Summoned to hope and home
"It's been a lifelong dream to go back, but as the years passed I wondered if I'd ever return," he says, talking in his south London home on the eve of his departure. "I was always restless, but now I feel more worthwhile as a human being than I've ever done, because I'm doing something to help in the transformation of a country committed to multi-racialism."
An eager, highly articulate, bright-eyed 50-year-old of Indian parentage, with an evident passion for education and racial equality, he believes his managerial style is well suited to the demanding job that lies ahead. "Though I'm a revolutionary, somewhere I believe you can't force people to change; you have to work with them to achieve change," he argues.
As the first deputy director-general of education in the North-West Province, his task will be a formidable one: to replace the old apartheid system of schooling with one that gives all children the chance of a decent education; to improve the quality of a teaching force that has been divided, demoralised and disaffected; and to effect radical change in the spirit of reconciliation that is now official policy in South Africa.
His credentials seem impeccable. As a young man he was active in the Indian Congress, student politics and the ANC ("I was arrested twice, but not tortured, just frightened"). He refused to go to a segregated university, helped to set up scholarship funds for African students and taught in adult education. Exile meant Botswana and Zambia, before he settled in the UK.
After time as a social worker in Glamorgan, he became chief welfare adviser for the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), and then divisional education officer for Lambeth. More recently he was assistant director of education in Birmingham under Tim Brighouse. There, he was in charge of special needs, and of parent and pupil support.
The variety of the 3,000 schools he's inherited in the predominantly rural North-West Province underlines the iniquity of apartheid. They range from affluent, well-resourced schools in white areas with a 1:15 teacherpupil ratio, to remote farm schools where a teacher may have a class of 60 children, and where the farmer may force the pupils to do work for him.
There are also the famous open-air schools, and several areas where there are no schools at all. Of the million pupils in the province - 53,000 white, 3,000 Indian, 10,000 coloured and more than 930,000 African - nearly 200,000 are not in school.
But Gulam-Husein Mayet is in no doubt about the demand for education among African parents. "They make terrific sacrifices in order to educate their children, because they themselves have been denied something so basic," he says. "They are impatient for change. They've been waiting all their lives for a proper education service, so the interest is very great."
Under the new regime, each of the nine provinces has its own minister for education, each with considerable scope to effect change through legislation within the broad framework for reconstruction and reconciliation set out by the central government. As of this year, all children have the right to 10 years' free education, including a pre-school year.
How do you translate that right into reality at local level? "We could do dramatic things immediately, like move the money from the white schools to the African schools to bring instant equality of resources," Gulam-Husein Mayet says.
"But we're not mad or suicidal - we have to take people with us." So he's embarking on a four-year programme, during which teacher numbers and ratios will be equalised across the system.
But some action has to be immediate. Tents from the South African army are being used to provide much-needed if makeshift schooling in areas where none existed before. And a school feeding scheme has been set up with the Department of Health, providing sandwiches for hungry children, some of whom in rural areas may have a daily 20-kilometre walk to and from their school.
Then there's the over-age problem. Because the legislation giving a right to 10 years' education was unclear about the age-range, many adults in their early 20s who missed out on schooling have turned up unexpectedly and mixed in with 15-year-olds. It's a situation that will need delicate handling.
Another priority for Gulam-Husein Mayet are the farm schools. These were simply ignored under the old system. Since the owners can close them down at will, his department is reluctant to put resources into buildings which could be taken out of its hands tomorrow. So serious consideration is being given to nationalising the land on which the schools stand, or at least granting the education authorities legal access.
In breaking down the old selective, elitist system, both he and the minister want to get rid of intelligence tests and pre-entry exams. But there are immense difficulties in setting up a truly multi-racial system. "We may have to have affirmative action and tell schools to take a certain proportion of African pupils," he says. "Otherwise pure geography would exclude them from the well-off areas." Language has been used as a tool of segregation.
Some white schools effectively excluded black children by adopting Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. This will no longer be allowed: such schools are now being encouraged to adopt dual-language or multi-language teaching.
There's also a firm belief in the province's education department that Model C schools - not unlike voluntary-aided schools in Britain - should be abolished. These schools can charge fees, and in the past had enough independent power to create whites-only schools. A national inquiry into their future is due to report this summer.
In his brief visits to the province since his appointment earlier this year, Gulam-Husein Mayat has been surprised at the lack of resistance to change amongst the white population. "It's been there in a covert way, but there's not been nearly as much as we expected, even in an area like Ventersdorp where the neo-fascist Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) are very strong. There's an optimistic feel about the place - everyone's trying to help and not rock the boat."
Nevertheless, such radical changes inevitably create turbulence. In three of the province's teacher training colleges, teachers and students have insisted on the rector being sacked. Similarly, in 29 schools the students and local community together have refused to allow the principals to return to their jobs.
Teachers have been expelled under the previous system, while others who were promoted are seen as having been pliable, as stooges of a system which taught that black people were inferior," Gulam-Husein Mayet says.
"So there's a legitimacy problem. But we need to resolve these conflicts, to find a role for these people, to forgive though not forget".
He believes it's important that schools are normalised, that political confrontation in the classroom ends. After the years of "Liberation is More Important than Education", the new slogan is "Promoting Teaching and Learning".
But some teachers, he feels, are finding it hard to adjust to the new freedoms. "Under the old system everybody followed rules, everything was prescribed and people were used to getting instructions. Now we're saying to teachers: you have autonomy, we're giving you permission to use your initiative in your classroom."
This applies especially to teaching materials. Until a core or national curriculum is established - this could take four years - the old syllabuses remain in force. With no money for new books, teachers have to use the apartheid textbooks in, for instance, history and geography. They're now being encouraged to make students aware of the apartheid propaganda in them.
It's also become crucial to raise the quality of the teaching profession, 90 per cent of whom are African. Around 15 per cent have only had eight years' schooling, while another 60 per cent have the equivalent of GCSEs plus a teaching diploma.
Gulam-Husein Mayet is determined that students, who played such a crucial role in the destruction of apartheid, should be involved in the running of the new schools, with places on the governing body at second-ary level. He also sets great store by the community forums being established at district level. "Every-thing we do has to be accountable, even if it means change takes longer," he says.
Here he believes his experience in London and Birmingham will stand him in good stead. He points to his time in the ILEA, where he was involved in the fight to improve the achievement of all racial groups and, while in charge of schools in Lambeth, was able to work closely with headteachers.
"It showed me what you can do if you work together," he says. In Birmingham he's seen the impact one man can make. "Tim Brighouse has been a breath of fresh air. It's been fantastically exciting - he's changed everything."
Inspired by his recent experience, he intends to use his contacts here by encouraging links with schools in South Africa, teacher exchanges and visits from advisers and inspectors with expertise in special needs and other areas.
He's going out to South Africa alone, but hopes his family (two of his three children are at university) will join him one day. "It's going to be a most wonderful experience," he says.