Principal reflects on legacy of learning

Glendale High School principal Achmat Chotia, centre, who retires later this month is pictured with prefects Dylan Lombard, left, and Laeeqah Campher.

After more than two decades at the helm, Glendale High School principal Achmat Chotia is retiring and as reminder of the values and principles the Rocklands school stands for, he has donated a bronzed hand imprint of the late former president Nelson Mandela.

Mr Chotia, 64, a Strandfontein resident, was among the first staff when the school opened its doors to all pupils in 1983, under the leadership of the first principal Peter Carelse, and has been principal for the past 23 years.

Four years after the school opened, Mr Carelse was sacked for opposing the apartheid regime. The Education and Training Act of 1979 barred black pupils from being admitted to certain schools, which is what Mr Carelse defied and led to his exile to Australia.

In 1988 principal Alexander McClarren took over the reigns but died of a brain haemorrhage in his office seven years later.

Mr Chotia was deputy principal at the time and immediately took up the responsibilities of principal.

From a young age Mr Chotia, the fourth born child of the late Amina Chotia, nee Davis, and Yusuf, was aware of what was going on in and around Strand, where he was born, and Simon’s Town, where he was raised and where the Chotia family was forcibly removed from by the apartheid government’s Group Areas Act in the 1960s. They were moved to Ocean View, where he started his teaching career in 1977.

An early memory of apartheid is of his father barring him from cheering on the first Prime Minister Louis Botha, a former Boer general and war hero during the Second Boer War, at a parade marking South Africa as a republic in 1961.

Mr Chotia was in Sub A at St Francis Primary School in Simon’s Town, and his father refused to sign a slip allowing him to stand in the main road, waving at Mr Botha. All of the pupils were given chocolate medals or coins and republican flags to wave. “My father said we cannot be part of this celebrating this illegitimate republic,” he said.

He recalled the family having the Cape Times and Cape Argus in the home every weekday and that he would have to go and get a copy of the Sunday Times, every week. “There was a hunger to know what is going on in the world,” he said.

Mr Chotia said he and his six siblings were raised in a very loving home, with fairness, justice and a commitment to serve.

Having grown up with cousins and siblings in the profession, teaching was an obvious choice.

“I was, of course, also inspired by my teachers. My teachers were my heroes and I wanted to emulate them,” he said.

The Chotia children were encouraged to read. “My father was more of a teacher than anything else. He was not qualified but he had the instinct,” he said.

Mr Chotia senior worked as a transport manager and his wife took care of the family.

Mr Chotia attended Arsenal Road Secondary School, in Simon’s Town, from Standard 5 until Standard 8, and had to travel by bus and train to Heathfield High School until Standard 10 in 1971.

The following year he worked as a claims clerk for Willis Faber, an insurance broker, where coloureds never socialised with the whites and their work spaces were separate.

In 1973 he was registered to complete a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) but half-way into the year the university closed due to political unrest.

Two years later he enrolled at Hewat Teacher Training College, in Athlone, where he met his “brother in education” retiring Spine Road High School principal, Riyaadh Najaar. Both of them belonged to the action committee at the college.

“These were turbulent years and almost everyone was involved in politics. I was exposed to protest action,” Mr Chotia said.

Mr Chotia was a member of the Ocean View Dramatic Society, led by Albert and Gladys Thomas.

“I was also influenced by the poetry of James Matthews, I sold his book (Cry Rage), which was banned under apartheid,” he said. Cry Rage, co-authored with Gladys Thomas and published in 1972, became the first collection of poetry to be banned by the apartheid regime.

Mr Chotia played a leading role in the production David and Diana, dealing with the Immorality Act, which made it illegal to have sex with people of different races in the area of marriage as well as casual sex.

The production went to various civic centres, the University of Cape Town, UWC and the Baxter Theatre.

He represented the drama society at the inaugural meeting of the South African Black Theatre Union (SABTU) at a church in Lawrence Road, Athlone, in 1972.

It was the union’s purpose, in accordance with the principles of the Black Consciousness Movement, to promote theatre as a means of assisting black people to reassert their pride, dignity, group identity and solidarity.

He met his wife Faldiela, 61, who was then a librarian at the provincial library in Chiappini Street, in Cape Town, during his student years.

In 1977 Mr Chotia started teaching at Ocean View Primary School and two years later moved to Kleinberg Primary School.

In 1982 Mr Chotia completed a BSc degree, which compelled him to teach at high school. This was when Mr Carelse seconded him to Glendale High School.

“It was a brand-new school with 900 pupils, 10 of whom were black, which was not allowed at the time,” he said.

Mr Chotia was present at the meeting, that adopted the school’s motto “Educate to Liberate”. This was proudly displayed on the school’s badge and imprinted on a board,outside the school, which the security police often shot at.

“I mean, these were just words, which affected and threatened the apartheid regime,” he
said.

In alliance with the United Democratic Front (UDF), which was launched a stone’s throw away from the school at Rocklands civic centre, in 1983, the school cemented its resistance to the apartheid regime.

Mitchell’s Plain residents were also mobilised and supported campaigns to have ANC leaders and other political prisoners released.

In 1990 Mr Mandela was released from prison, and three years later he visited the school. Mr Chotia was a member of the Welcome Madiba to Mitchell’s Plain Committee.

In 1995 the school took on 250 pupils from the Eastern Cape, in the surge of people immigrating to the Western Cape, and employed a Xhosa teacher, encouraging the speaking of pupils’ mother tongue.

Mr Chotia, who was chairman of the Save Carelse Campaign in 1987 and a member of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union recruitment committee in 1990, became trustee of the Mitchell’s Plain Bursary and Rolemodel Trust in 2011, which he now co-chairs.

Together with Mr Najaar they started the Progressive Principals’ Association in 2014,
offering support and resources to principals across the
province.

In 1997 he completed a school safety programme, which developed his organisational skills, empathy, understanding and courage as a leader.

He encouraged all Glendale High School teachers to complete the Advanced Certificate in Education (ACE) course on leadership and management at UCT’s School of Education, making it the the only school in the country at the time who had all of its teachers complete the course.

Mr Chotia was also instrumental in the retention of pupils starting in Grade 8 and finishing Grade 12, which increased from 19% to 40% and contributed to the retention of teachers.

He also advocated for Grade 12 pupils to register for additional subjects so that they had the opportunity to excel and obtain Bachelor passes.

“Encourage pupils to return if they were unsuccessful so that we can secure the posts of teachers,” he said.

The Chotias have four children, Yusuf, Tasneem Essop, Imraan and Saadiq and five grandchildren and Mr Chotia looks forward to taking them to the park.

“I really need to rest but do not let me rest in peace,” were his parting words at his retirement celebration at school last week.