Impact SA

Business in Education Forum explores strategic interventions and calls for collaboration to overcome basic education crisis


Held on Thursday 9 July, the conversation featured a call for focused, collaborative and re-purposed investment in education across sectors, focusing on innovation, connectivity and skills. There was consensus that the latter is often overlooked, and that basic services as well as leadership development and readiness for change underpin the effectiveness of long-term interventions.

Hosted by leadership development and education non-profit, Symphonia for South Africa, the discussion was premised on innovation, critical support and leadership in education during the crisis, the challenges and changing face of education in South Africa and future opportunities for meaningful impact.

As part of a breakout session unpacking the challenges that schools are currently facing, panellists Richard Masemola, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Teach South Africa and James Donald of the Tomorrow Trust agreed that the need for psycho-social support for educators and learners is pressing during this time. At a time when the debate on the re-opening of schools continues, closing schools for the year will disadvantage the most vulnerable learners and further widen the inequality gap. Masemola also spoke to the digitisation of learning in schools, adding, “We need to do more to make sure that schools are able to take advantage of technology,” calling for WiFi in all schools.

Focusing on technology, Donald said, “All of us need to be comfortable learning and re-learning.” He highlighted how the rapid rate of change in the technological space is often overlooked, including the increasing availability and decreasing prices of services and data, and the movement towards zero-rated services and resources. “There is lots out there, but how to convert it and use it as something meaningful gets complicated very quickly.” He added that pre-paid data is still “obscenely expensive,” while contracts with network providers can be more affordable and make a huge difference, mentioning the recent availability of shorter-term data contracts.

Focusing on non-urban schools, the audience raised the difficulty of looking towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution whilst schools continue to deal with basic needs and gross inequality. Masemola pointed out that resources need to be deployed more deliberately to empower teachers, raising the example of a Limpopo school which was able to provide financial support to enable teachers to continue teaching during the crisis via WhatsApp, contrasting with schools which don’t have the resources to start with and have not been able to keep learners engaged. He pointed out that data is a key enabler and that the system has depended for too long on face-to-face contact, concluding, “The majority of our children in the 26,000 schools are forced to go face-to-face and fight the COVID risk.”

A dialogue on partnership and collaborative interventions saw panellist Lehlohonolo Chabeli, CEO of the Thebe Foundation and Louise van Rhyn, Founder and CEO of Symphonia for South Africa, recommend a collective approach to interventions in education. Chabeli said, “It is no longer about the logos and the egos,” and “We need to build a formalised coalition for education in South Africa that identifies key players and places government at the centre.” Chabeli also recommended that data be treated a human rights issue.

van Rhyn said, “This pandemic has shown us what is possible when we aren’t concerned with attribution, but rather contribution. It will take buy-in of a collective theory of change from key players and the formation of regional coalitions for education that can learn from each other.” She went on to highlight the importance of understanding complex social change.

In a third breakout featuring Riyaadh Ebrahim, Social Investment Specialist at Tshikululu Social Investments and Khanyi Chaba, Head of Responsible Business at Old Mutual, Ebrahim noted a pause taken by corporate investors in education during the COVID-19 crisis to look at future-skilling as opposed to just technology interventions. He acknowledge that the [Department of Basic Education] is improving in terms of facilitating collaboration at a basic education level, but that there is more work to be done on the disjunct between post-school training and how business can influence that space, similar to the way it influences basic education.

Towards a more future-orientated focus, Chaba asserted that business needs to take a “much bigger stance in addressing the skills gap” while Ebrahim proposed that working with school leadership has the power to create robust institutions as South Africa as the world move towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Referring to Old Mutual’s recently launched ‘Africa’s Biggest Classroom’, Chaba acknowledged that their business reaches farther than South Africa, and that challenges and opportunities presented by the COVID-19 crisis are shared. “Our world has become that much smaller.” She stressed the need to re-purpose investment in education for a different future that will sustain the economy, asking, ‘’What do we need to do, as big business, to sustain education over a period of time?” She went on to discuss infrastructure and platforms, relevance, developing new content, and the importance of including financial literacy and entrepreneurship as part of the curriculum.

Moderator Robyn Whittaker of Kaleidoscope Lights, focused on collaborative impact ecosystems, said, “The human element is so critically important when we talk about a technological revolution. The revolution is the access and the ability to engage, not the tech.”

On the topic of monitoring and evaluation requirements, van Rhyn and Masemola both raised the issue of mission-drift. Ebrahim highlighted the importance of good governance practices, whilst recognising the challenges presented by substantial reporting requirements for relatively small investments, suggesting, “The quantum of the budgets need to be aligned to the number of indicators.” Donald also stressed the importance of accountability, pointing out a duality that NPOs deal with: the needs of funders versus the needs of beneficiaries. Referring to iterative problem-solving design in M&E strategy and the high rate of innovation in the sector, he pointed out that frameworks for education need to change, and that practitioners should be held accountable for outcomes rather than indicators.

In the audience, Sarah Mthintso formerly of the Telkom Foundation commented, “The time has come for us to push for education to be firmly on the agenda as a driver of economic growth, and not just a social issue. This will require government to re-organise and re-position how we approach education in preparing for widening access to the mainstream economy.”

Chaba concluded with a call to businesses to “grow whilst creating positive impact.” Ebrahim highlighted the opportunity to work with school leadership to build robust institutions for the future and Donald stressed the importance of focus, such as “changing the education-to-employment pathway for a kid who is 10 years old in Johannesburg.” Chabeli raised that “real development takes time,” and van Rhyn warned not to become so future-focused that current issues are not addressed.

Whittaker shared, “The opportunity offered by COVID-19 for the transition to technologically-facilitated education goes beyond the need to access technological tools, and to provide online education, but to fully understand and appreciate the difference between online (delivered via tech) and digitalised (fully facilitated learning through technological platforms) and to utilise this to completely revise our approach to education.”

A conclusion arose that business support for education can best be leveraged when driven in conjunction with a clear national approach, and that a systems-approach shift from “control and management” to “connection, collaboration, community empowerment and trust” needs to occur. There is a strong call for deep collaboration within the entire sector, spanning ECD, basic education and post-school education and training, business, government and civil society, as well as national, provincial and district structures. It seems that a profound level of disconnect at almost every one of these interfaces is experienced, making progress very difficult.

A recording of the session can be viewed here:

Additional information

Responses to a high-level poll amongst the 143 event attendees, evenly split between business and education sectors, showed that more than half of the respondents do not agree that business investment in education currently takes into account the future of work, skills and education (58%, 56% and 61% respectively). Most respondents agreed that:

  • Business and the private sector in general has an obligation to support education
  • Development and vast improvement of South African education can be achieved with strategic support by business
  • Corporate investment in education should complement, and not replace, the work of government

Further, about two-thirds (65%) of respondents agreed that current business investment and interventions in education do not consider the real needs on the ground, and South Africa’s transformation policies (eg. B-BBEE) provide business with a beneficial way to contribute to education.

Dorcas  Dube, Symphonia for South Africa’s Marketing and Communications Manager said:

Our long-standing, well-attended Business in Education forum events have been designed to advocate for and reinforce the importance of the input of business in education matters, while effectively fostering and promoting discussion on this vital collaboration between business and education. This is especially important during a time that has precipitated so many changes for education and business alike. We are so encouraged by the frank but constructive discourse that was generated around this very pertinent topic at this year’s forum.”

Contact or visit for more information on the Partners for Possibility programme and Symphona for South Africa NPC


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