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Swimming Upstream

By Shirley Zinn and Sherideen Meyer – 

This book was written by Professor Shirley Zinn, with the strong support of her husband, Kevin Zinn, for their son Jamie. The purpose of the book is to inspire hope, especially for our youth today, to make something of their lives, despite adversity.

Shirley was born in 1961 and grew up on the Cape Flats in Cape Town. The Cape Flats was created by the architects of Aparthied in South Africa and has become a place of struggle. It remains challenged by socio-economic challenges such as poverty, unemployment, gangsterism, rape, violence, drugs and teenage pregnancy. However, great leaders, teachers, academics, human rights activists, authors, talented musicians, sports men and women, to name but a few, have emerged from the Cape Flats despite the adversity that they had to deal with throughout their lives.

Shirley’s journey was challenging and characterised by a path less taken, hence the tile, Swimming Upstream.  She refused to allow her past to determine her future. She was raised by her parents to make something of her life and to ensure that education became her liberation. Values of respect, humility, hard work ethic, service to others and excellence were inculcated by her parents at an early age.

Shirley, the eldest of two daughters, rose above her circumstances. At school, she was not the “brightest pea in the pod,” but her teachers told her that she had the potential to do so much more; this encouraged her to go beyond Matric to University. Through sheer grit and determination she pushed through and graduated with a Doctorate in Education from Harvard University. She came back to South Africa to live her dream of making a difference through education.

This new journey was full of promise as Shirley set out to apply for a job at the Department of Education with her UWC, UNISA and Harvard degrees. She was disappointed when she was told by the Education Department that she did not have the right profile for the job.  There were many the ups and downs, and Kevin, her husband, selflessly supported her as they ventured into the unknown.

Huge opportunities arose and they relocated to Pretoria, and later, to Johannesburg. What was meant to be a 3-year stay became a 17-year stay.  Shirley held several Human Resources Director positions in companies such as Reckitt Benkiser, SARS, Nedbank, Standard Bank and now Woolworths Holdings. She also started her own business called Shirley Zinn Consulting, has been appointed as a non-executive director onto several boards, and is an Extraordinary Professor at University of Pretoria and an Adjunct Professor at Univiversity of Cape Town.

Holiday time became even more special as the family enjoyed the vacations with family in Cape Town.

It was on one of their holidays in Cape Town that their lives changed forever. Their only son died on the scene in a car crash on 3 January 2003. They had just said goodbye to family members and later that day, those family members found Kevin with serious injuries, and Shirley in a critical condition in Vincent Palotti Hospital, unaware that her 7 year old son had passed away, news which Kevin and her Mom had to break.

This devastating reality gave swimming upstream a new meaning. Swimming upstream became a way of life. Losing her beloved Jamie, their only child, put the latter to test.

This book was intended to inspire hope particularly among young South Africans. Shirley’s life story is a testimony to the fact that education is vital. This is a story of hope, courage, perseverance and finding the strength inside to move forward despite the tragedy, the set-backs, and the pain that life might bring.

It also encourages anyone who has lost a significant person in their lives, that there is life after the death of a loved one. One can never get over the passing of a loved one, but one can move forward and work through it every day. It is critical to surround yourself with people who inspire and uplift you.

Life will never be the same life without the loved ones who have passed, but we have the choice to choose the kind of life we want to live and never forget our loved ones and the joy they brought to us. One can live a life of meaning and purpose through making  differrence in the lives of others.

This book is a beautiful gift.

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Prof Shirley Zinn is currently the Group Head of Human Resources at Woolworths Holdings Limited. Prior to this, she was the Head of Human Resources of Standard Bank South Africa and Deputy Global Head of Human Resources for the Standard Bank Group. She also registered her own company: Shirley Zinn Consulting that provides consulting and advisory services in HR, Transformation, Leadership and Education.

zinn@gmail.com

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