Executives schooled in SA’s education challenges

The 2019 Execs Back To School day proved to be a valuable opportunity for courageous, conscious business executives to experience and sense the daily realities faced by their counterparts in the South African education system

CEOs and top executives from some of South Africa’s most prominent companies including Sasol, Nedbank, Standard Bank, MTN, Consol Glass, Sphere Holdings and Edcon swapped the boardroom for the classroom when they participated in the country’s one-of-a-kind Execs Back To School initiative hosted in Cape Town and Johannesburg on 1 and 7 August 2019 respectively.

The initiative was designed to expose business leaders to the working environment and challenges faced by those who lead schools in South Africa’s most under-resourced  communities. Each executive was given the opportunity to spend the day at a government-run school and to shadow the school principal while he or she performed daily duties.

The visitors engaged with learners and parents, attended classes, and met with teachers and school management teams in an effort to understand the operational challenges faced by the school. This unique initiative helps to forge closer ties between business and education by providing a platform from which industry leaders can gain first-hand exposure to the daily reality of some of the country’s most poorly-resourced schools and communities. At the same time, these events provide the opportunity to explore the potential for enduring, cross-sectoral collaboration between business and education.

This year,Cape Town hosted its inaugural Execs Back To School event, while for the second year running almost 40 business executives went back to school for a day in Johannesburg.

According to Itumeleng Kgaboesele, CEO of black-owned investment holding company Sphere, which has partnered with respected leadership and education NGO, Symphonia for South Africa (SSA), to host these events, all South African businesses have an obligation to support disadvantaged schools.

“As business leaders, we all have our schooling to thank for giving us access to further study and professional life. To succeed as a country, we need thriving communities built around successful institutions like schools that offer pupils hope and opportunity,” says Kgaboesele.

“Over the last three years, working with two different principals, I have seen the positive impact that sharing management experiences with the principals can have on the school community and on learner’s achievement,” he adds.

This year, much-loved footballing legend and role model, Lucas Radebe, participated in the programme, spending his morning at Soweto’s Nomzamo Madikizela Mandela Primary School where he attended classes, chatted to learners, and met with teachers and members of the school management team to hear about daily life at the school.

Explaining his participation,Radebe said supporting education should be a national imperative.  

“Schools are the centre of our communities and are an essential building block for the nation’s future. Effective schools equip the next generation with the values, skills and education they need to fulfil their individual potential at work and as active citizens contributing to sustainable communities.”

Execs Back To School is a local spin-off of New York City’s successful ‘Principal for a Day’ initiative. The home-grown version was established by SSA as an initiative to complement their internationally recognised, award-winning Partners for Possibility programme which pairs principals and executives on a year-long leadership development journey.

Collaboration between educators and the private sector contributes to social cohesion and strengthening of the nation’s social fabric, believes Johannesburg’s lead organiser, Robyn Whittaker of SSA.

“Sometimes I think it’s the CEOs who learn from the principals when they step out of their comfort zones and become personally involved. Building direct relationships with a school and its principal makes support for schools more effective and teaches executives powerful management lessons,” she said.

Principal Andre Engel of the Wesley Methodist Preparatory School in Salt River, Cape Town welcomed his business partner for the day, saying: “It was refreshing having someone who didn’t come into school ‘knowing better’. Just to connect with Sam [Sam Roy, Smile 90.4 presenter] has given me a bit more energy. We don’t always realise what we’re doing right until we have someone to talk to about it.’’

He added: ‘’Our children need visual representations of what they can become one day. It doesn’t help that teachers ask them the same question every day. Every business leader that walks into our school is a potential role model for our kids.’’

The immersive Back To School visits were followed by debriefing sessions that provided the principals and executives with an opportunity to reflect and make sense of the experience.

Execs Back To School is now an annual event and executives or organisations who are interested in signing up for 2020, or in joining the Partners for Possibility programme should call SSA on 011 259 4031, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or visit www.PfP4SA.org

Symphonia for South Africa is a level 1 B-BBEE contributor. Organisations that support the PfP programme can claim Skills Development and Socio-Economic Development Points towards their B-BBEE scorecard. 

Our gratitude goes to Sphere Holdings for their support of the development and running of the Execs Back to School events. 



30 November -1, 00:00