GSB EMBA alumna Shafika Isaacs won double honours at the recent 2017 Women of Stature Award taking home both the Woman of the Year in Education and Overall Woman of the Year awards for her exceptional work in the empowerment of women and the poor through education and technology.
From her earliest memories through the upheaval that was the removal of District 6 residents in the 1970s, Shafika Isaacs has had a passion for education and equality. Witnessing the heartbreak around her, she developed a deep compassion and thirst for change that have guided her in a lifetime of achievement and contribution that was recognised and honoured at the 2017 Women of Stature Awards where she won both the Woman of the Year in Education and Overall Woman of the Year awards.
As a young activist, Isaacs was among the founders of the Bo Kaap Cape Youth Congress, whose flagship initiative was a Primary Schools Tuition project that pioneered community education programmes focused on alternative approaches that challenged Apartheid indoctrination.
“Our motto was ‘Every House a School, Every Table a Desk,’” she smiles. We partnered with communities in Langa and Belville and dock workers in our efforts to build calls unity across the racial divide. This was our approach to creating social cohesion.
She later became involved as researcher and trainer for the burgeoning trade union movement, training hundreds of workers to understand economic and financial concepts to make informed decisions. Her focus was increasingly on women empowerment and strengthening women’s leadership in the union movement. The critical struggle for gender equity and women’s empowerment still sits at the heart of all her endeavours.
Her work contributed to her winning a Mandela Scholarship to Sussex University where she completed an MSc in Science and Technology Policy. Realising that digital technology could be an immensely powerful tool in enabling access to quality education for all, Isaacs’ work now turned to ways to leverage technology to further education and empowerment.
Together with peers she founded the pan-African NGO SchoolNet Africa working in 16 African countries to promote universal access to affordable digital technologies and this propelled her onto the global scene where as part of the leadership team of the World Summit on the Information Society Gender Caucus, she successfully lobbied to include gender equality clauses in the 2003 Declaration of Principles and Platform for Action.
Isaacs continues to work with digital technologies to support community empowerment across the world, fighting for education rights for the poor, and especially for girls.
“Young people are adept at using digital tools, so we are able to harness their creativity to make them more skilled and competent to deal with the bigger problems in their society.”
Driven to develop her own skills, Shafika embarked on an EMBA at the GSB in 2008. “It took me to the next level in engaging with people who think and act in radically different ways from me,” she says. “It reached all my blind spots, shortcomings and limitations on addressing complex issues such as transforming education systems, not just in Africa, but globally. I now have a whole new toolbox with a wide range of tools for any situation across a broad spectrum of different problems. Professor Tom Ryan’s approach in teaching Systems Thinking and Action Learning was particularly impactful and life-changing. It really rattled my cage!”
Her next challenge, she says, will be a PhD at the Soweto campus of the University of Johannesburg, focusing on children in Diepsloot and how they navigate their lives through their challenges.
Completely surprised and overwhelmed by the Women of Stature awards, Isaacs is eagerly using the opportunity as a platform as she always does, to talk about empowering women and the poor through digital technology and education.
“I see the award as an opportunity to highlight the importance of empowering women and engaging with men and boys in a country as wounded as South Africa. It is a launching pad to address deep-seated socio-economic, political and cultural issues, working especially in the interests of the poorer people, pioneering new avenues of innovation to see how we can take forward the struggle for equality for the poor.”
Despite having made progress, she says that there is still, unfortunately, a lot more work to be done. “We are up against deeply embedded cultural mindsets that must be changed through education,” she stresses. “We are confronted with the reinforcement and institutionalisation of privilege from a patriarchal perspective in a society that is endemically and systemically violent, particularly against women, we need to work to raise awareness among men on how to engage with and respect women and that must start with young boys as others have done. We need to grow more women leaders who understand their values and their rights. We need to exploit the avenues that digital technologies open up to achieve this.