Macramé and Mr Botha

I don’t remember Mr Botha for the Mathematics or English he taught me at Hillcrest Primary – a government school just outside of Durban.

What I remember is that he taught our class macramé, and to this day I can still tie the square knot, the full hitch and the double half hitch.

Macramé is an ancient form of textile making using knots rather than weaving, crocheting or knitting. It originated with 13th century Arab weavers, and was kept alive through the centuries by sailors. In the nineteenth century, sailors the world over would pass the time on long voyages making hammocks and other objects, which they would sell or barter en route.

Macramé subsequently faded into obscurity until the hippie movement revived the art, as did Mr Botha.

What was interesting about him is that his macramé instruction had nothing to do with history or the roots of globalisation or the philosophy of what goes around comes around.

He simply wanted us to learn to make something that combines creativity with usefulness and commercial value.

The unintended consequence of Mr Botha’s macramé instruction is that he created a class of entrepreneurs. Suddenly, we were all earning money from macramé – we mostly made plant holders and wall hangings, which were popular in the seventies.

In the Skae household macramé provided an easy mechanism for my mother to have Christmas presents produced in situ. She would buy the raw materials and pay me a wage-exploited rate, but that was okay because I made some money that I would not otherwise have made and because she’s my mother and I love her dearly.

 Mr Botha also taught us Zulu, leatherwork and chess – none were part of the traditional school syllabus, which he also taught extremely well. And in the afternoons he was our swimming, athletics, soccer and rugby coach.

He was a remarkable teacher. He taught with passion, and he genuinely loved his class. He inspired a thirst for knowledge and for life in us, and a way of seeing the world with fresh eyes. He even taught us how to interact with girls in a respectful manner. At my school they had separated the Standard 5 (Grade 7) boys and girls into different classes for some ad hoc reason, which he didn’t agree with, and he would encourage us to socialise with the girls during break time. He wanted us to become natural around girls and to see them as our friends and equals.

He also wanted us to understand what was happening in South Africa. I was 12 when the Soweto uprisings overwhelmed the country in 1976 and Mr Botha tried to explain to us why this was happening.

With hindsight I appreciate that he was inducting us into concepts of justice and humanity. He wanted to instill in us how important it is to be humane and respectful to all people, and to appreciate how much effort and commitment goes into every kind of occupation. We came to understand that cleaning the classroom is as vital to the shaping of the ship as being the principal.

Mr Botha’s style of leadership was a transformational experience and we began to see society in a different way. This is the power of teaching. If we had a country of teachers like Mr Botha we could change the world.

Which is why we have to get it right.

I completely agree with the University of the Free State’s Professor Jonathan Jansen that education should never be about what side of the street you were born. In my case, my parents never specifically took me to Hillcrest Primary; it was simply the closest school to our home.

As it turned out, the cards flopped in my favour, but all of us should be able to find ourselves in any part of our country – urban or rural – and end up with a teacher like Mr Botha.

Throughout my life I have been extremely fortunate to have incredible teachers, and I wish the same for all South Africans. Some of our schools are doing exceptional things with the resources they have even when these resources are extremely limited. They should not be limited because the educational budget in South Africa is sizeable, but we all know how poorly it is being managed. This is the greatest tragedy of leadership because all leadership begins at school. What you learn about leadership comes down to the principals and teachers you have at school, followed by the tertiary education environment for those who continue to this.

I truly believe teaching is a calling and that we need to recognise teachers and also nurses as the backbone of our society. From a leadership perspective we need to do everything possible to boost them and resource them so that we can best deal with the education and leadership needs of our young people and of the health needs of our sick or injured.

We know this and we all need to start acting on this, in our personal and collective capacity. We need to elevate them to the status and financial package they deserve. Which is why I wanted to reflect on the best teacher that I ever had: Mr GD Botha.

Mr Botha, wherever you are in the world today, this is to thank you.

This article was written by Professor Owen Skae, President of the South African Business Schools Association (SABSA) and the Director of Rhodes Business School.

Professor Skae writes in his individual capacity and hence the views expressed are not necessarily those of SABSA or the member schools. For more information on SABSA and its members, visit its website

This article appeared in Leadership, Edition 358, April, 2015. It is reproduced with their permission.

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