"It's not just one person's vision - it's a whole community's"

6th April 2001 at 01:00
Being head of a school in South Africa, Mzimkulu Jikijela has his work cut out ensuring his pupils have the necessary skills for life. Chris Johnston talked to him

Visionary is such an over-used expression that it has lost much of its meaning, yet it is the only appropriate way of describing Mzimkulu Jikijela, headteacher of Makhenkesi Stofile school in the small, isolated community of Tsilitwa in South Africa's Eastern Cape province.

He has been responsible for transforming the school in an attempt to ensure the 850-odd pupils gain skills that will help them find jobs when they leave his care.

A brief overview of the village's circumstances illustrate the importance of improving employability. "Jiks" (as everyone calls him) says that most families do not have an income and survive somehow on pound;10 a month. Many of those with jobs teach at the school; even so, only 21 of his 28 staff get a pay packet of about pound;100 a month. It comes as no surprise that many families have trouble paying the pound;10 annual fees for secondary-level pupils.

As well as introducing the more conventional disciplines such as woodwork, mechanics and sewing, Jiks recognises the importance of technology skills to the labour market. "I am aware that computer literacy is critical to any job - it's always asked 'are you computer literate?' and there's complete illiteracy in technology in Tsilitwa," he explains. "If I'm trying to make our children meet the current demands, we cannot do anything without providing them with technology skills."

To facilitate this training, Jiks has secured 20 computers through donations from electricity supplier Eskom and research organisation CSIR, both government agencies. It is the only facility of its kind for at least 50km.

However, the machines arrived before the school had electricity and it took the intervention of the provincial premier to get the supply connected. As well as serving his pupils, Jiks wants those from 15 nearby schools and the local community to be able to use the computers. He says he needs 100 PCs to satisfy the potential demand.

Internet access is another big problem. The village has no fixed telephone lines, although the installation of mobile base stations a couple of years ago has made communication much easier. Three public pay phones at the school generate income and save people a 40km trip to make a call.

Net access is expected to be available by June, when Eugene O'Connor, IT director of Cranford Community College in Hounslow, west London, arrives to spend two weeks helping Luvuyo Benzile, Makhenkesi Stofile's technology teacher, to rectify the various problems with the network and install additional software.

Benzile was one of four teachers who visited Cranford for two weeks last month as part of a British Council-funded exchange programme set up by the head, Marian Brooks, after se spent a week in the area in June last year.

Brooks convinced Bob Lewis, European education manager for Cisco Systems, to make the journey - a 90-minute flight from Johannesburg followed by a two-hour trek along some appalling roads - to see the school during February's visit.

He was so impressed with Jiks' efforts that Lewis has now helped to ensure that the school will become part of Cisco's Networking Academy programme to provide pupils and adults (the school has some 220 adult learners) with the skills needed to get jobs in the computer networking field.

Further, Brooks has secured funding from a British benefactor to build more classrooms at Makhenkesi Stofile and other nearby schools to reduce class sizes of some 55 children. Incidentally, one of these schools has Jiks's wife as its head.

In the midst of all this, some aspects of village life do not change. The head of the local tribe, Chief Ludidi, attended our meeting at the school as his approval was needed before any plans could be implemented.

Jiks sees his community's future depending on making the school a change agent to foster sustainable economic development, but says he had to work hard to convince others.

He took senior community members to visit schools elsewhere in South Africa that had a vocational and business orientation in keeping with his outlook. "It was not very easy but we had to ensure that the vision we have is shared by all people, not just one person's but a community vision."

The steady stream of regional and national decision-makers, including Nelson Mandela while he was still president, indicate that the South African government is paying attention to Jiks' ideas. His dream is to give this generation the opportunities that were denied to him. "I am from a very poor family myself. I have not been able to go to good schools - I have been to schools that would take anybody - so I had a challenge to make quality education accessible to children who cannot afford to pay much."

It is a testament to Jiks that he has been able to convince the community of the potential that technology can help realise, when so many things that British schools take for granted are missing. There is no running water and virtually no teaching resources. A minibus to help bring children to school, particularly when it rains, would be a great asset - some walk as far as 10km to school.

Chris Morris from CSIR, who has been helping Makhenkesi Stofile school develop its technology infrastructure, says pupils are very keen to take computer training courses and always want to know when the next one is.

The Eastern Cape, formerly known as the Transkei, has produced a number of black intellectuals including Mandela, and Mr Jigijela's efforts could mean that many of the children from his community grow up to follow in these illustrious footsteps.

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