How a Brief Encounter Changed My Life: A Reflection for Youth Month in South Africa

Iviwe Mtubu

In 2017, I had the honour of joining my school principal at an event where we shared our stories—his as a participant and alumnus of the Citizen Leader Lab leadership programme for school principals, and mine as a learner in the same school, Wynberg High, which serves a poor community in Cape Town.

My story was one that many South Africans know all too well—growing up in a township, raised in a single parent home, and surrounded by poverty. However, my talk was not about hardship; it was about triumph. It was about defying the odds and making it against all expectations, and the realization of what is possible when ordinary citizens actively contribute to developing leadership that creates a better future for all and how this affects young people.

The most noteworthy part of that day was not my own story. It was a brief encounter with a remarkable leader from Citizen Leader Lab. We exchanged only a few words that day, and I would never have imagined that this shared moment would change the course of my life. I saw this person one more time when I was at university when she facilitated a diversity workshop for a group of Jakes Gerwel Fellows of which I was one, studying towards a teaching degree at the University of Cape Town.

Fast forward to late 2019, when unexpectedly, I received messages on LinkedIn and Facebook from this person—she was trying to get in touch with me. Despite knowing very little about me, she reached out because I had left a lasting impression on her. She had an opportunity for five South African students to attend a social entrepreneurship and innovation programme in Cape Town, designed for University of Maryland students from America, and she believed I belonged in the programme.

It was a humbling moment for me as a young person. Here was an accomplished adult who had met me briefly, yet believed in my potential, and in me. Thanks to her unwavering determination, I was able to participate in that programme, representing South Africa on an international stage. I am a YoungEd Africa fellow because in 2022 she recommended that I apply for this programme aimed at empowering young people through fostering professional development within various tracks in the education sector.

Today, I am a distinguished Jakes Gerwel Fellow who studied at the University of Cape Town (UCT). I hold a Bachelor’s degree specializing in Environmental and Geographical Science, coupled with a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) focusing on Geography and History, both attained with distinction. I have just completed an Honours degree in Environmental and Geographical Science, and am commencing with my Master’s in Environmental and Geographical Science at UCT in the second semester, underscoring my commitment to environmental science. I am a registered Candidate Environmental Assessment Practitioner (EAP) with the Environmental Assessment Practitioners Association of South Africa (EAPASA), with a solid grounding in environmental assessment and project management, complemented by a certificate from the University of Pretoria. A highlight of my academic prowess is my involvement with the Golden Key International Honour Society, which recognizes the top 15% of students in any field of study.

My professional journey is one of significant contributions to education and environmental science. At Westerford High School, Cape Town, I served as a teacher for Geography and Mathematical Literacy and as a Deputy Head of House, inspiring students from Grades 8 to 12.

My leadership capabilities developed early on during my time at Wynberg High School, Cape Town, where I served as Head Prefect, President of the Debating Society, and Founder of the Peace Club.

My leadership extended to the Representative Council of Learners, where I held the roles of Chair and Treasurer. Recognized for my outstanding contributions to education and leadership, I was a 2021 Mail & Guardian Top 200 Young South Africans, listed under the Education category. My accolades include membership in the Golden Key Honours Society, the Jakes Gerwel Fellowship under the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment, Ikamva Youth’s Best Tutor award, and SHAWCO UCT’s Excellence in Teaching Award.

As we celebrate Youth Month in South Africa, 30 years into our democracy, it is a poignant reminder of the role young people play in shaping the future. Youth Month commemorates the bravery of students during the Soweto Uprising of 1976, who fought for their right to equal education. It serves as a reminder that the voices and actions of young people can drive significant change. But young people can’t do it alone, tapping into the wisdom of our leadership community is useful as a reflector for our development. By being present and sharing our stories, we open doors to unexpected opportunities and create connections that can alter the trajectory of our lives. This person’s belief in me did not just change my life; it affirmed the importance of believing in others, and in potential, where it might not be immediately visible. I am grateful that my hard work, coupled with my service to community and the belief of someone in my abilities – has helped develop my leadership as a young person.

This very personal experience taught me the incredible power of relationship, partnership, engaging with purpose, passion and possibility. Imagine what is possible if more of us can develop the kind of leadership that builds a better future for all.

About Citizen Leader Lab

Citizen Leader Lab leadership programmes create the right kind of environments to support school leaders to be able to engage with their community, engender a culture shift, welcome and work with partners more effectively, define their own needs better and decide what they want to create in their school environments, and look for the resources that will help them to create this future. For more information: or