I HAVE learnt that my middle school principal, Ntate Mokwe, has passed on.

It’s unfortunate that I only got to hear about this monumental loss after his burial.

It is unfortunate that this great educator left us in a week in which there is so much happening in the country, mostly the bad and ugly.

I would have loved to pay a proper tribute to him.

When Ntate Mokwe arrived at Modilati Middle School in the mighty village of Stinkwater, Hammanskraal in 1990, I was also new in the majestic school.

I was in Standard 5 and beginning my journey as a middleweight scholar with my long pants.

In the golden days of Bophuthatswana, primary school was Sub A – Standard 4 in shorts, strictly shorts and nothing else. You had to work hard to wear the long pants.

You even wrote an “external exam” marked in Mahikeng in Standard 4 to earn your long pants.

So my sister Boledi, aka Reginah, had just spent her last penny to get me brand new khakhi and grey pairs of pants from a textile factory in Babelegi.

I liked the Yanks khakhi pants more but was not really at war with the grey flannel.

Mr Selomo was the acting principal during the first assembly meeting in January and he was also keeping a hawk eye on us when we brought tools from home to clean the school premises ahead of the first quarter.

Yes Ma2000, we cleaned our own schools before 1994, and shortly thereafter. Boys brought tools like shovels, rakes and spades while girls brought buckets, mopping cloths and wax (waskerese).

Mr Selomo was a well-built and fluently-spoken gentleman who knew how to dress for his frame.

However, he took no prisoners and always carried an orange sjambok (tjampi) to keep order in the august institution.

He often patrolled the gates for latecomers and those who smelled of cigarette.

So Mokwe joined the revered Modilati a few weeks into 1990. I think he could have arrived shortly after FW De Klerk’s February 2 speech in which he said “the government has decided to release Mr Mandela, unconditionally”.

We saw him walking around the school but didn’t know who he was.

There was no time to indulge kids with official announcements back then.

You would only find out when you were guilty of some misdemeanour.

Soon after his arrival, Mr Mokwe introduced mandatory morning study classes. Instead of the usual 7:45am start, we started at 7am.

No excuses.

He drove his little blue Toyota Corolla 1.3 from Unit D in Temba in the wee hours of the morning to be there before all of us, including his teachers.

That was not all. He also introduced mandatory afternoon study classes on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Wednesdays were reserved for sports (I tried my hand in softball after the influence of Donald Molobela, but that ended in tears) and Fridays were for cleaning.

Ntate Mokwe immediately stamped his authority on the school culture.

I was a little prepared because he was coming from Suurman’s Moditela where my sister was a learner. She had warned me that “Mokwe o tlo le lokisa”.

We became a well-oiled machine.

He taught history and his kids hit the roof with their marks.

I personally got a distinction in Standard 7 in 1992 when he taught me the subject.

He was invested in what he was doing. I remember his distinct signature on my books.

He was way too passionate, almost to a point of obsession and madness. He never wanted anything less.

He was instrumental in helping the village give birth to its first ever high school, Bokamoso.

He seconded some of his best teachers there and personally walked between the two schools – 100m apart– throughout the day to ensure that all was well.

When we learned that one of his names was Rufus, he was furious. We paid a price for it.

No kid dared called his teacher, or worse, principal, by their first name during those days.

Mokwe was so invested in his work, our education and our village that he would visit the humble Stinkwater on weekends- undercover.

During these visits, he would talk to elders he met on the streets and have informal chats with our parents.

If your parents uttered anything negative to him about you; like you coming back home late on weekends, not washing dishes or failing to take care of the family’s livestock, Ntate Mokwe would deal with you on Monday.

He never took notes and walked on these undercover missions.

He knew all of us by heart and was always accurate.

We loved him as much as we loathed him. We adored him as much as we found him enigmatic.

He was a special educator.

One January, he brought his family’s bakkie and took a few boys to go to the district office to collect the school’s stationery to ensure that classes began on time.

Mokwe was instrumental in the establishment of the second high school in our village, Rakgotso.

He later became a principal there and I, together with a few other fellow villagers, contributed in one way or the other towards the development and mentoring of its pupils in later years.

When we had a major public service strike circa 2008/09, I was among the volunteers at the school, dishing Biology and English classes because of our relationship with Rufus.

We were allowed to call him by first name at this point.

I will miss Ntate Mokwe.

I learned a lot from him when I was under his tutelage as a pupil but even in later years when I thought I had arrived.

One of his great friends and colleagues, Ntate Mpofu, is now the principal at Modilati and he is doing a fantastic job.

When Mokwe arrived at Modilati, he also had to deal with egos and pin-up boys and girls in his teaching staff of the time.

I now understand that these things have always been there in different guises.

I will miss Rufus. We never spoke much in-between projects but I always knew I could rely on him for any kind of counsel or wisdom.

Go well Rins (short for principal in our days). You really left a great legacy in our village.

I see a Mokwe Primary or Secondary School in the not-so-distant future.

Mananyetso is a journalist and editor at Daily Sun in Johannesburg.