Through the eyes of Sheila Sisulu, chairperson of the Tiger Brands Foundation, teaching is not really a career… it is a lifestyle. For someone whose career has spanned several decades across a few continents in different yet connected spheres, it is refreshing to see that she is still passionate about teaching and learning.
“I always want to be surrounded by people, and I always have been,” she says. “I believe this desire was what drove me to become a teacher. Teaching offers something that few professions can match: the opportunity to exchange ideas and – importantly – to learn.”
Sisulu doesn’t see teaching in the traditional sense, where one person does the talking and the rest of the people in the group are mere recipients of the speaker’s “knowledge and wisdom”. For Sisulu, teaching is a platform like no other where people of different ages and life experience engage in a learning process that benefits both teacher and learner. And the journey never stops.
“Learning to teach teaches you to learn, and it is a value you carry with you wherever you go,” says Sisulu.
Sisulu obtained her teaching qualification in the days of apartheid South Africa. When she returned to South Africa, her international teaching qualification was not recognised. However, the Department of Education had no qualms in recruiting her to teach, with the express understanding that she would not enjoy the benefits of those educators who had qualified as teachers within the borders of South Africa.
Always the optimist, she recalls the incident as a blessing in disguise.
“The apartheid South Africa education system taught people to obey symbols of authority in a very rigid order: God, country and father,” she explains. “This, I believe, is partly to blame for the extremely patriarchal society we find ourselves in today.”
To no lesser degree, Sisulu abhors another side effect of the education system of the day: rote learning.
“The system prepared people merely to absorb and recall information with little encouragement to become unique individuals,” she says. “You were not encouraged to think! And without critical thought, there can be no progress.”
While it might be a bit of stretch to describe Sisulu as a rebel, she certainly did not take comfort in following convention. As such, it was hardly surprising that she enthusiastically grabbed the opportunity to teach learners who had either dropped out of school or been pushed out of the education system for their involvement in political activities that were not palatable to the government of the day.
“I welcomed the opportunity to engage with these young people because they did not see life through the lens of the average person,” she recalls. “They were eager to learn, but also to ask questions and interrogate everything they were told. I encouraged and expected them to do so. To this day I am drawn to people who are naturally inquisitive, even restless. These are the problem solvers of society.”
In the 1970s, young South Africans were talking of and promoting education for people’s power.
“This type of language was not generally accepted by so-called mainstream society at the time,” says Sisulu. “The concept generally scared the hell out of teachers, but I felt right at home with it. Although the youth of the day might not have been able to properly articulate what the phrase ‘education for people’s power’ meant exactly, they knew that it wasn’t what they were being offered”.
It is no wonder, then, that Sisulu’s journey has led her to the position she holds today: leading a team of trustees that oversees the governance of the Tiger Brands Foundation. The Foundation has been a trailblazer in many ways. While many philanthropic endeavours prefer to throw money at a problem, the Tiger Brands Foundation prefers to get its hands dirty – quite literally in some instances.
The Tiger Brands Foundation has developed a model, from scratch, of delivering nutritious breakfasts to tens of thousands of learners in all nine provinces across the country every single school day of the year. The programme is implemented in no-fee paying schools and is one of the exemplary public private partnerships in existence today. The programme, in partnership with the Department of Basic Education, complements government’s National School Nutrition Programme that offers learners a lunch meal.
“We could have just written a cheque and walked away,” says Sisulu. “But we chose to walk the journey with these communities, listening and often being guided by them. Our approach is also broad-based and the outcomes, while we can point to some short-term successes, has a long-term impact in mind.”
Sisulu’s career has come full circle. From being an unrecognised educator, she ironically went on to advise the Minister of Education! She left the teaching profession to take up diplomatic postings, representing South Africa as ambassador.
“Even as a diplomat, I still saw my role as an opportunity to teach,” she says. “Teaching people in far-flung places about South Africa, its people and our way of life, was as rewarding as teaching children. But I also took every opportunity to learn about the cultures and the way of life in the countries where I was posted.”
After a stint at the United Nations World Food Programme, Sisulu returned to South Africa and joined the Tiger Brands Foundation, effectively putting her back in touch with her educational roots – which is where her story began.
Sisulu sees the work that the Tiger Brands Foundation does as going beyond filling the tummies of young learners. In her view, it is in essence a broader intervention to fundamentally alter the socio-economic situation of vulnerable communities.
“The Foundation’s interventions will have far-reaching consequences on the lives of these learners who participate in the breakfast programme,” she says. “In the short-term, we have observed tangible, positive changes in the form of improved educational outcomes and health of the learners. Several years from now, communities that might not have had a chance to escape poverty may point to their learners’ improved circumstances as a consequence of the learning circumstances the Foundation created.
“We have empirical evidence, compiled independently by academic institutions, that shows unequivocally that the programme is working and achieving its desired results.”
While Sisulu is no longer a full-time civil servant, she remains a committed international servant. At present she serves on the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) advisory committee that seeks out ways of investing effectively in young African entrepreneurs.
Staying abroad for all those years as a diplomat did not in the slightest dent her love for her country. She remains passionately involved, in one form or another, in various political dialogues that go on behind the scenes to continue guiding the country towards a prosperous future.
After a career spanning more than four decades in a number of fields, you would be forgiven for thinking Sisulu must have accumulated a truckload of regrets. She admits, there have been some disappointing moments in her life and she has had to face serious adversity. But all that, as she often reminds those around her, has simply been an opportunity to learn.
“Whatever life throws at you, including failure, see the opportunity to learn from it,” she says. “Learning means you can move on. Failure is never the end of a chapter; it is the possibility to learn and improve.”
Sisulu firmly believes that it’s really not over until they lower you six foot into the ground.
“Whatever you wish you could have done, if you are still breathing, there is still opportunity to accomplish it.”