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S Mag Women of the Year issue | Asanda Sigigaba - A leap of faith

LEAP principal Asanda Sigigaba is our Woman of the Year in education

Karabo Ledwaba Journalist
LEAP principal Asanda Sigigaba is our Woman of the Year in education.
LEAP principal Asanda Sigigaba is our Woman of the Year in education.
Image: Thulani Mbele

Asanda Sigigaba is a dynamic young principal who is using her own experience as a pupil coming from a poor background to make a meaningful change in the lives of her learners.

The 31-year-old educator from Libode in the Eastern Cape is the principal at a Langa Education Assistance Program school (also known as a LEAP Science and Maths School) that serves underprivileged children in Alexandra, Joburg.

Raised by a mother who worked as a street vendor, she only became aware of the many career possibilities out there when she left her rural government school to complete her high school education at LEAP.

“I started at LEAP in 2004 doing grade nine and was there until grade 12. After grade 12 I was encouraged to pursue teaching, because the school had a programme for people who want to become teachers,” she recalls.

She shone as a teaching student and at the young age of 21 she moved to the other side of the country to open a new school in Limpopo.

“You start working at the school until you graduate, so that’s what I did. I enrolled at Unisa [for a BEd, majoring in Psychology, English, and Business Management] in 2008 and started working as a teacher. Towards the end of 2011 I was asked to open a LEAP school in Jane Furse in Limpopo, with two other people,” she says. 

Sigigaba, who had spent her whole life in the Eastern and Western Cape, had to land on her feet in the majority Sepedi-speaking area.

“In my first year of working in Limpopo it was challenging — I was responsible for two portfolios in management as a relationship leader and life orientation leader, I was teaching two subjects and was still studying, I was the youngest and the only female teacher in the school, and I was alone in a different province,” she says.

“Years went by, I became stronger and more confident in my different roles at school, I started feeling part of the community, and I was seeing an impact in the students’ lives, so I ended up staying for seven years.”

In 2018 she heard about an opening in Alexandra for a school principal.

“I thought there is no way they would hire a 27- or 28-year-old for that job, so I didn’t apply. The closing date approached and one of my colleagues asked me why I didn’t apply. I told him older people could easily get it, and he asked me to look at the criteria and see that I did qualify,” she says.

Sigigaba was called in for two rounds of interviews, and was told at the end of the year that she had made it.

“I was 28 when I became the principal. I was very scared; some people thought someone local should have been given the job. I remember talking to my mother about it and she did not want me to go, but I decided to go,” she says.

It wasn’t the first time she was scared before starting a new job — she was also apprehensive about working at the school in Limpopo, and that had been a success.

“I was now leading people who were older than me — some were working at the school when I was still a pupil. So I had to figure out how I was going to deal with that. Also, parents were older, so I had to wonder if they would take me seriously,” says Sigigaba.

“I told myself that if I failed, I failed, but I would at least know that I’d pushed myself. I had nothing to lose and it would be a learning experience.”

She needn’t have worried. The school achieved a 100% pass rate in her first year (2019) as principal, after it had been stuck on a 96% average pass rate for a number of years.

When the pandemic lockdown happened in 2020, she had to put her all into ensuring that her students stayed on track.

She says they had to create WhatsApp groups for subjects to get work to their pupils.

“But some kids didn’t have smartphones, some had to use their mothers’ phones, who would only come back home once a week because they were working in the suburbs as domestic workers,” she remembers.

“Some pupils were battling with focusing while at home because their parents would send them to do chores. I had to explain to parents that these were normal school hours and they needed to focus on their school work.”

Through fundraising Sigigaba and her team were able to get all their pupils smartphones and even data.

“Unfortunately, because of the pandemic we only got a 93% matric pass rate, but in 2021 we bounced back to 100%,” she says. 

Looking back, Sigigaba is glad she was brave enough to take risks in furthering her career. 

“Being a teacher has helped me learn more about myself. I’ve grown so much as a professional and as an individual, because one never stops learning new things about oneself if one is open to do that,” she says.

“My purpose as a teacher is to work with students so they can make sense of their lives, discover who they are, together with other learners, and realise that there’s more for them to achieve regardless of their circumstances, community, and province, but one needs to have a dream and be willing to work hard without losing focus.”