Transforming Education in South Africa’s Rural Eastern Cape
Lihle Mbikwana grew up in Xhora Mouth in the rural Eastern Cape. As a child, he went to school for more than an hour, which is considered short in that area. The teachers had to drive three hours over gravel from Mtata. They rarely appeared.
“Most of the time we only had school once a week,” says Mbikwana. “We would just go to school to eat and come back.”
He passed primary school. At the age of 15, his parents sent him to the Free State to study at secondary school. They did not want him to follow the path of most young people in the area, drop out of school and go to work as a fruit picker in the Western Cape.
When he went to grammar school, he could not read or write.
“I thought I was the stupid student in class. It was really bad,” he says. He was about to drop out, but luckily his English and Xhosa teachers saw his potential and encouraged him to continue. He passed the certificate.
Mbikwana is now the head of the Vibrant Village program run by Bulungula Incubator (BI), a non-profit organization founded in 2006 from several development programs in four villages in the Xora Maute administrative district.
Mbikwana says his school experience motivated him to develop the education system in the community. If he were a child today, he could attend one of the five early childhood development centers established by the Bulungula Incubator, with quality teaching from trained practitioners and two nutritious meals a day.
At primary school he will now have access to educational support services. After completing Grade 9, he will be able to enroll at Bulungula College, an independent high school that graduated its first cohort of students in 2021.
About 5,000 people live in the administrative district of Xora-Mout. Historically, it is part of the Transkei, the “black homeland” under apartheid, dotted with traditional Xhosa villages. Most of Xhora Mouth is without electricity or water.
In Mbashe Local Municipality, to which Xhora Mouth falls, 96% of households have a monthly income of less than 1,600 Rand. Only 13% of people have a matrix.
In 2002, when the founders of Bulungula Incubator first arrived in the village, the local primary school was a crumbling mud hut and teachers only came five days a month.
Turning on the light
“We decided to showcase great education,” says Regane Woodroffe, co-founder and director of Bulungula Incubator. Jujurha Preschool was opened in 2009 and is managed by a committee of parents from the community. Parents volunteered to prepare meals and make toys, and trained practitioners were hired to offer an appropriate early childhood development (ECD) program.
Over the next two years, parents witnessed the impact of a quality RDV education. Woodroffe remembers one mother saying that the school “put a light in my child’s eyes.” Many parents in the village could neither read nor write.
At the behest of community members and a local chief, Bulungula Incubator helped open four additional RDV centers, all run by parents in rondavels donated by the community and taught by qualified RDV practitioners. Children receive two full meals and a complex of primary medical care.
A total of 140 children are currently enrolled in ECD centers and 820 children have graduated since 2009.
In Xhora Mouth, the Bulungula Incubator has developed a successful pilot project with a clear model of how parent-led community ECD centers can be established in other parts of the country. Based on their experience, they created a toolkit of the WFD program to help other communities, NGOs and government agencies establish similar centers.
By the time children finish Grade R at ECD centres, they are fully prepared for primary school and are already beginning to read and write. However, the area’s four public schools remain under-resourced and rarely open on Fridays.
To improve the level of primary school education in the region, Bulungula Incubator decided to partner with the Department of Education and offer support services through the iiTablet Tshomiz e-learning program.
Mbikwana showed GroundUp Melibuwa Primary School, where about thirty students, each with a tablet, were engaged in independent, multimedia, interactive courses.
These courses complement the math and language curriculum. There are 23 trained facilitators who coordinate the program and assist students at the four sites where the program operates. Students have their own profiles and login details, making it easy to track their progress and provide feedback to teachers.
Masende Ngkola, iiTablet Tshomiz Program Site Manager, said: “We are here to bridge the gap between teachers and learners… As facilitators, we want learners to know that we are not educators. We are tshomiz. to help and make learning interesting.”
A total of 1,350 students in grades 1 through 12 participate in the program with more than 220 tablets. Each student receives two additional hours of instruction per week through this program.
Coping with high school dropouts
Data from the Bulungula Incubator over the past 15 years shows that an average of six people from the community go on to graduate school each year, and 95% of students from the area do not pass grade 12.
Among the reasons for this is low-quality primary schooling, which leaves pupils ill-prepared for secondary school. The long shadow of the apartheid-era Bantu education system also plays a negative role. There are four primary schools in the area for grades 1–7, one “senior high school” for grades 8 and 9, and the nearest “senior high school” that offers a certificate is so far away that students have to rent accommodation, usually thatched a mat on the floor in someone’s house.
Running away from home is an attractive prospect for young people who can afford it, but the environment they find themselves in when they leave is not conducive to learning.
“Because most families don’t have a matric, the value of education is still not fully understood,” says Lindiwe Tukane, head of the Bulungula Incubator’s education program.
Apart from social grants, the main source of income for the people has been the mining of platinum deposits and more recently fruit picking in the Western Cape. Matric is not a prerequisite for such jobs.
Bulungula College has two main objectives: to enable young people to pass their certification and to provide them with the necessary skills and motivation to achieve skilled jobs or start their own businesses.
It offers students in grades 10–12 a quality education, with about 150 students registered this year. Last year, her first cohort of matrics graduated from high school. Thirty students from the Class of 2021 achieved matric certificates, 24 more than the community average. Only one of the applicants’ parents completed high school, and most parents did not complete elementary school.
The college is a donor-funded free school that operates on a budget of 2.7 million rand a year — a cost of about 19,000 rand per student, equivalent to the government spending on public schools. It does not yet receive the student grant that is provided by the government to eligible independent schools.
Bulungula College admission criteria is not based on academic merit and anyone from Xhora Mouth can enter. Half of the students in the matric class of 2021 were 20 years of age or older, and were several years out of high school.
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Get the latest news from Africa straight to your inbox Unfortunately, the educational gaps were too great for some, and 32% failed. Since then, Bulungula College has helped two additional students from the Class of 2021 enter graduate school through the Second Chance Program.
After school, what?
The question for many young people, whether they will pass or not, is what they will do when they finish school.Mining is no longer a surefire path to employment. Apple picking in the Western Cape is seen as a faster way to earn a living, instead of doing maths in the hope of finding a better job.
The Bulungula Incubator Job Skills and Entrepreneurship Program (JSEP) is for young people who cannot pass the exam due to educational gaps, as well as those who have recently passed the exam but have not yet been able to enter higher education.
Distance learning offers accredited courses in a variety of subjects including agriculture, craft skills, and entrepreneurship and business skills. The driving school offers lessons and helps students get their licenses.
JSEP participants then complete Yes4Youth-funded internships at businesses in the region or at Bulungula Incubator projects.
Students are encouraged and supported to choose their own paths. Future full-time employment opportunities are scarce and learners are encouraged to start their own businesses.
Siyamthanda Dibanta started teaching at Jujuhra Preschool in 2009. In 2021, she became the first person in her family to pass the certificate. Today, she is part of JSEP and an intern at the ii Tablet Tshomiz program. She says she dreams of getting a law degree. “Because of the history of our village, many old people who worked hard in the mines are struggling for their pension. I want to fight for the workers,” she says.
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