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​Some 43 years after dropping out of school to pursue a career as a musician, Sipho Mabuse has returned to complete his matric.
SIPHO "Hotstix" Mabuse, at 60, became a mischievous schoolboy for just a moment last week. Driving to school, a block from the gate, he opened the window, put his arm out, and shouted "Hey!" to a group of 20-somethings. With a big grin, he gesticulated to his watch, implying that they were going to be late for class.

Mabuse, a dedicated matric pupilMabuse, a dedicated matric pupilMabuse, who has made his name as an Afro-fusion jazz musician, will finally finish his matric this year at Peter Lengene Adult Education and Training Centre in Klipspruit, 43 years after he started it. He was last in a classroom in 1969, when he dropped out of school – not to go into exile, but to pursue a career as a musician.

As you would expect, he is the oldest in his class, joined by 11 other students, 40 years his junior. A grandfather of four, Mabuse laughs, saying he was asked by one of them: "Grandpa, are you going to school, at your age?"

His geography teacher, Thomas Manenzhe, says he is a good student and works hard. His principal, Japie Masombuka, agrees.

Last year he passed four of his six subjects – English, ethnology, Sesotho and economics. He failed geography and history, which he is repeating. "This year I am just enjoying myself," says Mabuse.

He thought he could pass all six. "I'm clever, I'm smart, I've been around," he reflects. Masombuka "tried to discourage him" from doing all six but he insisted.

He found the exams "quite challenging, harder than I expected". When he last studied geography and history he did the subjects in Afrikaans, at the behest of the apartheid government.

His goal is to study music anthropology, probably starting at Unisa and then perhaps at Rhodes in Grahamstown, with an ambition to take in the atmosphere at Fort Hare.

A band
Mabuse started a band in high school called The Beaters, which was later renamed Harari, "encouraged by my headmaster", he says. "Matric got waylaid by pop stars, money, girls and travel."

His band played at matric dances and then on Sunday afternoons, and they toured neighbouring countries. He was the drummer in those days – the reason he got his nickname was because he continued to play when the lights went out – but now his instrument of choice is the alto-sax.

Japie Masombuka, the principal of the Peter Lengene Adult Education and Training CentreJapie Masombuka, the principal of the Peter Lengene Adult Education and Training Centre"In 1969 it was hectic – there was a lot of latent passive resistance to Afrikaans," he says. The build-up to the momentous 1976 riots that changed so much started in the late 1960s.

"The education system was chaotic. We would start learning in Sesotho but by high school classes were in English and Afrikaans."

By 1976, the government was trying to get teachers to give lessons in all subjects – even maths and science – in Afrikaans. The idea blew up in their face and Soweto erupted in violent resistance.

The band played an unusual role in the resistance – they would transport youngsters going into exile in their drums and amplifier cases when they went on tour to neighbouring countries.

Born in Soweto
Born in Soweto in 1951, Mabuse grew up in the township, where he still lives. He started playing drums at the age of eight, and by 15 was a professional musician. He has performed in almost every southern African country, and has toured the US, the UK, France, Germany and Italy.

He has a broad range of musical styles – dance, reggae, jazz, mbaqanga, kwela and gospel – and has collaborated with Gloria Bosman, Jimmy Dludlu, Hugh Masekela and the late Miriam Makeba. He has recorded 15 albums and is planning a new one this year.

Mabuse says that ever since he dropped out of school, finishing matric has been nagging at him. At the time it was too difficult to think of going back to school, but finally the time was right. "I just decided, it's now or never. I'm going to make the time – I'm going back."

He approached the Education Department and was told to write a presentation explaining why he wanted to go back to school. "I received a letter of acceptance; it was almost like getting an exemption," he says.

He cites two cases as his inspiration for completing matric – a friend's mother, a retired doctor, who at 78 went back to university to study Xhosa; and his aunt, a retired teacher, who went back to study at the age of 70.

There's no doubt he does work hard – he asks intelligent questions in the classroom, and is always the first student to raise his arm with the answer when a question is asked.

Manenzhe's lesson is about rivers and streams and understanding where one stops and the other begins.

Mabuse sits diligently in the classroom, frequently raising his hand. But he also asks questions. "Meneer, how many streams are flowing into the main river?" he asks, pointing to the diagram on the board.

And he does not underestimate the effect his going back to school is having on the broader community. He has been asked to speak to pupils at schools in Soweto, and, says Masombuka, they listen to him because of who he is. "They are saying that if Sipho at his age can go back to school, I can too."

A lot of students have shown an interest in returning to school as a result of Mabuse's example, he adds. "There are so many Siphos around here."

Both men have appeared on TV – the BBC, the SABC and APTV have joined him in the classroom to record his progress. "We are expecting more to come – Aljazeera has shown an interest," says Masombuka, laughing at the fact that he has now become a minor celebrity himself. "I am shining in the reflected glory."

Mabuse has a full day, waking at 5am, going to gym, coming back to breakfast, practising his sax for two hours, reading, often philosophy, studying, interviews, then getting ready to go to school at 3pm. He attends classes four afternoons a week, for up to two hours.

Masombuka says he is confident that Mabuse will succeed in his studies – he grew up at a time when young people were expected to read. "He belongs to the old school where you have to read – he still believes in that," and he says the star pupil will have no trouble passing this year.

"It's quite an honour. What he has done is quite extraordinary." But he jokes, saying that he is checking up on his celebrity pupil. "I didn't see him last Friday."

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