A child of the universe

2008-07-04 00:00

CHATTING to Tembaletu Community Education Centre director Richard Rangiah will leave you with a sense of having engaged with an active mind, the sort that compulsively chips away at veneers and is driven by a steady curiosity about, well ... everything.

It’s also evident in the pattern of his professional life thus far, a journey he admits is more akin to a “leaf floating on a river” than a carefully charted expedition.

Rangiah’s first taste of life’s refusal to give guarantees, particularly to a black person under apartheid, came when he was a schoolboy at Raisethorpe Secondary School in 1980. Although not from an overtly politicised family, he joined the school boycotts taking place around the country.

It was a life-changing experience, which challenged Rangiah to take another look at education under apartheid, critique its ideological underpinnings and its value. Although he admits to having “no answers” at this point, Rangiah was deeply committed to the boycott and was among a smaller group officially suspended for a period for refusing to return to school.

The following year held more big lessons for the young Rangiah. In 1981, he was among the cohort of matric pupils affected by exam paper leaks which threatened the entire matric process under the House of Delegates. The leaks, and the subsequent actions taken by government representatives to cover up the process, played havoc with the results of pupils, many of whom had to sit exams twice.

For Rangiah, who had expectations of being among the top 10 candidates in the province, his results were disappointing, although still sufficient for entry into the University of Natal to study engineering.

On principle, he resisted the advice of his teachers to apply for a remark. “It was a big decision to make, but I’ve no regrets. It taught me not to depend on external assessments.”

Rangiah’s personal grasp of the limitations of exam results as a marker of ability found a home in his first full-time job with the Sached (South African Committee for Higher Education) Trust, which sent him to Cape Town as a trainee subject

co-ordinator at Khanya College.

Sached was founded in 1959, largely in response to the Extension of University Education Act which restricted entry for black students to “white” universities and provided for the establishment of ethnic university colleges. Over the years, the organisation embarked on a range of educational initiatives, including training for the labour movement and emerging mass-based organisations.

Khanya College was an exciting new bridging school which groomed black students — effectively victims of Bantu Education — for entry into white, liberal universities. Rangiah says the college’s students used to “stand out” as leaders when they reached university. Not only were they academically competent and personally confident, but they were committed to taking an active interest in community affairs.

The Cape Town period honed Rangiah’s political thinking. He also became involved in the Career Resource and Information Centre where he helped to develop educational materials and guide people in career and study choices.

Cape Town also offered the chance to pursue other interests. Rangiah enrolled for part-time university courses in psychology, sociology and African politics, astronomy, oceanography and philosophy of science. “The point wasn’t to get another degree,” he says. “These were just the things I had always wanted to learn about, but never had the chance.”

As a black engineering student at the University of Natal in 1982, Rangiah had felt both socially alienated and academically unfulfilled. He spent long periods in the library engaging with books on leftist political theory. He also changed his degree from engineering to pure


Today, he still reads voraciously, most of it non-fiction and several books at a time. Studying engineering had been a conscious bid to disrupt the “teacher and preacher” legacy bequeathed him by his family. Rangiah’s great-grandfather was a Christian missionary who came from India to set up the first Baptist Indian church in Kearsney, near Stanger. His son, Rangiah’s grandfather, swopped his law studies for theology when he was asked by the church to continue his father’s work. Rangiah’s father was the vice-principal of a primary school.

But the teaching bug bit — hard — during his student days when Rangiah volunteered as a maths and science tutor for Sached. Then he knew he couldn’t escape his legacy. “Watching a pupil’s eyes light up as he or she grasped a concept gave me pleasure and satisfaction.”

Rangiah’s work with Sached, and his involvement in an underground political organisation, took him around the country to work on a range of community-based educational projects. But in 1992, he resigned from Sached over its decision to withdraw support for the popular “study group” concept in which Rangiah had been involved, and returned to Pietermaritzburg. Rangiah volunteered with a number of NGOs before moving to the Media in Education Development Unit (Medu) at the University of Natal, where he acted as head for a short period.

But he still had an uneasy relationship with his alma mater, finding little had changed in the institutional culture since his student days. “The university environment was not what I wanted,” he recalls. So when a job came up in 1994 at the Careers Resource Centre, then based at Tembaletu, he was pleased to accept it. In 2001, he took over as director, but resigned six months later as a result of strategic leadership differences between himself and the board.

Rangiah was without a job. He was newly married to Anne and had just bought a house. Having to make ends meet, he worked as a consultant to the Department of Education which was then embarking on the creation of the Further Education and Training sector through the merger of technical colleges and other training centres. They needed a facilitator in Newcastle. It was exciting new territory for Rangiah and the experience inspired him to register for his still-to-be-completed Masters in education.

In December 2002, Rangiah was able to fulfil a long-term dream and return to Tembaletu, this time in the position of the centre’s director of educational programmes. At this stage, the centre’s future was financially insecure. Within six months, the centre’s executive director resigned and at the last minute Rangiah successfully applied for the position.

“Since then I’ve had a wonderful experience rebuilding the organisation,” says Rangiah. As it happened, in 2003, the financial tide turned, giving Rangiah an opportunity to “seriously restructure”.

“I wouldn’t have planned my life this way, but I’m glad it worked out the way it did,” he says. It’s a view he shares with young people trying to map their futures. “Some know they will be doctors, but for most of us, life is like a leaf on a river. I try to make them aware of this.”

Rangiah’s own journey is nowhere near an end. “There’s lots more I want to do,” he says. “I was once asked how I would describe myself. It just came out: ‘a child of the universe’. In a way that’s true. I want to get out there and explore things.”

Tembaletu and the NGO sector

TODAY, the red-brick buildings housing the Tembaletu Community Education Centre are a popular landmark, both for people from within the city and beyond. “People say: ‘Let’s meet at Tembaletu’. I love that. It means we are a real community centre,” says centre director Richard Rangiah.

The centre was opened in 1989 to promote community development and education. At that stage, the buildings (formerly housing the Girls’ Collegiate) were due for demolition. The Tembaletu Trust, registered in 1987, saved the site by having it declared a national monument and secured a 25-year lease on the premises which now house a range of education and training-focused associate NGOs. Much of the work of the NGO is done in communities outside of Pietermaritzburg.

As director of an NGO, a major part of Rangiah’s job is managing the tension between keeping the organisation economically viable and true to its original vision and mission, a challenge he finds increasingly difficult in the context of global trends towards neoliberalism and commodification.

Since 1994, NGOs like Tembaletu have faced growing competition from private service providers who make a profit out of educational services. “There’s pressure on us to conform to a more business-like approach, which blurs the line between NGOs and private providers. That has implications for what community development and education is all about. Today, NQF-aligned training is more likely to get funding than a study circle, for example,” says Rangiah. “This will inevitably constrain NGOs, which should be pushing the envelope and being innovative.”

Rangiah says he’s also witnessed a change in the kind of person who seeks work in an NGO. “Today, it’s first a career opportunity, rather than an opportunity to contribute to a better society.”

Another part of Rangiah’s work is fundraising. Increasingly, donors prefer to give short-term funding, which makes long-term planning difficult. “So you cast your net as wide as possible,” says Rangiah.

Despite a challenging context, Rangiah is optimistic about Tembaletu’s future. “Since 2002 when funding was a critical issue, we’ve made great strides in developing an NGO that operates in an efficient and professional way.”

Today, the NGO employs 16 full-time and about 90 part-time staff and operates on an average budget of R3,5 million a year. Rangiah says the organisation is fulfilling the ideals embodied by its name: “iTembalethu” means: “our hope” in Zulu. “I think we are providing hope,” he says.

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