saw what this idea can mean when opportunity meets singular human effort. The key priority of any government is to create real opportunities for all, so that people can use them.
It is true that “Outliers” like Asavela and Monde cannot be used as the yardstick for the rest of society. But the story of Masibambane as a school is a demonstration that many young people, of average ability, can become part of the “story of success”. There is no reason why this cannot become South Africa’s story too.