The Future In Her Hands

Published 5 years ago

If Naledi Pandor has her way, an overhaul of South Africa’s higher learning system is on the cards, transforming its institutions into enterprise creators and the vanguard of the country’s march into the fourth industrial revolution.

Two months into her second tenure in education which now includes skills training, Pandor has become a student again as she seeks to understand the forces leaving many of the country’s children unemployable. In her austere office in the Central Business District of South Africa’s capital Tshwane, Pandor, 64, speaks with the enthusiasm of a pioneer.

“We tend to be one-dimensional in our thinking that a qualification will lead to a job and so in speaking to young people, I have been saying more and more that I want to hear about the people that you are going to employ. I want to hear about the enterprise you want to create. I am less interested in hearing about who is going to employ you,’’ she says.


Conversations have already started with the colleges, sector authorities, universities and private sector associations on improving the higher education curriculum and coordinating the country’s drive to be more competitive as the fourth industrial revolution transforms industries and economies, threatening to widen the gap between developing and developed nations.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), very few developing countries are paying attention to the impact of technological advances associated with the fourth industrial revolution, which have the potential to widen the divide between rich and poor nations by worsening unemployment, increasing the concentration of economic power and wealth and spreading biases in influential algorithms.

Naledi Pandor. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla

Pandor takes over a department with huge demands such as reform of the curriculum and its decolonization, and a skills-set that needs to be aligned to the real economy, says Mzoxolo Mpolase, Managing Director of Political Analysis, a political consultancy in South Africa. But she has the intellectual strength and forthrightness required to tackle the task, he adds.


“She is one of those people in cabinet who has a message-driven approach which is quite unlike some that like to talk big game. She understands the multifacetedness of things and she will be able to address things at that level. She has the policy understanding that will enable her to address the issues and she can listen to experts as well. For a politician, that is a huge compliment,’’ says Mpolase.

Pandor, appointed Minister of Higher Education and Training in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first cabinet this year, is setting up a multi-sectoral task team to assess fourth industrial revolution-related work in research and teaching in the country’s universities, colleges and community education.

“It includes certainly skilling and upskilling but for me, what it really would be focused on is where our universities are in terms of research in this area, what we are doing with respect to technology transfer and what we are doing in the areas of innovation. Because this fourth industrial revolution has so many components to it; it’s much more than that. It’s bioinformatics, it’s the bioeconomy, it’s technology in education,’’ she says.

“We are active and are also working with the CEOs. You’d be surprised how far down the road we are but the scale is small because we’re not investing sufficiently.’’


South Africa’s education system has been faulted for the country’s high unemployment rate of 26.7%, ranking 75th out of 76, according to an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study in 2015, and is 114th out of 137 countries in the 2017-2018 WEF education quality survey.

This despite one of the highest spending rates on education in the world. The country spends more on education than either the United States, United Kingdom or Germany, according to United Nations statistics and yet has one of the lowest returns on investment because of poor teacher training, financial mismanagement and underspending on black education during the apartheid years.

In the last national budget, the entire sector, including basic education, again took the lion’s share of state resources, comprising 21% of all spending, or $28 billion. Over the next three years, the government plans to up that to about $89 billion, covering teacher and learner support and free education for the indigent.



While preparing Africa’s most industrialised for a digital future, Pandor is adamant that, that future includes changing the mindset of South Africans on education and the jobs market. Her in-tray, she says, a flicker of a smile breaking out on her face, is huge. Aside from the universities, it also includes work on skills training in the workplace as well as training in the formal education systems.

“So this tray is massive and the priority really is to ensure our young people have opportunities in South Africa and that we also pay attention to the skills needed in South Africa. It would not make much sense for example to have many young people entering our institutions but we still lack electricians, plumbers and bricklayers. So, I think my department should be attuned to the skills needed in South Africa and it should be able to link the opportunities we provide to the skill demand out there.’’

Pandor is as unassuming as she is forthright. She takes a dig at herself and other parents for outdated thinking when it comes to young people, recalling how her son Haroon, recoiled in horror when she asked who he was going to work for when he finished school.

“I was a bit surprised when he turned to me and said ‘Mummy! Me work for somebody? I’m going to start my own business!’ You know my initial thought was of horror, because I thought ‘oh no. he’s going to be at home for ever’. And he’s actually looking after himself. He’s running his own small business. He’s happily doing what he enjoys and he’s an entrepreneur. So I’m also at fault here as well.’’


Pandor isn’t your typical feminist. Does she believe women should be given more opportunity to make up for years of exclusion from mainstream economics under apartheid and the impact of patriarchy? Of course. But she says it’s everybody’s fight and interventions should be strategic.

She is withering in her assessment of women’s advances in higher education: four women vice chancellors out of the country’s 26 universities? “That’s not good enough,’’ she says, while condemning the prevalence of sexual violence in universities.

But it’s not just about numbers, she adds. While girls were beginning to outnumber boys at institutions of higher learning, also important was the representation of women in key fields such as engineering, science and further study.

Naledi Pandor. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla


“We will make a difference if we ensure we are a majority in non-traditional disciplines so what I’m learning is that you can be a majority but that majority may have no effect if you’re not being strategic about ensuring that actually that presence is in areas that make a real difference and that’s where I think we need to become better. We need to move beyond the notion that it’s a game of numbers.’’

And it’s also about how women conduct themselves, she says. It’s not enough to ask for the advancement of women when role models are misbehaving, she cautions.

“As women leaders, we need to set the tone on values and ethics and articulate this tone not by making speeches of rhetoric but in the way we conduct our lives.’’

But shouting slogans and making political speeches was never part of the original plan, says Pandor even though she grew up in exile, the daughter of political stalwart, Joe Matthews, one of the 156 African National Congress (ANC) members charged in the 1956 Treason Trial that eventually sent Nelson Mandela to prison for 27 years. Her grandfather, ZK Matthews, was a global anti-apartheid fighter.

“I actually hated politics because I blamed it for the experiences we went through. My parents would always talk about the movement, the ANC and the ANC. So we had to go to London or we needed to go to Zambia, and I thought; ‘this ANC is stopping me from having friends and changing schools’,’’ says Pandor.

Education changed all that, she says with a laugh. “I became a teacher in other young people’s education and education led me into politics.’’

Grace Naledi Mandisa was born in 1953 in Durban and ended up going to school in Botswana where she matriculated at Gaborone Secondary School. She attained the first of her three degrees at the University of Botswana, majoring in English and History in 1977. Next was the University of London where she graduated with a Masters of Arts and then back home in South Africa in 1997, Stellenbosch University awarded her an MA in Linguistics.

Pandor taught English in Botswana, the UK and at the University of Cape Town. She entered parliament in 1994 with the dawn of democracy, rising to Deputy Chief Whip of the ANC the following year. She has also served as Deputy Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, the second of South Africa’s bicameral system whose members are selected by the provinces.

She first served as Education Minister from 2004 to 2009 in the second cabinet of former President Thabo Mbeki where she inherited the widely criticised Outcome-Based Education system introduced in 1998 by the late Kader Asmal. The system was scrapped in 2009 as she exited cabinet. She would return in 2012 as Home Affairs Minister in former president Jacob Zuma’s first administration.

Growing up in exile also meant she was never able to develop friendships amongst her own people.

“Sometimes, that makes me sad because I feel that I missed out on developing long-term relationships in my country because the relationships that I have are family primarily because I didn’t go to school here. So I don’t have friends I can say went to school together with.’’

READ MORE: Free higher education in South Africa: cutting through the lies and statistics

Could that have cost her the chance to be deputy to Ramaphosa at last year’s elective conference? Pandor doesn’t believe so, pointing out she declined a nomination.

“I was fairly happy to be a member of the national executive committee and made my name available for that and I think I know my limitations and I know my temperament as well and some people have a temperament for certain things and others don’t. I don’t have the temperament for the blue light convoy. It would drive me nuts.’’

It’s the same down-to-earth temperament that frames her approach to her religion. Few know, for instance, that the mother of four is a Muslim who converted from Christianity when she married Sharif Joseph Pandor who she met in Botswana.

“I do practise it openly in the way that I dress I hope. But I believe that religion is part of one’s life and that we derive our values from the principles we acquire at home or from what we learn in our spiritual domain so there are many shared principles in the world religions and so I found that my embracing of Islam was rendered easier by having been a practising Christian. So I don’t see our world religions as being incompatible and so, no, it wasn’t difficult for me.’’

Does she see a better future for South Africa under President Ramaphosa after the economic stagnation of the Zuma years?

“I’m certainly hopeful that it will but it’s early days but looking at the character of the man and the bold initiatives that have been undertaken and the courageous stance he has taken, I think we have good reason to be very optimistic.’’

Ramaphosa, a former trade unionist, has set a target of attracting $100 billion to South Africa in five years, creating a million jobs.

Pandor has been less successful in trying to pass on her political activism to her children and she says it’s no bad thing even though she has encouraged them to play a role in the branches. Politics isn’t easy and besides, she adds deadpan: the country needs more professionals and entrepreneurs.

“It’s a whole of set of interventions we need to work on to get South Africa thriving,’’ she says, determination etched on her face.

And if that were achieved, South Africa’s future would certainly be secure in an increasingly complex, economics-driven and globalized world.

– Story by Godfrey Mutizwa


‘She Is Unfailingly Ethical’ – Aisha Pandor

Aisha Pandor. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla

Naledi Pandor’s daughter, Aisha Pandor, is a Cape Town-based entrepreneur. She runs SweepSouth, an online platform for booking, managing and paying for regular and ad hoc home cleaning. Via app and website, it connects homeowners with ‘SweepStars’ (home cleaners). Recognized by the World Economic Forum as a breakthrough African Female Innovation, and backed by South African and Silicon Valley venture capital, SweepSouth employs sophisticated algorithms to match its customers and cleaners, creating work opportunities for domestic workers, many of whom are single mothers. Aisha was a FORBES WOMAN AFRICA cover star as part of The Millennials in the February/March 2016 issue of the magazine. Here, she speaks about her greatest influence:

A few words on your mother’s work ethic…
My mom is honestly the most hardworking person I know, leaving the house just before 8AM each morning (usually having done some calls to her staff or radio interviews prior), and then only arriving back home in the evening with a 3kg-thick file she then immediately gets to work on before going to bed very late at night. It’s been the same way for as long as I can remember. My mom has instilled in us the idea of service. She has a simplistic, logical and moral approach to life. Despite all of the hard work, she somehow also manages to be an attentive, caring and available mom who knows exactly what is going on in the lives of each of her four children, even as we’ve become adults. She is also unfailingly ethical, and I remember being extremely frustrated as a child when she would refuse us complimentary concert tickets or plane rides from voyager miles that she’d earned traveling, because ‘we hadn’t earned them’. She is also a master debater who reads voraciously and is extremely knowledgeable across a range of fields, meaning if you challenge her on something you’d better come prepared. There were many a time myself or my siblings would get a savage cut-down after trying to challenge our mom (unprepared) over the dinner table on some current event. We often attend her debates in parliament or listen to her on the radio and have a bit of a laugh seeing her do the same to the opposition, as we know exactly how it feels.

Memorable anecdotes on her when you were growing up…
My mother and father were apartheid activists living in Botswana, which is where two of my three siblings and I were born. We returned back to Cape Town in late 1989, when it was confirmed safe for us to return and that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison, my mom received a post as a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town and we lived along with my sister in a little flat near the university. My brother and dad lived apart from us for a year, waiting to be allowed into the country, and each morning my mom would walk my sister and myself up the very steep hill towards the university, which sits on the foot of Table Mountain. Driving past that tiny flat, or up that road towards Table Mountain, always feels like a reminder of the difficult start we had coming back into the country and that uphill walk feels symbolic of the progress my mom made.

Also, my mom was very strict as we grew up and although we were never punished physically there were times when we’d get a pinch for particularly bad behaviour. Corporal punishment was still allowed in schools, though, and we were the first black children to be accepted into previously white-only model C schools. As a result, my brother would get into lots of fights due to racism and in some cases when he retaliated would be caned by the head master of the school. Eventually, my parents had enough and my mom marched into the school and told the old headmaster very sternly that he was never to lay a hand on any of her children. He looked very embarrassed after the scolding and true to my mom’s warning my brother was never caned again.

Despite what must have been an incredibly difficult time for my young parents coming back into the country and facing open hostility and racism, I have really fond memories growing up and we were a close family unit, with strong parents who sheltered us a lot from the more unpleasant aspects of pre- and post-apartheid South Africa.

What you think of her now as an entrepreneur yourself?
I’m struck by how many sacrifices my mom must have made to be a working mother who still kept a happy family and marriage, and also by the courage she must have had as a working woman ascending to powerful positions within government. As an entrepreneur in a male-dominated space (technology), I understand how she had to sometimes come across as unfriendly to get things done and overcome being undermined. On another note though, as an entrepreneur and somewhat more of a risk-taker, I also wish my mom would put herself out there more and take more career and life risks.

– Interviewed by Methil Renuka