The importance of leadership in the fight for the right to education

The right to free and quality education for all South Africans has been dominating news headlines since late last year. Although the focus has been primarily on tertiary institutions, the student protests have inevitably highlighted our education system as a whole and once again raised questions around the best way forward in addressing its gaps and issues. Ahead of Human Rights Day on Monday 21 March, which celebrates the basic privileges that should be afforded to all South Africans under democracy, it would appear that there is no better time than now to start clarifying answers to the challenges that exist in our education system.

Chapter Two of our Constitution asserts that, “Education shall be directed towards the development of the human personality and a sense of personal dignity, and shall aim at strengthening respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and promoting understanding, tolerance and friendship amongst South Africans and between nations”. It is clear from this statement that the importance of a good education goes far beyond merely ensuring promising futures for our people. Education is the very thing that keeps our democracy alive.

But who is responsible for ensuring that all young people in South Africa have equal access to a quality learning experience? In recent months, fingers have been pointed at government and the educational institutions themselves, but it is undeniable that, in order to mobilise meaningful change in our education system in a short period of time, we are all equally accountable.

Procter & Gamble (P&G) has accepted this challenge through its involvement with the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), a programme founded by Barack Obama in 2010. The initiative aims to provide the platform and tools to empower dynamic young Africans who are between the ages of 18 and 35 and enhance their learning and leadership skills. This is achieved by teaching them to become critical thinkers who can solve complex, multidisciplinary problems; foster entrepreneurial and innovative thinking; and encourage cross-border communication and multicultural collaboration. YALI focuses specifically on individuals who have a proven record of active engagement in public or community service, volunteerism, or mentorship and who are committed to continue making a positive impact on their communities after completion of the programme.

In 2015, Unisa opened the Southern Africa YALI Regional Leadership Centre and invited young Africans across Sub-Saharan Africa to apply for the programme. Those from previously disadvantaged communities, individuals living with disabilities or HIV, and those from minority groups were also encouraged to be a part of the initiative.

One of the young Africans who was part of this first cohort of learners and graduated from the programme in December last year was Sam Marx. Reflecting on his experience, Marx says, “I was privileged enough to have been selected to participate in the YALI programme, and left a richer person. YALI has taught me how to look at people, situations and goals from a different point of view. I know of many of my peers who have already begun working together and supporting one another. This has been amazing to see, and truthfully quite unexpected. The individuals selected by the YALI team are energetic, vibrant, intelligent and passionate. I have left the programme and gained new friends and possible future business partners. I also have a better cultural understanding of our SADC neighbours and have a mind overflowing with ideas and possibilities.”

P&G believes that the strength of the YALI Programme lies in the fact that it not only provides life-enhancing education to promising individuals, but that it also focuses on developing the leadership potential of those who are passionate about their communities.  It is these young South Africans who will help guide our country towards a better future that includes quality education for all.  Thus the impact of teaching one YALI graduate is immeasurable, as it has a ripple effect throughout South Africa. As another YALI graduate, Epheniah Matebane, notes, “I am hoping to use what I’ve learned from this programme to change people’s lives. I want to start a foundation that will improve learners’ academic performance at disadvantaged schools.”

In order to address our educational challenges, South Africa needs young men and women who are innovators. We need this new generation to think outside the box and not be constrained by imagined limitations. We need young leaders who are able to work with and understand our fellow Africans to shape a brighter future together. I like what American philosopher, John Dewey, said about learning, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself”. It is this life that we need to instil into our young people.


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