Below is Ms Mbanjwa’s speech from our annual Speech Day, which took place last Friday, 5 October:
Thank you for such a gracious introduction. It would be a huge understatement for me to just say that I am honoured and privileged to be here. I receive invitations from around the world to speak, but none of these invitations is more important and more special than speaking in Pietermaritzburg. I know you’ve just heard a glittering introduction but at the beginning and end of it all, I’m just a girl from Pietermaritzburg. It’s lovely to be home.
The other special thing about today is that often, even if it’s not explicitly said, I’m invited to speak about my success…and particularly about my success especially given the fact that I was born into a poor family, raised in one of the poorer parts of our beautiful city, in a place called Eastwood, and even as I broke out of my constraints of being poor, being a woman and a black woman in particular translated into its own type of poverty… and yet here I stand before you. And so there is always the expectation that I will share my story as a means of motivating you, and firing you up, and setting you on your path of changing the world.
Well, today I’m home. And because I’m home I believe that I have the license to put aside the
expectations of what the world thinks speeches like this should be and just be real. Can I be real? I think we might need to check on the pulse of our parents and the teachers to make sure that they are still ok.
So, let’s start with some context. I grew up in Eastwood. I went to primary school at Raisethorpe Primary which today is called Forest Hill. When in 1994 our country embraced democracy, my parents embraced the opportunity to send me to a school previously reserved for white learners only – I found myself just down the road from here at Scottsville Primary. And then I had the privilege of going to Pietermaritzburg Girls High. This is the part of my life story that I would like to share with you today. Like many of you, I wanted to do well academically and to be leader in my school. I went through my five years collecting certificates, awards, badges, scrolls, and leadership titles. By the time I was where you are today, I looked like many of you. My blazer was heavy with recognition, accolade, and
It’s been 16 years since I matriculated, and in that time, I have many opportunities to reflect on the leader that I was when I was in High School. And the beautiful thing about being able to look back and reflect on who you’ve been is that it allows you to see the parts of you that you were blind to in the moment. But even more important is that hindsight also gifts us the opportunity to choose to be different going forward. So today I’m going to share the 4 things that, if I was given the opportunity to go back to grade 8 and redo my five years in High School, that I would do differently.
(1) So here’s my first re-do : If I could do something differently, I would have used my leadership to serve myself less and serve others more.
By the time I was in Matric, I had collected all of the titles and badges that I set my heart on. I was Deputy Head Girl, President of the Debating Society, Head of RCL, part of the Junior City
Council…the list was impressive. As I reflect back to my experience of leadership I realise now that my leadership was more about myself and my titles and less about others.
What does it mean to make leadership about others? It starts with realizing that the weight of the blazer comes with a weight of responsibility to serve. Serving those that you lead literally means putting their dreams and hopes ahead of your own. When you are invited or nominated to lead it’s because others have invited or nominated you. It’s because those you are called to serve have entrusted you with their voice. Those you serve have deployed you to lead in the belief that you will carry their hopes and aspirations…not your hopes and aspirations. So you have to ask yourself when you set your eyes on a leadership position – who am I doing this for?
I joined the Debating society when I was in grade 8, and there I met the girl I wanted to be. She was in Matric, President of Debating and Head Girl, she was brilliant – she wiped the floor with those College Boys. She was hands down the most skilled debater I had ever seen…and I was petrified of her…I wished she would see me and maybe take time to coach me. Just being around her, I knew immediately that I wanted to be President of the society one day, that I wanted to be best debater in Maritzburg, and that I wanted to wipe the floor with College boys! When I was grade 11 – I became her. I clinched the title and the badge…but when I look back at what I did with that leadership I now realize that I became in more ways than one. I was so fixated on me and my team being the best that I didn’t see or serve the people who had sent me to lead. I didn’t mentor or coach younger girls. It was
all about me.
I now know that real leaders don’t use leadership to serve themselves. In fact they realize that the measure of servant leadership is how many more people become leaders because of you.
And so want to leave you with a question: Who are you doing this for? Who have you served and who do you serve through your leadership?
(2) Here comes redo number 2: If I could do something differently, I would use my leadership to stand for something.
I believe that schools and education should give all girls the critical thinking skills that make us more politically aware. I believe that schools and classrooms should be the place where we challenge society, where challenge politics, where we challenge universal truths, where learn to exercise our muscles of standing up for what is right… where we learn to stand for something.
When I started High School, it had just been 4 years since democracy in South Africa. My family and I had had first had experience of the political violence of the late 80s, we knew what it was like to run out of a home that has just been torched, we knew what it was like to sleep in the bush for weeks, we knew what it was like to have to be smuggled from one place of safety to another. And because of this very personal political experience, I have immense respect for girls who in this school actively participate in the Courageous Conversations series and use this space to speak up against racism, discrimination and a range of other social ills don’t only find expression in schools but become templates for the societies we live in. When I look back at my own journey I realize that even though the times were quite different, even then, where we used our voices as leaders in the school it is was always to stand up against something.
Having reflected in this I now realize that it wasn’t enough then and it isn’t enough now to just be against something. It just isn’t good enough. We need to move beyond being against things to being for something. Using your voice for something pushes you to acknowledge and accept responsibility for bringing about the change that you believe is right. That is leadership. Accepting responsibility to be part of the solution isn’t easy. You may not know where to start, you may not know what you need to do…but, if nothing else, start with standing for something.
So here’s my question to you: What do you use your leadership voice for? What are you standing up for? And what are you doing about it?
(3) My redo number 3: If I could do something differently, I would remember that leaders are also human and allowed to ask for help.
I’m a huge fan of Brené Brown. She is a research professor and she does a lot of interesting work understanding courage, shame, and vulnerability. One of the things that Brené says is that as human beings we often struggle to ask for help for the things we really need help on because we are ashamed of exposing our nakedness and our need. I like to think of it as the “Soup Kitchen Syndrome.” At the first primary school I went to, children who were so poor that they didn’t have lunch were invited to the collect a cup of soup and two slices of bread at break. I always suspected that there were more kids running around with grumbling stomachs than were standing in the Soup Kitchen line – ashamed of being poor and ashamed of being hungry.
My own Soup Kitchen Syndrome followed me all the way to high school. As part of the leaders of the prefects I remember being required to attend late afternoon meetings and represent the school at dinners and other evening engagements. I would get such anxiety about this commitments because we often didn’t have a car at home and when we did, we had to be very mindful of how the petrol was used because it had to last until my dad’s next pay day, and more often than not when we risked there was always the bigger risk that the darn thing might not start when we need to leave. And so I would try to avoid evening activities unless absolutely necessary. I chose to hide my shame of being poor instead of just asking for help. When I could have arranged for a lift or a sleep over at another girl’s house I just didn’t.
Many of you will go on to become high flying women in the corporate world. The world will try to tell you that successful women have it all and do it all – all by themselves. That is a load of …insert your own swear word. I have come to learn that asking for help is not a weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows that you recognize that there are other people around you who know more or have more of what you need, that you are able to put aside your pride and ego, to see value in others, and just ask. When you don’t ask for help – you don’t get help – and you stand stock still. What will take for you to ask for help?
(4) This is redo number 4: if I could do something differently, I would remember that just because it doesn’t have a trophy, it doesn’t mean its not leadership.
As I was preparing for today I started thinking about how some of us got caught up in the belief that the things that are not publicly rewarded do not have value. Exactly one year and one week ago on this day – I lost my Mom. When my mother was approaching 50, she took a decision to go back to school, to complete her education, and to train towards become a
teacher. She was convinced that her life purpose was to teach… She went back to grade 10 and completed grade 10, 11, and 12 over two years. At 50 she matriculated and at 53 she had her teaching degree. At 54 she started teaching for the first time in her life – at Eastwood Primary School.
I’m often asked about which leader in the world do I look up to most and why. My answer is always the same. My mother. My mother didn’t wait for a badge or a title to exercise her leadership in her own life and in each everyone us in the family. My sister is here with me today. She can attest to the fact that, my mother was a leader that never at any point looked for external recognition and never looked for platforms. Because of her, I now understand that leadership has got nothing to with public recognition and that true leadership starts with self-leadership…an absolute clarity of what your life’s purpose is and living it every day of your life for yourself and in service of others.
The last thing that I’d like to talk to you about is something that I can’t call a redo because I simply didn’t have the experience of it in high school – though I have it now. Leaders don’t “sit this one out.” We often, myself included, turn a blind eye and sit things out that we know are wrong but just seem too much of an ask for us to get involved…especially if the outcome of these inconvenient experiences don’t impact us directly. Our privilege sometimes gives us a false sense of able to sit things out. Leaders that have the benefit of privilege use their privilege to enhance their leadership not to take away from it. I’ve recently had the opportunity to go to Oxford Business School on a leadership course. One of the things I’ve walked away with from this experience is this: Ultimately the world’s greatest leaders have one thing in common. Whether we’re talking about Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Malala Yousafazai… they are not greatest because they had the best opportunities or went to the best schools, they are world’s greatest leaders because they good people. So one of the
questions I’m wrestling with is how do I use my privilege to be an even better person. I’d like to leave that challenge with you.
I hope that you will walk away challenged today. I hope that the questions I’ve asked have made you uncomfortable. I hope that as you work your way through them, you may find the courage to be an even better leader than you were yesterday. Thank you for having me.