Inspiring kids to dream big

2008-10-06 00:00

“I am an ambitious and optimistic person and always believe we can find solutions to our own personal circumstances and community challenges,” says Mlungisi Wosiyana. “Your background and circumstances shouldn’t determine your future.”

Wosiyana grew up in Willowfountain. His mother was a domestic worker. He studied at the Zibukezulu Technical High School in Imbali and matriculated in 1994 as the top student in a class that achieved a record pass rate of 85%. He then studied at the Pietermaritzburg campus of the then University of Natal and completed a bachelor of social sciences degree majoring in economics. While he was working as a student mentor, tutor and part-time lecturer, he completed an honours and a masters in transportation. After briefly working for the KwaZulu-Natal Local Government Association he went to Cape Town and worked as a researcher for the parliamentary portfolio committee on transport. From there he went to Pretoria, working for six years in the National Department of Transport as a deputy director and later as a director.

But his heart was really in KwaZulu-Natal. “I always had an ambition to come back home and be of service to the community that made me who I am today,” he says. “KwaZulu-Natal is one of our most beautiful provinces.”

Wosiyana did find time to come back and run the Comrades Marathon. “I started running in Grade 7,” he recalls. “I’ve been running for 20 years now. I completed my sixth Comrades Marathon this year.”

While he was away, Wosiyana’s older siblings, two brothers and two sisters, died but his mother remained living in Willowfountain. Wosiyana decided to return home and got a job with the Msunduzi Municipality in the transportation planning department.

He also reconnected with his old school, Zibukezulu Technical High School. “While I was in Pretoria I read a lot of sad things about my old school.”

These included reports of vandalism, drug abuse and, in 2003, a pupil being shot dead by another pupil. At the beginning of this year the Provincial Department of Education announced that it was closing the school as a result of vandalism, poor performance (a 22% matric pass rate in 2007) and low pupil numbers. However, following a meeting with parents, pupils, the school governing body, the teachers’ unions, the community and the teachers, it was decided to keep the school open.

“I had always remained in touch with the school,” says Wosiyana. “As an alumnus I was not proud of all these events but I thought it was best if I tried to create an initiative towards making a positive contribution to turn the situation around.

“When I came back here it saddened me to see the difficult conditions under which learning and teaching takes place,” says Wosiyana. Those conditions are readily apparent. Doors are missing from the classrooms, the latches on all the windows have been stolen, the school library has been vandalised and all the light fittings stolen. There is no electricity at the school due to a cable theft last year. A request to reconnect the electricity is currently with the Department of Public Works.

As for teaching without electricity: “Without the sun you can’t see the board,” says Wosiyana. “Without electricity, there are no workshops, no carpentry, no technical subject practicals and no computers. It’s difficult just to teach theory without practicals as you can talk about these things but then pupils can’t visualise what it is actually all about — this is critical in technical education and technical skills acquisition which our country is in dire need of.

“Yet despite the difficult learning and teaching conditions, the attitude of the teachers, many of whom taught me, is one of dedication.”

Rather than see problems Wosiyana saw solutions. “The school needed a turnaround strategy. For starters, I saw a need to motivate matric pupils and a need for a mentorship programme. But most critical was the need for incentives for pupils and rewards for classroom excellence.”

Wosiyana met with the principal, Innocent Khumalo, the school management team and the school governing body and put forward a programme to improve the situation at the school. The proposal included a programme for the matric pupils, pupil incentive awards, career guidance and mentorship, a life skills and leadership development programme, and funding initiatives to refurbish the school buildings and to sustain the awards incentives programme he initiated.

On August 20 — a day when the prize giving for best-performing pupils was held — Wosiyana first held a motivational session with the matriculants and later with all pupils at the prize-giving ceremony that he sponsored using his own resources. He sponsored certificates and trophies for the best-performing pupils in all subjects on a quarterly basis. “The school didn’t have any money to sponsor the awards so I decided to kick-start the programme by sponsoring it myself rather than first going around asking for support. I felt we needed to show that we are putting something on the table and are not merely relying on hand-outs when we go around requesting donations and sponsorships to sustain this programme.”

At the prize giving that was held on August 20, 33 trophies and certificates were awarded. “I am also going to sponsor the end-of-year prize giving from the little resources I have and try to mobilise some form of sponsorship to sustain the programme.”

Already Wosiyana’s strategy is bearing fruit. Pupils’ results have improved and principal Khumalo cites the case of a Grade 12 pupil who recently won a prize at an interprovincial maths olympiad. “That was the result of this incentive programme,” he says.

Working with the principal, Wosiyana now hopes to attract other former pupils who have succeeded in their careers to join in the plan to turn the school around. “Pupils go on from schools like this to university and technikons, and they join big corporations. We mustn’t forget the schools that made us. Let us all remember our former schools and not just give material things and money only but just a bit of time to talk to pupils. They need role models and mentors to guide and inspire them to dream big and achieve what they aspire to be.”

A place in history

The Zibukezulu Technical High School can claim a special place in South Africa’s history. On March 25, 1961, in the Arya Samaj Hall on the grounds of the school, Nelson Mandela made his last public speech before his arrest outside Howick the following year.

Earlier this year, a monument was unveiled in front of the hall to commemorate Mandela’s landmark speech at the All-in Africa conference. As the plaque on the memorial says, “It was also to be his last [speech] as a free man for another 29 years. A bearded Mandela told the 1 400 delegates, … that ‘one man, one vote is the key to the future’. He called for economic sanctions against the apartheid government and warned of mass action. It was at this conference that the liberation call, amandla ngawethu! (power to the people) became popular.”

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela vividly recalled the event: “When I walked out on stage on Saturday evening ... in front of this loyal and enthusiastic audience, it had been nearly five years since I had been free to give a speech on a public platform. I was met with a joyous reaction. I had almost forgotten the intensity of the experience of addressing a crowd.

“In my speech I called for a national convention in which all South Africans, black and white, Indian and coloured, would sit down in brotherhood and create a constitution that mirrored the aspirations of the country as a whole. I called for unity and said we would be invincible if we spoke with one voice.”

Mandela returned to the hall on April 25, 1997, when he was awarded the freedom of Pietermaritzburg.

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