Unisa profs step out of class to teach poor

With thousands of students countrywide protesting against being excluded from higher learning, a novel programme has quietly been taking education to the people. For free.

Since 2009, professors from Unisa have been leading classes in impoverished communities, sharing their knowledge with an audience hungry for an education.

To date, the Chance 2 Advance programme has reached more than 70 000 people, with the demand for classes in everything from early childhood development to marketing showing no sign of abating.

Initiated by Unisa and helped by nongovernmental organisation World Vision, the programme sees classrooms filled with people from a variety of age groups and circumstances. But each is intent on one thing: improving their situation.

Dr Genevieve James, Unisa’s acting deputy director of community engagement, came up with the project. She told the Mail & Guardian that, ironically, getting funding for such projects had become harder since movements such as #FeesMustFall and the tough austerity measures that higher education institutions were facing.

“The communities are hungry. Why is it that, two decades after democracy, it’s still a struggle for those who need it most to get access to the education environment?” she asked.

James said the classes are designed to help those in need to be active participants in, and contributors to, the economy.

Grateful students 
The M&G went to Orange Farm, 45km southwest of Johannesburg, to sit in on some of the weekday lectures. Anthony Mofokeng, who was attending the early childhood development classes, said he was astounded by the professor’s ability to teach what could be a year-long course over three days. “These courses are [usually] very expensive; colleges in Lenasia offer them at between R13 000 to R15 000.”

Graduates receive Unisa-branded course certificates.

In another part of the township, others were being given lectures on how to run small businesses when the M&G stopped by.

Participant Jabulani Dube runs a small graphic design business on the side when he’s not packing groceries at the nearby Shoprite.

Although the salary he earns at the supermarket feeds his business, it hasn’t really taken off because he lacked the necessary marketing knowledge. That has now changed.

“I’ve learned a lot in the past few days. I had a mind plan and not a business plan, and now I know how to draft a business plan. I wanted to study further but couldn’t afford it, and these classes will help me make my business profitable,” he said.

Ronnie Khoza said he was grateful for the opportunity to learn and acquire new skills through the programme, and Samke Zobe’s belief in building a prosperous business within the next two years is sky-high after attending the free classes.

The programme’s self-empowerment focus can be seen in the example of entrepreneur Doris Mokobong, whose small business has thrived thanks to support from World Vision as well as her own determination.

Eight years ago, she was struggling to make ends meet and considered herself lucky to get the odd temporary commission-based job. Today, on a one-hectare plot at the back of Langalibalele Dube Primary School, she grows an assortment of vegetables including peppers, spinach, tomatoes, beans, cabbage, chillies, spring onions and carrots.

Business is good. The demand for her organic home-grown produce is so great that she supplies the local Pick n Pay and Spar supermarkets and also sells processed and unprocessed vegetables to people in the area, along with bottled atchar.

But business wasn’t always booming. She started operations in 2008 with 16 other people, but one by one they dropped out, leaving her to tend the crops alone. Her solitary work would continue for three years.

Admitting that “this gardening thing is hard”, Mokobong refused to throw in the towel, determined to succeed – which she has. It’s no accident that the business is named Perseverance.

The drought has been problematic, she says, as it’s been a battle to meet the quotas sought by the supermarkets she supplies. Her hydroponic system helps, but it has its limits and is already collapsing in parts.

‘Government needs to do more’ 
World Vision chief executive Paula Barnard believes the government needs to do more to grow the small business sector as there are still too many legislative obstacles hampering growth.

“If you want to create wealth, it won’t happen through tenderpreneurship but through the small business sector,” she said.

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Nelly Shamase
Nelly is a regular contributor to the Mail & Guardian.

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