Staying positive was a challenge in 2017, and it was made all the more difficult by the unrelenting negativity in the national discourse. From downgrades to countless impeachment attempts, marches and economic malaise, the year that was provided sustained body blow after sustained body blow. It’s hardly surprising that most of my acquaintances greeted 2018 with a sense of relief tinged with trepidation.
While it’s easy – and indeed understandable – to fear another 12 months of political intrigue, social inequality and deep divisions, I was heartened at the tail-end of 2017 after attending a Partners for Possibilities (PfP) celebration in Joburg. I’ve been a huge fan of Louise van Rhyn and her PfP initiative for many years, I completely see the sense in empowering and supporting school principals who are already facing massive educational challenges as well as social and community pressures. Paring business people and their unique skills set with principals makes sense. It’s not just me who thinks so, their approach has been incredibly well received and applauded both within South Africa and abroad.
In 2016, when I went back to school to complete the Bloomberg Media Initiative Africa (BMIA) at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, I was privileged to have as a member of my syndicate a successful businessman who was part of the PfP programme. I learnt a great deal form Ismail during the intensive six-month course, both with regards to the BMIA content as well as his approach to leadership and problem solving.
I took a great deal out of that taste of gentle mentorship and teamwork and can only imagine how the now 672 schools involved with PfP are benefitting from this sense of partnership and shared learning. I say shared because the growth doesn’t just flow one way; based on the input from principal-business mentor teams at the PfP event it is clear that this is not a one-way process. Each two-person team creates a learning experience for both individuals.
This came through clearly when the likes of Paul Serfontein from EOH and Louise Mvelo from Khula Sizwe Primary in Tembisa shared their story of partnership and mutual respect. It was apparent when the team from Nandi Primary School in Diepsloot – Frans Chiloane and Carmen Biggars from Metropolitan – took to the podium to discuss how strategic planning had been harnessed to bring children to Nandi by engaging with the community. Nedbank’s Penny Sikhwari and PJ Simelane Primary School’s principal, Thabo Ralephata, highlighted how leveraging off corporate know-how could change the perspective of a principal, and Tessa Turvey (also from Nedbank) and Missourilaan Secondary’s top man, Julius van Rensburg, shared an inspiring personal story of growth and understanding which tapped into Tessa’s observation that: “Principals operate from a very lonely place.” Working together gave Julius the sounding board he needed and saw the Eldorado Park school end 2016 as the most improved school. If you ask me the latter collaboration can, and should, be the subject of a heart-warming local film. Think To Sir, With Love, but with a local slant. It would be a winner.
As event MC Nomfuzo Ntolosi commented: “It takes vulnerability to do this kind of work.” She is spot on. And this represents the sort of active citizenry we need more of if we stand any chance of turning around an education system which continues to underperform. According to PfPs, of the 25 000 government schools in South Africa only 5 000 are regarded as doing very well. That’s a disgrace. And it begs the question why government doesn’t urge and incentivise current and retired business leaders to get involved with PfP and give of their time and expertise. If the quality of the collaborations on display at the PfP celebration are anything to go by, this approach would do more for future of South African children than another hike in the annual budget. After all, education is about people. And it takes people to help people.