Everyone is slowly starting to leave, and you’re watching them floating away. It’s quite nostalgic.” Those words were shared by Thando Mzimela, Westville Boys’ High’s Head of School for 2022, as the school year headed into its final week.
His has been a very rewarding, somewhat unconventional journey, but he leaves Westville with the school very much a fixture in his heart. And yet that journey began with a rejection!
He recalled: “I lived in Westville, so Westville Boys’ High was always the school you wanted to go to. It’s quite funny – and I remember reflecting on it in my final speech – I didn’t get accepted the first time when I applied. It was a little bit heart-breaking, because everyone was going to Westville. It was the closest school, in your face. It had a good reputation.
“Not being accepted the first time shattered my dream a little bit, but my mom kept trying.”
However, once that acceptance came, Thando was challenged to aim high. “I remember [former Headmaster] Mr Pierides coming into the office and telling me he would give me a chance.
“‘Make me proud’, he said. That was also a driving force, which made me want to be Head Boy from early on. I also remember he said to me ‘ I want to see you with a blue tie one day ‘. That played in my memory often.”
“I couldn’t detach from Westville”
Life, though, is seldom simple, and when his parents moved to Pietermaritzburg, he was going to move inland to Maritzburg College. That idea was intimidating, Thando admitted. More problematic was the fact that he had fallen in love with Westville Boys’ High. “I think it is the idea of everyone to have a place. That’s why I couldn’t detach from Westville, when I might have gone to College. Every person in this school definitely has a place. You have an array of opportunities,” he said.
“Mrs Hayward was my form head at the time. She had to sign my leaving forms to go to College. She said, ‘No, no, give me a second and see what we can do here, and then she gave me the best opportunity ever by getting me a sponsor.”
That move ensured that Thando would remain at the school, as part of the hostel, which he came to treasure. “It has been my favourite part of the school. I grew up as an only child, and then I came to boarding school and suddenly I had so many friends,” he explained.
The Tracked Learner Bursary Programme
He also became part of the Westville Boys’ High Foundation’s “Tracked Learner Bursary Programme” and was paired with Gareth Hayes (class of 2001), who lived in the United Kingdom.
“It’s a cool programme,” Thando enthused. “It’s less of a financial sponsorship, but more of an emotional mentorship. It was the first of its kind, because [previously] boys never really got into contact with their sponsors.
“It was cool to have that start with me, and let it be an experiment, which was really fun. We got into contact in 2020/21, and it was about a shadow leadership process to become Head of School.
“He came at a very pivotal moment in my life. It was the perfect timing.”
The two spoke about goal-setting, and it helped Thando clarify some of his thinking: “I remember, when we first came into contact, the first thing we spoke about was goals. I had never sat down and written down my goals. I had always been aware of the things that I wanted to do, but he taught me a different approach. It was really, really cool. I have learnt so much from him.”
His appreciation for Hayes, very obviously, is heartfelt: “He is one of those people, who I can count on one hand, who has always reassured me. That was always very comforting.”
Hayes also helped Thando to be accountable in all aspects of his life. Learning about time management was a valuable lesson, which assisted him with his many duties as the Head of School. “We worked out plans and schedules. He was a father figure to me. He’s been an awesome mentor,” Thando said.
An unusual choice
In a traditional boys’ school, Thando was an unusual choice as Head Boy; he wasn’t a sportsman. His passion lay in cultural activities. His blazer reflects that. It shows off an academic scroll; a dramatic scroll, for which he was awarded honours; a service scroll, for which he received colours; a debating scroll, in which he earned honours; and a choir scroll. No sign of sports.
“I tried to convince people around me that, perhaps, the Head Boy could be someone outside of a cricketer or a rugby player, outside of skin colour,” Thando said of his goal of becoming Head of School.
“I made people understand that there is value in culture. That’s why I fell in love with Westville, because things like service were espoused. Things like the theatre were promoted. I felt like I could still do more. I needed to show people, in whatever capacity I could, that leadership is more than being on a sports field. I could still be a leader of a task team, or in the theatre. It was, for a very long time, showing people that there is value in these things. People, like me, could be valuable assets to the school.”
On reflection, 2022, under his leadership, was an exceptionally good year for Westville Boys’ High School.
Men with soft hearts, but strong backs
“Something we preached a lot, especially in my leadership body, was a culture of ‘men with soft hearts, but strong backs’. That’s the environment we’re trying to create.
“We really tried to get people to buy into that image. We said ‘Let’s rewrite the script. This is what all the boys’ schools look like, with the super-athletes. Let’s dismantle this notion.'”
It worked a treat because the leadership body was able to offer so many different things to the Westville Boys’ High community, Thando said. “I had a really cool leadership body, a really cool executive committee. One of my deputies was the war cry leader, the best I have seen in a long time. My other deputy was the vice-captain of the rugby team, a super-talented guy. We represented different parts of the school. The student director represented academics and photography. It was a very diverse body, and we reached all parts of the school.”
“A massive responsibility”
After the debilitating effect of Covid-19 on relationships and communities, the leadership challenge was one that the 2022 leadership group needed to get right. “We were the first body out of Covid, so we had a massive responsibility to reignite the school spirit, and to get people to buy into the Griffin one more time, reignite the fire of Westville,” Thando said.
Considering how he and his leadership body met the challenge, he concluded: “I think we did a very good job in reigniting that school spirit, and in rewriting the narrative. It was a very different leadership body. Leadership bodies previously were very traditional, but this time it wasn’t like that. We wrote a new narrative about what leadership actually means.”