leader of a generation

BOTH inside and outside the classroom Professor Tamsanqa Kambule was truly a born mathematician.

His life multiplied the positive self-perception of blacks, especially in environments geared to devalue them.

He was always there, ready to encourage and count - until he ran out of fingers - why success was always the given outcome of dedication and excellence.

His teaching philosophy, which was not restricted to the classroom, subtracted self-doubts and inferiority complexes from his students.

And his was always that different, but so easy to comprehend, solutions. Simplicity, in this complex world, was his mode of operation.

That humane touch always added humility to those around him. Even the most egoistic and pompous were not immune to this transforming Kambule magic.

Those whose paths he crossed were left greater than their weaknesses and fears. And when it came to their self-doubts, he made this inhibiting trait less than the power that turns dreams into reality.

In short, it was easier for Kambule to make us equals of giants, because he was a giant himself, a humble giant, a gentle one, all housed in that diminutive body.

Yet he stood so tall and strong because he was larger than life.

His handshake was warm and firm, and its lingering two-hand grip had a tender and affirming touch to it.

He had a healthy sense of humour and his infectious laugh grew louder when he was the butt of his own jokes. And that was often.

He was always the first to laugh at the effect of his vitiligo skin condition, which saw his pigmentation changing from black to white.

"What's wrong with you?" he asked a predominantly white group in a boardroom who were looking at him in anticipation of the official start of the meeting. "Is it the first time you see a white person?"

"I remember," he would say, "when I was still black and living in a black area, before I became white and lived in a white suburb."

Yet below the surface, the laughter and jokes, he had many scars of racial pain, inflicted both individually and collectively over the years.

This made him a special person who was sensitive to the damaging effect on those who were constantly being put down. He understood the plight of the underdog and had the right words of encouragement to convert them into top dogs.

He would speak with pain in his voice about two students who in the 70s took his encouragement for science and mathematics and ended up being refused governmental permission to study at white universities.

The two men, Dr Reginald Boleu and Dr Chazibane, became top nuclear physicists in Europe.

The latter was detained at the airport on his return to South Africa and was dead within 24 hours behind bars, while the former decided to stay far away from his mother country.

Both were lost to the country and the scorecard for black nuclear physicists remained zero. Much has already been written about the list of his now illustrious former students.

I don't know whether he was destined to attract high achievers who broke the mould or whether he had the magic to turn the normal into the exceptional. The combination of the two assumptions seems to be much closer to reality.

There is a thread that links his students. For instance, Kaizer Motaung did not want only to be a good player, he also wanted to form one of the best teams, as did Jomo Sono.

Ratha Mokgwatleng did not only want to be an excellent lawyer, but a brilliant judge. Siphiwe Nyanda was not content with being a good soldier for justice, but became the head of the defence force. Ndaba Ntsele looked beyond being a trader of apples and peanuts and moved on to run the multi-billion rand Pamodzi.

The list is long and the pattern is similar. Those who crossed paths with him did not just feel content with being small shrubs on the side of the road, but grew into huge oak trees.

When they were applauded for being footpaths, they had the audacity to work hard towards being highways. And through them, our horizon has been broadened despite the then institutionalised restrictions they endured.

It is also not surprising that when 13-year-old Hector Pieterson became the first victim of police bullets in the 1976 riots, the person who stepped forward, Mbulelo, to carry the dying boy, was a student of Kambule.

Kambule was a disciplinarian nicknamed Valdez Is Coming, after a skiet en donner western movie, and he loved the name. Among his memorable days at Orlando High he once caned more than 1000 students because they wolf-whistled at a female teacher he was introducing at assembly.

Even scholars from neighbouring schools were not immune to his fatherly discipline. He was well-known for bundling into his car those who were playing truant and driving them to their principals.

"Here are your straying puppies," Kambule would say. "They should be in class."

He was unique in many ways. He seemed to excel in the centre spot, yet he was shy and reserved. He loved exalting others yet he played down praise.

He was teased as an orthodox vegetarian who had never tasted meat, eggs or fish his entire life. He walked long distances and met his death at the ripe age of 88 without aids like a walking stick, hearing devices or spectacles.

The cane, voice and laughter of Mr Chips, the benevolent human developer, is silent. The personification of what human beings should be all about will no longer remind us he was "Kambule without an H". He was cremated on Tuesday in accordance with his wishes.

His memorial service will be held next week in the Orlando East Communal Hall. The two-hour service will start at noon.