Maverick Citizen


Rising above it all — the impoverished rural school that produces champions

Rising above it all — the impoverished rural school that produces champions
Educators at Josephine Makhanya Primary Sport School of Excellence in Adams Mission, south of Durban. Dedicated teachers often double as coaches and mentors, resulting in unpaid extra hours. They use their own money to help learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. (Photo: Siyabonga Mbhele)

Containers in a dusty yard comprise much of the infrastructure of the Josephine Makhanya Primary Sport School of Excellence — yet the school has produced national sports champions and secured scholarships at international universities for its learners.

South Africa is the most unequal society in the world, according to the World Bank. Fault lines are apparent in the quality of education offered to children from different economic and social backgrounds. 

Zamakhanya Makhanya, the principal of the Josephine Makhanya Primary Sport School of Excellence at Adams Mission in rural KwaZulu-Natal, realised the disparities when she started playing tennis during apartheid and it opened her eyes to possibilities black children never dreamed of.

rural school Zamakhanya Makhanya

Principal of Josephine Makhanya Sport school of excellence Zamakhanya Makhanya says she leads with values of teamwork, family and dedication. (Photo: Siyabonga Mbhele)

“I realised the potential and opportunities that come with playing sports, travelling around the country and scholarships. I wanted to bring those opportunities back home to kids,” said Makhanya, South Africa’s first black tennis provincial and national champion.

The school was established in 1980 as a crèche and a few years later became a pre-primary school. In 2005, it was developed as a primary sports school of excellence, with grades one to seven. Adams Mission is a disadvantaged community where most parents are unemployed, often relying on children’s social grants. Many of the learners are orphans.

Learning challenges

Makhanya says there are challenges in providing holistic learning that includes psychosocial care and individual attention for each child to reach their full potential in whatever they are good at, whether it be academics, arts or sports. 

“There are social ills in our communities that impact children’s ability to perform well academically and in sports. Most don’t get support from their parents; some are in abusive homes, some are at risk of substance abuse, and some are being neglected,” said Makhanya.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Our unequal education system is not a fair fight, it’s an ambush

The school has a social worker to assist teachers and pupils in navigating psychosocial issues. Makhanya often has to pay for the children’s needs out of her own pocket, such as when they need to travel for their sports or art competitions. She says that despite the plethora of financial and social challenges, she is inspired by her staff and her pupils’ commitment to excel at whatever they do.

Containers make up 80% of the classrooms for the 900 pupils at Josephine Makhanya Primary Sport School of Excellence. (Photo: Siyabonga Mbhele)

“The school hasn’t received less than 20 trophies from 2017 and that is due to dedicated staff who often juggle their core job with being a coach. That is why I always look for educators who have additional passions [like] language, computer science and music. They can add value because we can’t afford specialised coaches right now and they put in the extra hours with so much enthusiasm, and that inspires me to keep going,” said Makhanya. 

The school has secured scholarships for its learners at respected schools in Durban, as well as full scholarships at international universities for four of its learners. It has received 73 trophies and 13 medals in the past three years.

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Learners from the school have excelled at activities that include choral music, netball, robotics and coding. 

Makhanya says the aim is to produce leaders, professional players, coaches, and sports administrators through “the development of the ‘whole’ child with a quality all-round education, to honour the uniqueness of each child in his/her abilities and talents and to think critically, and creatively and become empowered to develop into good leaders and decision-makers”. 

Grade 1 teacher and coach Smangele Sabelo has taught at the school for five years. She says the children’s fighting spirit in adversity keeps her inspired. (Photo: Siyabonga Mbhele)

Grade One teacher and coach Smangele Sabelo says the school needs new facilities.

“We don’t have [classrooms]. We… need materials and sports grounds. For netball, we train in [a] small space. [For] athletics, the children circle the yard, but we go to a sports ground so they can understand what 500 metres are,” said Sabelo.

“Being a teacher is so hard, it needs to be a calling. Our principal goes above and beyond to provide for the children and to give incentives to the teachers to show their appreciation. But no matter how bad my mood is, my students’ smiles and excitement when I come in every morning light me up and I’m truly happy to nurture them to see the best in themselves and all the possibilities in the world,” said Sabelo.

A long history of humanitarianism

The school was named after Zamakhanya’s mother, dedicated district community nurse Josephine Makhanya, who would walk long distances to serve patients in Adams Mission. One of her great-grandmothers was the social and political activist Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke. 

“I hope I am furthering their legacy. And we hope we are a living example of Great-Grandma Charlotte’s words: ‘This work is not for yourself, kill the spirit of self, do not live above your people. If you can rise, bring someone with you,’ ” said Makhanya. 

Makhanya hopes to secure funding for infrastructure and to turn the school into a boarding school.

“In more affluent neighbourhoods, children can stay after school for training because their parents have cars to fetch them. A boarding school would ensure they eat healthily and have time to train. They can have all-round support to help them reach their full potential and be world champions.” DM/MC


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    This has made my day. It shows what excellence can be achieved by caring, selfless leaders. Their reward will be much greater than a mansion on the hill built with ill-gotten gains. Excellence like this needs to be well rewarded with improved facilities. Thank you for bringing this bright light out from under the bushel

  • Paula Kelly says:

    I have the most amazing book called ” The calling of Katie Makanya” who was an integral part of the founding of the McCord Hospital. It is a most inspiring story. Charlotte was her sister I suspect as there are pictures of her in the choir with Katie when they toured London in 1891. Katie’s story is one that also needs to be told to a wider audience. A family who contributed richly to the communities they found themselves in.

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