Education, above all else.

For education to flourish in South Africa, we need to think holistically, and seriously unpack the role that leadership has to play. Indeed, education is rooted in leadership.

The word ‘education’ is linked to the Latin verb educere, which means to ‘lead out’. This struck a deep chord with me – education has everything to do with leadership. If you’re not educating and uplifting those you’re leading, you’re simply not doing a good enough job.

Because education is not just book learning, academic research and theoretical knowledge. It’s so much more than this. The standard dictionary definition has broadened the term to include ‘intellectual, moral, and social instruction to someone’. Education goes beyond formal instruction to mentorship, life coaching and guidance.

We start learning from the day we’re born, and if we’re adequately nurtured and encouraged, then we stand the chance of becoming lifelong learners. And that’s why, if we’re serious about education in South Africa, we have to begin with social upliftment and development.

In households that face hunger daily, there’s very little room for nurturing and cultivating a hunger for knowledge. Hunger in the belly must be satisfied first, and no formal educational programme can build on deficient foundations. If children are going to school on an empty stomach, and walking miles to get there, the chances of them absorbing and assimilating the knowledge they receive in the classroom are slim.

It all begins with the first relationships a child develops with those around them, and parents have tremendous power as their children’s very first mentors. It’s about family first. If you look at people who have got ahead in the world, you’ll see that they usually come out of an environment where there is some sort of family business (and by family business, I mean anything from a street vendor to a JSE-listed company), where conversations around the dinner table cover topics like entrepreneurship, practical skills and common sense. In households trapped in poverty, parents often leave home at the crack of dawn and return in the dark, with little time or opportunity to engage with their children, let alone guide and motivate them.

So, social support and development of poor communities must be on our radar. A worn-out, hopeless parent feels powerless to achieve anything, and children are often seen either as a burden (another mouth to feed) or as a means to an end (in terms of receiving a social grant).

I get the sense that here in South Africa we tend to work with a silo mentality – departments don’t talk to each other enough, to arrive at a composite, holistic sense of what education is. For example, we can’t talk about tertiary education without addressing the pre-school and foundation phases of education. There’s a thread from toddler to teenager to graduate, and if we refuse to see this thread and focus short-sightedly on only one element in the chain, we’ll never win this battle.

So, what can business leaders do – for we’re certainly not doing enough? The secret is partnership, not privatisation. Business, government and labour need to speak to each other and set up some sort of well-managed educational fund which will enable us to create 100 schools of excellence across the country. Once those flagship schools are in place – and these schools must be fully accessible to children from previously disadvantaged communities – we’ll have our ‘best practice’ in place, and this will allow for a trickle-down effect to all public schools across South Africa.

We also need to build mentorship into our business model. We need to bring back the old culture of the ‘appie’ – the apprentice – and make this a key driver in business. Mentorship is always rooted in an educational process. It’s essentially a teaching relationship, but unsurprisingly, it’s not always the mentee that derives all the benefit – the mentor is also enriched by the process.

You only have to speak to Taddy Blecher of the Maharaji Institute and CIDA. Taddy is a man on a mission who believes that we have enough money in the budget to educate every child in South Africa. The Maharaji Institute and CIDA (Community and Individual Development Association) have helped 17 000 kids from underprivileged backgrounds gain access to tertiary education, through self-funding schemes. With one of the youngest populations in the world, South Africa is primed to drive education on the continent, from which we’ll all benefit. And, finally, what do we need in schools? We need practical life skills – how to open and manage a bank account, how to get a home loan, how to build a business, how to develop ideas and creative thinking. Currently, in our education system, there’s a big disconnect between teaching kids something in theory, and what they can actually do when they leave school. Curricula need to be developed to bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application, because what’s the point of amassing a wealth of knowledge if you don’t know what to do with it? If you can combine a good education with the magic ingredient of common sense, then our children will be well-placed on the road to success.

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