Fifty years ago a young boy called Cyril Ramaphosa entered the Tshilidzi Primary School in Chiawelo, Soweto, and immediately felt at home.
This month the multimillionaire businessperson returned to Tshilidzi to launch the Back-to-School-for-a-Day campaign, an initiative of the Adopt-a-School Foundation, which he established in 2001.
“Tshilidzi was a cradle to me. It shaped me into who I am today. It helped to connect me with my culture and the language we spoke,” said Ramaphosa, in whose honour the pupils performed a traditional Venda tshigombela dance.
The campaign is a call on individuals to visit their old schools, or local ones, on the first Friday in May, and to share whatever they can. Companies have also been invited to participate. According to the foundation, this year hundreds of volunteers and 16 companies went to 51 disadvantaged schools in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.
Ramaphosa hopes to treble that number next year.
Tshilidzi’s former headmistress, Stella Nemukula, described how the foundation was begun after she requested the school’s most famous pupil to donate a new fax machine. Since then, Tshilidzi has had its science laboratory revamped, gained a library, six new classrooms and an administration building.
Nemukula said it was not just about the money. The personal involvement of former pupils such as Ramaphosa could inspire today’s pupils by showing them that “people who are on top” did not have to go to “expensive schools” to become successful.
In the past decade, the foundation has supported 130 schools. “When we started we focused on infrastructure, but we realised that building the future needs a lot more than bricks and mortar,” Ramaphosa said. “We then looked at the academic and social aspects of children’s learning.”
Ramaphosa’s initiative has inspired other leading figures to follow suit, most notably Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille, who plans to adopt a school close to her home.
“The mayor is supportive of any initiative that has the potential to improve the learning environment in our schools,” said De Lille’s spokesperson, Solly Malatsi.
But education consultant Helene Perold sounded a note of caution. “Mr Ramaphosa’s example is important and has to be commended. But he can’t do it alone and we can’t expect celebrities to volunteer all the time,” she said.
It takes a whole community
“It takes a whole community to raise a child. In our history, communities were very involved in education, but since 1994 we have given all responsibility to the government.
“Schools in Limpopo don’t have textbooks. I don’t know how you can deliver beer but not textbooks.”
Oupa Ngwenya, who heads corporate communications at the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, agreed that leaders and celebrities could “shine a light on the path” in terms of transforming schools for the better — as long as they focused on the cause, not their own glory. He called for “success stories” to be replicated in those parts of the country “where they are most needed”.
In the Eastern Cape, health spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo has tried to do that by embarking on his own back-to-school initiative.
The Sizwe Kupelo Foundation, which provides health and educational assistance to the disadvantaged, was formally established last year — although it began in 2008, when Kupelo received an award for “service beyond the call of duty” from the provincial health department.
“This is a personal initiative that I started after I realised that education is in a poor condition,” said Kupelo. “In 2008 we had 100 kids. This increased to 500 the following year when Nestlé and other businesses supported us.”
Since then, the initiative has repaired a gravel road to connect six villages to Libode’s St Barnabas Hospital. And, in partnership with Sonke Technologies, the foundation has donated 50 computers to 10 local schools and funded teacher-training programmes.
Government cannot do everything
“This year the programme has also raised R100 000 to fund matric pupils from disadvantaged rural schools who will obtain tertiary qualifications in 2013,” Kupelo said. “Government cannot do everything.”
The ANC Youth League has a number of programmes to support teachers and pupils in rural areas, according to its spokesperson, Magdalene Moonsamy. “We focus on the proper distribution of books, the eradication of mud schools and [we lobby for] free education at tertiary level.”
In Mpumalanga, the league not only organises donations, but also encourages volunteers to coach pupils in science and accounting during the school holidays, its provincial secretary, Clarence Maseko, said.
“We have also run an anti-liquor campaign to increase awareness about the dangers of alcohol,” he added.
Speaking at Tshilidzi Primary, Ramaphosa urged the pupils to follow their dreams. “You must believe in yourself,” he said, “just like a high jumper ready to take the highest jump.”
This year’s Back-to-School campaign will focus on literacy — and Ramaphosa was reminded why. “Who has read three books this year?” he asked the grade sevens. There was a long pause. Finally, only a few hands were raised hesitantly. – Andlie Nayika