Educating Cape Town’s Disadvantaged Youth

As a part of my internship experience credit at James Madison College, I was required to submit an extensive research paper relating to the internship. I chose to discuss the current problems facing the South African educational system, and the impact that the South African Education and Environment Project specifically had on these issue areas. I love writing, and will absolutely admit that this is not my best work. It was an extra assignment on top of a full credit load during my senior year of college, if that gives you any idea. But, the problems of the educational system are an important hurdle to development. It also outlines more fully the projects that SAEP is involved with, which will give you all a better idea of what I was actually doing in South Africa. Enjoy!  


Educating Cape Town’s Disadvantaged Youth: The Trials and Triumphs of the South African Environment and Education Project Over a Failing System

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” These are the telling words of South Africa’s most influential leader, Nelson Mandela. Since the days of apartheid, blacks and coloureds (a diverse group of Indians and mixed-race Malays, Xhosa, and other mixed ethnic groups) in South Africa have seemingly overcome the legacies of oppression. African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president of the radically divided nation in 1994. He succeeded in the impossible task of reconciling a troubled past to bring together a polarized population under the idea of a rainbow nation. Now nearly twenty years later, the African National Congress controls every province except one, and South Africa is widely recognized as a global leader in development. However, from my first day in South Africa I could see that these lofty expectations did not meet reality. Blacks remain extremely marginalized. They live in makeshift shacks in the unsafe townships, without access to adequate sanitation, healthy food, or most importantly a proper education to change their destinies. Despite governmental inefficiencies in addressing the problems of township education, South Africa’s civil society has stepped in to address some of these needs. This essay will demonstrate the dire situation in township communities relating to educational deficiencies, and the solutions of one non-profit organization, the South African Environment and Education Project (SAEP, 2012) to create a better future for children through education.

The Internship Experience

            In late May I boarded a plane bound for Cape Town, South Africa to volunteer at the educational NGO the South African Environment and Education Project, or SAEP for short. I was taken on as a communications and fundraising intern, working directly under the head of fundraising Katie Huston. Because Katie’s creative counterpart Anna was taking an extended vacation, my largest role at the organization was keeping donors and supporters updated with SAEP activity on the website. I published website stories two or three time a week showcasing recent achievements, programs, seminars, or happenings amongst the seven SAEP programs. I also kept supporters involved by maintaining a presence on social media platforms. I tweeted exciting news, posted photos of activities to Facebook, and promoted events. More than just website stories, I rewrote and updated most of the pages on the website. In this I was able to stay involved with all of the programs at the organization. Most interestingly, I became further involved with two specific programs: the Early Childhood Development Program, and the Bridging Year Program. Frequently visiting the educare, or preschool centers with the Early Childhood Development Program, I assisted in the administration of lessons to the babies. We would first introduce a simple lesson, such as safety or weather. Then, we would do a hands-on activity with the kids relating to the lesson. We cut out shapes and glued cotton balls to make clouds for weather, and identified items as safe or not safe for safety. The lessons ended with songs and dances. For the Bridging Year Program, I created and administered a lesson plan to a writing class. In this, I made an interactive lecture, asked questions, and created an activity. Finally, for the fundraising portion of my work I created two small grant proposals, one for the Early Childhood Development Program and one for the Environmental Education Program. The Early Childhood Development wanted to give a box of fine motor tools and a box of gross motor tools to each educare center. The Environmental Education Program hoped to create a community garden in the township at one of the educare centers. With these grants, I sat down with the program coordinators, understood the projects they hoped to accomplish, and drafted proposals from beginning to end. Apartheid Education The South African apartheid regime was widely known for the marginalization and discrimination against coloreds and blacks. Exacerbating these racial tensions, apartheid brought the segregation of white, colored, and black schools to South Africa with the Bantu Education Act of 1953. This created separate educational departments based on race. Under apartheid, the funding ratio for these schools was 4:2:1, greatly disadvantaging black and colored children at an early age (Keen). Black schools did not have books while white schools were comparable to American schools. Due to this skewed funding, there were over double the amount of students per teacher in black schools than in white schools, a factor inhibiting a proper education. White students excelled and black students were left behind with insufficient resources. Only a very small fraction of teachers had teaching certificates at black schools, but almost all teachers at white schools were certified (Keen). The oppressive white minority supported this obviously unfair system under the apartheid system. The goal of this educational gap was to keep blacks in the lower-working class, while whites were given more opportunities to excel. The situation progressed in favor of the whites until the famous Soweto uprising of 1976. Students in the Soweto Township outside of Johannesburg protested in response to the Afrikkans Medium Decree of 1974, which mandated Afrikaans and English as the languages of instruction in all schools—most Township students spoke one of the many other languages and viewed Afrikkans as the language of the oppressor. This bloody day was a turning point against black oppression, and is remembered annually with the national holiday Youth Day. The African National Congress (ANC) overthrew the regime officially in 1994. Instead of teacher reeducation, a passionate ANC attempted to totally overhaul any apartheid legacy in education. Teachers that previously had taught under apartheid were given generous packages to leave the field to clear the way for new teachers unaffiliated with apartheid (Keen). This created arguably more problems than the previous system. Educated, professional teachers left schools to be replaced with utterly untrained teachers. This created an extremely inadequate system of education. The system continued to change, requiring new textbook editions and new curriculum every few years. The untrained teachers were unequipped to cope with these changes (Keen). In theory, the revised system enables black students to achieve at the same level as white students. But, while some blacks are subject to a good education, they are still left behind in comparison to the total (Keen). The educational discrepancy is because the apartheid regime created a bimodal distribution of achievement in South Africa that still endures (Fleisch). This means that blacks/coloreds and whites still achieve at completely different levels. As former ANC President Mbeki pointed out in a newsletter, South Africa has two parallel economies, and thus two parallel education systems. The first is that of the small population of whites. It is modern, global, developed and integrated. The second is that of the larger part of the population, of the blacks and coloreds. It is underdeveloped, unsustainable, poor, and disconnected (Fleisch). In fact, a 2004 report by the Western Cape Education Department stated that the schools in the province “continue to exhibit performance profiles that would have been expected during the apartheid era” (Fleisch). These statistics will be evidenced throughout this paper. Despite radical changes by the ANC and the creation of the “rainbow nation”, whites still prosper in a totally different community from the desperately poor black townships.

The South African Environment and Education Project

There are many explanations as to why black students underachieve today, twenty years after the fall of their oppressive regime. Cultural problems, insufficient resources, political corruption and inefficiencies, poor health, household problems, and teacher underachievement rank among the most important. Aware of the situation in the township of Philippi, American Norton Tennille held a vision of a South Africa where every child has the education and inspiration to achieve great things. Bearing this in mind, he moved permanently to South Africa in 1994 to found the South African Environment and Education Project (SAEP, 2012) to fill the gaps created by this failing education system. SAEP is an award winning non-profit organization based in Cape Town, South Africa that aims to educate, inspire and empower disadvantaged township youth to take charge of their futures. There is no one solution, no quick fix to turn the system around, and different levels of education bring vastly different problems. Over the years, SAEP has launched a variety of educational and skills development programs in response to community needs, including programs at the early childhood, high school, post-high school and tertiary levels. To create a more multifaceted approach to education, SAEP added arts outreach, technology and environment programs, supplemented with a social worker serving all programs. Working in partnership with learners, parents, teachers and principals, SAEP helps students develop academic and life skills, and make informed academic and career choices. The NGO prepares students for and helps them to succeed in further education, training and employment, and ultimately contribute as leaders to South Africa’s economic and social development. Today SAEP reaches over 2,500 youth, children and education providers from impoverished township communities (SAEP, 2012). This organization has been successful largely thanks to their multi-faceted, multi-leveled approach to education, which recognizes the need to empower children of all ages and disciplines.

Early Childhood Development

            Township children face major challenges beginning at the early stages of development. First and foremost, these children are disadvantaged because they lack basic nutrients and food resources. Many children still go to school without food, and 34% of children do not eat breakfast regularly (Fokazi). Only 37% of children have enough food to eat for the entire day, and 30% reported having nothing to put in their lunchboxes (Fokazi). Under-nutrition is directly related to poor cognitive function and frequent illness, with children being most susceptible (Fleisch). Deficiencies in iron and other micronutrients are proven to result in slow development of the child’s language and motor skills (Bulletin). More so, international research states that under nutrition is associated with lower test scores in children (Fleisch). Under nutrition and preparedness also cause distraction for the students. Hungry students are more focused on their hunger or illness than on educational instruction. One teacher stated, “He won’t listen to you or concentrate on what you do because of hunger and cold that he’s feeling” (Nelson). Children that lack proper nutrition perform poorly in school due to illness, and loss of concentration, and are thus unable to break the barrier of poverty with educational success. Additionally, only one in three township children attends a formal educare, or preschool (SAEP, 2012). That means that the rest of the children are unsupervised, or staying at home without productive, educational influence. Some of these formal centers follow governmental regulations, but the majority began as informal childcare agreements amongst neighbors and families. Beginning in the tiny living rooms of a woman’s shack, the centers are unsanitary, unsafe, and overcrowded. The women who created these preschools have never been properly trained to educate children with a curriculum, discipline, or how to react in an emergency. They do not have the skills to run a successful preschool. In order to receive government subsidies to run a formal center, there are various requirements that the center must demonstrate, including curriculum, teacher training, and proper infrastructure. Since township families often do not have the funds to pay for improvements, these requirements are nearly impossible to meet independently. Lacking the proper resources, the centers are more of childcare centers than skills-developing preschools. Many skills are developed the early childhood age, which directly impact a child throughout their life. Importantly, children gain and refine motor skills at this age. Gross motor skills include movement of the larger muscles, such as the legs and hands, which help children walk, jump, ride a bike, or throw a ball. These skills affecting movement are the basis for others, such as fine motor skills. Fine motor skills enable functions such as cutting, grasping objects, and writing. These are developed with small muscle strength and coordination. Without the development of these skills, children are disadvantaged as they will not be able to properly or legibly write notes, tests, or essays later in life. For example, a child with poor upper body support will not be able to write well, which will delay his progress in school, as he will be focused on writing instead of the material. These are skills that are mastered at an early age, but without proper tools to develop these skills, children begin and remain at a disadvantage. To combat these problems, SAEP’s successful Early Childhood Development Program works with struggling women to create sustainable preschool centers that fulfill governmental regulations for subsidies. With these subsidies the centers are able to provide tools, resources and training that will help children excel. Until they reach this point, SAEP offers specialized support. SAEP even goes as far as rebuilding centers that fail infrastructural regulations. A focal point of the program is teacher training to create a sustainable center once SAEP has left. This can be anything from seminars about techniques to intervention when a teacher or principal is being too rough with a child. While I was with SAEP, the ECD program brought principals and teachers together for a seminar and forum regarding selfhood and bullying. It incorporated persona dolls to tell stories of empowerment. Importantly, SAEP does not merely provide toys to the centers like most external actors. These donated toys are often not in good shape and have no educational value. Instead, SAEP works to bring tools to develop understanding and motor skills. Supplementing the tools, the ECD team delivers weekly lessons to all nine of their preschool centers. Lessons usually follow the national curriculum (CAPS), and include anything from recognizing danger, to weather and time. In this, the children work with trained professionals in the field, and teachers are able to observe the lessons. I was able to participate in these lessons on occasion. My favorite lesson was about weather. We began all lessons with a song that we had previously taught the students. This functioned as an icebreaker and excited them for the lesson. Then, we gave a short, interactive lesson. In the weather lesson, we talked about the weather outside and gave examples of different types of weather. After the lesson, we always did a hands-on activity or craft. The children enjoyed cutting shapes and gluing cotton balls to create clouds, which when compiled created a full sky. After, we would play games using gross motor skills and precision such as follow the leader, or Simon says. From this, teachers are exposed to new activities and lessons they can do with the children, as well as new techniques. Regarding nutrition, SAEP pays for a daily meal of e’Pap for all of its preschool children. Pap is a traditional African food staple made from ground maize into porridge. E’Pap has been fortified with additional nutrients. The family must provide a breakfast and a snack for the student, but the center provides the e’Pap for lunch, and an additional snack after lunch. This keeps the children nourished and healthy, more ready to learn than with an empty stomach. One of SAEP director Jane Keen’s favorite experiences with the organization has been rebuilding an ECD center and watching the principals progress. Specifically, one principal without any formal training was hosting her children in a shack. It was generally a daycare, but the more training that she got, the better she became. In the end, this principal became an ECD advocate and was able to help other women improve their centers (Keen). I was personally able to see the effects of this program various times through my work with ECD. Specifically, on Mandela Day every South African is asked to participate in 67 minutes of community service. I spent mine at Sakwingomso Educare, where we taught the students about Mandela Day, colored the South African flag, hula-hooped, and enjoyed the day. SAEP’s ECD program is one of their best, evidenced in their successful centers that have “graduated” the program to become self-sustained with government subsidies. The children at these centers are confident, charismatic, and greatly advantaged as they continue their schooling.

The High School Level


The troubles do not stop for township children when they graduate from the early childhood level, but follow them throughout their educational careers and professional lives. High school is a tumultuous time both academically and personally for many students, a struggle that is amplified in the harsh township conditions. In 2009, 1,477,000 Africans over the age of 15 could not write their own name, 2,674,000 could not read, and 1,721,000 were not classified as a person capable of working out how much change they should receive in making a purchase (Saunders). In a 2005 study on South Africa, only 26% of grade six students were either “achieved” or above regarding the national language curriculum, and only 12% were “achieved” in math (Fleisch). In this, 2 ½ million South Africans lack very necessary and basic life skills (Saunders). When considering the situation from a global context, the outlook is even bleaker; The early years of ANC power showed dismal middle and high school academic performance. UNECO and UNICEF conducted a multinational study, the Monitoring Learning Achievement (MLA), in 1999. In this study, South Africa ranked comparatively the lowest in the numeracy study, and nearly the lowest in both life skills and literacy. This was compared to struggling countries such as Uganda, Zambia, Malawi, and Tunisia, which beat South Africa in nearly every category (Fleisch). The results since have hardly improved. A 2002 study by the Human Sciences Research Council found that South Africa scored the lowest in both math and science. The average math score for South Africa was 264 compared to the international average of 467 and the average science score was 244 compared to the international average of 474 (Fleisch). After considering numerous studies, the dire academic situation in South Africa is reaffirmed. In a 2003 study grade 8 math and science, South Africa came last out of 50 countries (Saunders). In the literacy and reading category, a 2006 study ranked South Africa last again out of 40 countries in the grade 5 test (Saunders). In fact, the World Economic Forum Global Information Technology Report of 2013 put South Africa second to last after Yemen (Saunders). As previous Minister of Education, Professor Kader Asmal mentioned, “This bears out the concern I raised when I became Minister of Education in 1999”… “that the curriculum did not explicitly mention the need for students to know how to read and write.” (Asmal).The situation has clearly not improved since the fall of the apartheid regime. As previously mentioned, South Africa has a bimodal distribution of achievement. This means that the results mentioned in this section have actually been inflated, because they take into account the high achieving white schools alongside the majority black township schools. This leaves the high school achievement in townships in a more dire position than previously considered. Four out of ten students from townships graduate high school under these conditions (SAEP, 2012). These absolute failures of the South African education system can be largely attributed to untrained teaching staff and inadequate resources in township schools. Bright students are unable to reach their full potential, hindered by ineptitude in their communities. In a survey from the Western Cape Education Department, 51 out of 120 teachers had classes of at least 40 students. Many of these teachers had classes of over 50 or 60 students, nearly two times the threshold of 30 students that is recommended for success (Abel). The quality of academics strongly affects these students’ odds. Schools often do not have course textbooks, any form of technology, libraries or even bathrooms. Without access to computers and few books, students have limited information about the greater world. More so, many township students struggle with English, preferring to speak in their home language. The home language of Philippi and most Western Cape townships is Xhosa. So, students know enough English to get by, but not enough to be taught in English. However, many math classes are in English and Xhosa translations are incomplete. A coworker of mine, Simphiwe, was unable to get into college despite good grades in all other subjects, because he failed math. When I spoke with him, it was not that he did not understand math, it was that he did not understand math in English. With poor resources and teacher engagement, bright students like Simphiwe fall through the cracks. Additionally, many problems from the early childhood level remain. Nutrition continues to be a concern at this age, as many students do not know where their next meal is coming from, which deeply impacts academic performance. However, civil society organizations such as SAEP’s “Hope Scholars” program have stepped up to confront these academic challenges. Hope Scholars offers an intensive, multifaceted approach to high school education. Students are selected in the 9th grade from a promising, committed group. From there, the scholars work to create a solid math, science, and English language foundation through intensive SAEP tutoring. The program follows the students through high school, encouraging them personally and professionally throughout the four years. Only with this longevity is the cycle of poverty broken, inculcating in the students a sense of responsibility for their futures. Meeting after school Monday through Thursday, SAEP provides the students with advanced tutoring, personal mentorship, and enrichment opportunities such as cultural excursions, holiday camps, volunteerism, and environmental activities. Excursions and camps further enhance the scholars’ experience. By the end of their time with the program, the students are well rounded and better prepared, academically, socially and emotionally, to succeed in higher education. Understanding language as a major barrier to tertiary success, SAEP requires all Hope Scholars to exclusively speak English in the building. In this, students are able to practice English daily in a safe environment. This better prepares them for life at the university, which is most likely in English, and to function in a diverse workplace. Coworker Andile Nqoko told me that he did not speak English in front of a class until he went to college. SAEP breaks down this barrier through its English fluency program, helping to defeat statistics of South African illiteracy, and promote confidence. Additionally, to combat nutritional challenges to academic engagement, the program offers healthy snacks like sandwiches to the scholars every day. Other civil society organizations, such as Equal Education, work to combat academic deficits at a more basic level. Successful NGO Equal Education is currently working on an intensive campaign to put libraries in every township school. Strikingly, 80% of townships schools do not have libraries. This lack of resources stunts student’s ability to learn. Equal Education holds book drives and other events to put books in schools. They even have a “bookery” which acts as a collection and sorting center for the project, which was directly across the street from the building that I lived at. Another important initiative that I encountered was the Lottery board’s decision to fund a project that put bathrooms in all schools. Many township schools do not even have functioning bathrooms, which is a very basic necessity. These infrastructural initiatives, supplemented with academic initiatives such as SAEP’s Hope Scholars program are slowly starting to give hope to motivated townships students.


With the dismal academics of township schools and minimal funds, schools serve as purely academic institutions. They do not have the funds, organization, or management for extra curricular activities. But, students cannot pursue these activities independently because the vast majority of families lack additional finances. So, students do not have an interest or appreciation in these extra curricular activities that enhance youth development, creativity and team building. Students often turn to crime and gangsterism as preferred after school activities, when the only academic focus of a child’s life are confined to a failing school. Without positive academic reinforcement and structure outside of the classroom, many students will perpetuate the cycle of poverty. They drop out, become pregnant, or become infected with HIV/AIDS Importantly, without extra curricular activities, township students are never exposed to the arts. Arts are essential for youth development, but are rarely included in township curriculum. They encourage creativity, critical thinking, attention to detail, and confidence. Arts call for structure, repetition, and perseverance. In the prevailing mindset of mediocrity of the townships, these skills are essential for future success in an integrated market. Because students are never exposed to the arts, they often lack a sense of appreciation for and tolerance of natural and cultural diversity. Rarely leaving the townships, the students never really learn about the world, a task often taken on by the arts. SAEP’s Arts Outreach Program brings a variety of arts disciplines to township schools in Philippi. The program provides music, visual arts, creative writing, arts and culture, drama, dance, arts and crafts, film, and photography workshops to students who have never before been exposed to the arts. The goal of the program is to inspire youth through creativity and self-expression. Many students do not learn in a traditional academic sense, but are able to better express themselves through the arts. The program gives these students the opportunity to excel; it allows students to achieve personal growth outside of school. Most township students have never seen a professional performance, and therefore it is difficult for them to truly understand the discipline, or be passionate about it. In addition to these workshops, the program offers excursions to professional performances and exhibitions. This allows students to see professional works of art for the first time, energizing them to continue on pursuing their art discipline. Professional performances also give students a glimpse of the perfection that they aspire to. It makes success tangible and real. This ultimately exposes students to a variety of professional and tertiary study opportunities that they had never previously considered. During my time with SAEP, professional dance students from Saint Mary’s College in California held a workshop for SAEP students. Students worked closely with the professional dancers for two weeks days. Tara Appalraju, the Arts Outreach Program Manager commented, “They were exposed for the first time to a real dance school, where they were able to see what they could achieve with hard work” (SAEP Arts). With the opportunity to ask questions to these dancers, and to learn from their technique was an important experience for the dance students. Additionally, the SAEP’s arts program is focused on building students confidence. The program accomplishes this by showcasing student talent through numerous performances and exhibitions every year. As I left SAEP, the Arts Outreach Program was busy preparing a full musical, Ibali Lasemzantsi Africa, which is a Xhosa rendition of Westside Story. Given the opportunity to perform, students are more excited about the discipline and their abilities, and gain confidence. In the townships with broken families and little positive reinforcement, confidence is often missing. Thus these showcases offer an important arena for personal development and growth. When the marimba and dance groups performed last month in front of an audience of 300 at the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation National FellowsJamboree, one student commented that it was “the great experience of my life” (Arts). Ultimately, the program builds art skills, introduces students to new opportunities, and creates confidence.


By elementary school, most Americans are proficient with basic computer functions. In our global, technological era, computer skills are required at nearly every tertiary institution, and at every job. However, with the desperate levels of poverty found in South Africa’s townships, only one in ten learners attends a school with a computer lab (SAEP 2012). I was amazed when I taught a Lego robotics seminar through the NGO ORT SA CAPE. The Xhosa children in attendance could not even turn a computer on. We spent the vast majority of the workshop teaching them how to use the track-pad on the laptop to click. I asked the class how many students had ever used a computer before. Two in the class of twenty had touched a computer in their lives, and those two were far from competent. This means that students are unable to complete even the most basic word processing tasks. Lacking these primitive skills, students are unequipped to gain a competitive job later in life. The market will always favor professionals with technological abilities. Infrastructure lacking even in her busiest cities, South Africa has unreliable internet access at best. As previously mentioned, 80% of township schools do not even have a library. This completely inhibits students ability to complete competitive research projects to the meager resources that the school has. More than research, students lack a greater understanding of their world. With all of the talk about the “social media revolutions” in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, my experience in Cape Town has made me skeptical. A Twitter revolution could never occur in the townships because the people lack the tools. I taught a creative writing class to Bridging Year students at SAEP. For part of the lesson I referred to a Twitter account that showcased six word stories. However, none of the twelve students had a Twitter account or had ever been on Twitter. These students remain isolated from happenings across the world because of their lack of computer access and knowledge. In 2009 ADT Security partnered with SAEP to create a computer education program. ADT Teach has 40 laptops distributed between two mobile computer labs in Cape Town and Johannesburg. With a full curriculum, the labs give weekly classes to students that wish to develop their computer skills. Beginning in the 10th grade students who have never touched a computer are introduced to basic technological skills. They create spreadsheets, presentations, resumes, letters, and posters. With a 3G router, the students are able to connect to the internet to research and create email accounts. No school in the communities that ADT Teach reaches has access to internet or computers. Augmenting the lessons and exercises are a practical discussion of the relevance to society. The program follows students through the 12th grade until they graduate. Upon graduation, the students receive nationally recognized IT Certificates in End User Computing provided by the South African Services Skills Education Training Authority. This certificate proves their computer proficiency for a future job or tertiary studies. Equipped with modern technological skills, these students are competitive on the job market and more able to handle the demands of university papers, presentations, and online homework. This program is internationally recognized, as it received the Tyco International Security Solutions President’s Award, and recently received a visit from Tyco CEO George R. Oliver.


            Township children rarely are able to enjoy South Africa’s natural beauty. They live in poorly constructed shantytowns with poor waste disposal, buried under litter. Despite living so close to one of the new seven wonders of nature, Table Mountain, as well as limitless oceans, mountain trails, natural reserves, and flora and fauna, most children are unable to leave the townships. Without trees, gardens, or open green space in their own communities, children lack environmental concern. Living in such poor conditions, the community has many other worries and de-prioritizes pollution. Without computer labs or science labs in most schools, students never gain an appreciation for science or the natural world, as much more basic skills are emphasized by the curriculum. To fill these gaps SAEP’s Environemental Education Program raises environmental awareness among local Philippi students. The extracurricular club meets twice a week to provide workshops and discussions for students about biodiversity, conservation, energy, and recycling. Most students have never before been informed on the importance of these topics. After these discussions, the students are encouraged to act as environmental advocates within their communities to spread the word on the importance of conservation. Filled with new knowledge, students are then given the opportunity every month explore the natural world for themselves with sponsored excursions. These excursions are typically hikes, but include holiday environmental camps, or visits to the famous Kirstenbosch gardens. To make these excursions possible and sustainable, SAEP partners with the University of Cape Town Mountain and Ski Club. In this, students are able to gain a deep appreciation of South Africa’s beautifully diverse landscape, while being physically active. The knowledge that they gain from these excursions then perpetuates a greater interest in the environment, which is taken back to their communities. I worked on a grant proposal for a new initiative for the Environmental Education Program, to create a sustainable food garden in an educare center. As previously stated, nutrition is a real challenge in the townships. The townships are food desserts, in which healthy food is difficult to obtain. Most people do not have the resources or land to create a home garden, which would provide their family with nutritious food. The communities are built without open green space to farm. With this new initiative, students from the Hope Scholars program as well as the Environmental Education Program would work together to set up and maintain the food gardens at the local educare centers. The food would then be used to nourish the educare children. The gardens would help educate the youth on environmentalism, skills that will follow them through their lives. The youth would then teach the next generation, creating a sustainable system, and newly educated youth each year. While it is still in the process of being realized, SAEP is excited about the prospect of this project with the skills and nutrition it would bring to Philippi.

A Bridging Year

            With poor educational institutions, students are not prepared for work upon graduation. This unpreparedness, along with a variety of external factors, leads to an alarmingly high youth unemployment rate in South Africa. Recent studies have proven that 72% of South Africa’s unemployed are less than 34 years of age (Zuma). The numbers are more shocking when we narrow the gap– 40% of South Africans between the ages of 18 and 24 are not studying or working (SAEP 2012). Igniting these problems are the inadequate instruction and materials of township schools. With inferior schooling, many students do not pass their matriculation exams. These exams allow students to formally graduate and continue onto tertiary education. In a competitive market with extremely high rates of unemployment, these students are constrained to basic, low paying jobs that entrap them into the cycle of poverty. But, with these high rates of youth unemployment, passing the exam does not guarantee success. Despite passing, students remain unequipped to deal with life passed the university; many students who have completed high school cannot even make a phone call, or perform basic functions necessary in any work place (Keen). Lacking these basic skills, even the brighter students are victim of the youth unemployment. Compounding the problem is a lack of life support and structure offered after high school. By the time students are finished with high school, many are mothers, take care of a family, or live alone. Director Jane Keen estimated that only about 10% of SAEP students live in a house with both a mother and a father. Township families are broken, and often time the students are left trying to cope with minimal support. One SAEP student was living with his dad through school, until he too passed away. By the time that this student joined SAEP, he was living in a shack, completely alone, attempting to make ends meet. Because of their unsafe living conditions and variety of other external factors, these students hold personal enormous personal grief. Crime and conflict are rampant in the townships, leading to unresolved personal trauma, never answered with adequate support. With high levels of youth unemployment, poor education, and limited support, basic survival for many 18 year olds in the South Africa townships seems to be an impossible task. Former Hope Scholars, Bulelani Futshane and Luzuko Hina petitioned founder Norton Tennille for support in improving their skills during their “bridging year” so that they would not slip through the cracks. SAEP responded with the Bridging Year program. This dynamic program offers academic and personal support to help young adults pass their matric exams, while learning basic technology skills, exploring careers, and gaining confidence. It is offered on an application basis to a growing number of students in their first years out of high school. In return for the program, the Bridging Year students are then required to participate in philanthropic opportunities. In this, they benefit from SAEP’s services, while giving back and learning responsibility. An impressive altruistic initiative of the Bridging Year students is a reading group that meets at township elementary schools. The Bridging Year students work with younger students on their reading through small, interactive groups. During my time with SAEP, a group from the Dutch Consulate showed their support for these reading groups during Mandela Day, including the new Consul General of the Netherlands, Bonnie Horbach. Most importantly, the program tutors the students so they are more prepared to retake their matriculation exams. Success in this exam would open the door for previously impossible opportunities at the tertiary level. To do so, the young adults are tutored intensively in all core subject areas, namely English, math and sciences. Full-time SAEP teachers, who provide daily lessons and construct curriculum, teach these sessions. I had the incredible opportunity to teach a creative writing class on a few occasions to these bright young students. The students were excited and engaged, and I could see that they were taking their future education into their own hands. The classes take on elements of reading, writing and critical thinking. These strengthen communication skills and study habits that will follow the scholars beyond the classroom. To supplement these studies, the classes encourage research with the numerous SAEP Bridging Year computers in the classroom. As previously mentioned, the overwhelming majority of students lack the technological skills necessary for career mobility and tertiary success. The focus of the program is more than purely academic, and encourages personal development. The aim is to create a better-rounded student to be a competitive candidate, or to successfully prevail through the challenges of university life. To do so, the program provides promotes volunteerism, job shadowing, and various excursions. These activities give the young people a sense of purpose through altruistic service to others. Students also participate in discussion groups, poetry writing and other activities that create leadership skills and self-expression. Ultimately, the students leave the program with more life experience than they would have received in the townships. An integral part of the Bridging Year program is the support that SAEP provides. Since these students are physically at SAEP daily, they are the most likely to open up about personal problems that are impeding their ability to chase their dreams. Individual counseling and mentoring are provided to every SAEP student that needs it. With a full-time social worker on staff, all needs are met. The social worker also provides resources to the students. Most do not know anything about universities, interviewing, or potential jobs. To support the students, the social worker explores academic and career options with the student, helps to practice and prepare for interviews, and aids in the construction of a resume and cover letter. By the end of the one-year program, SAEP hopes that every student will be enrolled at a university or training program. Due to this multifaceted, intensive approach, over 84% of SAEP’s Bridging Year alumni have done so in the last three years (SAEP).

Tertiary Support

The few Township students that are accepted into the universities are utterly unprepared for the academic and social trials of university life. Only 1 in 8 black South Africans enroll in higher education, and less than half of them graduate (SAEP 2012). Another study in 2005 found that nearly 46% of all students that were enrolled at South Africa’s 22 universities (excluding Unisa) had dropped out by 2010 (John). The obvious reason for these failures is utter academic unpreparedness, the roots of which have been previously explained. To combat this, all universities offer support for students that are not prepared for university academics. However, because of funding constraints, these programs can only reach so far (John). There is also an emotional element that causes these students to drop out. Extra mural activities are not the only things left out of township schools and curriculum—career guidance is not feasible in a school with very few resources. So, the students that manage to attend school are unsure of their greater academic and career direction and are easily overwhelmed. Ntobeko Khumalo explained this problem, “You get a guy who comes from the rural areas and he is probably the first person in his family to go to the university and their hopes are all on him. His family doesn’t want him to study a BA, they want him to be an engineer or a doctor. But sometimes he isn’t interested in those things, so he loses commitment” (John). Often from broken homes, students are not given the emotional support that they desperately need during the difficult transition to the university. Most importantly perhaps, there is a culture in the townships that discourages academic success. Being the only child in a family to ever go to a university makes students into targets. SAEP employee Mtitheleli recalled that it was not cool to be good at school. The entire community would look at these students differently. Most of the trouble is breaking this stereotype that underachievement is desirable. Universities do offer some emotional support to ease the transition the university life, but they are not made readily available. Because these resources are not available prior to the university, students are unaware of their career options and the support that the university can offer. As SAEP social worker Kayin Scholtz stated, “None of the students I’ve worked wit who have dropped out of university… accessed any resources like emotional counseling” (John). Support information is not given to the students in a way that they are able to understand it, often due to linguistic differences. To address these problems, South Africa consolidated their 36 universities into 23 in 2003. This was done to strengthen the poorly performing institutions, remove racial divisions, and generally create an efficient system. While in theory this is a good idea, the reality was less impressive. It forced conservative Afrikaans universities to coincide with extremely poor Bantu universities (Lindow). The results from this merger are mixed, as inequalities are deeply perpetuated, and some institutions are thriving while others are failing. SAEP has attempted to combat these dire statistics through its Tertiary Support Program, which helps township students thrive academically, socially and emotionally at the university for successful degree completion. This requires a multi-pronged approach, firstly by connecting students to existing resources and support. For support, SAEP offers workshops, peer networks, and financial support. More so, SAEP students are given carefully selected community mentors. These mentors offer lasting support to the students, from career, interview, or academic advice to personal counsel. Because the program is growing, I worked on a campaign to recruit more SAEP mentors. They are obligated to maintain weekly contact with their mentee, and personally meet a few times every semester. It is the hope that these mentors will be the port of call for the students seeking advice and support. More than emotional support, SAEP offers scholarships for financial support to pay for housing and living stipends, which are obviously enormous barriers to university success in poor families. These come in the form of stipends for living costs and support to obtain student loans. Additionally, because universities do have extensive networks of support, SAEP connects students with existing resources for available at their own institutions. The program began in 2010 and has seen great success since. Currently, SAEP supports 55 alumni enrolled in universities from both the Bridging Year and the Hope Scholar Programs. Students are studying at institutions including: the University of Cape Town, University of the Western Cape, Rhodes University, Stellenbosch University, Cape Peninsula of Technology, and UNISA. They are pursuing degrees in fields including medical biochemistry, biotechnology, accounting, commerce, civil engineering, electrical engineering, natural science, building, law, psychology, audiology, sound engineering, teaching, social work, and nursing. Since 2010, students have maintained a 85% retention and graduation rate, which is a statistic unparalleled in a world in which an estimated 46% of students drop out.

Problems Yet Unaddressed

            Despite the progress that SAEP has made, there is still work to be done. Director Jane Keen identified problems with the SAEP model that should be solved for better NGO efficiency. Funding is always an impediment to NGO success. As the program has gained greater recognition winning a variety of international awards (including the British recognized STARS Impact runner up award, an Impumelelo Innovation award for the ECD program, and the Tyco International Security Solutions President’s Award to name a few) the funding has increased. However, the fate of the NGO ultimately lies in my boss Katie Huston’s hands as the head fundraiser. Since they have taken Katie on, SAEP’s finances have excelled, but in the NGO business funding is never certain. Additionally, as any business or NGO, SAEP struggles with its strategic direction. Unfortunately I left just prior to SAEP’s annual strategic planning retreat, in which every single program undergoes an intensive evaluation of progress, identifies areas to work on, and creates a plan on how to accomplish these goals. With quick staff turn over, and changing programs and goals, strategic direction is often difficult to pin point. That being said, it is also important to find the right staff for the job. These programs require energized, dedicated, excited staff to run the programs. During my time with SAEP there were various instances in which someone took a staff car after hours, or there was an office theft. Because they do hire many young people, these instances are bound to occur, but for an efficient NGO they need to be minimized (Keen). More than SAEP’s institutional problems, there are still incredible barriers to educational success in South Africa. Some of this blame can be attributed to governmental corruption. The government of South Africa is new, and cannot be expected to be a perfectly functioning democracy yet. However, the rampant corruption and inefficiency dilutes the availability of resources to the townships. For example, SAEP applied for many years to the Lottery Boards Fund for NGO funding. After being denied numerous times without any reason, SAEP brought the case to court and won a suit that said that the Lottery Board needed to look at the proposal again. Ultimately, they granted the funding proposal. However, that money took over a full year and the threat of another suit to actually get to SAEP. Another example is the textbook scandal in which textbooks were never delivered in the north without any explanation. Students are unable to learn without books, and the government had since changed the curriculum, which required these books. This corruption has no quick fix, but its implications on township education are immense. While blacks and township students do not face legal barriers to success, in comparison to the total they are still left behind. Schools are extremely over crowded. A study by ORT SA CAPE, the NGO that I worked at initially in South Africa, 51 of 120 teachers had classes of 40 or more learners. A surprising number of these teachers had classes of more than 50 or 60 students. The threshold class size is 30 learners (Abel). Firstly, with such full classes students are not given any individual attention, resources, or responses. Secondly, it is nearly impossible for township students to get into good schools. Schools are determined by living location, and are filled rapidly. For example, a close friend of director Jane Keen’s was attempting to enroll her white child in a school in a popular suburb, Rondebosh. They were placed on an extensive waitlist and ultimately unable to get in. Thus, it would be nearly impossible for a black student to get into these better schools, which would offer better opportunities if they live in the townships. (Keen). Instead, black students are forced into insufficient township schools with poor teachers. In the same ORT SA CAPE study, teachers attended a workshop and evaluated their skills. In the Foundation math phase, teachers did not know the difference between terms such as volume and capacity, area and perimeter (Abel). A pretest revealed that some teachers had not even mastered Grade 4 Math content. More than merely subject matter, teachers were not adequately trained. Most teachers knew nothing about learner’s errors, and only about one third of the teachers could identify and correct writing errors (Abel). Because of this, teachers merely do not give out homework, which would augment students’ knowledge. In the Foundation Phase Mathematics, only one teacher out of six gave homework regularly (Abel). Without teachers with sufficiently deep knowledge, students are not challenged with the material and left behind the well-prepared white schools. Not only are teachers unknowledgeable about the subject matter, but also in the art of teaching: teachers are not adequately or accurately marking students work (Abel). It was noted in the ORT SA CAPE study in the 8th grade-reading group, only half of the learner’s books showed grading. Of this half, some of it was marked incorrectly, and only half were marked regularly (Abel). The mistakes were rarely corrected with little feedback. In this, learners repeated their basic errors that were continuously ignored in teachers grading. More alarmingly, both the 2011 and 2012 studies showed evidence that there were distinct differences in the grading of the strong learners work and the weak learners work. The struggling learners, the ones who need feedback the most, were given “little or insubstantial comment” (Abel). In some cases in the study, the weaker learners books were not graded at all. This favoritism exemplifies the learning gap– it is not only whites that are leaving the blacks behind in education, but their teachers that are also failing them. The cycle of unpreparedness will perpetuate itself if the teachers are unable or unwilling to step up to the task of being prepared themselves. However, there may only be so much that the teachers can do, due to the culture of violence in the townships. One enormous impediment to education is the danger that township students face every single day by virtue of their home locations. Crime, rape, and violence are common activities in these areas. These townships are areas that are dangerous for whites and blacks alike, both during day and at night. As previously mentioned, because of the lack of organization, these communities are heavily reliant on the family ties that gangs can provide. But, this connection comes with a cost, and the cost is violence. For example, SAEP social worker Kayin Scholtz was stabbed in the middle of the afternoon while attempting to perform a home visit for a SAEP student. With such a traumatic experience, it is difficult to find highly qualified personal such as Kayin to take these jobs. This violence and fear extend to members who live and work in the townships as well. One Bridging Year student was raped during the day while on transit to SAEP for class. I personally saw the high levels of crime every day in Cape Town, which is much better than the townships. Muggings were common occurrences for our interns even during the day, and were usually accompanied by a knife and a threat. This level of violence and crime create emotionally unstable students. As one principal mentioned, students in the townships die often. This could be from disease, gang violence, domestic violence, infrastructure failures, or a plethora of other reasons. At this principal’s school, there were a few kids who died on school property (Keen). This is an extremely traumatic experience for everyone involved, and it is not an uncommon occurrence. These students are expected to compete with test scores and jobs with wealthy, white South Africans, most of whom have never experienced such a trauma. This is asking of them an impossible task.


Ultimately, the future of South Africa lies in its education system. Without proper education, the country will be unable to create original solutions to the township problems. It will be unable to effectively govern a stubborn population with innovative methods. South Africa is facing a severe shortage of necessary skills to produce the goods that have propelled it to the forefront of the developing world. South Africa is considered a global leader in development as a BRICS country, but to retain this status more than a minority of citizens must be educated. To maintain this momentum, South Africa will require the skill and knowledge of all of its components. Poor education breeds dependency, tyranny, corruption, oppression, and poverty. Peace between the races from decades of oppression is precarious. If this inequality continues, the peace will be broken. It was not long ago that the apartheid regime fell, and without the proper conditions the state could regress to these hatreds once again. The way out of this is by increasing the caliber of education across the country. I participated in a discussion recently on the topic of race in South Africa. The participating South Africans did not believe that South Africa could ever truly become one unified cultural unit, such as the rainbow nation. Their justification was the rampant inequality evident today in society. However, one student who grew up in Johannesburg believed that while it was not possible for her generation, or the next, or probably the next, it could happen in the future. She explained how her parents grew up under apartheid and were subject to its influence, which they taught to her. However, with her university education she was able to truly understand the cultural, political and economic problems in South Africa. She made friends with blacks, whites and coloureds and now has broken the stereotype to embrace a unified country. Without education, every family would perpetuate their old frustrations onto their children, who would share this with their children. Education was the one factor that would change this and teach tolerance. South Africa is not the rainbow nation. It is radically divided. Its people are suffering from malnutrition, disease, corruption, poverty, and inequality. But, the circumstances are improving. Little by little blacks are raising themselves from this poverty, and it is with the power of education. My first boss Debbie told me that she was amazed by the transformation that has taken place in South Africa in her lifetime. When she grew up, she never spoke to blacks. Now, she has hired them and retains them as close friends. This small fact gives me hope. Changes in this country will not come over night. They might not even happen in the next 50 years. But, with the power of education South Africa has great potential to be a shinning example for third world development.



 Abel, Lydia. Meyer, Susan. February 2013. External Evaluation of Courses Offered By the Cape Teaching and Leadership Institute: Final Impact Report. Asmal, Kader. October 10, 2003. Ministry of Education. Speech at the colloquium marking the launch of the foundation phase of systemic evaluation report. Cape Town, South Africa. Arts Students Perform at Jamboree. August 6, 2013. The South African Education and Environment Project. Posted to website: Bulletin of the World Health Organisation. 2002. ‘African children talk faster with iron’. 80(2). Fleisch, Brahm. 2008. Primary Education in Crisis: why South African school children underachieve in reading and mathematics. Juta & Co, LTD. Cape Town, South Africa. Fokazi, Sipokazi. August 7, 2013. Many Pupils Have Not Eaten. IOL News. South Africa. John, Victoria. May 17, 2013. Dropout Rate Points to Lack of Support. Mail and Guardian. Keen, Jane. August 5, 2013. Personal Interview. Lindow, Megan. 2011. Weaving Success: Voices of Change in African Higher Education. Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, New York. Nelson Mandela Foundation. 2005. Emerging Voices: A Report on Education in South African Rural Communities Cape Town: HSRC Press 54. SAEP Arts Students Perform at CAPA. July 8, 2013. The South African Education and Environment Project. Posted to website: Saunders, Stuart. May 11, 2013. Speech. The South African Education and Environment Project. 2012. Annual Report. Cape Town, South Africa. Zuma, Jacob. International Cooperation Agency. June 2, 2013. Japan. Address.


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