Q&A with Dr Sibongile Zungu

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Dr Sibongile Zungu is one of the newest members of the ASELPH faculty, having started with the programme in June 2015.  

She has vast experience in the public sector health system.  Between 2004 and 2006 she was Deputy Director-General (DDG) in the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health before moving to the Mpumalanga Department of Health as DDG.  While in Mpumalanga she acted as Head of Department (HOD) for two years before moving back to KZN where, between 2009 and 2015, she was the HOD for KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health.

Having been on the receiving end of ASELPH, as HOD and as a member of the ASELPH steering committee, and now as part of the ASELPH faculty, Dr Zungu believes that ASELPH is a key component of executive health education in the country.  

She feels strongly that ASELPH – as a partnership between a number of key role-players – must continue to evolve and produce leaders and managers who are able to deliver within a challenging environment.

ASELPH recently interviewed her about the programme.

Q - What inspired you to pursue a career in health education/leadership education?

A – I have been in health management for almost 20 years now - since 1996.  As a young medical practitioner I was thrown into the deep end very early on in my career to assume the positon of a health superintendent.  

During this time there was not much guidance in terms of management and leadership education in the health sector due to the changing environment in the country and the reforms in the health sector in South Africa.  

During the past 20 years I have had to deal with a number of managerial and leadership aspects within the public health sector and I came to the conclusion that, based on my experiences, it would benefit government to prepare health sector managers for the challenges they have and will continue to face in the future.  

As such I have been given an opportunity – through ASELPH – to “give back” and to help develop a profession in which I have been involved for almost 20 years.


Q – How did you get to join the ASELPH faculty?

A – As the HOD I was part of the ASELPH Steering Committee and I had also been called to present and facilitate on ASELPH.  

When my contract with the KZN Department of Health ended in May 2015 the faculty believed that I could assist and contribute to the programme.  As such, it was a natural progression because I had been involved since the inception of ASELPH.


Q - What has been your experience teaching in the ASELPH programme?

A – The managers who are part of this programme, collectively, have a wealth of knowledge that needs to be “repackaged” to give them the required confidence to apply their knowledge within the health sector and improve its outputs.  

In addition to this each province has its own unique challenges and successes which then act as a reference-point for all ASELPH participants for learning purposes.  

This collective knowledge, insight and experience then allows for interesting models of leadership and management which can promote innovation and better management and leadership in the health sector.   


Q – What does ASELPH bring to the healthcare conversation in South Africa?

A – This programme comes at a crucial time when we are facing serious health reform in South Africa in the form of decentralisation, NHI and others.  

As such the programme becomes an important step that lays the foundation for these reforms.  

These reforms need “implementers” and ASELPH provides these “implementers” while, at the same time, allowing managers and leaders – as executives – to be the architects and the implementers of the reforms.  


Q - A major goal of ASELPH is to be a catalyst for South Africa’s health care transformation. How do you envision your personal role in that transformation?

A – I see my role primarily in the context of content development so the programme is relevant and current and
 contributes to the needs of managers and leaders in the health sector.  

Secondly I see ASELPH, as a whole, providing input and direction to the Ministry of Health, the Department of Health and the front-line management and leadership within the health system.  ASELPH and the faculty therefore become a catalyst for the change and improvement at all levels – provincial and national.  

It is also important that the faculty be seen as the “marketers” of ASELPH to make health sector leaders aware of what is available, how it can assist and what it can produce by way of skilled, knowledgeable and competent managers and what ASELPH brings to the health reforms of the country in terms of easing the pressures that currently exist in the sector.


Q – In your opinion, how is ASELPH equipping Fellows for the transformation that is needed within the health sector?

A – Fellows who have completed the programme and those who are participating in the programme show a level of confidence in terms of management and leadership by way of presenting their issues, reporting and growing within their portfolios which is enhancing health service delivery in the country.  

As both faculty and as a previous HOD I have been able to see this from both sides.  

During the graduation I could see the pride of the Fellows in the first cohort and, post-graduation I was able to see the transformation that these Fellows had undergone especially in the workplace.  

As faculty when you meet the participants they are a timid group of managers who have a certain apprehension to interacting with each other.  As the programme progresses you can see the change in attitudes and the growth of individuals in both the academic field as well as the professional field.  


Q – You have been both on the receiving end of the ASELPH programme as an HOD and now, as a faculty member of ASELPH.  There are a number of executive leadership programmes offered around the country. In your opinion, what are the key factors that distinguish ASELPH from other executive leadership programmes?

A – Having had the advantage of being on both sides and having been exposed to a number of other leadership programmes offered by other institutions, ASELPH is not just based on theory.  It is a programme that has a lot of practical aspects and is almost similar to a “simulation” in the workplace which benefits the participants.  

In theory-based programmes a lot of time is spent on defining concepts and concentrating on theory.  ASELPH uses this theory and these concepts as background information while focusing significant effort on practical application which helps managers and leaders become more efficient and effective in the workplace.  

ASELPH is not “linear-learning”, but an integrated and practical approach to addressing the practical needs of public-sector managers in the health environment.  ASELPH Fellows are able to implement what they have learnt in a practical manner immediately.  

Linked to this is the mentorship which allows Fellows to support and assist each other in the work situation where, unlike the tutor which is focused on understanding the theory, the mentor supports and advises on day-to-day practical leadership, managerial and operational questions.  This makes ASELPH unique within the health sector in improving output at a managerial level.


Q - Case study development and teaching is a cornerstone of the ASELPH Programme. Can you please share what you have gained in this regard and how you have used this teaching methodology within the ASELPH programme?   

A – I have only been involved with ASELPH for some 2 months but I do have some ideas on case study development for the ASELPH.  I am in the process of analysing case studies from other countries and adapting them for the South African context.

As a faculty member we are going to be exposed to case study development through a programme with GIBS Business School [at the University of Pretoria].  I am confident that this will better equip me to use case studies as a cornerstone within ASELPH. 


Q – How would you describe the faculty of the ASELPH programme?

A – I would describe it as a multi-skilled, variety team that consists of academics, senior managers, and researchers. This constitutes a team of experts that work together to develop this unique product.  

However, I believe that the research component is not strong enough and it would assist if this component could be improved in terms of “action” research where, as things are done, trends can be analysed and data can be interpreted to allow for immediate research.  This, in my opinion, would produce more efficient and effective managers in terms of decision-making in the work environment.


Q – Can you share an example that conveys the spirit of the Fellowship of the ASELPH programme?

A – When I joined, knowing that I am not and academic, I was fearful of what I was getting into in terms of the academic environment.  However, I joined an environment that was non-threatening, that welcomed me and that encouraged my contributions into the academic sphere with open arms.  

I soon realised that we are all different and we all have something to offer.  I now feel part of the ASELPH “family” and I think this conveys the overall feel of the programme where, not only am I part of ASELPH, but Fellows also feel part of ASELPH and are treated within the “ASELPH family” environment.


Q - How would you describe the impact of the ASELPH Programme on:

A - Individual Fellows – I have been very fortunate to have seen the actual impact of ASELPH in the workplace.  As an HOD I can attest to the levels of confidence and personal growth that I experienced and that was displayed from ASELPH Fellows.  From my experience, the quality of work of ASELPH Fellows and their contribution to the leadership and management of the department also improved with their participation on the programme.  

A - Organisational level/work place – I found that ASELPH Fellows – through their participation on the programme – became more tolerable and supportive of their staff.  This assisted the department in terms of performance and outcomes – although not all can be attributed to ASELPH, I believe that the knowledge and insight gained by managers had a large role to play in terms of motivating subordinates.

The KZN Department of Health has acknowledged the success of ASELPH and, as a result, continues to send a number of participants to this programme.

A – Health-system as a whole – The improvements in the health outcomes and the understanding of problem-solving is assisting the health system.  I believe that managers now deal with problems as opposed to shying away from them and have a better understanding as to how to address these problems in the bigger scheme of things.  

Health system performance is improved by having these ASELPH Fellows at strategic points to deliver on strategic outcomes.  

One weakness I perceive – and this on the basis that it was a mistake when I was HOD – is that I have not seen the involvement of managers from Emergency Services being part of ASELPH.  For me this is a key component of the health system that needs strengthening and, from my perspective, is not represented within ASELPH as an executive leadership programme.