When he was appointed Gauteng education MEC five years ago, Panyaza Lesufi acknowledges he may have initially been out of touch with the bleak realities that the South African schooling system faced.
At the time, in 2014, he didn’t realise how challenging it would be to transform what he considered an outdated schooling system into a world-class education sector, which would allow Gauteng pupils the opportunity to compete with their international counterparts.
But, the Ekurhuleni-born politician got a reality check from pupils and staff from an Ekurhuleni township school he also attended decades ago as a young boy.
“I remember, one of my first days in office, I went to one of my former schools to announce that I planned on introducing ICT (information and communications technology) and that pupils will use (electronic) tablets and teachers will use laptops.
“But the pupils laughed and said they didn’t even have proper toilets and that their school’s windows were broken - I was speaking about tablets and Smart Boards. It was a far-fetched dream that shook me. I was out of touch with reality at the time,” he says.
Lesufi, however, did not allow this rude awakening to deter his plans of transforming Gauteng’s schools. Instead, he worked tirelessly with his team and peers for half a decade to introduce technology to several of the province’s schools and to ensure their pupils were digitally savvy.
Many of Gauteng’s pupils now use tablets, teachers work with laptops and Smart Boards, and computer literacy is now an integral part of the provincial schools’ syllabus. Despite technological innovations, he also attended to several infrastructural challenges at many of Gauteng’s schools, determined to improve the quality of education in the province.
His efforts were not in vain, as under Lesufi’s leadership, schools in Gauteng received the best 2018 National Senior Certificate examination results, making the province currently the best-performing in the country.
The 50-year-old views this as one of his career highlights. “I will never forget that moment when Gauteng came out on top. It was something we’ve been working hard to achieve ever since I came into office.”
Now, after five years as the Gauteng education MEC, Lesufi has decided to vacate his office and is awaiting further deployment pending the results from this week’s election.
His time at the helm of the provincial education department has moulded him into an even more determined public servant. “Even if you must make me the sweeper, I will be the best sweeper in the country,” he declares.
“I don’t want it to be about me and my aspirations. I want to be something that can make people happy, something that will protect the weak, the vulnerable and the poor. I have accepted my fate that the people will decide where I will go.”
Lesufi’s desire to pursue a career in public office was somewhat inspired by the former firebrand leader of the ANC, Harry Gwala, whom he met during his university years.
“When I went to the University of Natal, he was one person who believed in me. I was just a student expressing my views, and he told me that he liked my composure and that said he thought I could be a leader.”
Since Gwala uttered those words to Lesufi, he attempted to live his life in a way that would have made the late leader proud. “I tried not to chase women and not to drink alcohol and smoke. I really don’t want to disappoint this old man who thought so much of me.”
Lesufi’s humble upbringing also saw him determined to help all those with whom he came in contact. “My mother was a domestic worker and my father was a gardener. They just appreciated me, even when I couldn’t believe in myself, and I credit my character to them.”
Lesufi was a student activist during the apartheid era and witnessed racism on such a personal level that it made him determined to eradicate it from the country’s schools. “I hate racism with a passion,” he says.
As education MEC, he prided himself in doing all he could to create a learning environment where children of all races could excel.
While racism is still rife in many schools across the country, he believes deracialising the education system is achievable.
“Our education system is man-made to be the way it is, and it will also take a man to break down these barriers.”
His fight for equality has often been met with harsh criticism, but Lesufi won’t let that deter him.
He says it’s the advice of his mother that carried him through some of the toughest days of his career.“My mother said to me: ‘I have never seen a grave of someone who was insulted and then he died.’”
Panyaza Lesufi: man with a vision
During his five years as the Gauteng MEC of education, Panyaza Lesufi has worked closely with his team, peers, opposition parties and educational organisations.
Although they may not have shared all Lesufi’s visions or agreed with his ideas, many agree he was determined to create a school environment where children from all walks of life could thrive.
This includes DA Gauteng Shadow MEC for Education Khume Ramulifho, who described Lesufi as a hard worker who was approachable and responsive.
“We had a great relationship where we respected each other, worked well (together) and he replied promptly to my questions.”
Ramulifho added that Lesufi attended more than 80% of committee meetings, accounted to the provincial legislature, accepted criticism and was open to new ideas.
These sentiments were echoed by the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools Gauteng provincial manager Dr Jean Van Rooyen who said Lesufi was actively involved in the daily functioning of the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE).
Some of Lesufi’s biggest achievements during his tenure was that under his leadership, Gauteng was consistently a top achiever in the National Senior Certificate Examinations.
“In 2018, the GDE was the top achiever and of the top 18 performing districts in the country. All 15 the districts in Gauteng were included in this group.”
However, Van Rooyen believed there was still a long way to go before many of the challenges Gauteng’s schools faced were addressed adequately.
Meanwhile, Equal Education (EE) said Lesufi “demonstrated a greater willingness, than some education MECs in South Africa, to engage civil society more broadly.
“EE has seen improvements around certain aspects of education during MEC Lesufi’s tenure, namely, the upgrading of school sanitation facilities and addressing unequal access to schools for poor and working class learners, through the expansion of feeder zones.”
But the community and membership-based movement said while the GDE had made some inroads towards addressing sanitation challenges in Gauteng, very serious problems remained.
“Gauteng continues to be home to schools made of asbestos, where learners and staff are exposed to its harmful effects.”
Van Rooyen said the new MEC that will be appointed should continue working closely with governance structures at grassroots level.
Ramulifho said the new administration should re-open closed schools in townships, prioritise teacher development and introduce incentives to attract qualified teachers in townships.
EE said the new MEC should focus on literacy levels.
“The MEC must guarantee that learners in the province are able to read for meaning, by addressing the early grade reading crisis.”