INTEGRITY ICON 2021
Joyce Buthelezi: A teacher and counsellor with a ‘passion’ for her charges
Integrity Icon is a global campaign by Accountability Lab that is led by citizens in search of honest government officials. It aims to generate debate on the idea of integrity and demonstrate the importance of honesty and personal responsibility. The goal is to inspire a new generation to be more effective public servants. This week, Maverick Citizen profiles a group of South Africa’s Integrity Icon 2021 finalists.
As a young girl, Joyce Buthelezi would read her father’s letters to him in the kitchen of their Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal home because he could not read them himself.
“I came from a family home where both my parents were uneducated,” says Buthelezi. “So, from an early age, I used to read letters to my father, a taxi owner, when he received post. And by doing that I realised I have a passion for it. I realised I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up.”
Not only is Buthelezi literate, today she holds an honours degree in inclusive education from Unisa.
At 51, Buthelezi has taught and counselled children at Bernard Mizeki Primary School in Richmond, KwaZulu-Natal since 2004. Within the school’s bright walls, adorned with painted bees and murals of the South African flag, she presents classes in isiZulu, English, mathematics, geography, history and social wellbeing, to a class of 39 Grade 6 pupils.
After hours, she teaches life skills ranging from recycling to growing vegetables, with school crops doled out to families in need. She is known as a “networker” who approaches businesses in the area, helping to arrange funding for promising pupils with financial trouble.
“It’s about lending a hand,” she says. “About touching and changing someone’s life.”
As unrest struck in KwaZulu-Natal in July, several pupils’ parents lost their jobs and Buthelezi approached the provincial social welfare department about having food parcels delivered to their homes.
“What motivates me when I wake up in the morning,” she says, “is that I’ve got a passion for learners. Especially those with tough circumstances. For example, those living with their grannies. I feel that there is nobody helping them with their homework. So I help those children every day after school. I make sure these children feel the same as the rest. Then, children with learning disabilities, this is another passion for me. My concern is for an approach that is one-shoe-fits-all, it is important to accommodate everyone.”
As a counsellor, she offers a safe space on the school premises where pupils can open up about challenges including domestic abuse, lack of funding, hunger and bullying.
“They know I have an open-door policy,” says Buthelezi. “They may come to talk to me any time. Sometimes, though, some of them are shy, like they cannot open up easily. But we allow them to write letters and then put them on my table. And then I read the letter and make an appointment to see them later.”
She also offers “girl guide camps” to help girls build confidence and to empower them to say “no”.
“We offer lots of activities to teach them how to be leaders and to build their confidence. They must believe in themselves. There’s a big problem with domestic abuse and assault. It’s scary sometimes for girls, when the violence is in their own homes or within their own families. But they know they can approach me to talk about it. Whatever the conversation we have with the child, we make sure they know it’s confidential.”
The veteran teacher adds that bullies need special care.
“It’s like they need attention from teachers because it’s something that comes from their homes. What I have learned is, as human beings, it is easy to judge people rather than taking the time to understand what makes another person do what they’re doing.
“So, I teach children to not judge or to label. They must learn to understand, and to accommodate one another, to show acts of kindness to one another.”
Buthelezi lives in Pietermaritzburg with her husband, commuting 45 minutes to Richmond each day. Their two daughters seemed to have absorbed their mother’s lessons on leadership. One is completing a BSc in chemical engineering at the University of Pretoria and the other is enrolled at the University of Bloemfontein for a BCom accounting degree. The mother of two laughs, declining to divulge more family detail. She describes herself as private and shy.
Buthelezi is one of South Africa’s six Integrity Icons for 2021. Driven by global non-profit organisation Accountability Lab, the campaign aims to “name and fame” civil servants who embody integrity and go beyond the call of duty in their communities.
What does integrity mean to her? “To me integrity means going the extra mile without expecting a reward or payment, helping somebody who needs that help, because you want to.” DM/MC