Canny entrepreneur Zakes Ncanywa has offered study guides and cheap computers to a resource-starved town. Nick Mulgrew spent some time with him.
Zakes Ncanywa strides into the staff room of a dusty high school just outside of Peddie, a small town in the south of the Eastern Cape. He has arrived unannounced, but it does not take long for the teachers, lost at their desks among piles of ink-marked papers and books, to notice him. He is a man of great presence and upturned collars, a megaphone voice and teeth like pearls. The teachers begin to turn to him, one by one, exchanging small greetings. He begins an impromptu pitch.
“Good morning, teachers. My name is Zakes, and I’m here to tell you that I will soon be printing books and study guides in town.
“You and your learners will be able to come and buy everything needed for their studies from me, whenever you want it.”
He holds up a ring-bound pack of past matric exam papers, its transparent cover shimmering lightly. He passes it to a teacher, the school’s deputy principal, standing next to him. She flicks through it, puts it down and looks at him, one eyebrow raised.
“Where did you print this?” she asks.
“At home,” Ncanywa replies.
“A real businessman doesn’t work from home,” a teacher from the back of the room playfully goads him. Ncanywa pauses.
Too good to be true
It is true: he is not really a businessperson. He is a physiologist trying to become a businessperson. After two years working at a pharmaceutical corporation in Cape Town, he has moved back to his mother’s hometown to establish himself as an information communications technology entrepreneur throughout the rural Eastern Cape, a place where he believes there is more demand for computers – and fewer people selling them – than anywhere else in South Africa.
But that answer is too long for now.
“I’m currently looking for some place in town to have as my base,” he replies.
The teachers sit back in their chairs and begin talking among themselves.
To many of them in Peddie, this seems a little too good to be true. It is difficult to blame them: this school, like many others in town, is dealing with a chronic undersupply of educational and technological resources. These politically aware educators have been let down by confident and articulate men like Ncanywa before, although usually they have been dressed in expensive suits, not a polo shirt and blue jeans.
Shambolic education system
One day in June last year, President Jacob Zuma and Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, currently under fire for grossly mismanaging the delivery of textbooks to thousands of schoolchildren in Limpopo, visited three schools in Peddie.
At a high school on the other side of town, Zuma promised that a long-unfinished computer lab would be completed and furnished, and 20 computers would be given to schools in Peddie; it was a bid to lay claims to rest that the government was doing little to save the Eastern Cape’s shambolic education system, which was placed under national administration last year.
Come October, the computers and a haul of sports equipment were delivered to the schools, but not before the local government spent R200000 on a bash to celebrate the handover.
Motshekga and Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, both listed as speakers at the event, did not to turn up. In their place was Xoliswa Tom, the Eastern Cape sports, recreation, arts and culture MEC, who told the assembled crowd: “A school is not complete if it does not have a library, computer laboratory and sports field.”
That leaves many schools incomplete in Peddie then.
For one, this school, established in the 1940s, has no computer lab and no properly functional library. And, although Ncanywa cannot fix the ill-maintained netball courts behind the school, he can address other needs.
Filling the gaps
“I also sell computers,” he remarks off-handedly.
The teachers perk up.
I was in Peddie to do research for a Cape Town start-up project called Paperight, which has recently built a website that allows any business with a printer to print books legally for their customers on demand. Its aim is to fill the gaps left by traditional methods of book distribution, which are historically geared to urban centres and the middle class.
Educational publishers estimate that 30% of their most-prescribed materials are unauthorised photocopies. Throughout the country, pupils and students photocopy books, not because of a disdain for the copyright law, but chiefly because of a lack of access to the materials they need, physically, financially or otherwise.
Exacerbating this is the government’s inability to distribute educational materials online adequately. An investigation by Paperight found that more than 100 past matric exam papers, memorandums and other documents were incorrectly linked, or missing, on the department of basic education’s monolingual, jargon-drenched website – a disheartening first port of call for any learner looking for resources.
Visits to branches of the Western Cape department of education, including its learning resources branch, EduMedia, and its central offices in the Cape Town city centre, were unsatisfactory.
Not one government body, for any cost, is readily able to offer pupils complete sets of matric resources.
Ncanywa is an early adopter of Paperight’s technology – the first in the Eastern Cape, in fact. I came here to try to understand the problems that people experience when trying to access educational resources and the internet.
Given that Peddie is in the heart of Ngqushwa, a poor district of 92000, deep in what is becoming entrenched as South Africa’s poorest province, I was expecting the problems to stem more from a lack of money or jobs than anything else.
But the problems in Peddie are more about infrastructure than they are about personal economics, with mismanagement and a lack of governmental resources exacerbated by layer upon layer of infrastructural deficiency, which are all vividly illustrated by Ncanywa’s fledgling enterprise.
Ncanywa lives and works, as the teachers found out, in a spacious rondawel attached to his mother’s home, among the hills and grass at the edge of Magqazeni, 5 km from Peddie’s town centre.
“Welcome to my crib,” he says as he walks through the front door, “and my office”.
He draws open the curtains to illuminate stacks of refurbished Dell computers lying next to his bed, and bulky cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors and other bits of technology scattered around on the floor. It is an astonishing sight.
“And it’s all legit,” he says.
His business model is simple. Handling everything himself, he buys refurbished computers from a depot in Cape Town and resells them in Peddie and its surrounding areas, using only A4 black-and-white posters stuck up in the town centre to advertise. Word of his prices travel fast, though: his computers are only R1500 each, including the monitor, software and peripherals. His phone rings with “please call mes” all day.
“There are a lot of people wanting technology here,” he says with a grin.
But, although business is good on the computer side, realising his long-term goal of establishing Peddie’s first internet café and a copy shop-cum-bookstore is proving to be problematic, partly because Peddie lacks access to a Telkom ADSL exchange, but more so because other broadband alternatives are unwieldy, unaffordable and, in many cases, unsuitable for commercial use.
In practical terms, it takes Ncanywa 20 minutes to access his email from his home computer using a USB modem, itself an unaffordable expense for many in Peddie.
It is frustrating, but waiting 20 minutes for a page to load is worlds better than it was when Ncanywa was completing his studies in mole-cular oncology years ago. Checking his email then was a ritual that could cost him up to R80 – the cost of taxi fare to and from King William’s Town, a round trip of 110km, and an hour’s access at an internet café.
But for those studying through correspondence with no access to the internet through PCs, the rituals remain much the same.
“People here deserve better,” Ncanywa says. “Life can be good here, and it is, you know, but it could be so much easier with a few simple things.
“I can help people get PCs here, but now how are they supposed to access the internet? I want to be able to help schools and start my business, but I can’t without the right infrastructure. We need more infrastructure.”
It will work well
Back at the school, Ncanywa carries three computers, one by one, into the staff room. He connects a monitor to its tower, and the tower to a plug.
The teacher who teased Ncanywa about working from home skips over and takes a seat in front of the screen.
“Look, it’s not the best computer,” Ncanywa says to her, showing her the ropes of the word processor, “but it will work well.”
“This is great,” she says, smiling. “I don’t know much about computers, but I’ll learn.”
“This is good, you see,” Ncanywa says, walking past throngs of children in the school’s central quad. “Now that they have these computers, they’ll tell other schools that don’t have enough, and they’ll hopefully come to me. Things are going to change.”
This is good news for Peddie, and for Ncanywa. But even a Ncanywa in every small town in South Africa will do nothing about the country’s inequalities in information distribution if the entrepreneurial verve and technological thirst of citizens isn’t matched by broad-based infrastructural investment.