The Power of Mentorship and Partnership

Over the 8 years that I have written this column, I have interacted with many people who have shared with me some of the incredible things they are doing to make this country a better place.

I have been very struck by the passion that people have to make a difference and just how willing they are to make sacrifices big and small each day to achieve this end. Many have expressed their frustration – a frustration I share on a very deep level –  at not being able to do more. To those I remind us of Mother Teresa’s often quoted: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” By far the most common way that people participate in the healing of our nation is through mentorship. This is almost always informal; we mentor our staff in the workplace, our domestic workers at home, perhaps their kids; educators mentor their learners outside of the formal learning process; religious leaders mentor their flocks; Granny’s and Grandpa’s, aunts and uncles – most of us mentor somebody; young or not so young. It seems that being a mentor to someone is very deeply rooted in our DNA; we do it almost instinctively without giving it a formal name. There are of course reasons for this; we acknowledge that without healthy and functional younger people in particular, the young themselves and society at large is at risk. So, on one level it is about survival – passing on from one to another the necessary skills to navigate the world and life well. On another level it is tied up in our instincts to care and nurture, which is why we react so viscerally when we read stories of the abuse of children; it goes against every instinct we have. But science also proves the power of mentorship. Research conducted by the mentorship program Big Brothers Big Sisters tells us that when an adult mentor spends 1 hour a week with a child for one year, that child will be 53% more likely to stay in school; 32% less likely to engage in violence and 46% less likely to use drugs. It is for this reason that I maintain that mentorship – perhaps more than any other intervention – is a critical tool for the healing of our nation. Over the years that I have been involved in mentorship, I have become convinced that everyone can mentor someone. So, for the purposes of this column I would like to broaden the definition of mentorship so each of us can get a sense of the role we can play. Traditionally, mentorship was seen as an age-based thing i.e. older people mentoring younger people. But some of my best mentors have been younger than me; for example, my dear friend Akhona Ngcobo has mentored me in the ways of Zulu culture. She is several years younger than me. So, mentorship is more about experience in one area or another, than age. The other perception we should change is that mentorship only benefits the person being mentored. This is perhaps the biggest misconception created by the fact that mentorship relationships have typically been based on an unequal power ratio.  Everyone I know who has enjoyed a powerful mentor-style partnership (whether adult-to-adult or adult-to-youngster) has reported that they grew just as much from the relationship as the mentee did – if not more. This means that we should start viewing and defining mentorship differently. In South Africa we have phenomenal programs that work on this basis; co-mentorship or what some refer to as “thinking partners”. These programs create partnerships that are totally reciprocal and impact both parties equally. One of the most powerful of these is Partners for Possibility which I have mentioned before. They are leaders in this type of thinking as their program partners school principals from some of the poorest schools in South Africa with a business leader, in a mutually beneficial, generative, adult-to-adult relationship. Some of the leaders are active in business currently, others are retired; some are in small entrepreneurial ventures, others in multi-nationals. They come from different departments within businesses, but all share the same passion; to partner with a school principal in a way that facilitates their respective growth as leaders. This last week, Partners for Possibility achieved the remarkable success of being the only South African NGO to be ranked in the top 500 NGO’s in the world in the 2018 Geneva Rankings by the independent group NGO Advisor. They came in at 97 demonstrating the uniqueness and efficacy of this approach. For those of us not involved in business or schools there is our local mentorship program, Bright Stars. This assists adults and youngsters to effectively partner with one another. These youngsters may be ones that you are already in relationship with but that you need support with. You might not be in a partnership with a child currently and would like to be. The program offers comprehensive training and support to both adult and youngster for the length of your partnership – usually 1 year. I extend an invitation to all of you; make 2018 a year in which you partner with someone regardless of age. The contribution you will be making – to yourself, to them and to our nation at large – will be enormous. For more information about Partners for Possibility e-mail and for Bright Stars e-mail Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.  His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.

The Great Matric Lie: A Glimmer in the Darkness

“Dear South Africans, why are we so gullible?  Here goes Minister Angie Motshekga once again leading you by the nose.” Former University of Free State Vice-chancellor Prof Jonathan Jansen responding to the release of the 2017 Matric results.

Each year at this time, we the public face up to the spectacle that has become the announcement of the Matric results; a proxy for the state of basic education in the Republic. It’s become a bit of sport. Forget the boxing day test match; its more like the Matric results tennis match with the Minister serving up ever more creative ways to spin the announcement of the Matric results, and commentators and education gurus like Prof Jansen and Stellenbosch University academic and educational economist Nic Spaull replying with winning returns to prove that she is smoking her socks. It would be rather entertaining were it not for the fact that it’s our children’s lives – and de facto the future of our country – that they are talking about. The devil is in the detail. The Minister tells us that the Matric class of 2017 achieved a 75.1% pass rate. This is true. However, the specialists will reply that this is a desperate attempt to cover up the reality of education in South Africa; there is a crisis of epidemic proportions in our basic education system and we aren’t fixing it quickly or decisively enough to deal with the knock-on consequences including unemployment, poverty and inequality. It is not stretching the point to say that the story behind the Matric results is the story of how and why we are failing to deal with this triad of evils in this country.  This is why Prof Jansen is quoted as saying: “Any government that prides itself on the few that succeed and ignores the many that fall out of the school system has clearly lost its moral bearings.”  He is prompted to make this statement by the fact that over 50% of children who start Grade 1 will not reach Matric; over 645 000 pupils drop out between Grades 1 and 12. What happens to these children? And just as terrifying is the fact that 50% of those who qualify for university will drop out before completing their higher education. What is causing this crisis and what can we do about it? Time and time again it is proved that schools that have strong, passionate, disciplined and principled leadership succeed often in the face of overwhelming hardship. You would be literally blown away if you were to hear the stories of school Principals I have sat and spoken with who defy all odds to produce astonishing results from their kids. But here’s the challenge – how do we create such leaders? The answers may not be ones that we want to hear because it may require something of us: We need to acknowledge that the government does not have the answer here. It is failing. Period. This means that – whilst we must hold government to account – we the citizens of this country must step up in the interests of our children and our nation at large. There are a number of ways we can do this, but I would like to focus on one in this column because it has been proved to be instrumental in fundamentally altering the future of schools and children in our country. It is simple: partner a business leader with a school Principal for a period of 1 year. This hands-on and very simple leadership development approach has been proven both locally and internationally as one of the most effective ways to transform schools and hence the basic education system. In South Africa, the NGO Partners for Possibility is acknowledged to be a leading light globally in this field. Since its launch in 2010, 684 business leaders across the full range of industries and business sizes, have partnered with school Principals for a year. This leadership development exercise at the top of a school has impacted 20 520 teachers and over 547 200 learners nationwide. This extraordinary impact has led to Partners for Possibility being a strong contender for listing in the prestigious “Top 500 NGO’s in the World” ranking due to be announced next week. I want to go at this thing hard because it is a remarkable program that changes lives – and not only the lives of the Principals, teachers and children it impacts, but also the lives of the business partners. If you are a school principal or teacher reading this; if you are a business person who wishes to play a significant role in our country and in children’s lives by using your skills in business, then Partners for Possibility should be top of your new year’s resolution list. (And incidentally, it is not a huge commitment in terms of time.) Partners for Possibility has information sessions coming up in Durban on the 25th January and in Pietermaritzburg on the 26th of January. For details contact Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.

Youth Unemployment: The South African Tragedy

One of the most tragic parts of working in some communities in South Africa is the unemployment that one encounters among the youth.

The tragedy of this phenomenon is given graphic expression when one calls a community meeting for say 10am on a Tuesday and the venue fills up with youngsters mostly around 20 or 30 years of age. They have usually come with two questions in mind: 1) Do you have a job for me and 2) will there be lunch provided? Of course nine times out of ten the answer to both these questions is negative. It is at times like these that my colleagues and I embark on long and usually somewhat fruitless debates on how to create large-scale employment for young people who are short on skills. I mean what can a kid – often with nothing more than a grade 8 or 9 – do for gainful and decent employment? How do you even train such a person? We assume that our oft-quoted expanded unemployment rate of somewhere upwards of 35% means that there are simply no formal jobs available. So we begin looking at alternative options such as litter collection and rock crushing. And then the question becomes – and this is arguably even more challenging for me personally: are we – as citizens of our country – simply meant to sit back and watch as these young people slowly sink into the mire of poverty; turn to substance abuse and perhaps even a life of crime? Is there nothing we can do to arrest this descent? Is there no part we can play – even if it is simply a case of “doing for one what we wish we could do for all.”  Now, regular readers of this column will know not to use the ‘g’ word in my presence! It offends me greatly. This is because when we use the ‘g’ word we are usually shifting total responsibility from ‘I’ to ‘g’. These questions have no easy answers and if our only solution involves invoking the responsibilities of government then we have missed it. Why? Because as I have said in the past, if our democratic government knew what to do about youth unemployment or indeed any other devastating issue on our list of devastating issues, then it would probably do it. This is because results are the best way to win elections. In addition to this, a maturing democracy must see us make the shift in problem solving from the “you” (government must solve all the problems) to the “I” (I will solve all the problems alone – a disease suffered by many NGO’s in our country) to the “we” (we must work together to solve the problems). The thing that we need to get our heads around is that we – i.e. you and me – can be playing a much bigger role in solving youth unemployment than we might think. There are two things we can do immediately that would help move us into the space of the “we “when it comes to helping solve this issue: As I have advocated before, we urgently need adults who are prepared to mentor our vulnerable young people. Mentorship – the simple act of walking the journey of life with a youngster for a short period of time – has been proven to be highly effective in causing children to go on and live happy, functional and productive lives. Just one hour a week with a caring adult is often all it takes to turn a troubled kid’s life around or keep a balanced kid grounded. Simple as that. Secondly – and this can be done as part of your one hour a week – you can teach a young person to ride a scooter or drive a car (if the youngster you are mentoring is of age of course). Youth Unemployment Now, the first part – becoming a mentor – is straightforward. You can sign up to mentor a child on our Bright Stars Mentorship Programme (e-mail or visit for information). The second part is even more interesting. A recent Sunday Times article totally disproved most of what we believe about youth unemployment. According to mobile recruitment start-up Giraffe, there is a serious shortage of motorcycle drivers in South Africa. The same applies to cashiers, hotel/restaurant workers, drivers and call centre staff. Who knew? Now these positions often require nothing more than practical or on-the-job training and then some assistance in getting the young person in contact with companies like Giraffe ( And Bob’s your auntie as they say in the classics. You have helped to reduce the unemployment rate in South Africa by one. Now, I know what you are thinking; what difference will one make? To answer that you simply have to imagine how different your one life would have looked if you had never had a job. Imagine if no one person had ever given you – one person – a break. How different would things have turned out for you?  Having done that, isn’t it time to pay it forward?  Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.   This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.   

Living Extraordinary Lives

Many of you will recall the 1989 movie classic Dead Poets Society. Set in 1959 at an elite and conservative prep school in England, the movie tells the story of John Keating – an English teacher who inspired his students through his unorthodox methods of teaching poetry. The central theme of the movie could be summed up in the teacher’s exhortation to the boys to “make your lives extraordinary” a sentiment he summarised with the Latin exhortation carpe diem – seize the day. In 1989, this movie had deep resonance with me and a close group of good friends at our similarly elite and conservative high school in Johannesburg. At the time in an all-boys South African school, if you excelled at Rugby then you were assured a smooth passage through to matric with an assurance of being a prefect (and probably not a virgin) by the time you reached matric. But alas, my group of friends where no good at rugby and so you can probably guess that our leadership lives (and indeed our love lives) were less colourful than they might have been. In 1989, we were in Standard 9 – or grade 11 as they call it today – and into our lives walked one Roger Lovett, our very own John Keating. He was a teacher of enormous passion whose English lessons were filled with drama and wildness. He was an eccentric chap; portly with a thick mop who wore tweed jackets and owned a Great Dane, inevitably named Hamlet. He broke every rule in the book swearing, talking about sex in a way that mattered to 17-year-old boys and forcing us to reflect on the reality of life outside the safe confines of a mostly white South African private school. The video club he started would find us watching age restricted movies like the harrowing Burt Reynolds classic Deliverance. He started movie and theatre clubs and we would watch, discuss, argue and critique. He pushed us way beyond our 17-year-old selves. The only rule seemed to be that no subject was off limits. Friday evenings would find us at his home debating something-or-other most fiercely whilst eating food cooked by his wife and drinking wine that was most certainly not permitted. In all this, Roger Lovett caused us to believe we could live extraordinary lives. That is the power of great teachers and my friends and I owe a tremendous amount to this one man. I have not kept up with all my pals from our very own Dead Poets Society, but of the ones I am still in touch with, one has become a top lawyer, another an award-winning broadcast journalist, another began a hugely successful chain of restaurants and the other has become an award-winning movie producer. None of these achievements – all so different – should be seen outside of the impact that Roger Lovett had on our lives. You see this teacher gave us all a love for language, art, theatre, movies and reading. But most importantly he taught us how to think. He never allowed us accept the status quo; life as presented by the prevailing dialogue of our time. He never allowed us to regurgitate stock answers fed to us by our parents or the media. He forced us to engage critically with issues that matter. For me – in fact for us all –  this is where it all began; in that classroom, round that dinner table, in those theatres and movie houses. It was a member of this ‘elite group’ – film producer Barry Strick – that got me thinking about Roger Lovett and how desperately we need more of his ilk in our classrooms. Last weekend Strick’s significant and controversial movie “Twee Grade van Moord” (Two Degrees of Murder – subtitled in English) about the topical but thorny issue of assisted suicide, won Best Feature Film and the Audience Choice Award at the important Karoo Arts Festival. It is just the beginning for a much-needed movie that is tipped to go a long way both locally and abroad. Now, I seriously doubt whether beautiful and necessary films like this would ever see the light of day if it weren’t for great teachers like Roger Lovett challenging their learners to push the envelope of extra-ordinary in their chosen fields. We may grow up and move on but their legacy remains throughout lifetimes. I am not sure where Roger Lovett is today but two things I know for sure; the first is that we desperately need more of our teachers to become John Keatings and Roger Lovetts if South Africa is to reach her full potential. Yes, we need our teachers to teach but perhaps more importantly, we need them to inspire our children to extraordinary lives. The other thing I know is that if Roger Lovett was anywhere near Barry Strick at this point, he would grab him by the shoulders and bellow at him: “Well bloody done Strick!” Twee Grade van Moord opens at cinemas nationwide on 22 July. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.

My Holiday – by Paul Gwala’s ‘big brother’

The list of ‘firsts’ for our 22-year-old traveling companion was as lengthy as his first long-distance car journey: He had never in his life been on a holiday – ever. He didn’t know what it meant to be so excited that you battled to sleep the night before your journey. He didn’t know the thrill of being up before dawn, packing up as a family and heading off on an adventure, munching your sarmie and drinking a coffee. He had never been out of Kwa-Zulu Natal let alone into another country. He had of course never needed a passport and were it not for this trip and our rooting through Swaziland to the Kruger National Park, he might never have needed one. He had never seen an expanse of water like Lake Jozini, a landscape as wide as Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal or a sky as blue as the Lowveld on a hot summer day. Many of you will know the privilege of taking a child or indeed an adult on their first holiday; the wonder, the awe, the unfettered joy on their face; seeing a world that is so familiar to you through someone else, is a true blessing. As a family we go to Kruger as often as we can; it is our happy place and we know it extremely well. But through Paul I saw the magnificence of the place afresh as I witnessed it through his virgin eyes: I saw the beauty of an impala as if for the very first time; I laughed out loud at how comical warthogs are and marveled at the size of a giraffe; I willed a cheetah to show off her speed; my eyes grew bigger at the sight of elephants and I longed – longed – to see a lion (and I did!). I had my first ever bush braai off a Skottel braai and my first sundowners by a river. I had the time of my life. Paul is a young man that has been in our life for many years. He calls me his big brother. I have mentored him through our Bright Stars Mentorship Program and I have watched how a young 14-year-old that the system forgot, has turned into a fine young man. I have walked the road of his failure to matriculate and watched as he worked tirelessly to make a real success of an IT apprenticeship, achieving necessary qualifications and clawing his way from a trainee to a junior IT consultant. I know there are many of you who have had similar experiences; you will know that mentoring a vulnerable child is as much a gift to the mentor as it is to the mentee. I have seen how desperate Paul has been to work his way out of shack living in Mayville and into a decent life where he could one day have a wife and children and be able to provide for them. I have sat for hours listening to the specs of every Mercedes Benz on the market; Paul is passionate about Mercedes and his big dream is to one day own one! Yet, he has never seen an Impala. He has never seen a big mountain range. He has never had a picnic out in the wild and he has never had a family that could afford to take him on a holiday. And when he Facebooks his mates to tell them all about his adventure he gets comments like: “Why does this sound like a Grade 8 oral where the kid is lying about what they did on holiday?” Paul is one of millions of South African children and young adults for whom life is a dreamless, colourless, hopeless march to the beat of the drum of poverty. Have you seen an impala Mr Zuma? Have you and your friends been on a holiday? Do you have a decent home where you can have a family and dream about things? Your actions are indefensible not necessarily because they have been proved or disproved by your Secretary General or in a court of law, but because our Pauls live in poverty that disallows them a decent life. This is the true and most devastating fallout from your failure to lead. This is the consequence of your greed. And it’s not just Mr Zuma and his pals who have turned their back on our nation’s impoverished young; we all have to some degree. I feel deeply ashamed about Paul. How can it have taken me nearly 10 years to take him on a holiday? Until every child in this country can be a child; wonder, gasp for joy, jump up and down with excitement; laugh from their belly; go on holiday and see amazing things, then we have all failed. Every one counts. Consider mentoring one of the millions of kids who need to learn to dream again; take a child on holiday if you can – or just to your local beach or bird park; for an ice cream or for a game of Putt Putt (another first for Paul). How can we expect our kids to become productive adults if we don’t love and care for them? It is up to us. For more information on Bright Stars contact