Taking The Lead

As an organisation, Salesian Life Choices places great emphasis on the importance of responsible leadership to bring about sustainable change. Three first-year students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) are using the experiences gained at Life Choices to promote change, by competing to be part of the Student Representative Council at their residences.

Cabangile Mdluli (19), Simphiwe Silwana (21) and Zusiphe Sikayi (19) were introduced to Life Choices when they joined the organisations Leaders’ Quest programme at their respective high schools while in Grade 11.

Leaders’ Quest is an intervention that works with Grade 11, 12 and post matric youth from low income communities. It combines academic tutoring, leadership training and experiential activities.

When she initially heard about the programme, she was a completely different person, says Cabangile, currently a first year Bachelor of Social Work student. “I would say I was guarded, I didn’t want anyone to know anything about my background. Sometimes I felt uncomfortable taking part in activities because I thought people would judge me, but I was always motivated by the Life Choices team and it made a huge difference in my life. I believe this year, I ran for Food, Health & Safety representative due to the influence of Life Choices.”

Originally from Gugulethu, Cabingile was awarded a bursary to study and is currently living in the Graça Machel residence. “I decided to change my diet at the beginning of the year and became a vegetarian. One day they ran out of vegetarian options and gave me fried onion and rice for supper. When I questioned them about it they apologised and I submitted a written complaint. When I spoke to other students they told me it was not a new problem and that it had happened to others in the past. I found it disturbing, because no one took a stand against it. I knew only talking about it was not going to bring about change. If I wanted to bring real change, I needed to be part of the decision-making process and be in a position to hold people accountable. I kept hearing the message we were told at Leaders’ Quest: There is a leader inside of all, but only a few are ready. In that moment I knew I was ready.”

For fellow Leaders’ Quest Alumni and first year Bachelor of Law student, Simphiwe from Crossroads, leadership has always been a natural part of his life. Raised mostly by his grandparents and inspired by his grandfather, a pastor in a church, Simphiwe says when growing up he was always aware of inequality because of the charitable work undertaken by his carers. He believes this awareness was the main motivation to join the Leaders’ Quest programme where his natural abilities were refined.

“The greatest aspect of the Leaders’ Quest is the exposure you receive, not only in leadership training and academic support, but also to other cultures, races and beliefs,” says Simphiwe. “In all honesty, when I joined the programme I had set beliefs about certain issues, but I was confronted about it by my peers and the Life Choices team. We spoke about our different opinions without getting defensive. As a group we were always encouraged to be respectful and inclusive. As a leader I believe this is paramount in serving others; to understand others. I learned this while I participated in the programme’s Cultural Exchange. I had the opportunity to spend 24 hours in the home of one of my peers in a community that I had never visited but had made assumptions about. It was enlightening and gave me a great sense of the reality faced by South Africans. For me all of these activities have been paramount in my desire to want to actively contribute to my country.

“The most useful concept I learned through Leaders’ Quest is that you don’t just think out of the box, you move from one box and think in a different box. I always ask myself in which new box I want to be next – it’s all about development. This especially came to mind when I considered running for the Head Student position at the Kopano residence.”

Kopano – a Sotho word for ‘unity’ – inspired Simphiwe’s manifesto that was driven by the campaign’s slogan: If not us – who? If not now – when?

As he sits behind a desk with poise and confidence, Simphiwe adds: “To be part of the student leadership is very important to me because I want to use what I’ve learned to ensure the residence is an inclusive home for all who live there. I’m a true believer in the principle of servant leadership that I learned at Life Choices because I know to make profound change a true leader must serve.”

Simphiwe’s was reminded of this concept when he saw one of his fellow students looking different from the rest of the group one evening in the dining hall.

“Through the training I became both self-aware and aware of those around me. And due to this, inequalities have become more visible. One motivating event was when a fellow student who lived in our res, walked into the dining hall wearing a torn T-shirt – it looked that way because it was old. At that moment I was ashamed, because there was nothing I had done to assist him. I knew I had to do something that allows dignity for all.”

For Leaders’ Quest alumni Zusiphe Sikayi from Nyanga, who is currently studying a BA degree in social work, running for the position of cultural representative at her UCT residence – Varieties – is an opportunity to leave her mark. She says apart from the leadership grooming she received through Leaders’ Quest, the practical skill of public speaking she acquired proved very beneficial.

“I certainly believe that the programme has played a massive role in my leadership skills. When I did my speech, I used all the public speaking techniques we were taught at the Life Choices’ seminar. My confidence was boosted because I had participated in public speaking before so I knew how to prepare and I also knew what to expect,” says Zusiphe.

Cabangile enthusiasticly echoes Zusiphe’s sentiment by adding that addressing a big group of your peers can be daunting.

“Because I had taken part in the public speaking event at Life Choices I was confident when it was time to present my manifesto. I learned that preparing for possible questions and challenges is key to a successful speech. I predicted that a possible challenge would come from the current Health, Food and Safety rep because one of the points in my manifesto is asking people if they wanted someone who was always available for them to speak to. I pre-empted that she may take offense, so I took 100% responsibility – something I learned through the programme – and approached her ahead of time. To my surprise she was very supportive and even helped me with my campaign.”

Mastering skills such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and responsible decision-making, Zusiphe, Simphiwe and Cabangile are all great examples of the future leaders of South Africa. Having all displayed their leadership abilities at high school already, with both Simphiwe and Cabangile being head boy and head girl respectively, they show a leadership style that is nurturing – the only style that can really affect positive change.

Simphiwe became the Head Student at the Kopano residence. Cabangile unfortunately didn’t succeed in her res leadership bid, but she plans to run for other leadership positions on campus. The voting result in Zusiphe’s residence has not been released and she is patiently waiting for the results.

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