In 2008, I spent some time in the township of Khayelitscha on the western cape of South Africa. The name of the township is Xhosa for ‘Our New Home’. I can only imagine what it is like there at the moment amongst the shanty sections of the settlement. I was privileged to have numerous experiences during my visits to this, the largest and fastest growing informal township in South Africa and the HIV capital of the world. One was most profound for me and informed another visit that I had to Robben Island a little while later.
We were escorted deep into the township to meet a most extraordinary woman who was leading a small school there. She had a shed of about 20 square metres and a little bit of land surrounded by barbed wire fencing. We were greeted by children dancing. Some of the children were blind. Each day, this woman looked after the children, teaching them essential literacy and numeracy, songs, dances and stories. She was simply extraordinary. I learned that her safety was guaranteed because she cared for some of the children of gang leaders in the area who ran ‘tik’ laboratories. This was local slang for methamphetamines. Therefore, she had access to a generator which gave her electricity for light, refrigeration and a little stereo for singing and dancing.
She had two crumpled and well-worn documents that she wished to share with us. One was something that I had seen before and one was something that I had heard of before. The first was an old vocations pamphlet that a visiting Christian Brother had shared with her. It was an information resource all about Edmund Rice and how he had started a humble school in a horse stable over two hundred years ago. I remembered it from my primary school years when we prayed that Blessed Edmund Rice, Founder of the Christian Brothers might one day become a Saint. She held on to that dog-eared pamphlet like it was gold as she told us about her vision and mission for her school. It was inspiring and very moving.
The second document was a single sheet of paper which contained the poem by Henley that I have shared above. Many people have become familiar with it through the film ‘Invictus’ which tells the story of South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup victory and Nelson Mandela’s part of the story. I have had the privilege of standing at Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island with my hand on the lock of the security grill door and reading Invictus which is the poem he said to himself each morning as he awoke to face his day for 27 years. “I am the master of my fate, I am the Captain of my soul”. I can tell you, it is spine tingling stuff to imagine.
A close friend of mine who faced a very difficult period when his eldest son was imprisoned a few years ago gave me a copy of ‘Invictus’ when I was facing a challenge. He had drawn strength from it during some dark times. It had a very deep impact on me and I keep it close by and sneak a look at it now and then!
This morning, our Year 11 young men gathered for the beginning of their Leadership Retreat. I had the honour of spending some time with them as they set out on their journey as the third of our senior groups of ATC. They will build on the legacies of 2019 and 2020 and also do things their way for their time. I decided to start with Henley’s poem and the story of a woman in a small shed in one of the most dangerous parts of the world who is a person of leadership, influence and courage; she is indeed the master of her fate and the Captain of her soul as our boys can be.
Leadership starts with the leadership of self and our mission and values and is expanded through our relationships and actions. Leadership is both profoundly complex and simple as she teaches us. I will never forget her and her inspirational example. We wish our Year 11 students the very best as they work together over the next couple of days in forming their vision and plans for the journey that lies ahead. We look forward to what this wonderful group will bring to the ATC story.