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Building below the waterline

This is the tenth in a series of articles on Maximising the Leadership Lessons from COVID-19, brought to you by Symphonia for South Africa’s flagship programme, Partners for Possibility.

I believe that the crisis of COVID-19 is an enlightening moment for education. While we should acknowledge the loss of academic time, we should also accept that education is not lost. We can choose to seize the moment and take the opportunity to improve our view, or we can regress.

A lesson for life

In March 2019, our eldest son fell ill. He lost his mobility and, suddenly, life as we knew it changed. He was in his final year of an MBChB and would be a first-generation doctor in our family. So much anticipation, so much excitement and then…nothing. It is from this that I draw parallels with our current education system and the COVID-19 crisis.

Calvin lost a considerable amount of academic time as he could not attend all classes. He did not complete all the assessments needed to qualify as a doctor. He did, however, gain so much life experience. He learnt empathy, perseverance, patience and compassion – qualities that a textbook could not have taught him. For Calvin, education took place not in a conventional way but in a deep, soul-searching way. The experience of not completing his studies was profoundly disappointing for Calvin and our family. Yet we came to realise that one year in the bigger scheme of his life was not the end of the world.  He does not have a degree yet, but he is being educated.

Currently, our learners are not in classrooms, but they are learning.  Education is taking place. They are learning patience as they wait for lockdown to be lifted.

SA’s education system: a shift in focus?

In our education system, the focus of teaching needs to change. We are currently teaching for assessments.  The school curriculum is content-heavy and knowledge-driven. Some aspects of critical thinking are included, but the focus is predominantly on the attainment of knowledge.

I have been introduced to a concept known as ‘teaching below the waterline’. Think of the bottom part of an iceberg. The part under the water is referred to as ‘below the waterline’. That is the part that we cannot see.

Gordon MacDonald explained the concept of building below the waterline. He wrote about the Brooklyn Bridge that took 13 years to build. For the first three years, none of the construction was visible to the public. He explains that the engineer pointed out that the most important work was building the bridge’s foundations scores of feet below the water’s surface.

Teaching below the waterline means that you are not fixated on knowledge, but on understanding. You teach learners how to solve problems. You train them to use their initiative. You encourage creativity and critical thinking. You build foundations in learning that they can apply to any area of their lives. You cannot assess what happens below the waterline, but you can see it in the way learners interact with others. You see it in their decision-making and their attitude to life.

The education department wants to see the completion of assessments. The success of a teacher is measured by how much knowledge that teacher can get the students to retain and regurgitate. Thus 100% matric passes are celebrated, and good systemic test results are applauded.

I believe that teachers know how to educate learners below the waterline, but they are restricted by a curriculum that requires them to focus on assessment outcomes.

An opportunity for overhaul

For the foundation phase, I would suggest the following:

Time must be spent on building foundations. You do not need technology to teach the foundations. You do not even need many resources. Laying proper foundations could perhaps help to close the divide between the privileged and underprivileged.

Let’s strengthen English language studies by focusing on reading and writing. Let’s create spelling competitions and dictionary games. Let’s encourage listening to a variety of music and allow learners to dance. Go back to foundational maths teaching. Take learners to the foundations where they grasp that learning is actually fun.

Teachers can prepare foundational lessons without the burden of assessments.  Like the Brooklyn Bridge anecdote, educators can build on foundations for the rest of the year. We might not see visible results in the immediate future, but we will see results.

How wonderful it will be when we have learners who can read! Learners who can communicate effectively and who can reason. Learners who understand the basic foundations of mathematics. Learners who have self-control, problem-solving skills and whouse their initiative. Learners who are creative and also think critically.

If we can accept that education is much more than passing an exam, we have achieved something this year. I look forward to a generation of learners who can adapt, create and lead us to a better future  ̶  a future beyond the pandemic.

Jacqueline Samuels has twenty years of teaching experience and seven years of lecturing experience. She is currently completing a Master of Philosophy degree in Education and Training for Lifelong Learning at the University of Stellenbosch. Partners for Possibility is committed to the leadership development of school principals and corporate leaders. For more information, visit

Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 July 2020 10:50

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Leadership lessons in a time of lockdown

This is the ninth in a series of articles on Maximising the Leadership Lessons from COVID-19, brought to you by Symphonia for South Africa’s flagship programme, Partners for Possibility. 


I was preparing to travel to Spain for my annual ‘sabbatical’ and was looking forward to a European summer. This has been our lifestyle for the last decade and so, for the first time in a while, I am preparing for a Cape winter. However, the overwhelming sense I have is of deep gratitude that I am ‘home’ with my husbandI am still privileged to work and make a contribution during this time. 


Technology: a tool for good 


COVID-19 has shown us that any limiting thoughts we had about working remotely have been unceremoniously debunked. As a result of remote working, I have had more time for connection with my colleagues, friends and family and found myself reaching out to people with whom I would normally meet for a cup of coffee. I have also connected more often with people who live in other parts of the world; like my sister, who now lives in Australia. I have even attended some graduations and have been part of a friend’s PhD defence in AmericaTechnology makes it so easy to create new forms of intimacy and togetherness while being apart.  


At the same time, I recognise the value of boundaries by making sure that I have structured my day to accommodate personal, professional and societal commitments.  


On a personal level 

I have made time for experimenting with baking and cooking - things I usually don’t do. Oh, and decluttering our home of items that will go to charity has been such a pleasure! I realised that there is a parallel between decluttering externally and a decluttering internally. 


On a professional level 

I have been more in touch with the mission and vision of the organisations that I lead and have developed even more respect for the people I work with. I am inspired by the optimism, professionalism, resilience and the way they have taken personal responsibility for their role in keeping themselves and others safe while continuing to execute their organisational mandatesIntegrity and authenticity have become so much more visible to me, especially within my networks. 


In my capacity as a community leader, I have been able to both give and receive on behalf of organisations who do the work of caring for the vulnerable members of our society  ̶  the homeless, womenchildren and the aged. 


On the whole, I have experienced this time as a gift, and as a leader it has evoked in me an openness to more divergent ideas. I feel poised for something emergent, unidentified, unexpected while, at the same time, I’m embracing this amorphous sense of something and nothing. 


Melanie Burke is the chairperson of Symphonia for South Africa’s board, and also serves on the boards of various other NPOS and social enterprises. She is a social innovator who is also an experienced development practitioner.  



Last Updated on Friday, 26 June 2020 11:42

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Non-payment of SGB staff will produce dire consequences for schools, finds Symphonia for South Africa’s #SGBStaff survey

Non-payment of SGB[1] staff will produce dire consequences for schools, finds Symphonia for South Africa’s #SGBStaff survey

The survey findings reveal that:

  • Insufficient funds to cover the salaries of SGB-appointed staff and teachers is a source of major concern among principals of no-fee schools, low-fee schools[2], special needs schools and independent schools
  • If left unresolved, this will likely lead to retrenchments with serious knock-on effects for schools

Symphonia for South Africa has conducted a survey exploring the emerging issue of declining funding for SGB staff salaries at schools during the COVID-19 crisis.

While staff in government schools are predominantly employed and paid by the State, the number of teaching and non-teaching posts allocated by the Department of Education is usually insufficient to meet the needs in the schools. School Governing Bodies, therefore, need to raise their own funds (either through school fees or fundraising activities) to be able to employ additional teachers or support staff to perform vital functions including administration, cleaning and security.

Dr Magali von Blottnitz, Symphonia for South Africa’s Knowledge Management and M&E[3] Lead and developer of the research survey, said:

‘’In an effort to support the needs of the many school principals who are part of our flagship programme, Partners for Possibility, we have facilitated conversations around their concerns at this time. From this, we have learnt that SGB staff funding is a huge source of anxiety for principals.

While this survey provides a snapshot of the current situation pertaining to SGB staff funding, we believe that we can draw inferences about the very real concerns of principals across South Africa.’’

The #SGBStaff survey collected 203 responses during a 7-day period and featured respondents from all 9 provinces. The schools participating included no-fee, low-fee, independent and special needs schools, including Schools of Skills.

The survey’s findings highlighted the following:

  • Schools are experiencing a dramatic loss of income from school fees, voluntary contributions and fundraising efforts as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Nearly half of the respondents indicated that their funds were already depleted or would only last until the end of May. 
  • Of the 203 schools that took the survey, the median number of SGB staff is 7 employees per school, with 5 employees per school in no-fee and low-fee schools. Typically, those schools employed 2-3 SGB teachers and 3 additional support staff.
  • The total monthly spend on salaries for SGB appointed staff ranges between R10,000 and R50,000 per school, with the median being R33,200. On average, 60% of the spend covers teachers’ salaries and 40% goes to support staff. The remuneration patterns vary significantly according to the school category.
  • SGB-paid educators are employed in critical roles which include the teaching of Grade R classes (in primary schools) and of English, Afrikaans and mathematics / math lit (in high schools). SGB-paid support staff, meanwhile, perform vital functions and enable educators to focus on teaching.
  • Most survey respondents indicated that the inability to pay the salaries of SGB-staff would lead to some or all of the following: retrenchments; the merging of classes, which would aggravate overcrowding; additional stress for government-paid teachers; a reduction in learners’ physical safety and emotional well-being; and an overall fall in the quality of teaching and learning.
  • A quarter of respondents indicated that the crisis would affect their ability to accommodate some categories of learners.

One of the most frequently identified groups of SGB-paid teachers are Grade R practitioners, and the risk of losing some of these educators is a matter of grave concern.

‘’Unless the financial concerns are addressed the ability to sustain vital pre-primary schooling in under-resourced communities is at risk,’’ said von Blottnitz.

“Knowing the role that Grade R attendance has played in raising educational achievement in South Africa over the last decade, we should all be worried about the risk of closing Grade R classes.”

Another concern is school hygiene and security – tasks that usually fall on SGB-paid staff to perform.

‘’In the context of a pandemic, it is of paramount importance that good hygiene is practised to protect the school population. Learners will face undue health risks if schools are unable to retain this category of staff,’’ she adds.

Additionally, schools catering for learners with special needs, especially those with disabilities, appear to have a high dependence on SBG-funded support staff for roles such as classroom assistants, learner transport, medical and paramedical assistance. The inability to retain such staff would gravely affect these vulnerable learners.

What has become clear is that the ability of our country to unlock new sources of funding will determine whether these vulnerable schools can avoid the devastating knock-on effects brought on by the response to the COVID-19 crisis.

‘’We are currently busy with further research on the ability of the Temporary Employee/Employer Relief Scheme support (UIF-TERS) to respond effectively to the needs of under-resourced schools. A concern, though, is that this fund may not provide sufficient financial support to cover the full duration of the crisis"

“The needs are considerable, and every concerned citizen is being called upon to reflect on what each of them can do. Any other contribution or funding that can be mobilised for this cause will, without a doubt, be money well spent,” von Blottnitz concludes.


For the full report on the #SGBStaff survey, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

For more information on Symphonia for South Africa and its flagship programme, visit

Interview requests may be made to:

Dorcas Dube

Marketing and Communications Manager

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Mobile: 076 766 2326



[1]SGB: School Governing Body

[2]Symphonia for South Africa has defined low-fee schools as schools which charge less than R2500 per child per annum

[3]Monitoring and Evaluation

Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 May 2020 14:56

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Lessons from COVID-19: Rethinking HR strategies for a post-circuit-break future

This is the eighth in a series of articles on Maximising the Leadership Lessons from COVID-19, brought to you by Symphonia for South Africa’s flagship programme, Partners for Possibility (PfP). Visit

In the COVID-19 age – an era with a likely lifespan of years rather than months – team leaders have been thrust into roughly the same personal, circumstances as their team members (ie working from home, being isolated, distracted by children etc.). This is the great equalizer that many have been looking for and a global pandemic is delivering. This is an opportunity for leaders to reflect deeply and create a future that is distinct from the past. Three initial questions are emerging for me as helpful:

  1. What am I experiencing right now?
  2. How is this experience aligned with my team members experiences?
  3. With this new knowledge, how can I better serve my team and the organization in this moment and into the future?

This circuit-break is fast becoming a watershed for leaders; providing time and space for a genuine renewed focus on employee-centric leadership. Through reflection, we will begin to imagine a future that we have perhaps been speaking about, but have not found the time to act on. The gift of this reflective time provides a golden opportunity to think about new, sustainable HR possibilities that can underpin HR strategies for a freshly designed future. Hence, a further question emerges: What is dying and what is waiting to be born?

Here is an example of a reflective process (that you can populate) that will allow you as HR team leader, to begin to birth new possibilities:

Example of a reflective question: What mental models do I hold about employment practices and the operating models underpinning our HR strategies?  What is my role as team leader in reinforcing these models?


Pre-circuit break

During circuit break

The new future

Personal level example

     • I need to supervise my team members; therefore they must work in the company offices.

(Add your own mental paradigms – as many as you wish)

ü    • What am I observing about how we are supervising our teams?

ü    • How does this feel different? 

ü    • On reflection, what will it take for me to break out of pre-circuit-break mental models and formulate new sustainable ideas, which I can use to influence the organization?

Organizational level

ü   • Example: Team members’ productivity levels are negatively influenced by not working in the company’s offices.


(Add your own mental paradigms – as many as you wish)

ü   • What is shifting in terms of our team’s productivity levels?


ü   • Why might that be?

ü    • On reflection, what will it take to break out of pre-circuit-break mental models and create a new sustainable future HR strategy, underpinned by employee-centred operating models and practices?

Global level

ü     • Example: Company office work is the way we do business; this is our head office.


(Add your own mental paradigms – as many as you wish)


ü    • If you are bold enough, what might you be willing to take on to influence not only yourself and your organization, but the industry you work in at a national and potentially global level?

This reflection work can be done alone and with your team. The important aspect is to enjoy this unique time reflecting on breakthrough possibilities. The invitation is to create a new reality, and this is at once daunting and very exciting.

We are being given – as a gift – a massive chance to create something better than the model we have been implementing. The decisions we take now will be sustained for generations to come.


Irene Juhnke – is a member of the community of “Friends for PfP”. After a successful career of 35 years, in a range of portfolios, including Human Resources, she now supports Symphonia for South Africa with a number of specific HR related matters.

Last Updated on Friday, 29 May 2020 14:14

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COVID-19 leadership lessons: A business leader’s take

This is the seventh in a series of articles on Maximising the Leadership Lessons from COVID-19, brought to you by Symphonia for South Africa’s flagship programme, Partners for Possibility (PfP). Visit

The COVID-19 era is accelerating massive change. This change is a subset of a more long-term change that is yet to occur. New realities that are fast unfolding are placing leadership under a massive spotlight, as many call for leaders in all spheres to use this time of crisis to introspect and reform.

Every lesson learned now can and must be used to better understand and respond to this enormously demanding duty.

Embracing the quietness

Slowing down the frantic pace of life with all its doing has given me valuable time for reflection. It feels as if the planetary ecosystem that I am a minuscule part of is heaving a sigh of relief. This has opened up a range of opportunities and new thought processes that are presenting themselves to me as the weeks continue.

Exposing inequalities

One of my initial reflections centred around the stark inequalities that exist in South African society and how this has become so vividly graphic in the era of COVID-19.

This crisis has precipitated major commercial and economic fallout that has left the poor even poorer; starving and destitute. While I live in relative bliss with my family on a large property, with plenty of food and wanting for nothing, I am deeply aware of those who live under vastly different conditions, sharing rooms in cramped apartments or shacks in informal settlements, with little to eat. 

My wish for the world in the era of COVID-19 is that this imbalance is corrected once and for all. This is the change that is yet to occur. In this regard, my purpose as a leader and the purpose of my organisation needs to be challenged too. My role as the CEO of a business is to ensure the well-being of the business and all its stakeholders. But who are they? Is it enough to merely be a creator of employment? How can my business contribute to the betterment of society in a new way – a post- COVID-19 way?

Digitisation for the greater good

Tying in with this is the rapidly unfolding digital transformation that is upon us all and that is so challenging. This clearly presents some opportunities, but it is simultaneously deepening the socio-economic divide in South Africa. I believe that we need to be conscious of the risks of a digital world but find ways to maximise the benefits of technology for the good of all. How do we use the technology at our disposal to tackle the scourges of unemployment, gender violence, poverty and hunger? How can we transform a sector like education?

Together apart

What is clear from the massive scaling up of the use of technology-based communication platforms like Zoom, is that we need each other even if we cannot be physically close. The era of social distancing is presenting us with a major opportunity to master deeper levels of engagement and connection. Consistent, honest and compassionate communication is critical.

Finally, and most profoundly, I have discovered that intuitive decision-making that emanates from the heart, is essential. The patriarchal paradigm of head and hands is insufficient to deal with this situation or the vastly different future that is yet to be revealed to us.

Our ability as leaders to work with our heads, hands and hearts is undoubtedly what will determine whether we survive and eventually thrive.


Thomas Holtz is the Group Chief Executive Officer of global mineral processing industry leader, Multotec. He has also partnered with Elizabeth Seema, Principal of Rembrandt Primary School, on the PfP programme. PfP is committed to social change through the leadership development of school principals and business leaders in South Africa. Visit

Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 May 2020 10:24

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