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Zubeida Desai – Knowledge Is Power

Some people are living proof that education is the key to life, and Zubeida Desai is one of them.

Editor | February 2013

Zubeida Desai – Knowledge Is Power

With enough love and a supply of good books, one can achieve anything,’ declares UWC’s enigmatic Dean of Education at the commencement of our interview. And judging from Zubeida Desai’s easy smile and twinkling eyes, it would appear that she hasn’t suffered from a lack of either.

Indeed, in her case a diet of love and literature must have staved off the ageing effects of time, for although she readily admits to her age – she turned 62 in April – she doesn’t look a day past fifty.

But her petite frame and youthful looks belie the maturity of this learned woman, a South African of Indian heritage who has lived a full and challenging life; a journey that’s been peppered with adversity and triumph.

Zubeida’s story starts in Salt River, Cape Town.

There were 18 family members sharing the two-bedroomed house she called home for 36 years of her life. Of the 18 family members, ten have since passed away, but the eight that are left, along with their offspring, are still a tightknit group who meet every Saturday, come rain or shine. ‘Ironically, the renovated house now has four bedrooms, with only two people living in it,’ Zubeida quips. Her mother and father were born in India, moving to South Africa before they had children.

‘My mother never attended school, and could speak little English, so I was her interpreter wherever she went,’ she recalls. ‘But even though my parents didn’t receive a good education themselves, above all else they wanted their kids to be educated. They believed education was the key to a bright future.’

‘We had few clothes and no pocket money, but I don’t remember ever going hungry, I just know that we were really happy. Even though we grew up in difficult circumstances, the love that we experienced as a family is the one thing that stands out for me. And look how many successful people emerged out of that cramped little house: my one sister is a paediatric oncologist, the other a high school teacher, two cousins are nursing sisters, there’s a headmistress, and a judge too. Living proof of the power of love, combined with a good education!’


Zubeida started her lifetime of learning at a Methodist church school in Salt River and knew she wanted to be a teacher even then, playing ‘teacher teacher’ with her siblings whenever she got the chance.

‘My schooling was positive on the whole, but I had one bad experience that has stayed with me to this day. It involved a teacher in Standard 3 who insulted me deeply. I was wearing a jersey that was torn at the elbow (as I mentioned, we didn’t have many clothes) and the teacher mocked me in front of the class, saying “Look at poor Desai, moths have eaten her jersey”. I vowed then that when I was a teacher, I would never insult a pupil of mine. But overall I have fond memories and received a good education. My high school, Trafalgar, was quite a political school, so my interest in politics was sparked back then, and fuelled by my family.’

As a child, Zubeida read voraciously, devouring whatever books she could get her hands on.

Although there was no library in the area, a mobile library would visit fortnightly, and she and her cousin would take out the maximum allocation of three books each and then swap them over.

‘That early love of reading is still very much there,’ she professes. ‘Reading a novel is such a treat for me. I spend so much time reading work-related documents that a good dose of fiction is my ultimate indulgence!’


After matriculating, Zubeida hit her first real hurdle when she was refused permission to study towards a degree at the University of Cape Town because of her classification as an Indian.

‘I was expected to go to the “Indian University” in Durban to study, but I didn’t want to. I decided to do a correspondence degree through London University instead. I was fortunate to obtain a bursary from the South African Committee for Higher Education. They also provided me with tutors from the University of Cape Town in all the subjects I was taking. It was a very lonely period though as I had very little interaction with other students and that was difficult.’

‘In 1976, I sat my final BA exam, and was expected to write nine papers in one week. Nine! I was taking strain, as I had no private space in which to study. But again, help was at hand when the director of SACHED, Lindy Wilson, took me under her wing and let me stay at her family home in Rondebosch for three months. They were so kind to me and I am still in touch to this day.’

On completion of her BA, she applied to do a teaching Diploma, but again was turned down by UCT, so ended up working as an unqualified teacher while completing the Diploma part-time through UNISA.

Zubeida’s teaching career kicked off at Arcadia High in Bonteheuwel, where she taught for two years. She recalls her time there as fraught with drama and fights with the principal; a man she claims tried to control and bully the teachers. Boldly, she started a school film society that was open to black students – the first of its kind.

‘Whenever I wanted to screen a film after school, he [the principal] would call a staff meeting to prevent me from doing so,’ she recalls. ‘One day I simply refused to attend, so he came bursting into the film screening and switched all the lights on. I ruffled a few tail feathers there! I wasn’t surprised when at the end of the two years of my temporary teaching post, I was told there was no longer a position for me!’

Seven years spent teaching at Cathkin High in Heideveld followed; years that she says she enjoyed immensely, most especially for the sense of community amongst the staff. The 1985 student uprising took place during that time, and she and five other teachers were suspended without pay for supporting the students by refusing to proceed with the exams scheduled to go ahead, regardless of the fact that students had not been attending classes. Teachers at other schools soon followed in their footsteps.

Zubeida took action, playing an instrumental role in establishing the Western Cape Teachers Union, a body that offered support to the striking teachers by providing funding. It was January of 1986 when the teachers finally won their case and were reinstated, with full back pay.

Before the suspension had taken place, her desire to better herself had prompted her to apply for a promotion. Ironically, it was during the suspension period that she received word that she was now the Head of English at Westridge High School in Mitchells Plain.

During her second year at Westridge, Zubeida applied for a British Council scholarship to do her Masters in Applied Linguistics in London. She was accepted and headed overseas in August of ’87. A student again, she delighted in the experience of studying at varsity full-time for the first time in her life, and in 1988 completed her master’s dissertation entitled ‘Towards a language policy for a post-apartheid South Africa’.


On returning to Cape Town in 1989, Zubeida took up an English lecturing post she had been offered by the Faculty of Education at UWC subject to completing her Masters. Teaching at a university was a new experience for her, and she described her first job there as a challenge that she grasped with both hands; a mantra that seems to be her theme tune in life.

‘UWC was a really vibrant place back then, and still is. My classes were big: I was solely responsible for 230 students and I remember spending many weekends sitting at home marking stacks of assignments.’

These days, Professor Desai’s role as Dean of the Education Faculty means her focus is on ensuring the provision of quality teacher education. She is the one ultimately responsible for what happens within the Faculty – in terms of teaching, research and community outreach: a lot of responsibility to carry.

Yet despite shouldering that heavy load, Zubeida has somehow still found time to assist in the establishment of two major projects.

Following on from her master’s research findings on the role that language policy can play in the learning process, the Dean applied her significant academic clout to the establishment of a project called LOITASA: the Language of Instruction in Tanzania and South Africa project.

Under this Norwegian University funded project, participants from UWC, Oslo and Dar es Salaam looked into the challenges of mother tongue instruction in countries where, historically, a powerful language like English has dominated, as well as reflecting on the positive outcomes when the medium of instruction is a widely-known language. Eight books have since been published on the topic and as a result of the project, the teaching of mathematics and science subjects in the Xhosa medium have been extended from Grade 4 to Grade 6. Teaching materials have also been translated from English to Xhosa.

Zubeida’s other passion for gender equality has lent weight to the establishment of the GEEP Project: Gender Equality, Education and Poverty in South Africa and Sudan. The project looks into what it’s like to be a young girl or boy in Sudan and South Africa and the respective challenges they face, examining what teachers in schools can do to help students to deal with issues such as gender violence.

‘Often young girls have no avenue or people to talk to about their problems and frustrations,’ says Zubeida. ‘Through talking they get a sense of how to address issues and learn not to bury painful experiences inside themselves and never realise their full potential. All young women have the right to forge a career for themselves without gender issues standing in the way.’

Through her involvement in these projects, Zubeida has travelled to many African countries, where her glimpses into the struggles taking place have given her a greater appreciation of what we have available at academic institutions like UWC, and generally as a country. She is clearly grateful for the opportunities her academic career has presented her with.

‘As I look back over the years, I remember all these amazing young people who have gone through my hands. One of the best parts of my job is when they comment on the role I have played in their lives. When they say that I cared about them and believed in them.’

‘I know that I am known as a stern taskmistress because I expect a lot from people, and I certainly don’t expect less because of people’s difficult circumstances. In fact I once failed an English student who then wrote a re-evaluation, and he failed again. He complained about me; he said that I was so strict, I was worse than the whites! But this young man could barely string a sentence together, and he wanted to be an English teacher,’ she says with a grimace.

‘I was thinking about the next generation when I failed him. It is important that teachers are qualified and know the subject they will be teaching, otherwise I am performing a disservice to society and perpetuating the cycle of poor education in this country.’

As the interview winds down, the Dean confesses that outside of her working world she is actually a bit of a rebel. ‘I won’t go into detail,’ she says, ‘but I do tend to challenge society’s norms and expectations, even when I don’t set out to.’

And there’s no doubt that this career-driven achiever would not have gotten where she is today had she always towed the line in a world that is often not as just as it should be.


  • Get guidance about possibilities open to you and make sure you are studying towards something that excites you. Don’t choose a career you hate; you must love what you do to really succeed. Whichever career you choose, try and excel. Once you give of your best, it is very difficult for anyone to retrench you.
  • Some advice to young women especially… Some teenagers think that finding a rich man will be the answer to their future security and happiness, but this is generally not the case. It is very important for young women to carve independent careers for themselves. Society has shown us that we can only depend on ourselves.
  • Don’t wait until you are divorced to attempt higher education! Start early. No-one can take a qualification away from you. Having said that, it is also never too late!If you come from a background of poverty, never stop believing that there are opportunities out there. You are not alone. Look at ways that people can assist you. Don’t let the obstacles in your path paralyze you.
  • Don’t wait until the last minute to bring your problems to the attention of your mentors. If you articulate the problems early then people can help you overcome them.
  • You have to like yourself – only when you do will you then take yourself seriously.