Education in South Africa: A tale of two tragedies and our response as reformers

Do you see them?

The beginning of a new school year – for most teachers and learners – is accompanied with excitement, hope, the intention to do better than the last and of course a bit of fear of the unknown. This phenomenon is true throughout all types of schools across the country. Rich or poor, public or private, big or small, fee-paying or non-fee paying. These schools are filled with hundreds of eager learners who dream of better things for themselves and their families. The irony, however, is that for only a fraction of these learners, dreams will become a glorious reality. The large bulk of learners who start the year excited and filled with hope quickly realise that the year will be just the same as previous years.


This realisation is different for each learner. Some realise that their teacher will not be in class for half of the year, despite earning a salary. Others realise that they will still have to make use of the pit latrines across the field to relieve themselves. Others, still, realise that they will have to share two books and five pencils with fifty-six others in their classroom under the big, barren tree outside. Some realise that their hunger pangs are not quenched by hope and excitement and others realise that violence is going to be the only after school activity for the year. These tragic circumstances are by no means the fault of any of these learners. This is the unjust system of historical inequality at play.

These inequalities have been written about and studied for years by multiple organisations. The World Bank, for example, has written a 2018 report, titled ‘Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in South Africa: An Assessment of Drivers, Constraints and Opportunities’[1], which highlights important aspects of South Africa’s unique socio-political-economic climate, but fails to recognize its own role in the advancement of inequality by encouraging a neoliberal agenda. More holistic and realistic reports on South Africa’s gross inequality would be Pam Christie’s 2010 book ‘Landscapes of Leadership in South African Schools: Mapping the Changes’[2] as well as the work done by Ahmed and Sayed ‘Promoting access and enhancing education opportunities? The case of ‘no-fees schools in South Africa’[3]. These works testify to the fact that there are serious inequalities in South Africa’s education system and go further by pinpointing causes for our current problems.

P3Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that the moral test for any society lies in the condition of its children[4]. When I consider the above injustices in light of Bonhoeffer’s quote, I realize that South Africa suffers from a bi-polar moral disorder. A fraction of our children are protected, provided for and encouraged to succeed while the majority are left defenceless and without any hope for the future. If only a fraction of our children finds themselves in conducive conditions, then our morality as a nation is seriously lacking. It is not enough for 1/10 learners to succeed, while the other 9 are forgotten.

My personal challenge at the moment has been to navigate the experience of our nation’s bi-polar moral disorder and its varying spectrum. I have worked at less-advantaged private schools and now at an elite public school and the challenge remains the same. What do I do with my skills, knowledge and power to change the reality of our nation’s morality? The answer, as I see it now, is to take up space amongst people that tend to easily forget about those unwanted and undesirable learners. It is to disrupt what is considered a ‘sanctified space’ for a wealthy, predominantly white and exclusive group of people by reminding them of our injustices – past and present. This reminder is to make known the realities of learners across the country so that they are never forgotten or disempowered. It is to ensure that those who seek hope – find it and finally, it is to break down barriers so that all our learners, in this great country, can be empowered and find success no matter where or who they are.


The isiZulu greeting ‘Sawubona’ means ‘I see you’. This is a profound statement that goes far beyond the greeting. It literally means to acknowledge, to understand, to empathise, to recognize and to appreciate. My challenge to everyone reading this is to remember to see others, especially those that do not have the same privilege as you. I intend to make this a mainstay for my 2020, to see (acknowledge, understand, empathise, recognize and appreciate) learners from all walks of life, I hope you will join me in this challenge!

[1] World Bank (2018) – Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in South Africa: An Assessment of Drivers, Constraints and Opportunities, Washington DC.

[2] Christie, P. (2010). Landscapes of Leadership in South African Schools: Mapping the Changes. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 38(6), pp. 694-711.

[3] Ahmed, R. & Sayed, Y. (2009). Promoting access and enhancing education opportunities? The case of ‘ne-fees schools in South Africa. A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 39(2), pp. 203-218.

[4] Henry Giroux (2015) – Education and the Crisis of Public Values: Challenging the Assault on Teachers, Students, and Public Education, Page 10.

On Gender Dimensions of Education, Communication and Ethical Leadership

By Dr. Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian, PhD

Over the last few years as a member of SAYAS and a research fellow at the University of Johannesburg I’ve had the opportunity to branch out and contribute as an Education for Justice Champion for the United Nations, where I am also a consultant faculty member of their Leadership, Women and the UN Program. Among my various responsibilities, I’ve been involved in creating partnerships between the United Nations and education/academia to explore how various communication paradigms can impact and enrich ethical leadership and in particular its gender dimensions. In the course of this, I have been helping develop, roll out and conduct the impact assessment study of a tertiary level curriculum called Education for Justice. What has stood out from my findings and what intrigues me particularly as a woman with a complex ethico-cultural background is that relational or what I like to call mutualistic paradigms of communication are best suited to help promote ethical leadership and governance, empower women and raise integrity in the sciences and in many other fields and institutions.

My point of departure for this is the United Nations’ sustainable development agenda, in light of which equality, ethics and integrity are thought to require a foundational outlook that is world-embracing. The assumption is that we cannot foster these values nor the institutions that support them, if, as individuals, communities and societies we are focused only on our own interests or the interests of our closest group of peers. Sustainable, ethical governance that is inclusive and diverse requires looking towards the good of other individuals, communities and societies. It requires a broader outlook and other-regard. Through programs such as Education for Justice, we are able to widen the sense of responsibility and identification participants have towards others. Our pre- and post-survey data evidences an expanded sense of relationality that goes from smaller, more insular understandings to ever-expanding notions of solidarity with the human family at large. In providing content that exposes participants to meaningful explorations around values and lawfulness, we can see foundation-building for peace, justice and strong institutions and a nuanced and richly-textured global identity that empowers women and fosters equality.

But it is not just through the content of curricula that we can achieve the above. My research shows that deliberative, collaborative approaches to communication are key. Through the participatory methodology, we find in programs such as Education for Justice, participants can actively engage in co-studying and co-shaping curricula together with lecturers and scientists who act as facilitators. This paradigm draws from feminism, from theories of the global South – particularly Ubuntu – and from the Baha’i notion of consultation. It empowers individuals and in particularly women/girls as well as those, whose voices are routinely marginalized, and it does so by democratising communication and leadership. By democratization, I do not mean established Western liberal notions of competition that pit ideas and interests against each other in mutually exclusive ways. Contrarily, those approaches demean, exclude and amplify those who are already privileged by the established discourse. It is another, gentler and more inclusive form of democracy that is created through relational communication strategies. This transcends partisan approaches and allows lesser-heard perspectives to enter the discourse, to complement and enrich others in a process that is mutually reinforcing and empowering.

Beyond the content and methodology we pursue in delivering curricula, what is also important is our intention and emphasis. From my personal observations as both a facilitator of the Education for Justice program and someone who regularly accompanies others in facilitating these modules, it has become clear that we can only create spaces for equality and ethical leadership when we cultivate possibility and optimism. In other words, while it is important to outline, understand and unpack issues such as inequality or corruption, it is even more important to spend time on providing possible solutions for promoting equality, ethics, integrity and good governance. The emphasis must be on equality and good governance, with anti-discrimination or anti-corruption as sub-goals. In particular, it is also helpful and empowering to offer or explore tangible actions and steps that can be taken for both women and men to tackle the various challenges that exist in achieving equality and ethical governance. This helps activate hope and mobilize action among all.

Going forward there are many opportunities for partnerships that could enhance the above endeavours. I’m thinking particularly of grassroots community projects that are gaining momentum all over the world, both in rural and urban contexts. In these settings, youth and junior youth engage in community-building and development that is self-driven. There are examples of groups all over South Africa, for example, but also in Europe, where I currently consult. In Vienna, for instance, there is a group that has formed around a district with a great number of refugees. Youth from various ethnic and religious backgrounds get together to create bonds of friendship, engage in sports, arts and the study of meaningful, empowering texts. They also introduce a spiritual dimension, which is powerful and empowering as it transcends sectarian and gender divides and focuses on what people have in common, namely the desire to lead good lives and to serve their fellow humans. I think these sites of experimentation are rife with opportunity and should be exploited together with the more formal work that is done in academia and through the United Nations.



LeylaDr. Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian is a senior research fellow at the University of Johannesburg and a consultant for UNSSC, where she is a faculty member of the Leadership, Women and the UN program. Her areas of expertise include media, communication, leadership, ethics, education, development and governance. Leyla regularly lectures and keynotes at international fora such as TEDx, The US State Department, NATO Building Integrity and the UNSSC/University of Stellenbosch Business School MBA program in Managing International Organizations and continues to produce television content for Persian Baha’i media services. She serves on the editorial board of an international communication journal and is a member of the South African Communication Association as well as the Young Academy of Science. Leyla is also a South African Women in Science Awards nominee.  Social Media handles: @/lavidaleyla