Nelson Mandela once famously said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” Prof. Shirley Zinn not only conquered her fear but also got back up repeatedly with Rugged Resilience and lasting impact and success. In this conversation, she shares her personal and professional story, a fatal car crash and losing her only child, Jamie, and why Mandela’s leadership is an “unfinished business” and matters today more than ever. Tune in and be reminded why and how there is no easy way up; stop glossing over the grit; vulnerability is a strength. Lean into our story, own it, and rewrite the end of our story. We have that power if we so choose.
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‘Swimming Upstream and Rugged Resilience” with Prof. Shirley Zinn in South Africa
Reckon, Rumble, and Revolt: Own Our Stories and Rewrite the Ending
In this episode, our thoughtful world leader joins us from the Southern tip of the African continent and one of the world’s best-voted cities in Cape Town, South Africa. She empowered herself through education. She uplifted herself from a poverty-stricken druglord area in the Cape Flats and Cape Town to Harvard University to get a Doctorate in Education.
Her bestselling autobiography, Swimming Upstream, chronicles her personal and professional journey from teacher to university professor to high powered Executive looking after Human Capital and Board member of multiple Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) listed boards, a nonprofit, academic advisory Boards, and a Board chair. She is a multiple award-winning businesswoman and has completed nine half marathons.
Stay with us as she shares more about her personal and professional story, Swimming Upstream and Rugged Resilience, a fatal car crash, losing her only child, Jamie, and why Mandela’s leadership is “unfinished business” and matters nowadays more than ever. Her message and compelling insights on Rugged Resilience are a personal gift, not only to you but to me. Many of you know I’m on a Cancer Cure Plan for Stage 3 stomach cancer.
In case you’re wondering why I look slightly different in this introduction, and the leadership wrap at the end of this interview, this was completed before my chemotherapy treatments and subsequent hair loss. As we navigate these tough challenges together, you and me, her insights are a constant reminder of Mandela’s once-famous quote, “The courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” We warmly welcome my triumphant friend, Professor Shirley Zinn, to the show.
Shirley, what a great honor. It’s lovely to see you. I miss being with you and your beautiful home in FishHoek, South Africa. A warm welcome. It’s lovely to have you as part of this conversation. (Editor’s note: Fish Hoek is a coastal town at the eastern end of the Fish Hoek Valley on the False Bay side of the Cape Peninsula in Cape Town)
Thank you so much. I am honored, humbled, and excited to be part of this work. I’m blown over by the fact that we can talk about leading boldly and reflect on Mandela’s leadership lessons. I love the background with beautiful Cambridge, where I spent four more years at Harvard. Thank you for having me.
It’s such a pleasure. That’s a beautiful place to begin. I know you started your early career in education. You went to the University of the Western Cape. You became a teacher. You went from the University of the Western Cape to Harvard, where you earned not only a Master’s in Education but also a Ph.D. An excellent starting point is: what is the role of formal education in your life? Why is that important? After that, I know you’ve held many senior positions in academia. Why the journey from from the University of the Western Cape to Harvard and then back to senior positions with the University of Pretoria, Cape Town, etc?
Thank you so much. It’s such a great starting point for this conversation. I’ll take you back to my very first conversations as a young child living on the Cape Flats in challenging socioeconomic circumstances surrounded by poverty, unemployment, inequality, and every possible socioeconomic challenge one can face around gangsterism, gender-based violence, and very little hope and mountains of despair. My dad started a conversation with my sister and me. My sister is younger than I am.
He told me at a very early age, “Please make something of yourself. Please do not get stuck in this place. We know that this is all that we can offer you now, but we also know that you have the potential to lift yourself and do something quite different.” He didn’t use fancy words like vision, targets, etc. My parents did not finish high school, but they somehow understood the importance of education. He said to me, “All we are asking you is to graduate from high school. You’ll be able to find a decent job.”
Can you paint that picture for our audience? Tell them a little bit about the Cape Flats and the significance of that and also the context of the Cape Flats. Growing up as a beautiful colored woman (mixed race), what was the complexity? Can you paint that picture a little more for us?
Cape Flatsa is a particular apartheid structure based on the Group Areas Act. It’s a fundamental construct in the apartheid ecosystem. My dad lived in a place called District 66. They were forcefully moved from the 66. These special arrangements on the Cape Flats were to ensure that people of color were in areas that were isolated and very poorly resourced. Houses and frameworks would not withstand the intense weather that came off the ocean. The grass doesn’t grow in this place. It’s miles and miles of concrete blocks with tens of thousands of people plugged into it.
They are not allowed to move from one area to the next without special documentation and permission to go into certain places, not White places. It was a vital part of the infrastructure and the design of cities and towns to keep people divided based on color lines. When I was born in 1961, these places were established and entrenched. It is now 2023. It’s 62 years later. It is in a much more complex area because of the country’s high unemployment and the economic challenges that go with it. It covers a good few hundred kilometers. It’s a place where people are jam-packed into an environment that can only lead to despair and hopelessness. For one to unleash oneself from that, there needs to be something special that will enable one to liberate oneself from that.
How old were you when you and your dad had that conversation? What was the lightbulb moment for you?
I was probably about six years old. It was in my first year of primary school. He told me, “I needed to get to matric (Editor’s note: matric is the final year in high school),” twelve years later.
It’s right after school.
It’s a significant milestone for girls coming from these areas with so much gender-based violence, teenage pregnancy, and all of the things that go with it. It’s a hard ask. It might sound like, “It’s just high school,” but it was challenging to try and even conceptualize that they would be a part, for me, out of that place.
What was the a-ha moment? What shifted your mindset from hopelessness and despair into, “Yes, I can?”
I will come to the conversations with my mom because they were parallel conversations. He would tell us, “We didn’t finish our education, but we believe that if you continue to learn, you will be able to lift yourself, extract yourself from this place, and find a better life for yourself and those around you.” That was my a-ha moment. That is why I come back to what Nelson Mandela said about education being the most important weapon you can use to change the world because it is life-changing. I’m loving evidence of that.
That was the a-ha moment. That was when I was probably 6 or 7 years old. A little buzz started in me, saying, “This is what you must do. This is going to be your journey.” I took it quite literally. When I speak to people, I say, “It doesn’t necessarily have to result in a whole line of academic qualifications, but continuous learning is empowering, enriching, and uplifting.” It’s essential for you to change your life and to change the lives of others around you. In the spirit of our South African (world-renowned) constitution, ‘to create a better life for all‘ was messaged at a very young age. I ran with it. For me, that was the light. That was the beacon that kept me going.
What action steps did you take? You’re six years old. Please share with us some practical action steps you took on that incredible journey from six to Harvard. That’s a long way. What steps did you take as a six-year-old to make that light shine bright and make it a reality?
I want to touch on what my mom used to do. My mom was about values. Every day, it was about, “You have to respect people. You have to remain humble. You mustn’t lose touch with who you are and where you’ve been and come from, even though your future can be different from your past, and your past doesn’t have to determine your future.” She didn’t have refined language like that but had simple ways of saying this. She used to say, “You have to work hard, but you have to do it very well.” She didn’t use words like excellence and make excellence a habit, but she said that because it’s good to work hard even if you’re not doing it exceptionally well. She said, “You don’t have to be perfect either.” Do everything you do to the best of your ability.
Another thing I will share with you is that she said to be kind, generous, and of loving service to others. If you do these things, you will have a better life than if you don’t. The vision and values messages, combining the two, gave me purpose. These few messages that I’ve got from both parents were the things that pushed me along. We were going to primary school. I was responsible for my younger sister. We tried to walk up a road to a school that was hugely unsafe for young girls to be walking.
We had to go live with my grandmother for a couple of days in the week and on weekends. I learned about discipline, determination, intelligence, and focusing on getting things done. I’m grateful to my grandmother. When we got to South Peninsula High, I was excited when I finally got to matric (final year in High school). I always worked hard and tried my best to get the best academic results I could, bearing in mind what my mother told me about giving up your best and not being perfect. I was not an A student.
The lights went up, shining bright years. It was a constant hard work for me. In the middle of my matric (final year in High school) year, there were two teachers. They sat me down and said, “You’re not the brightest being in the pod academically, but you have the potential to do much more than you think you’re capable of doing.” I was like, “What do you want me to do?” He said, “Go home and talk about university with your parents.” Understand that universities are not in our worldview or framework. It’s not something we understood. Nobody has been there before, but we did know it would cost money and take time.
My parents said, “If your teachers think you can do this, maybe you should try. You’ll still come home and do your chores. You will get a weekend job because we have very little and everybody helps. We are expecting you to go to work after the high school.” I went back the next day. These teachers helped me to fill in my forms. I got a government bursary.
The goal was to be a teacher only because that resonated with me the most. I had all but five minutes to think about it. It was a five-minute conversation with teachers, which I’m grateful for because it changed the trajectory of my life forever. I’m trying to share this power of education with people. I went to the University of the Western Cape. I have a BA and a Higher Diploma in Education. I majored in English, Latin, and Sociology. I was the only person in the Latin class.
That’s an achievement.
I love the idea of studying. I enjoyed the explorations, the reading, and the richness of it all. In 1980, we had this vast national uprising in education. I was a UWC (University of the Western Cape) student. It was an immense learning for me in terms of connecting the dots between the politics of the day, which is South Africa’s apartheid, education, my economic situation, and what the potential future could look like for a person like myself.
I became involved in student activism then, and the campus closed because there was too much student protesting. My parents said, “This is not what we signed up for before. We are sorry, but you must find a job.” I canceled my bursary. I canceled my registration for our first year. I went to look for a job and did a few interviews. After a few months, I didn’t get anything. By September of that year, I returned to the university to plead for them to undo or ‘cancel my (student registration) cancellations.’
How did you tell your parents apart from the university? I’m curious how you manage your parents in that equation.
They saw that I tried to go for interviews. They saw that I made an effort. I had to plead with them and say, “I want to give this a go. Can I go back? Is it okay?” They saw the passion, and when I didn’t land the job. That is tough. Many people are unemployed in this country. Imagine picking yourself up from going literally door to door, finding nothing, and then going back with your tail between your legs to your parents, “I haven’t been successful with the job search. Maybe I need to return to university, and I will succeed after that.”
That was the big thing; the pressure was on because I couldn’t disappoint them now. I’ve got this support again. I managed to persuade the university to change their minds. Somehow, it was a vast current issue and model. There were lots of students in a predicament at the time. I was driven to finish because this was a considerable commitment and wasn’t only about me. It was about my family. It was about the support they had given me, and I wouldn’t disappoint them.
When I finished the Higher Diploma in Education, I went, as prescribed by the government bursary conditions, to teach for four years (four years of teaching to repay a four-year bursary). I went to teach English in a school on the cusp of another part of the Cape Flats called Hanover Park. It’s a tough place, with poor children, poor communities, punishing gangs, alcohol, drugs, and other things. They come to school without any food in their stomach. I’m trying to teach them English.
It was a fantastic time. There was another massive uprising in education in my four years at the school. This time, I was a teacher and a custodian of children’s lives, safety, and well-being. It taught me so many lessons. That was a pivotal uprising in education for South Africa and its democratic future. It was a leapfrog moment for the country and its move toward democracy. We were excited to be part of that as an educator. (Editor’s note: On 20 July 1985, President PW Botha declared a state of emergency in 36 of the country’s 260 magisterial districts. The apartheid state used Declarations of Emergency to crack down against opponents at times of heightened resistance. Police could detain anyone for alleged public safety reasons without appeal to the courts. Also, meetings and gatherings were often banned. Thousands were detained. A few months later, the State of Emergency was extended to the Western Cape. On 15 October 1985, members of the security forces shot and killed three young people who were part of anti-government demonstrations. On the day of the incident, Security and Railway police worked together to crush a gathering of youth who were protesting against the apartheid government)
What year was that?
That was 1985. I was in my second year of teaching. Teachers formed Solidarity groups around the cause and how we would protect our school and children. There were police coming onto the school grounds with batons to come and arrest children. Sometimes, they didn’t come to school to find where they were gone home because they’d been arrested or been scared to move from whatever they were.
For me, that was the goal of the horrors of apartheid. What did that do to people in terms of anxiety, fear, pain, and incarceration, being infected on people who are trying to get an education and get on with their lives? We still tried to thrive and grow under those difficult circumstances. I had to work hard to contribute to this cause because it was not sustainable for us to continue in this inhuman way and treat people in the way that the police were treating those children.
I was emotional during the time we were involved. I got suspended from teaching during that time. There was a disciplinary inquiry because I refused to follow the Education Act. Fortunately, in Cape Town at the time, probably about 79 other teachers were taking the same stance. We were all suspended leaders.
What were you opposing?
The Underbelly of South Africa’s Apartheid.
They were forcing us to do a final year exam when the children had not been to school for three months and had been chased during political protests, threatened, hurt, and put into jail. Some of them went to hospital. Some of them couldn’t go home. They were afraid of walking down the streets or even coming to school. It’s not right that people be subjected to a final exam. They were forcing the final exam because it would bring some order so that they could control the situation again.
We said, “We’re not doing that.” They said, “If you don’t, it will be a breach of your contract and legislation.” The inspector sat at the school and said, “You’ve got 3 or 4 hours to come and sign a form to say you will comply. If you don’t comply, you will be given a suspension date.” That’s what happened. The suspension went on until the end of 1987. The government required four years from me by this time, and I had left. I returned to school to study and continue to teach where I could.
A lot of subversion happened then because we couldn’t tolerate that behavior. It gave you the underbelly of this horrible thing called apartheid in different ways. It had to be opposed. Everything we did through our curriculum, teaching, and work in the community was the overlay for everything we did. That part of being an educator was a critical part of my journey. I was also committed to further studying.
While teaching, I was doing an Honours degree through UNISA (the University of South Africa). I figured, “I can do one degree. I’ll do another one.” I paid for myself through my teaching. I was studying part-time through UNISA. I got an Honours degree at the beginning of 1988. At the beginning of 1988, I moved from the school to the University of the Western Cape to become a lecturer in Education. It is interesting how that panned out. It was also in 1988 when I met Kevin (my life partner and husband).
I knew him because he was a prominent athlete at school, but I’ve never known him in that (romantic) way. 1988 was a pretty pivotal year for me. I was at the University of the Western Cape. I was in the education faculty. I was there for ten years as a lecturer, teaching, educating, and licensing teachers to teach. While there, I decided, “While I’m at a university now, I can do a Master’s.” I did a Master’s in Adult Education at the University of the Western Cape while lecturing.
Kevin’s press clipping one day changed everything. He still cuts things from the newspaper in case I forget to read it. He came home with this Harvard South Africa Fellowship, now open for application, a tiny little ad in the newspaper. I was blown away. He said, “I think you need to look at this.” I asked, “Do you think I could ever go to Harvard?” He told me, “If you don’t apply, you will never know.”
That’s an efficient, practical response.
He was terrific. Sometimes, other people believe in us before we believe in ourselves. It was a massive thing for me to grasp because it is Harvard. Five people were sent to Harvard from South African Fellowship every year from South Africa. You have to get through all the hurdles to get into the specific programs, but they would support you financially for that particular period of the program. I went for a very intimidating interview. I didn’t think I was going to make it. I was excited about it, and I’ve been successful.Sometimes other people believe in us before we believe in ourselves. Click To Tweet
Myself, along with four others in 1990, went to Harvard. I was at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I did the second Master’s. I was about to finish the one and teach the other. What a fantastic experience to study, love, and be part of this bustling academic community. I love libraries. I loved Harvard Square and the intellectual challenge of just being there.
You went there for a PhD.
I had this wonderful supervisor, Chukwudi. He told me, “You need to do the doctoral program.” I said, “No. I need to go back home. I left Kevin in Cape Town for a whole year.” There’s no email or WhatsApp. Nothing but snail mail and long-distance phone calls that I can’t afford. He said, “You still need to apply. You plan now, and you can go and come back.” I said, “I don’t have a scholarship.” He said, “You worry about that once you are in.” He is a fantastic person.
I learned all of that. It’s essential to surround yourself with people who can inspire, uplift you, and allow you to see the things you might never have imagined. He coached me and helped me to fill in my forms. As you know, it’s not a formulation exercise. There are a lot of presentations you have to do and a lot of a lot of activity and hurdles involved. It’s a global competition. All the time, the back of my mind was, “I don’t have the money to do this. What am I going to do?” I managed to get through it all. I got into the Doctor of Education. I did my Doctorate in Anti-Racist Education. It was not easy to write because it was all of my experience over all the years that went into this doctorate.It's so important to surround yourself with people who can inspire and uplift you. Click To Tweet
You are bringing your South African experience of this complicated, traumatic relationship between the apartheid government and the educational process in South Africa.
It’s all documented. I graduated in 1997. It was post-1994 when our democratic dispensation was given birth to. We had the excellent leadership of Nelson Mandela to take us forward. It was an exciting time. All I wanted to do was to finish, come back, and start to make a difference. The exciting thing was when I finished my Master’s at Harvard and was in the process of the doctoral application; I managed to get in. I went home, and I sat down with Kevin one night. I said, “Wouldn’t you like to come with me to Harvard?”
I was worried he would say no, but he is fantastic. He said, “I’ll go with you.” He gave up his job. He sold his motorbike and music record LPs. He came on this unknown journey into a foreign country with me. I am grateful to him for that because that was a pivotal moment for us. We battled financially quite a bit. In my first year of my doctorate, I was trying to be a graduate assistant in different places. I was at the international office. I was a graduate assistant.
Eventually, I became a teaching fellow at Harvard. That helped. I got to a point where I was behind with my rent payments. This is where humility matters. I went to financial aid, and you said, “I can’t pay. I’m in trouble.” They said, “We can see that. What’s your plan?” I said, “I think I have to go home. I don’t think we can continue.” They looked at my results and said, “If you could produce results like this and continue to do this, we will assist you. You’re going to come here every six months. We’re going to have a conversation about your performance and your results. We’ll support you that way and give you three teaching fellowships.” That was the way I was able to do the doctorate.
They gave you the teaching fellowships that provided the income to pay.
Yes. Also, independent tuition. I got to work with three excellent professors in all their programs. They paid my tuition, and I was able to finish. If that wasn’t enough, we gave birth to Jamie (our son) in 1995 during the doctorate. I started in ‘93, graduated in ’97, and had Jamie in 1995. I have this huge emotional connection with Cambridge and Harvard because he was “a Harvard baby.”
That has another pivotal, very traumatizing life. You wrote the best-selling book Swimming Upstream about your personal and professional journey. Do you want to share something about Jamie and his significance in your life?
Swimming Upstream is dedicated to Jamie and the life of Jamie. We were excited to have a little boy. Everybody had seen me walking around Harvard, being pregnant, and having this baby. We had so much support and love. By the time I graduated and we went home, everybody was excited for us to come back.
Jamie – A Harvard Baby.
We lost Jamie in a terrible car accident. He was seven years old. We had a wonderful Christmas with family in Cape Town. We were driving back to Johannesburg.
On January 3, 2003, a sunny Friday afternoon, somebody bumped us from behind. We lost Jamie on the scene. It was touch and go (for me) for 24 hours. They didn’t know what I would do, and they didn’t know whether to tell me or not. Kevin was seriously injured, but he had to see about everything from thereon because I couldn’t do anything. I had severe injuries and took a long time to recover.
I will always be broken. Without those seven years of Jamie’s life, for which I’m deeply grateful, our lives had been very different. I wrote the book because he inspired me to continue the work that I was doing. Even though he was our only child, and it was devastating. I had to find a way to pull together my intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual being, and I had questions. I had to say, “You’re going to have to pull yourself out of this because you need to move forward. There’s work to be done. There is a reason why all of this had to happen in the way that it did. You are your purpose.”
I learned I needed to live with purpose and meaning far more deliberately than I had until then. That devastation, loss, and grief took me to a special place where I wanted to make a difference in the lives of as many children and people as possible through education, my story, and my journey. Anybody I can inspire. Choose one person every day. It would have made all of this worth it.
That’s such a moving story. It’s so hard to imagine. What was you’re a-ha moment in that very dark place? In pulling yourself together and moving forward, what were the steps that you took that helped you pivot out of that despair?
I cannot describe the depth of despair. There are lots of people who have lost loved ones during COVID-19. Grief is real, raw, and painful. Things like this can happen to you. I use a studio platform also to encourage everybody who has suffered loss, who has been very ill and worried about their mortality, to say that we need to support each other. We need to care for each other a little bit more. We need to show a little more empathy, generosity, and kindness.Anybody can inspire. Choose one person every day. Click To Tweet
Those people who were around us that uplifted and inspired us are the people we must deliberately surround ourselves with and say: “I’m not the only one going through a crisis. We must be more deliberate in spending time with those who will take us forward.” As we know, we need to seek help with emotional well-being challenges.
You did this then with your family, parents, and former teachers. Can you take us through specifically what you did in that moment that helped you move beyond that depth of despair? Who were the people you surrounded yourself with?
Those are the people mentioned. My parents, who were all devastated too, my sister, Kevin, the extended family, and good friends. I have best friends from my primary school days that I’m still connected with. They all rallied and supported me in the quiet, dark, and profound moments when you can go down a little slippery slope. I reflected on my journey. I reflected on my hard work at Harvard and all my opportunities.
I studied a lot of psychology. I knew I could do this. I did go to work sooner than I should. After a few weeks, I realized doing that was a terrible idea, but we also had empathetic people at work. I got to a point where I realized that my understanding of psychology is quite different when you go to work on yourself, your inner dynamics, what goes on in your soul, and in the depths of your heart when you are in deep despair.
I realized I needed help because I could not do this alone. Kevin and I went for some counseling sessions. After the third session, I realized you must pull yourself out of this. Why do you have all of these wonderful people around you? Inside yourself, you have to find the strength, resilience, and courage to say, “I’m not good to go down too deep because the deeper I go, the more difficult it is to get out.”
It’s easy to slide because this is devastating, but I said, “I will lift myself up.” It’s every day because every day I think about Jamie. I wonder what he would be like. When I felt down, I went to schools. I spoke to some schoolchildren, and I felt uplifted. If I could have planted a seed in one person to say, “You might be in a difficult place now, but you have got so much potential and so much to do,” that would have been incredibly fulfilling for me. It’s the combination of other people and your internal work that you need to do. It’s been intentional. You have to intentionally lift yourself up every day and do the things that will continue to fulfill you.
That is what’s essential in all of this because sometimes you can get caught up in the routines. I try to go back to work. Maybe that would be a gift, but it doesn’t work. It’s not sustainable, not until you’ve dealt with it. Sometimes, getting up onto platforms like I did and trying one step at a time is tough. Sometimes I battle with that. I’m also willing to share it for what it might mean to another person: “You’ve been there, and you are living proof that there is a way to navigate every day and not be necessarily successful but enabled to do what you need to do.”
That’s very powerful. It sounds like there were apparent actions you took. Sometimes, stepping out of this moment of despair and going through that internal process, but also taking action that will move you forward and acting in ways that will support and uplift you. At that time, and I’m curious, you went to work too early. You returned and spent more time supporting, working, and processing stuff within yourself. What action steps did you finally take that helped you lift yourself up and move forward? What actions will help people say, “What should I do now?”
I remember a particular part of that journey. I was the Regional Head of Reckitt Benckiser for Africa and the Middle East. It involved plenty of travel on the human resource management side. HR hits in each of the countries. I had to visit them. It was quite a lot of work to do in the country. One day after the accident, but two months later, I was in a hotel in Dubai, part of the big hub. I realized that I hadn’t dealt with what was the big elephant in the room for me. That was my despair, my being gutted, and having my soul reached.
I Need to Be Anchored.
I decided that I was going to go back and ask if I could resign and reset myself. It was a big step. Reckitt was very empathetic. They said, “You still got tons of annual leave. Take your leave and recover.” I said, “I don’t want to be doing this long-distance travel. I need to be anchored near my family and friends in South Africa. I need the time out.” They understood that and supported me enormously through that.
I took up about four months in. I sat in consulting in 2003. I thought, “I’ll start with small projects.” I lost my confidence and my sense of self-belief. I didn’t know what I could or couldn’t do. The emotional intensity was harrowing. What I thought I would do was I would come back to Harvard. Kevin didn’t do this journey with me. I did it on my own. I stayed for about two weeks. I went to the hospital. I gave birth at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I walked the streets of Cambridge. I went to Boston to the shops I like to go to, eat in the places we’d like to eat, and meet the professors who were so curious, concerned, and wanting to support me.
By the time the two weeks were done, I was ready to come home. I felt like a whole different person. I thought I had the strength to put one foot before the other. I landed a few projects with consulting. I get a few odd pieces of work here and there. Suddenly, I got a call from a search firm that said, “South African Revenue Service is in search of HR. They already interviewed lots of people. They’re down to their last cycle around the candidate pool and want to meet you.” I could never present myself in this wounded and broken state to a job like this. I can’t do it. They said, “Come and do it. It will help you if you do it.” I met Pravin Gordhan.
Pravin, the Commissioner of the South African Revenue Services (SARS), went on to become Minister of Finance.
I was blown away by the vision, the commitment to the country, the importance and necessity of being a good citizen and paying your taxes, but also to be a good tax collector, and what it will take to transform this entity into a modernized tax collection center that would be able to collect the money that we need from taxpayers through good systems processes and people and said that vision of we have to change South Africa and make people want to pay their taxes because they know that’s going to change the way South Africa was before apartheid.
It was changing the mindset of South African citizens about not only their duty and obligations but also their contribution (to South Africa) by paying their taxes.
Before, people would not want to pay their taxes to their apartheid regime; we had to go out on the road to shows, communities, schools, and hospitals. We had to show SARS staff and people. This is when you collect taxes. These other things are going to work better. We had to change the mindset of South African citizens to say, “You have to pay your taxes, and this is why.” Being part of a story and a journey like that was terrific. It was a ton of work. Pravin Gordhan was very focused on tasks and on-time delivery execution. Find the right talent for this organization.
The Integrity of the South African regime services and some of those disciplinary terms. It struck me because I recall so well how there were very strict, disciplined rules that nobody at the South African Revenue Services could accept any gift, no matter how big or small. It’s also interesting about the discipline inside the organization from a people and mindset point of view.
With all my hesitancy and challenges going into it, I was taken up by the energy of what we were trying to do here and the difference that if we could get this right. It’s pivotal in our environment to get this right. The tax agency has to work to be efficient and credible. It was exciting to be in that space. I soon shifted my focus from my issues to, “I’m here to help make this difference.” That became a purpose. It is terrific when your personal and professional purposes start to converge. There is nothing more magical than that.
Did you find that Pravin Gordhan, as Commissioner, helped people inside the Revenue Services align their personal and professional purpose? Was that something that you actively did to align people?
We had to change the old mindset that it was ‘just the government department’ and we were poorly resourced. The expectations were not too high. It went from that to being a credible, effective, energetic, and valid engine, and the leadership achieved what is still being accomplished. If you think about it, SARS went through a tough, rough patch. It’s all about (exercising) leadership ultimately at the end of the day.
You can see when there’s good, compassionate, visionary, or bold leadership, as we saw in Pravin. When he left and this other person came, a huge gap was created in the progress and the foundation we had built. Fortunately, SARS is getting back on track with the new top leadership in Edward Kieswetter. I believe we were getting some of that back, not just the ability to be an efficient tax collection machine but also to inspire new hope in taxpayers and facing some of the challenges we know we are grappling with in South Africa.
It’s such an exciting example. You’ve made this incredible pivot from education into the business world with South African Revenue Services, a public entity. Then you went on to the private sector. Staying with SARS or South African Revenue Services for a moment. Tax collection is very much a left-brain and a numbers game. It’s logic. It’s about money, finance, accounting, and paying your dues. From a leadership point of view, can you briefly share the transformation that Pravin Gordhan was leading and that you were a big part of in terms of the Head of the Human Capital side of the organization?
What are the other aspects of leadership intelligence types? The functional technical challenge is collecting the money and ensuring it’s accurate and correct. Still, there’s also changing the hearts and minds of people about being willing to pay taxes, doing so efficiently, and changing the South African perception of this organization that typically people didn’t feel that warm and friendly towards.
Are there 1 or 2 other leadership competencies, whether it be emotional or cultural intelligence, in South Africa? Perhaps cultural intelligence is quite an interesting one because, as we know, the legacies of apartheid, a lot of people didn’t want to pay their taxes, and now you have to broaden this tax base. What are some of the other leadership competencies? Can you help us unpack that a little?
You hit a critical point. It was a technical side, and then we needed the systems, technology, and modernization. You’ll recall the electronic submissions of your tax returns and e-filing. That was where all of that was given birth to. We also needed new skills on board to be able to do that. We needed technical skills, IT, and those technical skills. We required the leadership who could change the hearts and minds as well. Those are not all separate. It’s all integrated.
The big ask from a human capital point of view is to find us those sorts of leaders. Fortunately, there’s the SARS Act, which is slightly different from the Public Service Act. That allowed us to source people from corporates to find people in the ‘Big Four’ (accounting and audit firms) like PWC and the De Loittes. They could attract people like that, even for one year or two years. It was attractive for them to spend that time there and not only contribute, but when they left, they took whatever they learned back and said, “This is what we (in our top-end, private sector companies) need to be doing differently.”
The narrative changed quite fundamentally. The leadership of the SARS needed that time to say, “Big change management. What happened in the past is past. We are in a different future. We have a democratic South Africa. We will ensure that the grudge payment of taxes can become a payment that people believe is something they must do to create a better life for all.” We had the leadership of Mandela then, and all those things came together to say we need strong leadership.
We need leadership in service of others, bold and courageous leadership, ethical leadership, and people who have a strong sense of values and social justice and can bring peace and stability to the country. Those are the kinds of people we try to find, and the technical skills were a given. You needed to have that, but those are the other things we were looking for to ensure that we could build this public entity into a well-oiled and respected entity, properly orchestrated and respected professional environment. We were able to achieve this in a very short time as well. There was a vast program management map with many streams of work going on and converging as we worked under Pravin’s leadership to ensure we got to the vision of SARS. SARS Was At Your Service.We need leadership that is in service of others. We need bold and courageous leadership. We need ethical leadership. Click To Tweet
How did you attract these high-powered, fast-moving private sector professionals and executives from these big International accounting firms? What was the motivation? How did you bring them in?
A National Culture Shift
We couldn’t pay the big salaries that the ‘Big Four’ or the big banks could spend or what other financial services, like prominent asset managers. We couldn’t pay that kind of money. We were offering a second-to-none experience in a place transforming for the betterment of the country and its people. That was the proposition to be part of something unique that was involved here. That was key to building our democracy and inclusively developing the economy.
All of those elements were more qualitative elements. Through people, we offered an organization that was in significant change, pivotal change, and whatever we did, the bar was low. You could make a huge difference. That was an exciting place for people to forgo some of the salary they were earning to have that experience and make that contribution.
It was an exciting time when we would interview the people and say to them, “You know that we can’t pay you what you’re earning right now.” It was okay. They would come for 1 or 2 years, even to be part of that energizing transformation and that cultural shift. To do an organizational culture shift is one thing, but to do a national culture shift is another. That was what was required here. This little engineer could be crucial in the more extensive ecosystem to drive our country to a better place.
To that point, as you said, you were doing the translation within the South African Revenue Services and journey, but it was also changing the nation’s mindset. Are there a few action items that helped you pivot out of this old perception of Revenue Services into this? What are the key takeaways in terms of what you were doing to change the minds of the nation? I know you went on national road shows. You were speaking to people, but were there particular communities you were targeting and types of events you were doing?
We tried to infuse this thinking and the shift in everything we did. Whether changing the logo, which we did, shifting the strapline (tagline), or putting up the notices (to SARS people and the public). How we put up the notices of the timelines, the communication, to people on the ground. It was a bottom-up and top-down shift. There was a lot of retraining that went on. There was a redefining of what a branch is, what it does, and the layout with simple things like personal ‘meeters and greeters.’
There was training because you (the taxpayer, the public) didn’t know about the value-added tax. You also needed to know what pays you, what you earn, and all the other taxes as an integrated system. The systems were not opened up one at a time. You could see the holistic picture of a taxpayer with a single view. We used language like that. A single single view of the taxpayer, you could see everything in one go, but you needed to know more than you knew before. You needed to be reskilled, and there were training programs that we had to put in place.
People (taxpayers) needed to come to the branches, and we repositioned some branches in better places. I mean, we ‘fired’ and fixed them up. We made the infrastructure more welcoming, customer-orientated, and efficient, so you didn’t have to stand in long queues and go from pillar to post to get your queries sorted out. We were online long before anybody else was online and doing these things. We did those interventions.
There were discussions and meetings with key stakeholders. It was also essential for businesses, communities, and NPOs (non-profit organizations) to get to ground zero for people to understand: “This is what we are doing. This is why we are doing it. We hope to achieve this and how important this is.” It takes a while. We pretty much slipped back into a place where people say, “I don’t know why I have to pay my taxes, but I think that the large majority of us who do pay without feeling the grudge. If this message is channeled as it should be, we will see a better society and communities a few months later. We will see a humming economy that is inclusive. We will see more equity and all the important things this country needs.”
That is very compelling because you don’t get to work in places where you can be part of an organization that can have such a huge impact. Those are some of the more exciting things we did. It was an exciting day When we presented our budgets in parliament. Everybody was there, and we were waiting to hear what the Commissioner and the Minister of Finance would say. It was a wonderful time. Those were some of my best moments in our journey toward democracy. It’s beautiful and a privilege to be part of that. That was quite pivotal for me personally and professionally.
You went on to do phenomenal things, serving on private sector boards listed and listed. You’ve gone on to another whole stage of your career, but you made the point it was pretty interesting how you stepped into Revenue Services at a challenging time. There was also this energy around the country, the impact of Nelson Mandela on the country. Can you take us back to a specific moment and setting which was a significant Mandela Moment for you? What was that setting? How did you feel at that difficult time? In that moment, what was a realization that inspired you to step up your contribution? What was that Mandela Moment? Can you can you take us back there?
We Can Change the World
It has many aspects, and it isn’t easy to pin down one thing. We were in Boston at the time of the first Democratic general election vote.
April 1994 for the first democratic elections.
I’ll never forget how emotional that moment was because it’s what we’ve been struggling for all our lives for those of us who were oppressed under apartheid in South Africa. It was such an important day. We went there.
Where did you go?
It was in Boston. It was one of the state buildings. I remember a monumental staircase, and we were in the queue. We were going to vote. We were primarily students and some ex-pats with special privileges to go into this place. I remember after that, Harvard had an event at the Kennedy School of Government to celebrate South Africa. It was uplifting, full of hope, peace, opportunity and joy. This whole “we can change the world” feeling. If we could have done this, anybody can do this. I was blown over in that moment that, finally, we could have a better life for all. Nothing would have stopped me from a profound pride in our country at that moment.
How often has that moment reignited you in times of challenge and when we go through these cycles in life? How often has that moment re-energized you?
I always think about it with great excitement. When one sees some of the unique challenges we face nowadays, leadership might fail us or not serve the people. We see corrupt and unethical politicians, self-serving leadership, and poor governance. I want to remind people of how we were in 1994 and that we should try to lead like Mandela. I know that’s a specific project. That’s not my concept, but we want to bring peace, growth, and stability. We want to see social justice in our time.We want to bring peace. We want to bring growth. We want to bring stability. We want to see social justice in our time. Click To Tweet
As Mandela said, “It’s within each one of us to do this.” Wherever I am, I want to remind leadership, job professionals, and boards, “Let’s not forget where we were and the journey that we have been through and that when we talk about inclusion, we end up with inequality, poverty, and discrimination.” When discussing a future with this trust, we can rise above our circumstances, fall over, and have the courage and boldness to get up again.
When we see the many mountains Mandela climbed, we know we will have to continue to move forward. That was never going to be an easy journey. We understand that a recovery like this will take time. People are saying, “We are still a young democracy. We have a lot to learn. We will probably go backward and forward a few times. We need to be patient with each other, but we cannot tolerate unethical behavior and corruption.” We need to root that out. I would love to see servant leadership, dialogue, and engagement to solve the world and nation’s problems to install some fortitude, selflessness, and people at the center of doing what is right. We can achieve that.
If we could return to that original track, Mandela would smile down on us. We have tripped over each other a little bit in this process. We need a meaningful future. Mandela loved youth and children. That is very dear to my heart, given what has happened to my child. We need to continue to work on a better life for all and leave this world a better place, if not by ourselves, but for our children.We need a future that is meaningful. Click To Tweet
That’s what you would have wanted to see. We mustn’t lose sight of that. We must continue to be inspired and led by allowing the shine to permit other people to have their lives shine in perhaps a dark time. I remain actively optimistic. We moved and worked through some of our challenges and moved forward despite our enormous obstacles.
That’s important, and you touch on such a significant point. We both know that Mandela was very courageous and outspoken. He was almost brutally honest but always with respect. Many nations worldwide have high levels of conflict and deep divides, even in the United States of America. Suppose Mandela was sitting in your boardroom as Chair of one of your boards. I know you sit on various boards. As Chair of the board, what would be that honest conversation that Mandela would be expressing to the leaders of that boardroom? Not only on the boards you sit on but the rest of corporate South Africa and other boardrooms of privileged successful companies or corporations worldwide?
We must reflect on “what is the business of business” deeply. Mandela would have before we even started to talk about social justice, social impact, and non-financials versus financial measures and KPIs and metrics on the environment and sustainability, on good governance. He would have made everything compulsory long ago if he had been here. Those elements would have all been part of what we would be held accountable to as leaders, and he would have made that abundantly clear right from the start. We are only going into that space now.
You are talking about the triple bottom line, not only the numbers but the social and environmental measurements.
He would have added “people, planet, and profit” long ago. He would have made sure that every organization in this country, public or private, be held accountable for all those elements because I think we’ve become very profit-focused. Somehow, it eroded all the other elements around people, the planet, the environment, children, social justice, inclusion, and all those essential things. He would be sitting at the table helm, saying, “Let’s make sure that every decision we take here at this board table encompasses that.”
What do you think he would say to the youth?
He would say to the youth that you need to continue learning. Education is the most important weapon with which to change the world. Please go to school. Please get your education. We will ensure the economy is open so you can find a job and live a fruitful, meaningful, and thriving life. You can play your role in shaping and influencing the direction of the future of this country.Education is the most important weapon with which to change the world. Click To Tweet
It’s food for thought. I think of him often. Some people would argue that the world has changed. Mandela would have been 105 years old. Why do you think his leadership is still relevant nowadays?
I think it’s incredibly relevant nowadays because there is “a whole lot of unfinished business” on that agenda for us in 1994. We have not stepped up to that in a way that he was hoping that we could. I went when he was lying-in-state in Pretoria at the Union Buildings. I managed to get into the queue despite the vast crowds of people. I wanted to catch a last glimpse to say (to him) that whatever I do, I want to try and contribute to finishing or extending what you’ve started.
I almost wanted to say that to you in person. I was very fortunate to do it, but that was also a moment for me. It was incredibly emotional for me to get myself there. That was part of the conversation that I was having with myself as a student in queue to see him was to say, “I want to continue this work.” It is that African leader who can go back and revisit the teachings and the vision, and everybody can get behind the single vision for a better life for all in South Africa. We will lead differently. We will lead like Mandela.
What about a better life for all for every human citizen on this planet?
You can extend it.
That’s very moving. Shifting back a little, and perhaps on a lighter note. What is the one thing (fun fact) people don’t know much about you that you like about yourself?
I love to dance. I love being outdoors.
What kind of dancing?
I’ve done everything from ballet, Latin, and contemporary jazz to gymnastics. I’ve done all of it. I’m 60-plus years old now. I have to go very slowly.
It looks like the dancing kept you very agile.
That’s all I try to do. I’ve always loved dance, and I don’t think many people know that.
What is it about dance?
I love the movement. I love the energy, music, and the energy that flows through you in your movement. It alleviates your brain a little bit from all the academic stuff. When I’m doing that, I feel this release coming out of me. I can freestyle and feel uplifted.
Here’s an unexpected question. Do you think we should bring more dancing into the workplace and corporate?
Yes, one of our colleagues wrote the book called Boardroom Dancing. That’s a fantastic knowledge book. I thought there was a tremendous way to put it. It’s great. Dances about flow, connectedness, fluidity, and energy are all things I think we need in old, traditional places like boardrooms.
I know that you and Kevin run half marathons. What about running half marathons, and what does that physical discipline mean the most to you?
Kevin put me on the road many years ago. I was a sprint at 1 200 meters at school back in the day. I never thought I would be able to do half marathons. That’s one of those the ‘impossible is possible’ moments when he gets me out there. Being on the streets of Cape Town, even in Johannesburg, we were doing some of these things and enjoying the beauty around us and all of these people. It was also about the ability to reflect differently when running and putting one foot in front of the other, sometimes wondering, “Why am I doing this?”
Sometimes I feel, “This is amazing. I’m going to do the next one.” It is a lot of relief and healing that comes with a little bit of physical exertion. This is a part of what I’m trying to tell people. We don’t all have to be doing the matter and running, but a little walk daily can change your mind regarding your overall well-being, experience, mood, and emotional state. That is an unleashed moment.
Another fun fact: we know Cape Town. In 2014, Cape Town was voted the most beautiful city in the world. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world, a place of great healing for me post my cancer surgery. I was curious to know from your perspective. What is your happiest place in Cape Town, and why?
My happiest place in Cape Town is being here on this unique beach. That’s why we came back here. Remember, Fish Hoek was also off-limits to people of color. We could never come here. My mother used to put her feet in the water when it opened. She loves to walk on the beach. When Jamie comes back home, she brings Jamie to the beach. He loved the beach so much. There’s this emotional thing. Being on Fish Hoek beach is one of the most amazing places. Cape Town has many fabulous places. This is the primary village. It is a small fishing region. I love the feeling, the beach, and watching the waves.
I remember us meeting on Fish Hoek, returning in time, and having a wonderful lunch. I recall going down to the marvelous Harbor where all the fishermen come in and sell their fresh catch of the day. I can understand why, and it is such a beautiful place. In our final moments together, what key takeaways would you like to leave with people about leading boldly into the future? What should people who care about our generation and the next, and care about being bold and courageous, and taking on these significant, enormous challenges in helping the world navigate this very turbulent time? What would you say?
I would encourage everybody to read the books and the writings of Nelson Mandela. We don’t read enough. We haven’t processed and reinforced these messages enough. We are getting caught up in the negativity of the moment. We’ve forgotten that we have this Icon here that has laid out many polls of wisdom for us. It is within ourselves. It is the mind and heart. I’m paraphrasing. It is a formidable combination.
If we can only remind ourselves of the listens he taught. I’ve got all the little things I try to remind myself of every day about what Nelson Mandela said. Everyone can rise about these circumstances, and he is dedicated and passionate about what they do, “Courage was not the absence of fear, but the time over it. To be free is not merely to cast one’s chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” - Nelson Mandela Click To Tweet
These are some of the pearls that keep me going. We can hold this nation, and maybe even the world, alive. I’m fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is pointing oneself toward the sun and one step moving forward. Isn’t that beautiful, simple language we can all understand and buy into?
On that note, thank you for keeping your wonderful spirit facing toward the sun and stepping remarkable steps one in front of the other. You’re a great inspiration. It’s a privilege to call you a friend, mentor, and colleague inwards, onwards, and upwards. Bless you. Thank you. Keep up your excellent work in the world.
Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a real honor to be part of this conversation.
This episode and leadership wrap energized my mind and stirred my heart. I was excited to see my dear friend, Professor Shirley Zinn, and her wonderful husband, Kevin, who unexpectedly came to visit at Harvard University. We could (and did) break bread and catch up in person, and I could give a hug to a remarkable woman I deeply love, admire, and respect. For Shirley and Kevin, Harvard is a kaleidoscope of grief, loss, and Rugged Resilience.
Their only child, Jamie, was a Harvard baby and tragically passed away in a fatal car crash at age seven on January 3, 2003. An accident that left Shirley battling to live and Kevin with multiple severe injuries. What happens when life sends us an unexpected curveball, a big life shock, or a bittersweet lemon? How do we rapidly rise?
The bottom line is there is no easy way up. We need to stop glossing over the grit. There is a whole messy process to rise and rise strong. Brené Brown and her bestselling book, Rising Strong, or what I call Rugged Resilience, outlines three bold steps: The Reckoning, The Rumble, and The Revolution. In the Reckoning, we walk into our story. We reckon with our difficult emotions. We identify them. We own them rather than numbing them out.
We get curious about the relationship between our thoughts, actions, and the different emotions it triggers. For example, if we think our life is over, we feel despair. If we believe our life matters more than ever, we feel a heightened sense of urgency to live with deeper meaning. In the Rumble, we own our story. After a shitty first draft, we revisit our version of the truth. What is true? What is false? What is the ‘don’t know?’ What is our part in this trauma and emotional mess? We dig beneath the surface and come to terms with deeply buried emotions like blame, shame, resentment, and the need for forgiveness. Noticing and truth-telling are where our transformation begins. We learn, grow, and become whole.
In the Revolution, we get to rewrite the end of our story. The Reckoning and Rumble empower us to radically change our thoughts and beliefs. Based on what we learn, we get to rewrite the scripts of the end of our story more courageously. That changes how we engage with the world and, in turn, changes the way the world engages with us. It shifts the way we live, love, and lead.
Professor Shirley Zinn got back up again and again with Rugged Resilience. She reckoned, rumbled, and rewrote the end of her childhood story and the end of the story of that fatal car accident. It changed how she shows up in life, love, and the boardroom daily. When we deny our stories, they define us, but when we own our stories, we become integrated, at peace, and whole, and we get to rewrite the end of our story. Until next time. Take care and take thoughtful, bold action.
- Swimming Upstream
- Shirley Zinn – LinkedIn
- Boardroom Dancing
- Rising Strong
About Dr. Shirley Zinn
Dr. Shirley Zinn is the former Group Head of Human Resources at Woolworths Holdings Limited. Prior to this, she was the Head of Human Resources of Standard Bank. She also was head of HR at Nedbank, SARS, and Reckitt Benckiser (Africa & Middle East). She was also an Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria’s Department of Human Resource Management, and former Adjunct Professor at the University of Cape Town.
She hails from the Cape Flats in Cape Town, and started her career as a secondary school teacher of English, then moved to the University of the Western Cape where she lectured in Teacher Education. She currently serves as an independent non-executive director on several JSE listed Boards (Sanlam, MTN-SA, SpurCorp, Spar Group). She also serves on a few Not-for-Profit organisations (Trustee at the Make a Difference Leadership Foundation) and Academic Advisory Boards. She also served on the University of Cape Town Council and is the Past President for the Harvard Alumni Association, South Africa. She is also the Chairperson of the V&A Waterfront.
In 2015, she wrote her autobiography, a best seller, entitled “Swimming Upstream” which focuses on her personal and professional journey. She holds a BA (University of the Western Cape); Higher Diploma in Education (University of the Western Cape); B.Ed Honours (UNISA); M.Ed (University of the Western Cape); Ed.M (Harvard), and Doctorate in Education (Ed.D) (Harvard).
She has been awarded several Top Women in Business and Government awards, and has completed 9 Two Oceans Half marathons.