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Saturday, June 20, 2020 - 20:13

The article below forms part of Mike Alfred's series on Joburg personalities from the first decade of the 21st century. Click here to view Kathy Munro's fantastic introduction and here to view the series index. The stories were written in 2005/6.

Grey haired, Charles Rhangani Furumele, a man exuding great seriousness, gentle courtesy and a yesteryear dignity, saw times tough enough as his young life unfolded, but, it seems, that his major life challenge was to successfully launch his children into a highly demanding world. The great key to advancement, Furumele asserts, is education; and furthermore, the two main door openers are competency in English and Mathematics. His own English is notably expressive and sharp too, is his arithmetic. He enabled his five children to receive their university degrees and college diplomas in financial circumstances which would have caused a less extraordinary man to despair of ever seeing his children move beyond basic, compulsory standards.

Charles Furumele grew ill while we were collaborating on this profile. He died without seeing its completion. I attended his funeral with an enhanced sense of loss. Later, his eldest son, Musa Stefane Furumele, assisted in completing the task. Some of what was first written in the present tense is now unfortunately, written in the past.

Charles, a widower lived with two sons in a house in Chiawelo, Soweto, an area originally designated for residents with Tsonga and Venda affiliations; in other words, those from the far north. It’s a house that no longer resembles its matchbox beginnings; as a result of modifications it offers another bedroom here, a bathroom off there, a kitchen in between, a new façade, a sliding security gate. In a sense, the house fits well in Chiawelo, a land of nooks and crannies, filled with narrow, winding streets, small plots, off the beaten track homes, churches, schools unexpected spazas; an unfamiliar world for a whitey, where I encountered friendly people only too happy to direct lost drivers.

Of necessity, Charles once experienced life in Johannesburg as a vagabond. In the teeth of family opposition, he courted and married Dorah Sono, of the extended, well known Sono sporting family. He worked first in commerce as a teaboy and a clerk, but later, compelled by circumstances and talents waiting to blossom, mainly as an educator, administrator and accountant. He experienced and was displaced by the intertribal struggles which disturbed the Soweto educational establishment in the nineteen sixties and seventies. I learnt from Musa, who showed me copies of dad’s voluminous correspondence, how, through the years, he quietly, without fuss, waged a continual battle with bureaucrats and political opponents of all types. He displayed a strong sense of what was correct. He was not a man to be cowed by meanness, deviousness or political expediency. For some years he served, in an honorary capacity on four primary school committees: always as Vice Chairman. Musa told me that his dad preferred such a position so he could keep things on track whilst remaining in the background. When I met Charles he was, yes, a Grey Eminence.

About apartheid, Charles expressed only mild resentment. He said, ’It worried me but I was not deeply aggrieved. It strengthened me, it helped form my character. I had to do things for myself. My wife was strong. We shared the problems. It was no use sitting on our bums crying.’

When we first met, and I, the writer, asked Charles for information about his own life, he made it clear to me, but it took a while to sink in, that his personal story would not be complete without considering his ancestors. Once I had come to terms with his quiet insistence, I found it fascinating, in this post Freudian world, in which westerners often blame their parents for all ills, that a man who started off with so little in a material sense, recognized and valued the positive parental and familial influences. As Musa told me, ‘Dad closely followed the family’s history. Not only that, he investigated and recorded the facts for future generations.’

Charles’ more recent forebears, specifically Shihanguli of the Kambaku clan, fleeing marauding tribes from the south, and following the path of the Limpopo river, migrated from Gijani region in then Portuguese East Africa to the Northern Transvaal, now Limpopo Province, early in the 19th Century. Then, borders were more permeable and large movements were simpler. The more recent family name, Furumele, is derived from the Portuguese Enfermeiro, given to Charles’ great grandfather, Shihanguli’s eldest son, who hunted elephant and other big game with Joao Albisini the Portuguese trader, hunter and adventurer. Enfermeiro or Furumele, so Charles records, ‘was revered for his adventurous spirit and intellect. His bravery and expert hunting skills with lethal poisoned arrows earned him fame. He often saved the lives of fellow hunters who suffered poisoned arrow injuries; hence the name Enfermeiro which means doctor, healer.


João Albasini (via Wikipedia)


‘Round about 1850, great grandfather Furumele resettled in the Zoutpansberg area at Klipfontein farm, Spelonken, which later became the site of the Valdezia Swiss Mission established by missionaries from Switzerland. When those missionaries arrived round about 1875, the place was perceived to be in ‘darkness!’ Furumele married N’waShilotani of the Chauke clan and from Matini Stefane Furumele, their third child and first son, stemmed my family. Stefane one of the first Christian converts at Valdezia, was also one of the first locals to be sent to be educated at Morija preparatory and bible schools in Basutoland, now Lesotho. He became one of the first evangelist-cum-teachers trained at Morija in the 19th Century. His first mission was at the then Barota between Valdezia and Tshakuma. Although little has been written about him or his colleagues their pioneering work is acknowledged by several historians. Stefane was an independent and strong willed black man. His pride in indigenous culture was not easily tolerated by the missionaries. After clashes with his principals and several years of unhappiness, he quit his profession, disillusioned with the way missionaries went about their business. An unsuccessful attempt was made to erase his name from the history books but an old photo shows him standing beside the Malale and Maphophe brothers, fellow evangelists and early Morija colleagues.

‘Matini Stefane married my grandmother, Alice Makapa, of the Tshavalala clan, from the Njakanjaka Waterfall area, in 1887. Paulus, Stefane the eldest son, my father, was born in the same year. In 1920, he married my mother Pyalu Noria Mathye, from the Sieferfontein-Efrata Swiss Mission Station.’

‘Paulus studied at Kuruleni School where he passed standard four; at the time, the highest standard achievable. Those who passed were considered fully fledged school teachers. He comprehended complex geometry and solved arithmetical problems with much ease. He worked in Northern Cape diamond mining companies until 1914, when he followed his friend John Albasini, Joao Albasini’s grandson, volunteering to serve with the South African forces in “German South West Africa” during the First World War. My parents lived at Valdezia Mission for a short while but family strife and the hostility of the Mission authority caused them to move away. Giving up ideas of living by agriculture and fishing he worked in the transportation section of the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association which recruited mine workers from Mocambique. Later he worked at New Union Gold Mines in the far north east near Punda Maria as a clerk until he retired in 1943, aged 55 years. After retirement he occasionally worked as a cattle, hides and bones buying agent for his friend John Albasini. In 1952 he died in the Donald Fraser Memorial Hospital in the then Vendaland just before I started secondary school. Never having received a pension and having earned little after retirement, his death left the family counting every penny.

‘My mother’s forebears, the Magwaza-Mathyes also came from Mocambique in the 19th Century. Mother, Pyalu, Noria, was born in 1897 at Mailaskop, the sixth child of Hlengani Mathye and Madali Khosa. She was educated at Efrata Swiss Mission School where she too, left after passing standard four. Mother was bright, a good student, but her parents could not afford to educate more than one of their children. It was only her brother Noel Mathye who went on to qualify as a teacher at Lemana Institute.

‘In 1919, at the age of 23, mom and a friend ran away to find domestic work in Johannesburg. Her parents wrote to her elder brother to be on the look out for the two young ladies. Johannesburg was very small at the time so Piet Shingondo successfully searched and found them, bought them train tickets and sent them back home. Their flirtation with the bright lights was quickly over.

‘Pyalu was a loving and caring mother. She was good in arithmetic, music and storytelling. We learnt much folklore from her mouth. She was a disciplinarian but compassionate and open minded. She could be cross and shouting at us one moment, but forgiving, the next. She had no time for revenge and she did not bottle up her anger. She was a straight talker. Our mother did not have a favourite child. We received equal treatment whether or not we exhibited undesirable attitudes. If one of her children was away she would be much concerned.

‘She was a Victorian era type of mother, strict on family values and self respect. She married late because her own mother could not approve of any of her daughters marrying undisciplined men. Her wish in life was to see all her children schooled and acquire a profession. She always reminded us that she was denied education because her parents did not have the funds.

And so we come to Charles Rhangani Furumele, the main subject of this essay, who was born on the 5th of January 1936, at the Valdezia Swiss Mission Clinic in Venda and passed away at the Donald Gordon Medical Centre on 3rd November 2005. He was the sixth child in the family and the youngest son. At birth the resident matron named the infant after the village minister, Rev. Charles Bourguin. After participating in traditional initiation ceremonies in 1948, Charles was given the additional name, Rhangani, after his mother’s brother.

About his early childhood Charles recalls, ‘I learned to sound a note whenever I was thirsty and so to be breast fed for almost three years, and cry when I was hungry or uncomfortable with food I did not like. I was taught by mom to sit quietly and await my turn to eat properly with my right hand, not to dirty my hands, and extend both hands for a gift and to show respect for others. She taught me to pay attention when she told folk tales and stories about our forebears.  

‘I fought other boys when they jeered at us until our tempers rose to a boil. Using all the tricks, the encounters were fought to a finish, when the loser would flee in disgrace. I was taught by my older siblings to ride go carts and they influenced me to do wrong things at times.’

At the age of seven Charles attended Khanani Primary School where most of his classmates ‘were over twenty years.’ It was run by Assemblies of God Missionaries. The Principal was was Andreas Jacobus Mahlale author of the Botsoleni poem. Attendence at Kuruleni Primary followed, where Francis A Ndleve was principal. In standard three, Charles ‘was placed first in my class.’ Later he shone academically at Valdezia combined primary and secondary school where he remembers the excellent English, geography and history teaching of principal Elone C Marivate whose only ‘weakness’ was that he left school after the ten o’clock break every morning. Furumele tactfully says nothing about Marivate’s possible destination.

From 1953, as a result of arrangements made by Charles’ brother, Robert Rice, he studied, as a day scholar at Lemana Training Institution which he describes ‘as one of the finest missionary run educational institutions in the Union. It was established in 1906 by Swiss Missionaries as a teachers’ training institute. It was on a par with other prestigious institutions such as Adams College, Kilnerton, Lovedale and Marianhill. But perhaps, the by then fatherless Charles felt, that as an impecunious day scholar, he wasn’t sharing much prestige? His life was not exactly comparable to that of the boarders. He writes, ‘My stay at Lemana was faced with hardly bearable conditions, discriminatory practices and exploitation.’ His concern for his mother allied with an ability to stretch the pennies, is illustrated by his returning two and six of the ten shillings given to him by his mother at the start of each term.

When he started at Lemana as a day scholar he ‘stayed at the residence of Mr Alfred Hotz, the boarding master.’The other day scholars included Noel Makhuva, David Mkhombo and Eric Chavalala. At Hotz’s he tended the garden after classes, on Saturdays, and sometimes into the evening. Later, Charles, with his fellow day scholars completed ‘household chores in our master’s kitchen, maintained the car driveway and trimmed the hedge fence, for all of which he earned a few pennies. ‘We sat at the extreme end of the dining hall. Boarders would be served with the best meals while we sufficed on leftovers: half cooked tripe, whey, bones, poorly cooked vegetables, beans and mealie porridge. Once, we were accommodated in a hastily prepared room which was previously used as a fowl run. We slept on hard canvas covers filled with dry grass. In my case it was even worse, as I had no sheets, pillows, vests or warm blankets. Nor had I shoes or worthy school apparel; I attended my classes barefooted. Later, as a teacher trainee, I would stand in front of pupils without a jacket or even a necktie.’

Charles wrote to his struggling mother and his uncle, complaining about his hardships and threatening to quit school. ‘They both told me to refrain from making nonsensical threats, that no one had forced me to go to Lemana and that only I would face the consequences of such an act.’

While enrolled at Lemana, Charles passed the external Junior Certificate examination at Douglas Laing Smit Secondary School which was part of the same campus, in 1954. He commends ‘O W Mahange who taught Ancient European and South African History and opened our horizons as to world affairs.’ After a misunderstanding that nearly ended in violence, ‘Mr Alfred Hotz secured a merit bursary for me to follow the then Native Primary Higher [NPH] teacher’s course. I excelled in arithmetic. One of my finest subject lecturers was the elderly, Swiss, Miss Louisa Hurlimann who developed my liking for the subject, gave me a balanced grounding and explained its practical implications. She also lectured in Psychology and Organisation as well as in Principles of Education for African teachers which remained an important guideline for my subsequent career.’

Some of those guiding Principles assert that education should: assist in applying the power for good; increase the sum of human happiness and decrease the sum of suffering; equip students to carry more responsibility; lead to better understanding of the teaching of the church; emphasize the values of service, of supplying the needs of others.

Charles persisted and triumphed.‘I passed the second year NPH course with flying colours. I was the youngest male student. Our teacher training class was the last that followed the old Provincial Education Department’s curriculum. We were trained to teach in higher primary schools anywhere, using English as the medium of instruction.’

Then came the political pivot which turned Charles away from teaching. In 1957, the control of Education passed from provincial authorities to the Nationalist Government which, among other measures, restricted English as a teaching medium, in favour of ‘Bantu’ languages or Afrikaans. Facing such conditions, Charles decided not to apply for a teaching post and, helped by his brother, Robert Rice, to obtain a work permit, took himself to Johannesburg for a life in commerce.

Charles recounts, ‘Mom ordered me to seek counseling from my maternal uncle, Piet Shingondo Mathye. He advised me to work hard, to save money, not to fall in with undesirables. He gave me one pound for my train fare and blessed me according to traditional customs. Also, my paternal uncle Daniel wished me well and performed the traditional prayer. I arrived at Park Station which was undergoing major reconstruction, on 26th January 1957. Torrential rains fell until March. It was also the time of the Putco bus boycott when thousands walked to work and back. Others used trains or sedan taxis if they could afford them. My first impressions of Johannesburg were not good. I had come with high expectations but I was disappointed. The townships were not pleasant and in town there were policemen on every corner asking for one’s dompas. But I suppose Johannesburg’s okay if you’re tough.’


Park Station circa 1960 (Gordon Clarke)


In January 1957, Charles started his Johannesburg working life as an office messenger/tea boy at Williams Hunt, the well known agents for General Motors vehicles. His starting wage was two pounds, fifteen shillings and three pence per week. Heeding his uncle’s advice he opened a savings account at the Post Office and later at the Rissik St, branch of the Natal Building Society where he managed to deposit some ten shillings a week.

In Johannesburg, he first lived with his Aunt Elisa; later, as a sub tenant with two ‘homeboys,’ Samuel Mahlawuli and Nelson Mashele in Kanyile St, Western Native Township, adjacent to legendary Sophiatown. Each man contributed some ten shillings a week for food. Rent came to seventeen and six per month. A train season ticket cost some four shillings weekly. His cousin, Gladys Gail Maganu, lived next door.

Charles tells me, ‘On one Saturday afternoon in September 1957, she had two lady visitors. I could identify the older lady but not the younger one. I had not seen her before. They sat on the lawn next door and were deep in conversation. I just sat on the stoep and read my magazine. Now and then I would glance over the fence to see what the three ladies were doing? The youngest had a homely face and her smile was mystic. There and then I observed that the girl was deep in thought. These characteristics attracted me. I was touched but carried on reading the magazine regardless. I approached Gladys immediately after their departure. I enquired where the two ladies stayed and their names?

‘Gladys informed me that the older lady was from home and the younger one was a local form one student at the then Madibane High School. Her name was Dorah and she stayed with her late uncle’s wife, in Ballenden Ave, nearby. I did not conceal from Gladys, my feelings and attraction to Dorah. Gladys agreed to act as my courier and courtier as I was one of her reliable and trusted cousins. I waited for Dorah’s response from September 1957 until the end of January 1958.’

‘It came in the form of a letter, the most significant part of which said: Dear Charles, sorry for delaying like that. . . my heart is now open with a key to say I love you too. . . I informed Gladys about the letter and expressed my sincerest appreciation for what she had done on my behalf.

‘I wrote a letter home to mom informing her about Dorah and about her circumstances. Mom was an open minded person. She welcomed the news and accepted Dorah as her future daughter-in-law. She told me to encourage her to complete her studies and follow a career. After a seven year unbroken relationship, we married eventually in August 1964. Our civil marriage was later solemnized by Rev. S J Maphophe, at the Tsonga Presbyterian Church, Swiss Mission, Chiawelo, despite continuing objections from her family and mine.’

At Williams Hunt he was transferred to the spares and accessories counter later in the year, and in 1958 was transferred yet again to the company’s Head Office nearby in New St,South. Working again as a messenger/tea boy, he earned three pounds per week but supplemented that income with the tips he received for fetching sandwiches and cold drinks for white staff.

After friction between the residents in the Kanyile St, house, Charles moved from Western Native Township and discovered that accommodation for blacks was extremely difficult to procure. ‘I applied for a hostel bed at various places, namely Bantu Men’s Social Club, Wemmer Pan, Wolhuter and for a single man’s cottage attached to the then Hlanganani now Leresche Primary School in Orlando East, all to no avail. I lived as a vagabond for several months. With a friend, Joseph Maswanganyi, I went to the Mocambique Restaurant in Noord St, near the Drill Hall. The restaurant owner was hostile and strict. He prosecuted trespassers. We managed to sneak into the rear of the premises unnoticed. I slept in a coal storage shelter way down the passage. Another friend took me to a place in Emmarentia but we decided it wasn’t safe so we boarded the last JMT [Johannesburg Municipal Tramways] double decker bus back to the CBD. We sneaked into Barclays bank building on the corner of Harrison and Smit Sts where we slept in a lower basement using goods lift, canvas covers as blankets. Later I visited a cousin, Perry Shihlomula, who lived in Dube hostel. He knew someone with a bed in the hostel who was working as a garden boy with sleeping quarters. Perry negotiated a deal whereby the man transferred bed 181A, block 4823, to me. The block housed about sixteen inmates with a filthy kitchen. The beds were steel framed, embedded in the concrete floor. The place was appalling, but with no suitable alternative I lived in that hostel and worked at Williams Hunt until the end of 1961.

A mass stay away, rare in 1961, called for a pound per day, general wage. At the end of that week Charles received five pounds in his pay packet. But fellow employee agitators, whom he would not obey when they commanded him to scrub their toilets in an adjacent building, caused him to leave Williams Hunt that year. He offered the excuse that he was taking a teaching position. For a matter of weeks he worked for an American pharmaceutical company where conditions were good. After losing that job due to influx control regulations which conferred resident status only after a ten year sojourn with Williams Hunt, he returned to Louis Trichardt for a short period.

He was then offered an education post by Mackay Francis Mkhabele who was Secretary of the Soweto, Moroka Site and Service School Board. Charles then, in 1961, started a long and sometimes frustrating period in a system of education plagued by divide and rule politics.

Charles’ first teaching post was a six month spell at Atamelang Lower Primary School where, paid by the parents, he earned R20 per month. ‘The conditions were unbearable,’ he recalls. ‘Daily I had to travel to the extreme edge of Naledi [Soweto’s westernmost area] and back to Dube Mens’ Hostel on foot.’ From 1962 he taught the standard three class at Tiakeni Lower primary School earning R30 per month. He frequently spent his afternoons at the School Board office assisting with administration. In the evenings he taught standard six at the Tiakeni Night School.

His administrative skills were soon recognized. ‘Towards the end of March 1963, I was permanently transferred to the Board office as a clerical assistant at R38 per month. From January 1964, I was promoted to Assistant School Board Secretary when I was trained in bookkeeping, banking and general procedures’.

His job as Assistant Secretary was far from straightforward. His function, which included paying some 650 teachers, appointing new teachers and the establishment of 19 new schools, was carried out in an atmosphere of inter tribal animosity. Charles was a Tsonga official managed by a Board dominated by Tswanas. In order to appoint one of their own they clearly wished to be rid of him. He was protected by the Secretary who acknowledged his faultless work standards. ‘But the opposition kept nibbling away,’ said Charles,‘and in 1966, the school board was dissolved and I had to reapply for a post. I was appointed assistant secretary on probation to a Tswana Secretary who did not have the experience. It didn’t work out.’

The joyous highlight of the period occurred in 1964. After ‘remaining friends for a long time,’ after facing strong family resistance from both sides, Charles and Dorah married. The words of the Nat King Cole song, They tried to tell us we’re too young, epitomized their relationship. ‘We stuck together,’ said Charles, ‘we were Good Samaritans to one another. Dorah told me during those years of opposition, “I shall never run away from you!” And it worked out very well. We married without even a blanket to our name. After the wedding, we were allocated a school cottage at Basani Higher primary school. Our first born, Musa Stefane arrived in 1965.’

In March 1967, Charles moved to Sekano Ntoane High School as a teacher of English and Tsonga, but also undertook administrative duties. ‘The principal was a Southern Sotho and I feared a repetition of what I call tribality. But I got on well with the young man. When I arrived, the school was in a shambles, money was going into teacher’s pockets. I controlled the funds and the school became well run. My fellow teachers included Tom Manthata who served on the Truth & Reconciliation Commission and is now with the Human Rights Commission. Cyril Ramaphosa and Ishmael Mkhabele, now prominent personalities, were students of mine.’

Also in 1967, Charles’ wife Dorah started studying for a teacher’s diploma at Lemana, Charles’ alma mater, near Louis Trichardt. Her studies, apart from holidays, kept her away from home for two years. Charles hired a nursemaid to care for Musa.

Charles continues, ‘In 1972, my relationship with the young principal ended when he was promoted to inspector. His successor pushed me around and I lasted to the end of the year. But at the end of 1972, education in Soweto became intensely political. Many black educators wishing to “manage their own affairs,” applied to Pretoria to form ethnic controlling bodies. Pretoria readily agreed as this suited their separation strategy. Not only were whites and blacks kept apart but the same principle was used to foment inter- tribal rivalry and conflict. Some black teachers, as a means of furthering their own careers, pushed for the use of Afrikaans as a teaching medium. Other Soweto boards wanted to use English and Afrikaans equally.’ Today, we all know where the jockeying led!

‘Then I was appointed as Secretary of Machangana School Board, that of my own ethnic group. I thought I was secure, but they pushed me out. They also made sure I was evicted from the cottage we were living in. Perhaps they didn’t want an administrator who kept such tight control? I was well known for my honesty. And then also, there simmered long standing animosity between tribal elders and those who had received a mission school education; a complex set of circumstances!

‘In July 1974, I received a phone call from the notorious Jaap Strydom, Witwatersrand Circuit Inspector. He was a bully, a powerful politician, fully at home in Soweto, and he said he liked the job I was doing. He told me that the accounting firm of Isaacs and Goldberg, which audited all the School Boards, wished to offer me a job. “They’re very impressed by your performance,” he said. I asked, “Now that I’ve put everything in order, you don’t need me any longer?” I thought there was something behind it, perhaps he had been bribed to move me? I turned the job down.

‘But then Strydom asked me to visit him in his Village Main offices where he became even more persuasive. He said the accountants needed my experience. Before that I discussed the offer with the School Board Chairman and other board members. They urged me to take this “once in a lifetime, opportunity.” I joined Isaacs and Goldberg for R200 per month. After my departure the Board once again fell into disarray and collapsed totally, shortly thereafter. Isaacs & Goldberg were good employers, nice people; no apartheid, no separate cups and saucers. In 1975 they emigrated to Canada, selling their practice to McEvilly and van der Merwe who were connected with Strydom. Because of my intimate knowledge of the Soweto school boards they kept me on, where I continued to live in a world of politics and corruption.

‘In 1977 after the uprising, all the school boards were dissolved and each school became responsible for managing its own affairs. Many removed themselves from independent auditing but we retained mainly some Tswana, Zulu and Xhosa schools for a decade up until 1987. When I left McEvilly and van der Merwe, I was earning R1 300 per month. From accounting I moved into educational administration again. I was appointed as Senior Accounting Clerk in the Johannesburg salaries section, Department of Education and Training. My appointment as a black administrator, after much red tape at the highest level, met with varying degrees of resistance among the white staff. It was a tough job; departmental procedures needed improvement and the people needed training.’

In 1994, Charles was responsible for drafting a courageous memo to an Investigating Commission outlining his colleagues’ protests against discriminatory treatment in the department. The document posed a series of penetrating questions aimed at exposing the hypocrisy between stated principles and the   reality of employment discrimination. He ended his communication by providing a blueprint for non discriminatory workers’rights.

From 1996, when several seperate education departments fell under the Gauteng Government, Charles became involved in the,   reorganization of the ‘totally chaotic,’ salaries division. In a masterful understatement he reported, ‘The mission was accomplished satisfactorily.’ In Charles’ files I found a letter from Mary Metcalf [MEC for Education at the time] commending Charles’ sterling efforts in providing ‘wonderful service’ to teachers in the province. Charles retired from the Gauteng Education Department 1998.

Facing the frustrations of earning a living comprised one of Charles’ important life tasks, but his children’s future also engaged his energies. He remembers that his grandfather was  among the first Tsongas to receive formal education and the first in the family to go to school, ‘something great!’ But unfortunately, only one of Charles’ siblings was well educated, because money was always a problem. ‘And my mother always regretted that she could not train to be teacher. She pushed me to become a professional. When our children came, I resolved to re-establish the family legacy of education.

‘Joshua Paulus Fernando, my youngest son, was born in 1981. When he was six years, I took him to Wits University every Saturday morning for Supedi education, lessons in maths and science. It was conducted by students. I had to pay for him on Saturdays. He did well at school and I wanted him to concentrate on Mathematics and English. He passed well in standard five. Before the end of the year I went to Parktown Boys to see if I could enroll him there. They said his mathematics was very good. They were worried about his English but they accepted him provisionally but his permanent place was soon confirmed. I asked about the fees. In 1994 they were R2 500 per term. And books, I had to pay, school uniform, I had to pay, which gave me a bit of a problem because I was trying to improve the house. But I paid a quarter each term. In 1995 the fees rose up to over three thousand. I paid! And I paid for transport. There was a special taxi which ferried them to Parktown every morning and every evening. From 1994, I must have parted with something like R6000 a year. Well, I had to pay all that with my wife assisting me. I had to use my savings. She also sat with the kids in the evenings helping them with their school work. In 1998, Joshua passed his matric with a university exemption.

‘I sent him to Parktown Boys because it was one of the best schools; all those Jews and big shots come from there. He was the youngest and I thought no, let me give him something good. And we wanted him at home a little longer. I told his brothers and sister, “If we sent him up there to Lemana where we sent you, there would be no one at home with your mother and me.” Also the private boarding schools in Limpopo were reluctant to take many kids from Soweto. And I didn’t trust the private colleges in the CBD. So Parktown was the best.

‘Joshua went to Wits where he got his B.Comm. He got a bursary but also, I was partly paying. He was staying at the Barnato Residence. I paid for that. I was getting R2 500 each month after deductions. For most of my working life, the greater part of my monthly salary went to the children’s education. At the end of the month I’d be left with fifty, sixty rand, enough to carry me to work. That was the time of pap and no milk in the tea.’ Charles gestures beyond his walls, ‘You see these people all around, plenty of possessions in the house; nice furniture and all that, just material possessions. “Hmmm, but when you get education,” I said to the kids, ‘that will be a light, even when I’m gone. It will be a good weapon for you.”


Wits Great Hall (The Heritage Portal)


‘Even clothing, I didn’t buy every month. After getting their school results, I would take them all to town and buy something. I said to them, “If you want a book I’ll pay for it.” I said, “No TV, no, no, no, what sort of education will you get from TV?” I bought my first TV in 1990. I wouldn’t let Joshua play around with the TV. I let him listen to the news, then he must go inside to do his homework.

‘I was a strict father in a way. I wanted them to do well in school but I never forced them. I’m quiet. I didn’t beat my kids. If one of them was naughty I’d sit down with them and persuade them to mend their ways, ask them to become responsible in preparation for their adult life when I wouldn’t be there to guide them. The mother too, she wanted them to do well. She’s the one responsible for these fine children. My late wife was a working teacher but she looked after those children. You wouldn’t see our kids playing in the streets, going from house to house.

‘Here in Soweto, after school, you find the children playing here in the street, up to eleven in the evening. When do they study? What do the parents say? They’re quiet about it. They don’t discipline the children. If I told the next door child to go inside to study, those parents would be upset, they’d think it was wrong. It’s like that all over Soweto, not only here in Chiawelo. People say it’s poverty; it’s not poverty. My wife and I grew up under difficult circumstances; we had to pick ourselves up. There’s no one who’s born poor, if you can use your head. It started with Musa Stefane.

‘Musa is our first born. Today he’s an established professional running a well known civil engineering consulting practice and he serves on a number of prominent boards. He did well at primary school but in 1977, not only were his standard five exams disrupted, but we were not told about the new arrangements when exams resumed. By chance we discovered the exam venue and as a result of my intervention, the matter was investigated and Musa was enabled to write.

‘After standard five I said no, it’s no good to continue his education in the local schools. I was afraid they would retaliate by punishing my child. We sent him to board at Lemana High School. He did very well in mathematics and everything. In his senior year a man named Cronje became the Headmaster. I phoned once a month or so to see how Musa was doing. The fees then were not so bad. We were paying something like two hundred per annum. Also we had to buy books and the uniform. Train fare was not so bad, ten rand or so. I gave him five rand a month pocket money. I was earning three hundred rand a month. The other kids were here in Soweto but education was becoming more expensive.

‘But I had saved money so I was starting halfway. When I started working there was a young man who worked at Natal Building Society, he taught me to save. I saved twenty, thirty, ten rand each month. When Musa was born I opened a subscription account for him. I saved four rand every month. I was looking to the future. I opened an account when each child was born but later started a joint endowment policy for all the kids.

‘Musa passed matric in 1982 among the top ten, countrywide. He was undecided about a career, thinking perhaps medicine, perhaps engineering. Cronje the principal said he would be good in engineering, perhaps even medicine. I said to Musa, “If you become a doctor you’ll only be happy when people are sick.” I was joking of course. He wanted to study at Wits but in those days black students still had to obtain ministerial consent. He was worried. I said, “No, don’t worry. I’ll write a letter. You’ll get it.”’

Here follow excerpts from the famous family letter directed to the Director of Education and Training in Pretoria:

I discussed the choice of careers with my son, also his Principal, Mr M J Cronje, at Lemana High School and his guidance teacher Miss E A Rooth. My son has his heart set on studying for a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. I personally thought over this matter for a considerable length of time but could not think of a better choice to suit his talents.

I have made enquiries at the Universities of Fort Hare, the North and Zululand as to whether they offer this course – they do not!

My son on the other hand made enquiries and applied at the University of the Witwatersrand. I attach hereto correspondence … provisionally offering him a place … as from 1983.

Furumele’s letter continues, providing the Director General with his own resume and a description of the family circumstances. It ends with following paragraph: 

I the undersigned, being Musa Stefan’s father, declare that if my son is given the required ministerial consent … will see to it that he makes full use of his mental capabilities in a manner desirable to himself, my family, the society in which he lives and the country at large and does not abuse this rare opportunity at all.

The letter is signed above Charles’ identity number.
And so Musa did get admitted to Wits where the first ever engineers he came into contact with, were his lecturers. The first hurdle was cleared, and Musa arrived with the funds saved over the years in the subscription account. Alas, it fell far short of the requisite course fees of some ten thousand. Charles had put money aside to extend their matchbox house. It seemed however, that now it would go elsewhere. But during Musa’s first year of study when he performed well, help came from Wits’ Academic Support Programme, an initiative started to help deserving black students with limited means. Stan Kahn, later the Director of Funda Centre in Soweto, then working for the ASP, brokered a bursary for Musa from a major oil company. Dad was able to extend the house. Musa did well at Wits, completing several degrees and diplomas. He went on to pursue further studies at Penn State, in the United States.

I asked Charles about his later impressions of Johannesburg, ‘Did he remain negative about the place?’ ‘No I got used to it’ he replied. ‘In the fifties, Dorah and I would visit the Good Hope cinema in Commissioner St, on Saturday afternoons. We’d do some window shopping in Eloff St, sometimes we’d buy fish and chips at the London Fish and Chips in Bree St. We’d go to Johannesburg Zoo on a Sunday afternoon and at Easter we’d visit the Rand Easter Show at the old show grounds in Milner Park.

Charles Rhangani Furumele’s other three children received no less from their mother and father. Nor, it seems, did they give any less in return. Pyalu Clementine Jessica Furumele, fourth child and only daughter, apple of Charles’eye, completed primary school in Soweto and proceeded to high school in Limpopo where she excelled in science and was placed in a special learners’ programme. She graduated from Wits with a BSc in Chemistry. She turned to Information Technology, obtaining a further qualification, and then went to work at First National Bank. Just like her namesake, Charles’ mom, Pyalu, she was a focused and hard working young woman. She died at a tragically early age. At the time of her death she was attempting to influence her employers to expend more care and effort in developing their black graduates.

Karel Shalati the Furumele’s third child acknowledges living in a family rich with love and parental support. He suffered from poor health until, at the age of thirteen. He completed his primary schooling in Soweto but later, following the family tradition, moved to Lemana High, then to Orhovelani High school in Bushbuckridge and back to Vuwani Secondary in Chiawelo for matric. He completed a Diploma in Education from Soweto College and later completed a Bachelor’s degree in Communications from RAU now Johannesburg University.

Humphrey Emile Furumele, second son, pursued a different career path. He wished to become an accountant but because of stringent entry requirements, he was not accepted at Wits. He studied education at Soweto College where possibly not to his surprise, he showed a strong aptitude for maths teaching. Teaching maths at Vuwani Secondary School in Chiawelo he ‘turned a corner in 1993’ when one of his matric pupils obtained the school’s first distinction. Since then he has guided more than twenty matric students to maths distinctions. Today, Humphrey is head of the school maths department. He still however, aspires to a business career.
Charles and Dorah Furumele left a startling legacy: five academically gifted children, children imbued with the values needed to build a noteworthy society. The devoted parents hardly planned it that way, but their timing was perfect. Their children entered the world of work and nation building just when the opportunities were there to be exploited; and they were not found lacking!

The children’s present and future is so very different from the era of struggles and hardships faced by Charles and Dorah. But one obtains the impression that the parents would have had it no different, their hardships were as a badge of courage, they would have expressed no regrets. Their pride in all their children, must have been immense. I would say of them, that their life’s hard, hard labour, was truly noble, and in terms of their desires and values, ultimately fulfilling.

About the author: Mike has spent most of his life in Johannesburg. He earned his living as a human resources practitioner, first in large companies as a manager, [many stimulating years with AECI] and later in his own small HR consultancy. Much of his later occupational time was spent running training courses for managers on how to handle staff within the framework of South African labour legislation, He wrote and published The Manpower Brief, an IR, HR and sociopolitical newsletter, which was popular in many large companies during the 80s and early 90s. A selection of Briefs were incorporated into the book, People Really Matter published by Knowledge Resources. While working, he wrote several business books, one of which, on negotiating, was a sell-out.

In his ‘retirement,’ he has written extensively about Johannesburg, publishing articles mainly in The Star and Sunday Times. Working with Beryl Porter of Walk & Talk Tours, he developed and guided many walking tours around historic Joburg – Braamfontein, Parktown, Newtown, Centre City, Constitution Hill, Kensington & Troyeville, Fordsburg etc. He regularly took visitors to Soweto. His book Johannesburg Portraits – from Lionel Phillips to Sibongile Khumalo, offered popular biographical essays of well known Joburg citizens. His researched paper on Judge FET Krause who surrendered Johannesburg to Field Marshall Roberts during the Anglo-Boer War, was published in the Johannesburg Heritage Journal. The same journal published his series on famous local paleoanthropologists. 

Mike is also a widely published poet. Botsotso recently published his third book of poetry, Poetic Licence. His current historical work, published by co-author Peter Delmar of the Parkview Press, The Johannesburg Explorer Book, takes readers on a journey through old Johannesburg, weaving together a history of events and people, which make this city such a fascinating place. His most recent book, a work of journalism, Twelve plus One, featuring transcribed interviews with Johannesburg poets was issued in 2014.

He lived with his wife Cecily, in a century old, renovated house on Langermann Kop, Kensington. A widower since July 2014, he now lives in Eventide Retirement Village in Muizenberg. He believes himself very fortunate in that his son, daughter in law and grandsons live nearby. His daughter lives in Sydney with her husband and son. In case you’re wondering, Luke Alfred, Mike’s son, is the well-known journalist and author.


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