Sharanjeet Shan 2016


Sharanjeet Shan was born and brought up in a deeply patriarchal Sikh household in the Punjab, India. At 19, just as she was entering her final year of study in medicine, the unthinkable act of falling in love with a fellow student of another religion, her family arranged for her to be married immediately to a Sikh man living in Britain.

After her ‘banishment’ from the family to the United Kingdom, she completed a basic qualification in mathematics education, followed by an Open University course in developing mathematical thinking. Her interest in the role of pseudoscience in the enactment of slavery and colonialism then led her to complete a Master’s degree in Social Science.

Challenges of survival in a very traditional arranged marriage ended after 16 years when her husband passed away after a long illness. Soon thereafter, at the age of 39, she assumed a new name (the one she has now) and wrote an autobiography ‘In My Own Name’, which was published by The Women’s Press in 1985 followed by Cambridge University Press as a school text in the United Kingdom schools. On publication she was declared a pariah in Sikh communities, both in England and India.

While at a Mathematics Education conference in Quebec Canada, a chance encounter with the South African delegation posed her a challenge yet again. She was invited to come to South Africa and be a part of the new dispensation. Her mandate from the Board of Trustees of the small Maths Centre project was to construct a Maths organisation which will meet the needs of the new curriculum for learners from disadvantaged communities.  On being offered the position she made a brief tour of the country and, as she believed she could make a difference, she accepted.

In the nineties there were few exciting and interesting books on teaching mathematics that involved primary school children in problem solving. Sharanjeet used her nights and weekends to produce Grades 1-6 teacher and learner text books as a contribution to the transformation of mathematics education in the country. As these books generated revenue in excess of R30 million, sufficient income became available to Maths Centre satellite units in the North-West province, Mpumalanga, the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo. The opening of the Maths Centre in King William’s Town proved to be the catalyst for shared activities with the then University of Port Elizabeth’s Department of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education (SMATE).

A window of funding opportunity offered by the Business Trust and the Zenex Foundation in 2000 enabled the Maths Centre, in partnership with our university, to facilitate accredited programmes for thousands of teachers around South Africa. The programmes offered were the Advanced Certificate in Education (ACE) in Mathematical Literacy, the ACE in Language in Learning and Teaching, and the Bachelor’s degree in Science, Mathematics and Technology Education. Through this process more than 2000 advanced certificates and bachelor degrees were awarded by the University of Port Elizabeth and then Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. Sharanjeet believes that this was a “most brilliant” partnership model and that it is still relevant and scalable today.

A ‘hard core’ supporter of the educational and social philosophy of Paulo Freire, and his ideas of ‘education for liberation’ and ‘pegagogy of hope’ and the quest for a humanizing world, Sharanjeet believes in promoting transformative education in a system that she sees as being framed by “conforming, informing and deforming education delivery”. She believes that, regardless of the numerous development debates that constantly take place, there is still insufficient urgency to meet the crisis that faces the country and believes that her role as a “disruptive educational social entrepreneur” is necessary if our country is to advance its citizenry via education.

In recognition of her contribution to pioneering work in Mathematics Education in South Africa, and tirelessly championing poor and marginalised communities, it is an honour for Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University to confer the Chancellor’s Medal in the discipline of Mathematics Education on Sharanjeet Shan.