Last month I returned from South Africa where I participated in the CSC Leaders program. I arrived in Johannesburg around the time former president Nelson Mandela was hospitalised. Wandering through the Apartheid museum one afternoon I was stopped by a BBC cameraman asking for my reflections on Mandela and his legacy. My comment was that South Africans will continue the legacy of trying to build a more unified and just South Africa even after he is gone. I made the point that Mandela was just an ordinary man who did extraordinary things simply by standing firm in his convictions and not seeking revenge or retribution.
South Africa is an extraordinary place for two reasons. The first is its natural beauty. The second is the sense of hope that abounds when you speak to people. I expected apartheid would have left people bereft of hope but South Africans are optimistic about the future.
There’s no doubt that the challenges South Africa face are significant but what has been achieved so far has been no small feat. The week I spent in Johannesburg with my CSC colleagues was a great conclusion to the study tour that began in the UK. We had time to focus on leadership in dynamic circumstances and it was the perfect venue.
I spent much of the time visiting local schools – reflecting on the challenges of leadership and equality. As I have found in the past, the challenges schools in South Africa face are not dissimilar to those faced by school systems around the world. Equity in education and the search for a new narrative that equips all young people to be active participants in today’s world are key themes wherever you go. Over several days I visited schools with diverse student populations and aspirations. From elite schools where 90% of the graduates go on to university in Cape Town to the struggling public schools in Alexandra Township.
While the socioeconomic divide between these schools was deep and wide, I are four common threads that exist in all these schools. These were passionate school leaders, the love and care shown by teachers, the respect shown by students and a fundamental belief that education is as Mandela said “the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
I’ll share my observations on the school visits in the next post.