Phenomenal Woman: CEO of Save the Children SA – Gugulethu Ndebele

Gugulethu Ndebele is CEO of the Save the Children South Africa. Before that, she was Deputy Director General in the Department of Basic Education.  Gugulethu started in Education as a Director for Adult Basic Education and went on to work with FET Colleges and finally on School Enrichment Programmes in school health, safety, school nutrition and others.

“It is this experience that made me realise that we need to stop viewing children as different parts, but rather as holistic individuals who require a holistic approach,” she says.

Her experience and knowledge in the education sector along with her robust work in the development sector was recognised in 2016 when she was appointed Vice-Chair of the Executive Management Bureau of the UNESCO Global Alliance for Literacy. In 2017, she was appointed by the Minister of Basic Education to be a Literacy Ambassador in recognition of her work in promoting reading.

Gugulethu spoke to us about her road to success, which has evidently been decorated by interesting positions around her passion!

1. So who are you, and what made you who you are?

I was born in Mofolo North many, many moons ago. I was raised in a loving and nurturing family.  As the only girl and being the last born, I was spoilt with love.  I was the apple of my brother’s eye, such that when he passed away, I thought my life had come to an end.  Even though we were only two (biologically) at home, I have always had many brothers.  My home was open to anyone who needed a home or shelter.  As a result I have been blessed to have many brothers who continue to look out for me.

I was raised by the most amazing woman.  She was a community nurse, a community worker, an activist, and mother to many.  I think she is the one who instilled the values of care and nurture in me. I learnt from her that our purpose in life is to give and care for those in need.  Most importantly, she instilled in us the importance of education and reading.

I am a single mother of three beautiful children who centre me and give me perspective. I can only hope that I give them at least half of what my mother gave me.

I am a proud Inanda Seminary girl and went on to obtain, amongst other qualifications, an MSc in Organisational Change and Development, MAP from Wits Business School and a Post Graduate Diploma in Adult Education.

2. What does your current job/ career entail?

am currently the CEO of Save the Children South Africa.  Save the Children is a child rights organisation that believes every child, regardless of their circumstances, deserves a future. In SA and around the world, we give children a healthy start in life, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm. We do whatever it takes for children – every day and in times of crisis – transforming their lives and the future we share. 

As a CEO, my role is to ensure that the organisation delivers on this promise to children.

3. What made you choose this particular career?

I have always been passionate about literacy and development.  Having started in Adult Education, I realized that by the time we deal with them as adults, the horse has already bolted. I feel the same about our obsession with Matric results.  I realized then that the best way to eradicate adult literacy is to provide children with quality education and care.  Secondly, my experience of working in government, where services of children operate in silos, I felt it is important to unite various sectors in society to not divvy up services to children but to rather see children as holistic beings with a multitude of needs but who require an integrated response.  This is one of the reasons I was drawn into the development sector and where I hope to make a lasting impact.

And like I said, having been raised by a woman who was a community activist, I realized that I can only make a difference if I am an activist for children.

After serving in the Department of Basic Education as Deputy Director, I felt the time had come to serve children more directly and use my experience to unite various sectors in society so we can deliver effectively for children. Save the Children SA provides me with the platform to change the lives of children in a meaningful way. It is my aim at Save the Children to make a lasting impact in the lives of children wherever they are, whatever their circumstances.

Secondly, I have always believed in the potential of people.  That, given a chance and opportunities, we can all succeed, or at least our chances of success will be that much better. And so for me being a mentor to young people and opening up spaces and opportunities for them gives me joy.

4. What are some of the great things about it?

The greatest thing for me about what I do is I get to see the changes in the lives of the children we touch.  I get to see the resilience of children, who smile and persevere in spite of the daily challenges they face and I get to experience their innocence and unconditional love. It saddens me greatly that we take away that innocence.

My most precious and memorable moments are when I visit our ECD Centre in Stjwetla, Alexandra Township. It is situated within the informal settlement along the Juksei River and is surrounded by squalor and abject poverty. And yet, as you go inside you are confronted by the smiles, joy, innocence and hope of little children. Happy to play with me and hug me in spite of their surroundings and circumstances. I always feel proud that I am part of an organisation that tries to reach children wherever they are and whatever their circumstances. That Centre provides some hope and respite for those children, I have been privileged to see the Centre grow and to see our children proceed to primary school with a better chance of succeeding. Those moments never leave me. Every time I feel like the world is unfair to me and feel sorry for myself, I think about those children and their lot…then my own drama and struggles pale in significance compared to those children….and yet they continue to laugh and play…

I am proud of the team we have at Save the Children South Africa. I work with amazing people who wake up every day to be in service of children.  Working in an NGO is not easy. You are always stressing about funding and resources, and yet these colleagues continue, dedicated, focused and driven, to make a difference.  It is important for me as their leader to allow them the creative freedom to innovate ideas and to provide them with the visionary framework to maximise their skills within the organisation.  In 2017, and in spite of our challenges, through our diverse, innovative programmes, we were able to reach 84,638 children and 112,048 people overall.

5. What are the challenges?

The biggest challenge is that the onslaught against children continues unabated.  Every day we read about the violation of children, even in spaces where they should be safe, yet the system seems to continuously fail them. How is it possible that in 2018 we still have children dying of preventable diseases? How is it possible that in 2018 in South Africa, we still have children who fall into pit latrines at school and die such an undignified death? How is it possible that in 2018 we still have children being sexually violated on a daily basis by the very people who are supposed to protect them? How do we allow that as a society?

The other challenge we face is that of funding. Like many NGOs we rely on society and private sector for funding and it is quite challenging. However, I am always amazed at the generosity of South Africans and their love for children. Unfortunately, given the failures in the system, we will always need more.

6. What advice/lessons can you give others on what they can do to reach the top? Any words of wisdom?

I am a firm believer in lifelong learning.  I believe that there are no shortcuts to the top. Knowledge and continuous learning is key.  I always tell people that my greatest attribute is my ability and willingness to learn. I use every opportunity to learn and I learn all the time.

Secondly, there is no substitute for time.  If you want to be the best, you need to serve the time.  Some of the solutions to the challenges you encounter are not in management books, but come through experience. 

Thirdly, and linked to previous points, surround yourself with good people, who you can learn from and who will challenge you.

Be kind to yourself.  Life will always happen to all of us, take it in your stride and protect yourself.  It is tough at the top

Lastly, READ….READ…READ….

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