Kagiso Trust's Kgotso Schoeman.
Against the backdrop of a spate of court actions over basic education, one organisation is saying "slowly, slowly, easy does it".
"We need organisations that are good at keeping the government accountable," Kagiso Trust chief executive Kgotso Schoeman said, "but you also need strategising. There needs to be a parallel process. At Kagiso Trust we ask ourselves: 'How do we help the government spend its money?'
"We never make the government feel threatened. We try to build a strong and trusting relationship with it and only then do we start the robust discussions."
In March this year, non-governmental organisation Equal Education filed papers in a bid to force Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to establish and publish minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure, Section 27 launched an urgent application in April against Motshekga and the Limpopo department of education over their failure to procure and deliver textbooks in the province and, in May, the Legal Resources Centre in Grahamstown filed an application to compel the Eastern Cape education department to fill vacant teaching posts.
Established in the 1980s under apartheid, the Kagiso Trust was largely a conduit for the European Union and the Japanese government to disburse funds to "work with people to achieve a society which will offer liberty, justice and freedom from poverty". The organisation funded and supported education, human rights and freedom of the press, among other things.
In the early 1990s, with South Africa moving towards democracy, the EU ceased funding the trust and an investment company, Kagiso Trust Investments, was set up to raise funds and make the organisation financially sustainable.
"Government officials have huge egos … I've learned that you always need to humble yourself in their company," Schoeman said.
"We tell them: 'We don't have the answers, but we think you, the government, has them, but maybe you're not implementing them properly.'
"The moment the government feels you are imposing on them, they will block you and you will spend your money flying up and down for meetings and getting nowhere."
When the trust realised that it could no longer be "everything to everyone", as it had been in the 1980s, it decided to narrow its focus on education.
It developed the Beyers Naudé school development programme, a four-year, step-by-step, rewards-driven process with a main focus on conflict resolution.
The trust identifies poorly performing schools and enters into an agreement with provincial educational authorities, which stipulates that the department matches the trust's funding "cent for cent".
A team begins by tackling conflict among school staff, who are taken with selected parents and pupils on a weekend retreat.
Experts are engaged to help with school management, mathematics, science and English. A matric pass rate target is set and, if the school achieves it, the last phase of the programme kicks in — it is rewarded with the development of infrastructure, including science and computer laboratories and libraries.
Schoeman said the retreats were "where we get down to the real nitty-gritty". "We sit down and we have difficult conversations — the kind that provincial officials don't have with them."
Participants are asked questions such as: "What are two things you do personally that makes your school underperform?"
As difficult truths have come to light, it has become clear that creating a safe space for staff to talk about interpersonal problems is essential for the smooth running of a school.
At one retreat, it was revealed that a teacher had started a food garden, but any progress it made was consistently dashed. "She would close the gate to the garden so goats couldn't come in and destroy it," Schoeman said. "But another teacher admitted he would come in every day and open the gate so the goats came in and ate the vegetables. He broke down and said he did this out of jealousy."
In another school, a principal felt a serious lack of support from the community and his staff because he was not from the town. During the retreat, one of his teachers admitted to inciting pupils to kill him.
"The retreats force people to reflect and sometimes nasty stuff comes out," Schoeman said.
The programme had resounding success, he said, and had raised the matric pass rate in most of the 191 schools it was run.
It is most evident in the Free State, where five schools had a matric pass rate of below 35% and all of them increased it to between 75% and 95%.
But, Schoeman said, there had been some serious challenges, particularly when provinces did not keep their side of the bargain.
"We did the programmes in all the provinces. We rewarded the schools and hoped that the government would see this and be excited. But in some provinces the government didn't pay up," he said.
Another type of problem was illustrated when five computers from a computer laboratory built for a Free State school as a reward were stolen.
"We were convinced that someone in the community knew where the computers were. We gave them two options: 'In the next three months, you as a community go and get those computers back. If you don't, we will take all of the computers in the laboratory back.'"
The computers were not returned, so Schoeman arranged for the remaining equipment to be removed.
"We got calls from people saying 'you are punishing the learners for something they didn't do'.
"Our view is that communities must take responsibility for the things we give them."
The outcome was that parents "came together" and arranged to pay for a permanent security guard at the school.
"We thought that was an amazing achievement. This idea that communities can't be held accountable for crime doesn't make sense."
Generating its own funds
Since 1993, the trust has been generating its own funds to pay for this and other programmes, such as the Eric Molobi scholarship programme, which sponsors disadvantaged scholars to get a tertiary education degree or diploma, primarily in the property or construction sector.
The trust recently decided to share its investment model. "We thought: Why don't we go and assist a few organisations to replicate the Kagiso Trust Investment model in other countries? Can we assist NGOs to reach this level of sustainability? Yes, we can," Schoeman said.
The organisation identified Kenya, Zambia and Ghana for teaching NGOs there how to be financially sustainable.
"We will help them set up an investment company and the trust will own some of this company. We don't want to own the majority stake — our main priority is to bring skills to the country. We will be holding these NGOs' hands the whole way," Schoeman said.
"You need certainty in an NGO, not just depend on grants — that makes the organisation vulnerable.
"We are not sure if it will work in other countries but we will try."