Northern KwaZulu-Natal is renowned for its excellent conservation initiatives, but the people living there are some of the poorest in South Africa. The uMkhanyakude District Municipality is one of the nine poorest in the country, with 80% of households living below the poverty line.
For the half a million locals, opportunities are few, especially at the area’s parks. The parks need skilled workers: rangers, clerks and conservationists.
But locals do not have the resources to attain these skills. This forces the parks to look further afield for workers, which means their full development potential is not being realised.
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority stepped in four years ago with its higher education access programme. South Africa’s first designated World Heritage Site, the park is one of the only sources of economic activity in the area.
As a parastatal, part of its mandate is to empower historically disadvantaged communities. Fourteen of the communities surrounding it work with the park because they are land claimants. It is these that the programme mainly targeted, with a burgeoning programme to give locals the education they needed to work in their park.
The programme started in 2010 with 10 students and a grant that would last until 2016.
In 2014 there are 47 undergraduates supported through its work, as well as interns from the South African National Botanical Institute’s Groen Sebenza programme. Their joint goal is to make people realise the value of their environment and make it a source of economic activity in their communities.
Students are currently sourced among undergraduates at public universities and universities of technology. For now they are part-time, and work in tandem with the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.
To get experience, the students have a two-week holiday assignment in the park each year, as well as a wilderness experience. This allows them inside natural areas they would have otherwise seen only from across the fence.
To date 15 students have graduated through the programme. Four of these are interns at iSimangaliso. Three are completing undergraduate studies and five are employed.
What really sets the 20-month programme aside is the hunger of students who get a chance – it boasts a 95% retention rate and a 90% pass rate. Ten percent of courses are passed with distinction.
This is because the programme includes academic support for the students, as well as workshops. Students are therefore given personal attention and support.