Humble and willing to learn: Naledi Pandor is leading by example
Naledi Pandor is that rare person, a South African cabinet minister free of controversy or scandal. Part of the reason is her humility, but mainly it is because of her competence, dedication and hard work. She also knows when to eat humble pie
Few would have guessed that Naledi Pandor loves taking leisurely afternoon walks on Cape Town's Muizenberg beach.
And none perhaps would have ever imagined her driving herself to the beach after giving her bodyguards the slip.
"I sometimes just take my car and I go and park and I walk on my own. Those are my best moments."
The mother of four and grandmother of three, who has been a cabinet minister since 2004, simply loves the sea.
"There's a lot of small shops selling fish. You buy a piece of fish and then you walk along the beach enjoying yourself. People sort of look at you but because you look too casual they don't think it's you and leave you alone.
"I like being incognito; it's very nice."
When she is in Pretoria, she prefers doing her own shopping at a Pick n Pay in Hatfield.
"When I am there, students say, 'Can I take a selfie with you, minister?'," she says, bursting into laughter.
Pandor also tries to drive herself around regularly.
"If you don't regularly take your car and drive, you do stupid things. You forget the lights or the lights turn red and you're not quite alert. I have had little near misses so I try and regularly make sure I'm in the car so that I keep in practice."
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We are seated in her modest office on the ninth floor of the higher education & training building on Frances Baard Street in Pretoria's city centre.A plaque of an elephant presented to her as a gift on her visit to the National Zoological Gardens on April 7 2010, when she was minister of science & technology, adorns a cupboard.There is a copy of the book, Dare Not Linger, which is largely based on the unfinished memoirs of Nelson Mandela as he was preparing to conclude his term of office as the country's first black president.I am there to get her to talk about her singular achievement in graduating with a PhD in education from the University of Pretoria at the age of 65.But what I also get is a rare glimpse into her life and those of her family members.She speaks very fondly of her husband, Sharif, who is "60 something" and "younger than me, lucky thing", and her four children, Fazlur, 36, Aisha, 34, Suraya, 30, and Haroon, 27.
She lives in Cape Town's southern suburbs and regularly commutes between Cape Town and Gauteng where her husband and Fazlur are cultivating vegetables on a plot of about 5ha in Winterveldt, northwest of Pretoria. Her husband also farms in North West.
"We have a few cattle, lots of goats and quite a few sheep."
She spoke of her husband's passion for farming, "which is all he talks about".
"He said, 'You do the politics, I'll do the other things.' I told him, 'Hey chief, you do that [farming] on your own. I am a Cape Town person.' "
She said Fazlur was harvesting large amounts of lettuce, adding: "He's busy with his next crop, which is cabbages and broccoli."
PASTRY AND PRAYER FOR HER CHILDREN
Pandor, who has been minister of higher education & training since February last year, keeps "egging" her son on to complete the BCom in financial accounting he is pursuing through Unisa.
"I tell him I hope you will complete it, especially since I had now gone back to university. He told me he was very inspired after attending my graduation ceremony."
One daughter, Aisha, has a doctorate in human genetics. Pandor's other daughter, Suraya, began studying at university "and didn't like it at all and essentially dropped out".
"She then announced that she wants to be a pastry chef and she had applied to this college in Cape Town. I was an MP and I was horrified but actually she really did well and she enjoyed it."
She completed a diploma in journalism and works for a media and advertising company in Cape Town.
"If you have a birthday, she will bake you a beautiful cake. She's very, very good. She doesn't do it as a business but bakes for family members."
What many South Africans may not know is that her youngest son, Haroon, is a hafiz, a title given to a Muslim who knows the Koran by heart.
Pandor converted to Islam before marrying Sharif in 1982.
"I came from a very strong Christian family and discussed with my family the fact that I was marrying into a Muslim family. My parents understood, I think, fully. Other members of my family didn't."
Her Muslim name is Nadia.
"I think the values in both Christianity and Islam are very closely related but there are aspects that are stressed in Islam that resonated with me, such as aspects of haram [forbidden]."
Pandor was born in Beatrice Street in Durban - a vibrant area where the African, coloured and Indian communities lived in harmony side by side.
She speaks lovingly of her grandmother, who also lived in Durban, but who later became a victim of the Group Areas Act.
"My grandmother was moved around to different areas of Durban. She lived in very difficult circumstances and, in the end, after I got married, she actually came to live with me."
After leaving Durban, Pandor, who received most of her education in exile in Botswana and the UK, lived in England from the end of 1964 until 1971.
"Even though I was in England, we maintained correspondence and I always laughed because she used to receive her pension and she always sent me R20."
She says one of her passions is cooking spicy Indian curries.
"Coming from Durban, that's what I grew up cooking with mom. It was the food we were most familiar with."
On election day this month, Pandor, who is fasting because it is Ramadan, cooked a pot of "lovely dhal curry" for herself and her niece, who lives with her, to break the fast that evening. But she could not partake of the meal as she was called to attend to a voting problem.
When she has the time, which is rare, she loves listening to Aretha Franklin, Hugh Masekela and singer/songwriter Zonke, "who sings beautifully".
It was during her return to the UK in 1977, when she completed a postgraduate diploma in education at the University of London, that "the bug of postgraduate studies first bit". She subsequently did a master's degree in education at the same institution.
But what really spurred her on to pursue doctoral studies was the fact that people were always referring to her as "Dr" Pandor during her stint as minister of science & technology.
After making known her intention of studying for a PhD to a few colleagues and professors, some of whom advised against it "because you will never find the time", she applied for admission to the University of Pretoria in 2014.
She admits that she had to eat humble pie after "arrogantly" believing that she could complete a proposal of 30-40 pages on her research topic - "policy and practice in higher education" in six weeks.
She was confident of handing it in by May 2015 but ended up submitting it only in August. "I learnt my lesson and became absolutely humble after that."
After a discussion with her supervisor the topic was changed to "contested meanings of transformation in higher education in post-apartheid SA". The next step was being interviewed about her research proposal by a panel of about six top-notch educationists and she thought, "Oh Lord, I am going to be terrible."
But her proposal was accepted. Her supervisor for her doctoral studies, Professor Chika Sehoole, was a chief director in her department for a time during her stint as minister of education from 2004 to 2009.
Sehoole, now the dean of the education faculty at the University of Pretoria, recalled how she invited him to her office in 2014 after she had become minister of science & technology to inform him about her plans to pursue doctoral studies.
She told him she wanted to do her thesis at the University of Pretoria and have him as her supervisor because her topic on transformation was related to his area of specialisation.
"After I agreed to be her supervisor, she said, 'From now onwards you must call me Naledi and I will call you my professor. You are my professor and I'm your student. This is how it's going to be from now on.' "
HUMBLE AND WILLING TO LEARN
Said Sehoole: "The ministers are revered and when they step into a room everything comes to a standstill. Now, here is a minister asking me to call her by name.
"She was so humble and willing to learn. She always inquired and asked for guidance."
Pandor laughs that Sehoole was "horrible once or twice".
She even cried one day in her car after he wrote that a draft chapter she had written was "not as satisfactory as it should be and does not do justice to what is expected and what you are capable of".
"I think I understand why people drop out," Pandor said. "It's really tough and a very difficult and lonely journey. I was lucky I had a really good supervisor. He didn't take any laziness from me and he was tough when he needed to be and encouraging when it was necessary."
But just how did she find the time to do justice to her ministerial portfolio and her doctoral studies?
Well, she often woke up at 4am and wrote until 7am. "At night, I would write from about 7pm until 2am. If you don't devote that amount of time to your research and writing, you won't complete."
Prospective postgraduate students should take a leaf out of her book; she spent every weekend, if she was not engaged in political work, focusing on her thesis.
"Some things did give, I think, like I found I wasn't as robust in the NEC's [ANC national executive committee's] subcommittee for education, health, science and technology."
She handed in her thesis in November 2018 after starting it in the second half of 2016.
"You submit your thesis, which has been your life for four years, and then they tell you this news you were not aware of, which is that it's going to an editor and this person is a torturer."
PRESIDENT MAKES THINGS DIFFICULT
She was on the campaign trail, so while travelling between Polokwane, Thohoyandou and Pretoria she would sit in the car going through editorial comments line by line.
Pandor light-heartedly mentions that she would have completed the thesis in June last year "had Mr Ramaphosa not messed my plan by moving me into another department".
The president moved her from science & technology to higher education in his reshuffle of February 2018.
"I have told him I would have finished in June last year. When I got to this department, it was Setas [sector education and training authorities] and this and that and, as I got used to higher education, there were some weeks when I just could not sit down and write."
Having now been a doctoral student herself, Pandor acknowledges that the government needs to strengthen funding for them.
"Funding is a big issue. That is one thing I realised. I had to buy a lot of books and it is expensive. I was able to do it because I have a job and I could afford it, but I can't imagine what it must be like if you don't have an income or you don't get funding."
She graduated last month, becoming the first minister in the current cabinet to graduate with a doctorate in a subject related to her portfolio.
Pandor says Ramaphosa, who is about to announce his new cabinet, "is a person who makes his own decisions as to who he appoints''.
"There's no expectation on my part and we are always taught that wherever you are deployed, you will serve best.
"You asked me to talk about me, and my first sentence was going to be, 'I am a very simple person, that's who I am ."