A passion for justice

Professor Thembela Kepe
Thembela Kepe, a professor in the Department of Geography at U of T Scarborough talks about growing up as a black South African under apartheid and overcoming challenges.

Elizabeth Oloidi

When it comes to obstacles, Thembela Kepe has known his share. Example: writing his high school exams under armed guard. Kepe, a Human Geography professor at U of T Scarborough, grew up as a black South African under apartheid. Those soldiers with the R5 rifles, he says —  “They were not guarding us for our protection. We were ‘the bad people.’ They were making sure that you write the exam and then you go home.”

It’s no wonder Kepe is inspired by others who have faced challenges. “I think people who overcome challenges are stronger and have a lot to teach us.” His parents have always inspired him. “I could see my mother suffering, trying to make a living for us.” She encouraged him to pursue his education, despite not being educated herself.

“I think people who overcome challenges are stronger and have a lot to teach us.”

Kepe attended three different high schools, which were so dysfunctional that he used to read ahead in his textbooks, since the teacher might or might not show up to teach the chapter. Then he went to the University of Fort Hare, at a time when only three per cent of black South Africans made it to university. Some days he would fear being shot by police. But, he says, “seeing my parents suffer inspired me to continue.”

Kepe’s passion for geography stemmed from his passion for land, which began at an early age since “land was always an issue” in South Africa. He also likes the ‘multidisciplinarity’ of the field. “Geography is a unique discipline because it is not a discipline. It allows one to draw from different disciplines. And so human geography is the best.”

Kepe likes to show students what they already know, and then help them build a deeper understanding from that foundation. “I show them that they actually know more than they think they know.”

Not surprisingly, he is inspired by justice and politics. He says he “infuses” these into his courses. He draws from personal experience, as well as other examples, “to make theory alive when I teach. And students like that.”