Johannesburg - 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At the time, in 2014, he didn’t realise how challenging it would be to transform what he considered an outdated schooling system into a world-class education sector, which would allow Gauteng pupils the opportunity to compete with their international counterparts.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.’”