“Come here my boy, come here my girl”, is the typical address from Spine Road High School principal and education activist, Riyaadh Najaar, that rings out during the school day.
It is filled with concern, pride, familiarity and acknowledgement that you are a child or pupil at the history-making Rocklands school, where Mr Najaar has been a teacher for 34 years, starting teaching there in 1984 and taking over the reins as principal 25 years ago.
He knows most of the 1 324 pupils by name, except the Grade 8s, but familiarises himself with them during their school career. “There is a very personal relationship you develop with the children,” he said
Class visits, sitting in the class, going through attendance books and working with the pupils are just some of the tasks on his long job description.
He taught history, English home language, geography and Afrikaans second language before taking the seat in the principal’s office.
Mr Najaar, who has been largely credited for the school becoming the first Mitchell’s Plain high school to reach a 100% matric pass rate in 2014 and again last year, is due to retire and several education groups are holding on to him for dear life – for his expertise, advice and experience in the realm of education and inspiring them to maintain “excellence”.
Mr Najaar’s mother Shariefa, 88, was a teacher in the Strand and his late father, Sheikh Abubaker Najaar, was imam at Muir Street Mosque, in District Six for 38 years. The area was declared a “white” area, under the 1950 Group Areas Act by the apartheid government, forcing the Najaar family, with four children, to move to Crawford.
“I met my wife in Mitchell’s Plain, when I started teaching here,” he said.
He married Rochan, a teacher Blouvlei special needs school. Her uncle Mogamat Adnaan Davis was principal of Spine Road High School at the time.
In 1993 they moved to Bergvliet, where they still live today with Mr Najaar’s mother living with them.
They have six children, ranging in age from 12 and 35, two of whom live abroad, in China and London. They have seven grandchildren, two of whom are overseas.
The two youngest attend schools close to home.
Mr Najaar comes from a family of teachers. Most of his cousins, who live in Strand, where he was born, are teachers. “My dad was a teacher of a different kind,” he said. “My father, as an imam, resolved matters and today still in times of crisis I think of how he would solve the problem,” he said.
“My father taught us ‘you can only be fair if you think fairly and justly’.”
Mr Najaar said it is fairly easy if you are used to it and can then teach it to others. “Share with them positive morals and encourage to act fairly,” he said.
Mr Najaar said his activism was nurtured and informed by Mr Williams, his Standard 6 and 7 history teacher at Harold Cressy.
“He taught us the true history how we were oppressed and what the master plan was with apartheid,” he recalls.
He attended Muir Street Primary School and matriculated from Harold Cressy High School in 1972, before completing a teacher’s qualification at Hewat Teacher Training College, in Athlone.
In the past few months he has met with some of his primary and high school teachers, who left an impression on him to serve the teaching profession with pride. “The interest they had in us, I can only but emulate,” he said.
During an interview with the Plainsman Mr Najaar called Mogamad Fuad Majiet, his Standard 2 teacher, his Sub B teacher Ragmat Adams, and Sub A teacher Amina Saffodien – who are still alive and with whom he had lunch in August last year.
Mr Najaar said his high school principal Victor Ritchie, who is his role model is his next door neighbour.
He said his life sciences teacher Lionel Adriaan had also inspired him.
Mr Najaar was strongly affected by a group of students from the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), who were beaten during a protest at parliament in the 1970s, which he witnessed on his way home from school.
Seventy-three University of Cape Town students were arrested, after they had marched to the city centre giving the Black Power Salute to people passing until the police stopped them. “It awoken in me a defiance,” he said.
There were discussions at school about the uprising, including the June 16 1976 protests in Cape Town.
Pupils at the time mobilised and Mr Najaar was a Student Representative Council (SRC) member at his high school, where he befriended former Minister in the Presidency for the National Planning Commission, Trevor Manuel.
Fresh out of college Mr Najaar taught at South Peninsula High School, in Diep River, in 1976, where he met outspoken axed principal of South Peninsula High School, Brian Isaacs.
In 1981 he was transferred to Sonderend Road Primary School because of his involvement with the Teacher’s Action Committee, then two years later to Phoenix High School, both in Manenberg, before starting at Spine Road High School in 1984, when the Mitchell’s Plain school opened its doors.
Then the school had 65 teachers, of whom three of the original staff are still teaching, and the original secretary, Sandra Orion, who is also due to retire, is today an administrator.
Mr Najaar said he would only accept excellent teachers at the school to ensure the pupils only have the best.
“We had to get the right teachers and we empowered them and if they still don’t meet expectations, then our children don’t deserve them,” he said.
“We want excellent teachers. They are a crucial resource. They must think of being excellent and take the children to excellence,” he said.
Mr Najaar was a member of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), the Teachers’ League of South Africa (TLSA), chairman of the South African Black Students Association (SABSA) and a founder of the Western Cape Teachers’ Union in the 1980s.
Mr Isaacs, a member of the Progressive Principals’ Association (PPA), during an appreciation dinner for Mr Najaar on Wednesday September 20, recalled meeting Mr Najaar in the trenches when the Teachers’ Action Committee in the 1980s fought for textbooks (“Progressive principal,” Plainsman, September 27 2017).
Sponsors and partners who support the PPA praised Mr Najaar for his dedication to education.
The association has a growing membership of more than 150 affiliated schools and principals, who form new business partnerships to raise funds to assist poor schools.
During the dinner Mr Najaar said parents were doing their children a disservice by sending them to “expensive” schools. “Your child is missing out completely on the love of giving and teachers who believe in this wonderful profession called teaching,” he said.
He said the Olympic-size swimming pool was on his wish list for Spine Road High School but he would like a physical science laboratory. “We have the most pupils, across grades, doing physical science,” he said.
Mr Najaar said they have one functioning physical science lab.
“Previously called Model C schools have less than half the numbers, that we have for science but they have four or five functional labs. We are failing our children,” he said.
Mr Najaar, along with several other education stalwarts and retired principals, will form the PPA’s mentor group. “We will support young principals,” he said.
Set to embracing and respecting democracy and democratic processes to ensure resources and opportunities for the pupils of Spine Road High School. “I think lots of people died for this ideology and we cannot only want and expect to get because there are many other schools who deserve to have these facilities but what we are witnessing, especially in the Western Cape, is we have two educational realities – one for the affluent and one for the poor,” he said.
Sport was instrumental in Mr Najaar’s development, which he has shared with Spine Road High School by being a coach since 1984.
He played rugby for Harold Cressy High School, Western Province Senior Schools, Hewat Teacher Training College, Watsonia, Primrose and Violets rugby clubs. He represented SARU in 1987.
He was named sportsman of the year for the South African Council on Sport (SACOS) and City and Suburban Rugby Union in 1987.
As a youngster Mr Najaar had always kept birds but in 1981 he started racing pigeons. He plays dominoes and belongs to the Western Cape Domino Union.
Mr Najaar is a founding member of Ommiedraai hiking club started 23 years ago.
He takes a brisk walk every morning before arriving at school before 7am.
“Family takes priority, which is why I do not run longer than 5km because running takes time,” he said.
Mr Najaar is the third eldest of four children, the eldest boy, whom they call “boeta”. “Families should stick together but also if you really love your family, you have to tell them where they are going wrong,” he said.
“My motto in managing, which I practise at school as well, is do not hesitate to confront anyone at school who is not acting in the interests of the child.
“And do not hesitate to confront me in any decisions that are not in the interests of the children,” he said.
Mr Najaar said poverty is difficult for children but the school can intervene and make the difference.
“We have to make the difference. We are very strict on uniform. Uniform makes everyone equal. You can hide your poverty under your uniform,” he said.
He said the majority of their pupils come from Tafelsig and cannot believe their capabilities, which is where schools play a vital role in moulding pupils to being confident achievers.
While Mr Najaar looks forward to telling his wife to switch off the lights in the morning, when she leaves for school, so he can snooze, he hopes to run the school’s alumni and bursary fund.
Mr Najaar said a lot still needs to be done for poor pupils who need to be encouraged to reach their potential.