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Contextualised leadership: speaking to the South African sociopolitical environment with hope

By Guy Hartley

Educational leadership that does not connect with the realities of our emergent democratic South Africa is bound to be the poorer for the social conscientising of our youth.

When students have only a limited awareness of what goes on in society, they can have one of several negative reactions: either apathy, or narrow understanding, or an inappropriate, even militant, response. This detracts from the emergence of broad-minded, community-engaged and socially active citizens of the future. Instead, balanced, exemplary leadership, speaking sensitively into the heart of the South African complex of social dynamics, has the potential to inspire, provoke and encourage strong commitment to our developing nation. In our schools, rather than foster cynical and pessimistic viewpoints, we have the potential through what Professor Jonathan Jansen1 terms “profound leadership”, to promote healthy and constructive critical perspectives, which should serve to develop opportunities, hope and optimism about our country.

Rooted in the community

The school at which I serve as executive head takes pride in being rooted in the Eastern Cape. Despite the many ills that beset the public provincial schooling sector – for example, we witness neighbouring learners destroying their poorly equipped, makeshift, prefabricated schools – at Merrifield Preparatory School and College in Beacon Bay, East London, our students continue to value their community engagements through a range of sporting, cultural and community programmes. The projects – voluntarily attended by over 50% of high school students – offer students opportunities to embrace patterns of fundamental social transformation, where the spirit and real practices of ubuntu are applied on the ground. Post-graduation, whilst our students go on to study at top universities throughout South Africa and even abroad in line with our vision to be ‘globally competitive’, they are encouraged to return to their familial regions to contribute their acquired professional skills in the service of local communities.

Contextualised leadership approach

This orientation is part of a contextualised leadership approach, which seeks to be relevant to our historical and current sociopolitical circumstances. Our students are challenged to reflect on existing society within wider historical and developmental perspectives, as future leaders themselves, through the curriculum, assemblies, cultural activities and community service projects. They are encouraged, for example, to develop informed opinions about the rise of Agang.2 They are attuned to Anene Booysen’s murder and issues of violence against women in South Africa;3 to the implications of strikes in Marikana and De Doorns;4 to the repercussions of teacher shortages in the Eastern Cape;5 to the current Gini co-efficient and its effect on South Africa.6 They are encouraged to formulate analytical frameworks to appreciate the existence of transitional structures like affirmative action and employment equity in South African society. They are urged to reflect on the exemplary leadership of Nelson Mandela with his compassionate and reconciliatory spirit, setting South Africa on a path as a ‘rainbow nation’. As such, our students are actively exposed to interpreting for themselves the diversity and complexity of an unfolding democracy from a wide store of knowledge and an objective paradigm.

Debate in the classroom and in assemblies Our teachers openly embrace opportunities to foster such reflection and societal analysis. Much of this happens in the classroom. A close scrutiny of French society in the 1700s prior to the French Revolution in 1789 in history lessons, for example, provides useful opportunities to assess current themes of class polarisation and social dichotomies in South Africa today. Lessons in life sciences and geography on biodiversity and cultural diversity have bearing on the importance of political diversity for a humane society. Studies in recent global climatic disasters open up debates about Gorz’s principle of sufficiency,7 which some academics consider to be the basis for a new humanism in the 21st century.

Assemblies in our small high school context lend themselves to open debate in a public forum, where student opinions are actively encouraged on a range of topics often related to current national and local developments. For example, the school is a pilot project of the South African Green Schools Initiative8 – which, whilst focusing on responsible and efficient energy usage as well as the introduction and practical teaching of renewable technologies, also opens up discussions on the logic of rampant capitalism and the depletion of mother earth’s resources. This ecological framework, in turn applied to the sociopolitical realm, begs questions about applications for a more humane society.

A new generation

Such broad school leadership rooted in relevance, social consciousness and the promotion of high-level cognitive skills is to be encouraged to give rise to a new generation of critical thinkers with a deep social conscience committed to developing our nation. Within our youth – young adults with multiple talents and abilities, who need to be taken seriously and treated as such – exists the hope of tomorrow. By leading them down the narrow road of expediency and programmatic party lines, we do them a disservice. They have rich potentialities within them, which we would do well to harness by broadening their outlook with care and sensitivity to develop and enrich our nation. In the words of the late scholar, activist and humanitarian, Neville Alexander, we need to encourage “points of engagement” and “find readier access among the youth, to whom, as we say so beautifully but so ineffectually, the future belongs” towards inspiring them to “become part of trajectories that can lead to that other country most of us had in mind during the years of sturm und drang, especially during the 1980s”.9


1. See, for example, 336855.ece/Leadership-comes-from-within. Professor Jonathan Jansen is rector and vice chancellor of the University of the Free State.

2. Mamphela Aletta Ramphele is a well-known South African activist. She has formed Agang, which she calls a “party political platform”, to contest the 2014 national elections. See

3. Anene Booysen was a 17-year-old girl who was found by a security guard the morning after she had been gang-raped and mutilated at a construction site in Bredasdorp, in the Western Cape, on 2 February 2013. She was still alive, but died later in the day. (Source: murder-shake-the-nation-into-action.)

4. The Marikana miners’ strike was a wildcat strike at a mine owned by Lonmin in the Marikana area, close to Rustenburg, North West, in August 2012. The event garnered international attention following a series of violent incidents between the South African Police Service, Lonmin security, the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and strikers themselves, which resulted in the deaths of approximately 47 people. (Source: Marikana_miners’_strike.) In January 2013, De Doorns in the Western Cape became the epicentre of a farm workers’ strike. Thousands of striking workers marched for a daily wage of R150 and a coherent land programme. The march was led by the Black Association of the Wine and Spirit Industry (Bawsi), which represented a large number of nonunionised workers. (See, for example, highway-closed-as-de-doorns-strikes-continue-police/.)

5. See, for example,

6. See, for example,

7. Gorz, A. (1987) Ecology as Politics. London: Pluto Press.

8. See, for example,

9. Alexander, N. (2013) Thoughts on the New South Africa. Auckland Park: Jacana Media.

Category: Winter 2013

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