The one thing that Covid 19 has done to us outside of death is to deny mankind the opportunity to bury and comfort each other during bereavement. We can’t hug nor shake hands in order to comfort each other, lest we spread the virus. Today you hear about the death of a friend, family or colleague and just nod in shame knowing that you cannot do much except through a telephone or lamenting on social media.
This was the case when I heard of the passing of that great teacher of our time, Mr Phillip Mehlape. I was constrained by the Level 4 covid regulations. I could not attend his burial despite the fact that he was a colleague of mine, my principal and mentor.
He was a gentle giant. As principal of Nkoshilo high school in the 1980s he represented everything that leadership is about. He led from the from and by example. He was the first to arrive and the last to leave school.
He treated his school like a corporate company of which he was the CEO. He laid the law and made sure it was followed. Failing which he would show you the door. His was guided by the interests of learners. If you observed your lessons as a teacher and do nothing but teach, you would enjoy him. You would see his rare smile. There are many teachers he ushered out of the school due to either laziness of any such misdemeanours. He would have scheduled classroom visitations as part of his leadership style. But he would not hesitate to visit a teacher without warning if he suspected laziness. During his visitations he take a chalk and complete the lesson if he found out that the teacher was ill prepared, and because of his experience he could teach many subjects in the social sciences. But after the lesson the next stop would be his office where choices would be presented – shape up or ship out. He was about consequence management.
He believed in the dictum: ‘mens sana in corpore sano’ – a healthy mind in a healthy body. In order to realise this he encouraged learners to participate in both indoor and outdoor extra curricula activities like chess, beauty contests, volleyball, soccer, netball and other sporting codes, and he encouraged teachers to support learners in these activities. He himself took part in some of those activities. One thing sure he would never miss a Saturday soccer match of his children unless he went on those regular international trips.
As teachers, we nicknamed him ‘Kangwane’ after the Homeland of Kangwane in the then Eastern Transvaal province. He attended and addressed local and international conferences in education, and gave feedback to his staff every time upon his return. He frequented west and east Africa as well the US and Europe. No wonder his school, Nkoshilo, was one of the best in the Mankweng district during his time, both academically and in sports. He served as chairperson of Lebowa Schools Sports Association for a long period of time.
Mr Mehlape was a lay pastor who used Christian principles to guide his school. He led morning devotions both through reading the word and singing. He led from the front, and by example. As a 22 year old teacher looking for a role model teacher, he passed the ethical leadership test with distinction.
Mr. Mehlape may be gone, but his ideas are alive, his teachings remain. We thank his family for sharing him with us for such a long time. He has fought a good fight (of education), he has finished the race and kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7). This is the verse he liked very much.