Giving back to the community

Pretoria-based electrical engineer Nhlanhla Maphalala loves Bergville, where he grew up, to such an extent that he is spending much of his free time and own money on career awareness expos for learners.

It is a project he hopes will have many positive returns, for generations to come, in this underprivileged region. Bergville is a rural area near Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal. Maphalala (31) matriculated from Amangwane High School in Zwelisha in 1994.
After graduating from the then University of Natal, he worked for companies in the Free State and Gauteng. On subsequent visits to Bergville, he was faced with mounting curiosity from the local children about the career path he had followed, as well as questions on other careers.

He says that, while he tried his best to answer questions about careers in commerce from a young learner, ‘I could see a dissatisfied face”. He then decided to start an initiative to raise awareness about careers and studying opportunities in South Africa, and intended holding career talks at a school. ‘After emailing some of my friends whom I had grown up with and who had become university graduates, there was a feeling that this initiative should be extended to a few schools in the area,” as there was much interest.

He and his young colleagues, who were then all under the age of 30, formed a not-for-profit company, Bergville Community Builders (BCB), with the intention of raising sponsorships for their project. In 2003, they held their first career expo. ‘At the first expo, we had five schools attending. At the next one, we had nine, then 14 and, in January this year, 18,” says Maphalala, adding that the interest from the community is constantly growing.

He explained that his organisation’s main objective is to help grade 10, 11 and 12 learners by motivating, sharpening and broadening their dreams and tertiary career knowledge.

This is being done through the Career Expos they hold. ‘At these expos, qualified professionals are invited to share information concerning their qualifications. Information includes entry requirements to tertiary institutions, choosing the correct courses, the importance of working hard and experiences at university and work. The professionals give advice to learners regarding finance for their studies, applications for finance and different types of finance available.”

Expos are also held for grade nine learners in September, as they are on the brink of making their subject choices.

BCB also tries to piggy-back on school sports trips by arranging tours of companies such as Sasol, providing learners with exposure to the workplace.

Maphalala says his organisation recognises the skills shortage in maths and science and it is working on a pilot project to bring in unemployed graduates living in Bergville who have technical skills to help upgrade the maths and science skills of learners.

‘We will be focusing on grade 11 and 12 learners at five schools. They will be assisted by these graduates after school hours and on weekends. The graduates will cover concepts in more detail and will give learners examples.”

Learners also get exposure to discussions on entrepreneurship. ‘Things have changed in South Africa. In the past, you got your degree and worked for a company. We’re trying to instil the idea that you don’t have to work for someone and that learners should get ideas and start their own companies. We motivate them to think out of the box.”

Teachers are also benefiting from the organisation’s activities: the BCB has the support of the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers, which sponsors teachers’ trips to science workshops around the country. The BCB is, meanwhile, working with teachers to make the teaching of maths more interactive.

The BCB will soon be starting a mentorship programme through which it will identify former Bergville learners who are studying at higher education institutions. ‘We want to visit them to find out how they are coping. Someone might be struggling with engineering and I might be able to help. If we become visible to them, they’ll know BCB will help them and they will become BCB members one day.”

For Maphalala, these initiatives are a result of ‘recognising what the community has done for you. The fact is that when you are growing up, the community embraces you and points out your wrongdoings. In 50 years from now, we would not want the community to collapse. People in Bergville are very poor. You can’t hand out money to everyone.”

To ensure that there are improvements to the area, the intention is to make people think about studying and to get them to think out of the box and to plough back so that the place becomes better, he says.

‘We run the organisation from our [own] pockets. I’m 31 and poor,” he laughs.

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