Pilisiwe Lolwane

24 November, 2009

How was it possible?

Every time I visit my village outside the tiny home of Qumbu in the Eastern Cape, I stop to wonder, firstly how I have managed to ‘escape’, and then wonder how I have made it this far. I have gone over this question in my mind a million times and sometimes am able to come up with a neat and rational explanation for the inquisitive or even for myself.  I am not convinced that I understand how the universe works, how my own trajectory was put together and which parts of my life played a major role in making me the person I now am. You will have to judge if there is any explanation.

I was born on the 31st of December in 1950 in Balasi location in Qumbu. If you have never heard of this place, don’t worry, few people know of this place even in South Africa. I never knew my father but knew of him. This by itself was a cause of a lot of anxiety to a growing child like me who was forever speculating about all kinds of possibilities about my existence. You see, I was brought up in a home full of books, magazines and old newspapers. In my own explanation of how things worked out, I always single out the fact that I was brought up surrounded by plenty of reading materials as the most and single important factor that saw me and my siblings rise above and away from the village life. As a last born, with a mother who was a grade 1 and 2 teacher, I was able to read quite early. When I was in grade 3, I read a book that was more than 500 pages long, in Xhosa – Ingqumbo Yeminyaya (The Wrath of the Ancestors) by A.C. Jordaan. Reading to me was a way of figuring out how the world outside my village worked.  Whilst my peers who did not read as avidly as me could not imagine a world outside our village, I started to develop a vey wild imagination at an early age. I was convinced that there was a mistake – I really did not belong to my village as I identified with the worlds described in the books I read. My household was not any better than others around it as there were no class issues in the village. But I still think that my mother was determined to give us education as a passport to a better world. She would find out about bursaries and any other assistance we could get beyond our primary school. This provided a first step of separation from other children who ended their education at the end of primary school.

I was twelve when I was able to step out of my village to a boarding school where I saw white people for the first time. Even though the boarding school was in a mission school in a village, it was certainly a step above my village because it was a high school. Not only that it firstly provided a reprieve from the daily chores that only girls had to endure in a village, like fetching water, cooking and washing dishes daily; and secondly it provided a space where I could meet with students from all over South Africa, who came to the boarding house by train. For me what was most important was the number of books available to read.

I had started my schooling right at the beginning of Bantu Education in South Africa, and had my older brother, mother and my teachers instilling in me the uselessness of the education we were receiving. So, I was not going to pay much attention to a ‘not so good’ education but would just get the ‘papers’ that come with it – useless or not. I also went through school convinced that I did not have to pay much attention to teachers because I had so much confidence in my own abilities to find out the answers from the books.  I was, after all, such a ‘prolific’ reader.

I still went through my education with little motivation. I was just a passenger in the education train where learning was not difficult. During my final year of high school we had a strike in our school and I was one of the students who were expelled early on in the year and could only return to write my examinations. I was shocked when I failed my end of high school examinations; this was the first failure for me in my not so illustrious education career. My brother and sister had earlier on distinguished themselves as very bright individuals.  In order to proceed I would have to be in a position to attract bursaries and scholarships, like my older siblings. But my school performance was dismal. I had to return to my village with my tail between my legs as I had nothing to show for the time I had spent away from home.

During the first year after I failed my ‘matric’, I worked for a couple of months in a wholesale store in Flagstaff, another small town in the Eastern Cape. As blacks, we were expected to refer to all whites in the store as ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’ irrespective of their age and even though all of them had much less education than me. But the racism was unbearable – where we could eat, the salary gaps, and how we were generally bullied around. I was fired after 5 months for insubordination. I had to go back to my village again. The year I spent in my village trying to study and rewrite my high school examinations as a private candidate was very instructive. At 19, I now realised how my life would be if I had to spend the rest of it in that village. It just was not going to work for me. I put all my might to memorise the subjects I had failed so that I could rewrite this examination. Education took a whole new meaning for me as I now knew for sure that it was my only chance to escape a destiny of poverty and hardship.  Whilst I was preparing for a rewrite, I also applied to Teachers’ colleges as these were the only institutions that would now give me a shot at post-secondary education. Was I interested in being a teacher? Not at all, but being a teacher was much better than the life of village chores.

For the first when I went to the Teachers’ College at Lovedale, I was determined to be amongst the top achievers, and I was. Looking back now, it really was a strange period in my life. Although I was not really interested in being a teacher I was putting a lot of effort into being the top achiever in my class.  When I first went out for my practice teaching, the principal of the school wanted me to come back and teach in his school, and I did. The students, principal and the inspectors liked me a lot because I put all energies in whatever I did. I was still not sure that I wanted to be a teacher, but it was OK.

A new life opened up 5 years later when I transferred to be close to a university that had opened in the Eastern Cape.  This offered classes in the evening which I attended.  I was now married, with a child and needed a change from teaching. I discovered enjoyment in education for the first time when I registered with the University of Transkei, now Walter Sisulu University. I liked everything about the university – the kind of knowledge that was taught, the debates with lecturers and fellow students, assignments and even examinations. I just flew. I also think that I was surrounded by so many lecturers who saw how thirsty I was for education. I was one of the first eleven students to graduate, in record time, and the only female student. I had a number of distinctions under my belt. I majored in psychology, partly because the subject intrigued me and partly because I was still figuring myself out.

During my first post-graduate degree, my faculty at the university recruited me as a junior researcher. By the time I was doing my masters in the 80s, I was sure that I liked the university environment better than schools, but I was still a junior and that I did not like that. I successfully applied for a Fulbright scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in the USA and relocated with my family. Studying and working part-time in the USA was easier than holding a teaching job and doing undergraduate studies at home. A master’s degree grew to a Ph.D. in psychology as I now wanted to be the best.

My dissertation was completed in record time after the release of Nelson Mandela prompted a desire to return home to South Africa.  Although I was adequately armed with a Ph.D. from the USA to get a job –  I was employed by the University of Witwatersrand soon after I arrived back in South Africa – what I did not know was how long it was going to take for blacks and women to find their place in this new society. It was hard and painful. I could never tell whether the problem was a race or a gender discrimination issue. Power in academic circles in South Africa was in the hands of white men. As women we were also not adequately prepared to take over this power. However, I was prepared to learn how to play the game.

I endured years of tutelage under different masters during the years that followed. Unlike my peers who have not managed to distinguish themselves, I was motivated to continue learning and progressing.  Since my return from the USA I have held many positions in different organisations include being a Director for Policy Research in an Independent Examination Board; Director for a Central Organisation for Trade testing of the Department of Labour; Chief Executive Officer of the South African Certification Council (SAFCERT) and my past recent job was that of a Chief Executive Officer at Umalusi: Council for General and Further Education Quality assurance, a statutory body I established. I am now a visiting associate professor at the University of Witwatersrand, where I am establishing a research and teaching centre for post-school education. I continue to play a critical role in the education development process of this country. I have received several awards in the education field.

It has been a long road that has taken some detours from my village to here. I know that it helped that I attended church schools as a child. The mission schools moulded me and ensured that I travelled a narrow and straight road even when my morality was still under developed. Growing up surrounded with books was extremely helpful in my life. I could transport myself beyond my local situation and from an early age my world was much bigger than my village. Even though I started with not such a shining school performance, along my educational path I had a number of individuals who believed in me. I always knew that my talent was in education, even when my performance was mediocre. It has been through and in education that I found my niche. I am spending this time to help those young people who maybe like me – from humble backgrounds, not really focused at the beginning and who have started at a wrong footing – to still have many other second chances in the education system of this country. I am no longer in the classroom, but education remains an important instrument for me through which I have chosen to change the world in which I live.

Zandile Kunene

24 November, 2009

Sadly,  Zandile died on 11 February 2010 after a long battle with a rare form of cancer called choriocarcinoma. Zandile had continued to carry out her duties with style and aplomb even while enduring bouts of  chemotherapy following surgery. It was while attending an MBA class at the University of London in September 2009 that Zandile fell ill and was rushed to the Charing Cross Hospital. She underwent intensive treatment there and appeared to be rallying, but shortly after returning home to South Africa, she succumbed to her illness.  At her funeral service in Pietermarizburg, Kwa-Zulu Natal, tribute was paid to her vision, her soft spoken yet firm and powerful leadership style, and her ability to work with people at all levels. A representative of the Minister of Higher Education expressed the regret of the government at the loss of a talented and highly regarded woman.


I am proud to be a Zulu women.  My life is lived according to Zulu ubunfu philosophy and social rules.  This means I treat others with respect and compassion. I believe it important that we are always sincere in what we do, share with others and remain positive irrespective of external pressures.  I try to ensure my leadership is democratic, which for me means involving others and motivating them though consultative and collaborative efforts. 

The meaning of ubuntu is encapsulated in the following phrase:

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – translated as ‘we are who we are because of others’. 

Clearly the focus is on the communal, the responsibility, recognition, reciprocity and respect that arises from dignified interactions and roles within a group.  When chairing a very difficult meeting, I try to reconcile opposing views.  By firmly pointing out the necessary corrective actions I hope that people leave the meeting feeling affirmed but also having a clear sense of direction and purpose.

I think my upbringing was instrumental in determining the sort of person I have become.  I was born and brought up in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, of parents who were relatively well off compared to many black South Africans. My father was a trader and my mother a nursing sister. However, I travel far to school each day, by taxi and train, along dusty roads,.  I often reflect on how disturbing I found it to have to pass schools that were closer to my home, because they were reserved for white pupils, under the iniquitous apartheid laws.

I first was taught in English when I entered secondary school.  This was a Catholic convent and boarding school called Montebello High School, governed by strict rules of conduct and with high standards. I encountered the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, John Keats, the Brontes and Charles Dickens. I was puzzled at the disjunction between the circumstances depicted in the novels, plays and poems I was studying and the reality of life as a young Zulu girl growing up in apartheid South Africa of the nineteen sixties and seventies.  I do think that confronting those contradictions has helped me integrate the two disparate and distinct worlds that I continue to move between.

After school I went on to obtain a teaching qualification, which led me to want to study for a degree. However, at that time I needed ministerial permission to enrol at the whites only University of Natal (black students were expected to attend the University of Zululand). Having got my place at the University of Natal I went on to achieve my goal of a Bachelor of Arts degree, and then a post-graduate Bachelor of Education qualification.

These qualifications opened up opportunities for me.  I worked with the Independent Examinations Board as a Materials Developer/Trainer, followed by a stint with the Gauteng Department of Education as a Learning Integration Officer.  I was also employed as a tutor at the University of Natal and spent a period as a lecturer at the E.C. Mango College of Education. It is pleasing to note that some of the variety of educational and teacher development materials that I helped develop are still in use today.

Following these teaching institution posts I became Deputy National Director of a leading educational management non-governmental organisation, the Management of Schools Training Programme (MSTP).

In the complex world of foreign-funded projects, provincial power plays, numerous partner organisations and the huge distances covered I successfully managed a 15 million rand project in the Northern Province – success judged by the many project indicators, including significant change and improvement measured in the project schools.  Personal success came too, as my management and leadership within the project was rewarded by subsequent appointments, culminating years later in public recognition and awards (more below).

For some years I was the Executive Director of the Matthew Goniwe School of Leadership and Governance (MGSLG). This institution was established in August 2003 by the Gauteng Department of Education, offering leadership training and support for school principals, deputy principals and heads of department. MGSLG also offers training to District Officials as well as to School Governing Bodies. In the few short years since its establishment, MGSLG has made a considerable impact in terms of the numbers of school leaders and governors trained. It has also established innovative programmes, such as a popular gender programme which combines gender-specific leadership issues with the opportunity for school leaders and aspirant leaders to obtain a formally accredited qualification as well.

During my period of leadership I have encouraged the organization to venture into training municipal officials in financial management skills. Large scale projects funded by external agencies and business have also been sought, in order to move the organization onto a sound financial footing.  This has contributed to raising the profile of MGSLG in South Africa and abroad.  All of us in the organization have worked together in developmental and collaborative efforts which have resulted in the establishment of partnerships with institutions across the continents.  A good example of this – and for which I am most proud – is my role as a founding member of Leadlink, a network of organisations in seven countries working across Africa in a collaborative educational leadership partnership.  A further networking role I undertook was as president of the Education Management Association of South Africa (EMASA).

Obviously success in any large project, programme or organisation is not determined by any one person, but my leadership role was positively judged by my peers. It was a great honour to be nominated as one of South Africa’s ‘Most Influential Women in Business and Government’ as well as for the ‘Outstanding Women in the Public Sector and State Owned Enterprises’ Awards, for which I was a finalist in 2006.

After the years in leadership roles in educational institutions I have now been honoured with the Presidency of the Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration and Management (CCEAM).  For the first time, South Africa is the hosting country for the Presidency. This is a huge honour for the country, and for me. The following aims are central to what I wish to be achieved during my period as CCEAM President:

  • Create a distinctive African footprint 
  • Move beyond maintenance to development activities
  • Increase the exposure of the CCEAM
  • Increase activity levels
  • Capitalise on the opportunities offered by the CCEAM presidency to win projects that can benefit SA schools and, ultimately, learners
  • Increase the membership of CCEAM to include more countries
  • Capitalise on the diversity within the commonwealth
  • Initiate projects related to the empowerment of women
  • Improve communication amongst and between members
  • Develop a more interactive approach
  • Explore new ways of doing things
  • Embark upon a broad programme of collaboration
  • To share knowledge of best practice in education management and administration

Ultimately, the African presidency of the CCEAM signifies an era of hope through expanded opportunities for engagement.

Now I am lucky enough to have a place at the Institute of Education in London and am studying for a MBA in educational leadership.

Roselle Antoine

23 November, 2009

My grandmother’s influence of tradition, discipline and educational excellence rubbed off on me and quite interestingly, even though I found myself in a rather strange and sometimes alien environment, I made the best of it. I was determined to excel by setting high standards in my personal, public and civic life and so at an early age, I chose the language of education to carve a career. I faced monumental challenges that I overcame by using my grandmother’s famous motto, `I am Somebody Great’ which I use and adopted to instil in both the individual and the collective members of the community.

However, as a member of the diverse BME community in London, there were times when the clash of cultures caused me a sense of confusion.  For example, those Caribbean and Commonwealth traditions which, through my grandmother, had formed part of my early life principles were either not accepted or were mis-interpreted.  I can best illustrate what I mean by looking at the Caribbean life principles that I as a child was imbued with, compared with situations in England where I failed to find correlation.

 I was brought up to live by the following Caribbean Life principles.  Firstly, respect for elders is most important to a Caribbean child.  This is firstly demonstrated in forms of greeting to everyone, known or unknown in ALL places.  The difficulty of continuing this tradition in England is that when you say, “Morning” to a total stranger, they would look at you as if you had gone crazy.  Therefore, even to this day, I consciously refrain from greeting people and limit this to Caribbean older people, who always acknowledge me with raised eyebrows and a smile, acknowledging that you still adhere to the old traditions.  Of course, going back to the Caribbean and having to remember to do this on a full-time basis was a challenge.  I love it when on entering a bus, one person says, “Good morning” and absolutely everyone on the bus replies.  This re-invigorates the Caribbean past and adds an extra pleasure to the present reality.

Respect for seniors is also shown in the way people are addressed, in the prefixes used for peoples names, e.g., Mr. Mrs. Miss, Uncle, Aunty, Brother, Sister and Teacher.  This culture of respect and formality has been perpetuated by the strong matriarchal arrangement in the Caribbean.  In England this is likely to be laughed at, so a Caribbean child will initially find this extremely uncomfortable, if not confusing, until they know how to conform to the British ways of addressing seniors.  Perhaps the greatest difference for me is the lack of grandparent involvement in the bringing up of children in the British Caribbean family.  In the Caribbean, grandparents are pillars of a family unit, and are the ultimate arbiters of all conflicts and disharmony: the peacemakers who hold cultural wisdom and knowledge and the receivers of unconditional respect from all younger people.  In general, family kinship is of importance.

 As a Caribbean child one is also brought up to show respect for public professions, the institutions of those professions and those who work in them (nurses, teachers, doctors, clerks, etc).  These are usually first career aspirations as they provide revered role models which are immediately available. 

 The second set of life principles where I experienced differences was in education.  Educational excellence is instilled as the ultimate personal goal and therefore a competitive spirit exists among children in schools in the Caribbean.  The complexity of expectations of a Caribbean migrant child in Britain has to do with surviving and wanting to excel in an environment where this does not necessarily hold the same significance among other children.  There are many competing ideologies in society, differences in family structures and in teacher expectations; these mean that each individual is left to drive their own determination to succeed.  Aspiring to the highest of achievements was an ideal for me, as a Caribbean child, since everyone is instructed to achieve success as it marks the height of family pride.

 To this end education in the Caribbean is seen as a development process which has to be revered because it changes the status of an individual and their family, contributing to family pride.  My grandmother called it “raising the family’s nose”!  It is therefore understandable why she instilled in me the necessity of my present motto, as in my introduction, “I am Somebody Great!”  I have, throughout my life in England, adhered to this affirmation and have instilled in many thousands of people, whose lives I have been fortunate to touch, the same principle of self belief, and high aspirations.  As Founder and Principal of the TCS Tutorial College for the past 15 years, I have made it the College Motto.  Therefore, I am happy to say that this same principle has been responsible for the many successes of those past and present students of the College.  This is a life principle, born in the Caribbean some half a century ago, which I hold very dearly because of its life-changing qualities and the encouragement and hope it gives to those who dare to believe in it.  The converse in the Caribbean is that failure is seen as reprehensible or an anathema to our tradition of excellence and achievement.  That is why to this day success (from school achievement to competitive activities beyond educational establishments) is recognized and celebrated: within families, among locals who share in the pride, regionally, nationally and with full involvement of the media.  Without this principle of self-achievement in place in the UK, each person has to draw on her or his own strength to overcome its absence in the host community.  In fact for me because the objective conditions were not in the UK, I have persistently created them over the past 25 years, and have shown others the necessity of doing so.

For me the third significant difference between the Caribbean and the UK life principles is in respect for and belief in God.  The Caribbean child is taught to believe that the centre of one’s life is Godliness and going to church is compulsory.  The manner of dress, and importance attached to this activity is not one which children had a choice in.  Additionally, this activity was seen as the means of moral and spiritual development – a family undertaking which is a MUST. The challenges in a British environment for me were to do with the choice to stay at home, the lack of cultural activities in the church, styles of worship, the racial composition of the congregation and their different attitudes to foreign worshippers. 

Additionally, praying as a family unit is fundamental; and associated with religious principles is the strong sense of discipline.  This is accepted as an all-embracing responsibility for ALL adults (whether blood related or not) who can reprimand any child.  (e.g. All family members are regarded as immediate carers, and extended members can administer discipline and reprimand when necessary).  This is similar to the African proverb that a child is raised by a village.  As a result, it is the accepted norm that a child will never openly challenge an older person’s advice or answer back.  In a British environment, because the educating principles are different, this allowable behaviour across the cultural divide in Britain has confused Caribbean parents and is a major source of conflict in the home.  Added to this conflict is that physical punishment, which is seen as corrective and imbedded within a cultural framework in the Caribbean is not acceptable in Britain.

Bringing together respect, kinship, discipline and Godliness is the Caribbean attitude towards involvement with crime and the lawlessness.  In the Caribbean a family has a sense of shame when any family member is associated with forms of lawbreaking.  This is because there are repercussions for the individual, family members, and their immediate local community members (e.g. village).  This is one Caribbean moral that has been evaporating almost imperceptibly in the past century.  This is evident by the levels of crime and criminal activities among the younger generations in Britain.  This is an area of Caribbean life in Britain which concerns me greatly, and to which I devote my professional life.  There are many challenges which face young Caribbean children in the UK and I have devoted the past 25 years to helping and supporting those locked in the throes of activities that would cause their and other’s suffering.  Currently, much of my work is associated with remedial and preventative education for whole families, especially those with deviant behaviour that can potentially lead to crime and disorder.  My forthcoming book on Behaviour Management: a British Caribbean Perspective (to be published in 2009); looks at the challenges and solutions in an attempt to change trends in destructive behaviour patterns among the Caribbean community in Britain.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for me in the UK is the lack of equal participation of women in all sections of society in Britain.  Women in the Caribbean have for some time been instrumental in many of the region’s changes – from cultural archives to Heads of government, heads of industry and of Churches, leaders of communities and organizations in ways that are so different in Britain.  The call for gender equality and equality laws in Britain recently, are not new facets of society for Caribbean peoples.  The Caribbean female sense of unbridled power, probably accounts for the fact that Caribbean women have the highest rate of business start-ups in Britain, at 25%; compared to the UK national average of 22%.  It confirms the Caribbean woman’s ideal, that nothing is out of her reach, a life principle that has been an integral part of my early life in the Caribbean.  This belief has been challenged many times  – firstly by the gender disparity in Britain and secondly not only as a female but also the added component of racism – being female, black and a community Leader – creates its own monumental challenges among all sections of British society.