Harnessing youthful energy

Founded by Rob Taylor, a former director of DiData, Columba leadership initiates change through youth empowerment. A unique programme tailored specifically for South African high school learners, Columba goes into impoverished and struggling schools and activates leadership qualities in grade nine and 10 pupils.

Through a selection process in which learners motivate their ideas for change, 12 pupils are selected. These, plus three senior staff members (including the school principal) are removed from their environment and taken to a comfortable lodge where they undergo an intensive six-day course that introduces core values including awareness, focus, creativity, integrity, perseverance and service.

These values are explored through personal and team work, examining lessons from nature, history and culture to illustrate that every human has, as Columba says, “greatness within them, and the ability to implement change within themselves and their communities”.

“Many institutions think of young people as problems,” said Taylor at a 2015 fundraising pitch in Silicon Valley. “We think of them as a can of soda that’s been shaken up and is ready to explode.

“The only way we can create a society we all want to live in is to get as many people working on it as possible,” he continues. “So we were lucky to find a model that works to get large numbers of young people to start being the change they want to see in their communities.”

He adds that working with the department of education to empower youth has revealed powerful potential. “The youth have enormous potential to drive positive social change,” he says. “They did it in 1976! To be driven by a desire to serve their own communities rather than just self-interest is the key.”

From 2009 to early 2016, over 3 500 future leaders (20% of whom are educators) have participated in the Columba programme. It’s estimated they have an impact on a further 70 000 learners through outreach and mentorship. After participating in the programme, 95% of learners reported increased confidence; 93% were inspired in terms of education; 96% were future orientated and 95% were inspired to do more for their school and community.

Manyano High School in Khayelitsha was beset by gangsterism and violence, but went from chaos to success following engagement with the Columba programme, and the matric pass rate increased from 42% to 81%.

“When I took on the role of principal in 2010 I was not ready,” said principal Nokuzola Magaza. “I closed the door on my pupils, but after going through the Columba programme I realised I had to open up to them, I had to develop a mother-child relationship with them where I love and support them and look for the good in them.”

“If I look back I’m able to say we’re making things happen,” says Sipho Khomo, principal of Sibusiswe Comprehensive Technical High School KZN, also part of the Columba programme. “We’re laying a solid foundation thanks to Columba. We’re now value driven. We have learners who know what they want and they’re able to get it and that makes me a happy principal.”


“Before the Columba Academy, I was like many young people, living for the now, taking my education and my future for granted,” says 22-year-old Caroline Mathonsi. “I was an average student in a poorly performing school. I was one of those learners who was always late for class. I was also not interested in working with other people. I never thought I could be a leader — that was for clever or important people.

“Then I went through the Columba programme and came to understand that leadership is first and foremost about leading one’s self, and I started to focus on time management and getting to class on time. I also connected with a sense of purpose. I realised that if you want to achieve things of significance, you need to involve others.”

This attitude served to make Caroline a highly respected role model at her school and a key contributor to the community-based organisation New Breed Generation. She ended matric as the top female learner at Altmont Technical High School in Soweto, and is now completing the traineeship component of her national diploma in chemical engineering.

“Ultimately, leadership for me is about having a vision, being a pioneer and serving others,” she says. “Personal development and service connect: you grow through your service to others. When you impart knowledge or experience, when you give that away to others, when you serve others, you grow.”


The version of this article that appeared in the Mail & Guardian on November 25 2016 incorrectly listed Columba as the runner-up of the Investing In The Future Youth Development Award. The Mail & Guardian apologises for the error.

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