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By: Bethany Pitt

Bethany Pitt

Background information

Tembisa is an informal settlement, based in East Rand of Gauteng. Education is seriously inadequate within this settlement. Over 10% of the population has no education at all. Less than 5% have tertiary education. There is a serious need for resources.

Within this informal settlement, a school has arisen under the vision of Love Trust (a non-profit organisation that serves vulnerable children and their communities). In January 2010, the beginning of Nokuphila began. 45 preschoolers started this year between the ages of 4-5. The school offers quality education, Christian values, meals, transport, after care and extra curricular activities. One of the school’s aims is also to be a model for other school plants, offering quality education, around the country. (Source:http://www.lovetrust.co.za/ )


I recently set up a telephonic interview with Sarah Cairns a member on the board of Nokuphila. Her personal story and evaluation of South African schooling was fascinating and enlightening.

Sarah-an outgoing, witty, driven and straightforward person-started out as a starry-eyed law student planning to ‘save the world’ as she puts it. Her realisation that law was not the way to ‘save the world’ caused her to change her course. Her desire to help people led her into other fields and travelling before she found her place as a CSI (Corporate Social Investor) handling financial projects for companies such as Anglo-American and De Beers. Some of the experience she gained was managing projects within rural areas of South Africa dealing with health care, education, etc. After this she decided to set up her own business which involved helping other companies set up their systems of BEE correctly. She has been running this for ten years. In the meantime, together, her and her husband have adopted two beautiful kids, Max and Holly. Her main project now is motherhood and she has downscaled on her business.

Me: Education in South Africa is a very controversial topic. Some schools are thriving while most are barely surviving. What is your view on the education system?

Sarah: ‘An absolute disaster!’ 80% of schools are totally dysfunctional. Government schooling is a disaster!  The teaching profession is in crisis with so few teachers entering the profession. Aging teachers are not being replaced by new, young teachers.  As much as 50% of teachers are not qualified.

The infrastructure of schools in townships is poor. South Africa has a shortage of 60 000 classrooms. Not enough schools. Children in rural areas are being taught under trees and tents.

It’s a hugely complex problem that needs to be addressed. It could be the downfall of this country.

Me: Therefore, where do you think education needs improving?

Sarah: The way in which we can improve this is by focusing on private funders. One cannot change a dysfunctional school. It is better to tear a dysfunctional school down and start again. Weak schools are caused by many things-mainly your leadership-heads of schools. There is no point in working in a dysfunctional schoo,l rather we want to focus on schools that are semi-functional to functional. By funders focusing on providing teachers’ with decent salaries, a school can thereby employ good teachers.

A movement towards affordable private schooling is being seen across South Africa, an example being Nokuphila. There is a movement away from government. The focus has become top quality education offered at lowest cost possible. Therefore, by funders focusing on teacher’s salaries the result will be these types of schools being able to draw in and retain good teachers.

Me: As a board member of Nokuphila what have been and currently are your responsibilities?

Well the setup of the school was intense. We had to sort out policies and all working at a management level. It was all very practical. We had to focus on how to sort out student’s transport, food, which children from the community to select, recruiting staff, etc.

After this stage we now focus on the strategic level. It’s no longer a focus on day-to-day planning but rather based more on higher level planning such as buying Land, building, keeping up standards and costs.

Me: Of course overseeing a project which is only going to get bigger and bigger as the school grows has many challenges and frustrations. What have been some of your challenges so far? Have you managed to find ways of overcoming these issues?

Sarah: The biggest challenge is always going to be keeping the funding coming through constant fundraising. We are currently looking at around R1200/m for each child to sustain the school. Then you have to take into account the buildings, the infrastructure and teacher’s salaries as mentioned before.

Also, working with people is always a challenge. You can never totally overcome people issues. We all have issues as individuals.

Then it’s also trying to uphold the values and principles of the staff and keep in mind our ultimate vision.

Me: Nokuphila is going to reach up to Highschool level. But what are some of the other goals and visions you have for this project?

Sarah: Well our ultimate goal is to raise up leaders within the Tembisa area. They would be people who contribute to society. i.e responsible parents, good employers, live by Christian values, contribute to economy, etc.

We also seek to always keep a high standard of education. These children deserve the highest standard of education, if not more so because their opportunities are far more limited.

Me: In any school, teachers are vital to its’ success and the achievement of its’ children. In Nokuphila, you are obviously looking for teachers who are committed and passionate about what they do. How have you set about doing this? What is in mind when employing a new teacher?

Sarah: We have made a commitment to employ most of our staff on a local level. This not only provides jobs, but the children can relate to their teachers as they are from the same circumstances. Teachers then become the role models for these children.

There is therefore, tension between good and excellent teachers. These teachers are not as skilled and experienced as we would perhaps want. However, we have set about overcoming this by setting up a teacher’s training centre. A Wits lecturer with lots of experience has written the curriculum for this project. She also tries to work with the teachers as much as she can in the classrooms.

Me: How has the community responded to this project, in particular the parents?

Sarah: Brilliantly and very positively! There has been an amazing response from family members in general. When we accept a child into the school it is also based on the commitment of the parents to partake in their child’s education. There has been a huge appreciation for this project and we always need that. Also we have received things like letters and personal responses that are so special and tear jerking often.

Me: Finally, in your opinion, how can we as South Africans, start contributing to education and the youth of today? In projects like, Nokuphila, where does the outsider fit in or the average person?

Sarah: Money is always king. So we always need funding and financial support.

But also the importance of education needs to be instilled in South Africans. For me, education is the biggest thing you can give to anyone.

In a school such as Nokuphila, a person could go and mentor a child they have a bond with. They could work with them and support them. 95% of these children don’t have father figures in the home and are being raised by young mothers and grandmothers. The family unit has totally broken down in township communities. Therefore, such volunteer work as this is hugely beneficial to these kids.

Finally, South Africans have a negative attitude towards schools and teachers in general. There needs to be a major attitude change.

In closing:

Nokuphila is just one example of the empowerment of young South Africans through education. Here we see a glimmer of light in a dark and grim situation. Here is a model of what hopefully more and more schools within this country will be based on. We as citizens also have opportunities to be involved through mentorship, financial aid and a positive attitude.  Let’s start looking at the ways we as individuals can start changing education in this country for the better.