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Connection comes from contribution

PfP Programme Director, Komala Pillay, explains how the PfP approach goes beyond education to address the wealth gap, and why the feeling of connection is vital for the survival of a nation

This interview first appeared on the Wealth Inequality Initiative (WII) website. WII is a multi-stakeholder effort led by the Julius Baer Foundation.

‘What is Partners for Possibility?

Partners for Possibility couples business leaders with school principals into a 12-month leadership programme. They’ll work in a co-partnership to address challenges in the principal’s school. This benefits both sides; the school principal receives support and learns organisational skills that help establish a safe and nurturing learning environment. At the same time, the business leader dives into a new world; he or she learns not only about the complexity of teaching in such an environment, they also learn about ‘the others’ in their country. In South Africa, most of us living in a wealthy neighbourhood are afraid to go into the poor neighbourhoods. We think we are going to get hijacked, we are going to get robbed and so on. I have been going to my principal’s school now for two years and I’ve never had any incidents. The people I engage with are wonderful people. So, going out there, seeing the reality and unlearning all those stereotypes about ‘the others’ is not only eye-opening for the business leader, it is vital for a cohesive society.

What was the community’s initial reaction to PfP?

When the project started people didn’t understand why our focus was on the principals. Traditionally, most support programmes are aimed at learners. But there’s many puzzle pieces that must come together for an effective learning environment. A few examples: first, learners must get proper nutrition to be able to concentrate. Learners must feel safe; if there’s a gun shooting in the streets, the children must feel secure inside the school. Learners need good teachers who, in turn, need support and motivation. All these pieces must be put together by the principal. Ten years ago, this perception wasn’t understood at all.

Another scepticism was: Why do they bring in business people who have no experience in education? What are they going to do in the schools? Are they going to take over, actually disempowering the principal? That’s the opposite of what we want. The business leader empowers the principal with different resources: social capital, networks, skills in HR, Finance, IT, leadership. The principal still makes the decisions, and the business leader helps him or her establishing it all.

How has community life changed since Partners for Possibility started?

The first level of change we look for is with the principals. The environment of these public schools is tremendously difficult: resigned teachers, uninvolved parents, school boards distrusting change and all of it in a precarious environment. In my corporate career, I haven’t had a challenge half as hard as theirs. We had a principal who was assassinated just because of friction between the community and the school. Being a principal should not be a hazardous job. So, our first goal is to get the principal in a good space.

The principals who come out of the PfP programme report feeling more positive about the future. They are more energised. They learn how to trust and how to listen to other people, how to delegate and how to get a supporting team behind themselves. With that achieved, we see changes on all the other levels: better collaboration from the school board, less absenteeism of teachers and increased parental involvement; parents trying to learn how they can fulfil their role as an educator in their child’s life. We have also observed an improvement of learning outcomes in literacy and math. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough research on that yet as these studies are long-term and costly. Interestingly enough, we also see more funding going to schools with PfP-principals. Funders want to see that their money goes to someone who makes good use of it; our principals seem to be good at demonstrating that.

What are current problems of South Africa?

We tend to forget what we can do as a nation. We used to solve our problems on our own, but now we have become a bit apathetic. We are often looking for someone else to solve our problems. Instead, we should remember the strength and fortitude we have  ̶  precisely because we’ve battled apartheid.

However, what worries me most: we run the risk of becoming disconnected from each other as South Africans. Our new separation is social class – the wealth divide. In South Africa, if you have wealth, you tend to try protecting yourself; you become self-focused. You live in a house with high walls, you don’t see your neighbour anymore, and you form this cocoon. It feels like the safest thing to do, but it actually means being isolated and disconnected. Same thing in global politics: nationalism, protectionism; it’s all increasing. People want to just take care of themselves and their small community. We are building high walls, but high walls just reduce the quality of our own life. That’s because human beings are gregarious, social creatures. We are not made to be disconnected.

How does wealth inequality affect a society?

Wealth inequality creates instability. In South Africa about 42% of our workforce are without jobs: 10% of them have stopped looking, 55% of people younger than 35 don’t have jobs. That’s a total of 11 million people who could contribute to society but can’t find a way to do so. That is fatal. Because contributing to a society and receiving from it is what makes you a part of society. You follow its laws and societal rules because you are part of it. Now, if you are outside of society, with no possibility to participate, why should you follow those rules? If a large enough group, like 11 million people, starts thinking like that, it becomes disastrous. Not only to South Africa, to any society.

 How do you tackle wealth inequality?

There are many important levers, but for me, education is key. Because ultimately, what every human being wants is meaning, a purpose in life. Education is the prime opportunity to help people find their purpose. And it doesn’t even have to be a purpose that someone else creates. You don’t necessarily have to go work for someone. If we get the education right, people can create their purpose.

Read the full interview here: