Corporate Leaders Step Up to Tackle Education in South Africa

In an inspiring display of collective responsibility, Corporate South Africa gathered at the end of July to tackle the issues that plague South Africa’ s education system, while recognising the critical role it plays in shaping the future of our country.

Through the annual Execs Back to School programme, organised by Citizen Leader Lab and sponsored by Sphere Holdings, business executives spent a day in the shoes of school principals, educators and learners in some of Johannesburg’s public schools to better grasp the complex challenges they face.

Illuminating the Realities

The 2021 Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study (PIRLS) revealed a distressing truth – a staggering 81% of grade 4 children in South Africa cannot read for meaning. The consequence of widespread illiteracy hinders our ability to address the triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment.

Setting the tone for the day, Komala Pillay, the CEO of Citizen Leader Lab, said: “Education is a catalyst to success – so tackling the issues we face in education is a no-brainer. It requires the attention of the entire value chain, and it requires a consolidated vision, effort and a focus on partnership. The onus is on citizens to propel this change.’’

Pillay emphasised that despite the justifiable feelings of despair around that state of education, there was a still ‘’strong sense of hope’’.

‘’We can see that there are pockets of resilience across our country. How do we use this to create broader change in education?’’

In his opening remarks, Itumeleng Kgaboesele, the CEO of Sphere Holdings, gave the participants some ‘’food for thought’’ as he laid bare South Africa’s most pressing education challenges.

‘’Our drop-out rates, literacy rates, coupled with the fact that many of our high schoolers are not choosing mathematics, can fill you with hopelessness. But I believe that the involvement of business in education can change this trajectory. This why Sphere continues to partner with Citizen Leader Lab to expose their work to overcome these challenges.’’

Beyond Monetary Contributions and the Power of Collaboration

Corporate South Africa’s involvement in the Execs Back to School programme was a departure from conventional philanthropy. Rather than solely relying on financial contributions, business executives began to understand that investing their skills and capabilities to tackle education challenges was equally necessary.

Derain Pillay, General Manager of international engineering and technology conglomerate, Honeywell, said: ‘’I was inspired by the passion and dedication of the school principals who focus their energy on developing learners to be the next future shapers – despite the many challenges they face. Principal Manana Dhlamini of Ekhuthuleni Combined School in Soweto showed us how her passion and dedication has resulted in positive changes at the school. This is proof that partnership between the public and private sectors can yield a lasting change.’’

Nonhlanhla Mbele of Casino and Limited Payout Machine businessHot Slots, previously paired with Principal Hlengane Chauke of Tiyani Primary, on Citizen Leader Lab’s 12-month school leadership programme. The executive narrated her experience for the benefit of the Execs Back to School participants.

‘’I had the opportunity to be part of the change we want to see in our schools. To be in service of another leader, to become part of a community and eventually seeing the learners improve their literacy skills has been most fulfilling.’’

Principal Khosi Ntuli of Tlhatlhogang Junior Secondary, another alumnus of Citizen Leader Lab’s school leadership programme, highlighted the importance of leadership, support and social capital as markers for a school’s success. She was partnered with Itumeleng Kgaboesele.

‘’I felt overwhelmed as a school principal. My partnership with Itu brought hope, gave my leadership meaning and ultimately changed my school. I realised that it’s not about the money – it’s a mindset change. At the start of our partnership, even R1 million wouldn’t have changed much. We underestimate the power that social capital has to change the trajectory of our schools and our communities.’’

The learners, our future leaders, were also given a voice. They expressed their aspirations for their school.

A top-achieving Grade 6 learner at Ekhuthuleni said: ‘’I wish our school had a library because many of the learners struggle with reading.’’

Another Ekhuthuleni learner expressed the need for a more extensive nutrition scheme.

‘’The learners get meals when they are at school, but when they go home, there is no food. I wish we could give them food packages.’’

Shaping #TheFutureWeWant

The impact of Corporate South Africa’s involvement in improving education extends beyond immediate solutions. Through the Execs Back to School programme, these leaders have planted the seeds of change.

As businesses continue to step forward, Komala Pillay urged: ‘’If this has had an impact on you, and you have hope for the future of South Africa, let’s partner. We need people who share our passion to turn the narrative of our country around.’’

For more information about the Execs Back to School programme and how your business can contribute to transforming the narrative of education in South Africa visit or email