THREE MONTHS AGO, at the age of 40, South African Ntembi Macala finally achieved her dream of taking up her first ever teaching post. It’s been a long journey for this daughter of an Eastern Cape domestic worker who, in a country with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, has struggled her entire adult life to find a permanent job. Here, she talks BRONWEN BOWMER through a day in her life at a primary school in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township, and how she passes on to her pupils the hope to which she herself has clung
Teacher Ntembi never gave up, and encourages her pupils to do likewise: ‘Many kids in my class live in shacks with nothing but I believe any one of them could even become president’ | Photo: Nicky Elliott

‘I’m an early bird! I don’t like to be late so I get up about 5.15am, even though I live close to the school. It’s something in me, I’m used to it. The first thing I do when I get up is boil two kettles to wash with. I don’t eat much breakfast, maybe just tea or coffee. School starts at 8 but I like to get there earlier. I’m not the kind of person who can just arrive and work, I need time to prepare.

My brother and I share a house in Khayelitsha township that belongs to my mother. She worked her whole life as a domestic worker and has now retired back to the Eastern Cape where she was born. I have two sons, aged 16 and 9, and she is looking after them while I work here in Cape Town. I go back whenever I can. It’s better for my sons there in the rural area. Their father left a long time ago and there’s no one to look after them here while I work.

There are 40 boys and girls in my class. Some come from families where there’s a lot of drinking and drug abuse, others were neglected by their parents and live in a home or orphanage. Sometimes they come to school without even a pencil. So I bought a box of pencils and every time someone doesn’t have a pencil, I can just give.


For some kids, the lessons are too short and after an hour you can see they still haven’t started working on their own. But we need evidence of the work, so we have to push them. Some just don’t understand the work and I stay with them after class to help them catch up. I love children, you must love children to do this job.

When I look at the kids in my class, I know where they’re coming from. I was about 10 when my mother left us in King William’s Town to find work in Cape Town. My older brother and I looked after our younger brother as our father was a bus driver who was always on the road and died young. The only thing we knew how to cook was rice! Sometimes we’d go to school with no breakfast, but we never stopped going. When my teacher discovered my mom wasn’t around, she was shocked that we came to school regardless. But that was our life.

I also never stopped going to church, even though my brothers didn’t. It became my foundation. To this day, I draw my strength from God and my church. So often I would be discouraged and doubt and ask ‘God where are you?’, but always when I came back from church my spirit would be lifted and I knew that God had a good plan for me. There’s a hymn I used to sing when I felt desperate and wanted to give up. It goes: ‘I long for you, Oh Jerusalem; All my striving will end when I arrive where you are.’

At the school where I teach, the children are given porridge before school starts, then a main meal at 10.45am after maths and isiXhosa. For many, it’s the only proper meal they get all day. I’m given lunch in the staff room at the same time, and at 11.30 we go back to our classrooms to continue the lessons, usually life skills and English. When I was a child, I had big dreams and it helped me to cope with my circumstances. So now I try to inspire the children, too. I tell them, ‘One day, you’ll be driving in a big black fancy car with a wheel at the back and I’ll be standing waiting for a taxi or whatever, and you’ll pull over and I will say ‘Wow, who’s this?’ and you will answer, ‘It’s me, teacher, your student from years ago!’ You should see them smile when I tell them stories like that.

Ntembi has looked after herself since she was 10. ‘I had big dreams and these helped me to cope with my circumstances’ | Photo: Nicky Elliott

At 1.30pm, school is finished. The teachers stay behind for admin and marking and usually our knock-off time is 3.30, unless the principal calls a meeting. We have a very good principal and everyone on the staff is very supportive. When I get home I sometimes cook supper for my brother and me, but usually we just help ourselves to whatever. In the evening I relax at home or go and watch TV with my friend Nokuthula, who lives two houses down.


I’ve wanted to be a teacher for so long. I had two degrees including a PGCE teaching qualification which my mother’s former employers helped me with financially, but I couldn’t get a job in the Eastern Cape. I had no connections there. I was the first one in my family to get a qualification and over there people in the schools only give you a job when they know you or someone in your family.

I tried to find work both in Cape Town and in my home town in the Eastern Cape. I volunteered for a year as a social work assistant at a prison, I assisted the chiefs in my community, I even worked as a construction worker to put food on the table for my children. That was a very bad time for me and I even wanted to kill myself. But I prayed and prayed, and just kept believing that one day God would open doors for me.

Four years ago I became desperate. I messaged my mother’s former employers in Cape Town and told them I had tried so hard my whole life but nothing was working out for me. They heard how desperate I was and invited me to live with them in Cape Town. This gave me hope. The family helped me get a job as a preschool assistant at a private school, where I learnt so much about teaching and knew for sure I wanted to be a teacher.

I loved the assistant job and the school but I had my mother and four children to support: my two boys and the two sons of my sister Hilda, who is no longer alive. It simply did not pay enough to buy what they needed for school and my mother had to go hungry sometimes so that they had food. It was so painful to think about this. At night I looked for jobs and registered on all the job websites. It was so frustrating. I’d send my CV and they would reply and say I was perfect for the job, but nothing ever materialised. I really missed my kids and was so worried about how I was going to support them.

But I kept praying and believing in my future and finally, four years after coming to Cape Town I got an interview for a proper teaching job. The interview was very stressful and I was so nervous. Ten people interviewed me, all in one day! Three days later, they called me. I was sitting next to a colleague at the private school eating my lunch when the phone rang and they told me I got the job. I just jumped up and started to scream. I was so happy! That weekend, I didn’t sleep. I didn’t believe it was real and only when I went to see them face to face and signed my contract could I be sure it was really happening.

Ntembi’s family back home in the rural Eastern Cape. Her new teaching job means she can now better support her mother Thobeka (centre), her own sons Olwethu and Owam (both at front), and her nephews Masixole and Mandilakhe. She bought this furniture with her first month’s salary as there was none in the house. A contemporary construction job she took on a few years ago paid for the floor tiles. 

I’m so happy to have a teacher’s salary now. At one stage, there was no furniture in my mom’s house in King William’s Town. But, after I got my first pay cheque, I was able to buy her a couch, some cupboards and comfortable chairs to sit on. Now I send money home all the time and my mother is so grateful. She says she’s never been so happy and so well taken care of, even while my father was alive. My boys are also very happy. Now they can watch soccer on TV!  I miss them very much, but I know that they’re happy and well looked after there and that my mother also enjoys having them with her.


So many of the kids in my class are living in shacks with nothing. But I believe that any one of them can be whatever, could even become president. I always keep that in my mind. It’s my vision for them. I also know that one child can change the lives of a whole family. I have faith and hope that these kids can change their circumstances through education. I tell my pupils that God has His angels watching over them and that them being in school is part of His protection because, looking back, I see that God has always come through for me. He even sent me angels in the form of my mother’s former employers, who now feel like a part of my own self. I kept my focus on Him and never gave up: even when I doubted, I never panicked. I just prayed and knew that when the time is right, everything would be right.

This year, for Heritage Day, I and four other teachers taught some of the kids traditional dance routines and they performed it for the whole school. The principal was so impressed, he said he didn’t know there was so much talent here. Some kids are maybe not so good academically, but they have other talents. The school has asked me to coach netball under 11 next year. I’m very excited about it!

I’m keen to study further and one day I’d like to get involved in development work: I want to help make life better for the people in my home town. But in the meantime, I’m just happy teaching these kids and planting dreams for their future.’

Ntembi plus Bible: ‘I even wanted to kill myself… but I now see God has always come through for me.’ | Photo: Nicky Elliott
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