Maverick Citizen


I’ve seen the future and it works – if we want it to

I’ve seen the future and it works – if we want it to
South Africa’s greatest untapped resource for capital creation is its people, but we refuse to invest in them. (Photo: iStock)

One of the contradictions about South Africa is that the people with the best solutions to our many problems have the least power to implement them at scale – and the people with the most power have the fewest solutions.

Last week I took a drive to the tranquil surrounds of the Nirox Sculpture Park in the Cradle of Humankind outside Johannesburg to attend what was billed as an Investment and Partner Gathering of Columba Leadership. It was a Wednesday afternoon and I was feeling jaded, weary and frightened by the trajectory of our country. The news that came later in the week – arms sold to Russia, the collapsing rand, increasing hunger – would only exacerbate that feeling. 

columba leadership

Columba Leadership is an organisation that gives school staff and pupils the leadership skills and vision to tackle their problems. ‘In essence, Columba seeks to drive a movement of positive change in school with youth working in partnership with adults to drive this change and in the process develop themselves,’ says Tracy Hackland, Columba CEO. (Photo: Supplied)

But by the end of the afternoon my spirits had lifted.

The amazing thing about our country, and perhaps the thing that will save us, is that South Africa is not a single story of misgovernance, corruption and collapse. 

It is simultaneously a story of innovation and possibility.

Columba Leadership was founded in 2009 by former Dimension Data executive director Rob Taylor. Its aim is to fix our basic education system, one school at a time, by building leadership capacity among learners and teachers, recognising that the solutions are within them. Now that it has a track record, its CEO, Tracy Hackland, told us that some of her friends call Columba “the best-kept secret in town”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: How Columba is transforming the lives of learners and teachers across the country 

Watch: I CAN CHANGE | Tshepiso & Tankiso

As I listened to a panel discussion between three teachers from difficult quintile 1 schools in some of our most disadvantaged educational districts, followed by a presentation by two Grade 12 pupils from MH Baloyi Secondary School in Mabopane Pretoria, I jotted in my notebook: “Does Columba hold the key to an improved education system?”

New Leaders from Nomzamo, Popano, Bainslvei and Ziphathele Secondary school; CEO of Columba Ms. Tracy Hackland; Columba graduates at Chris Hani Secondary School. Photos: Columba Leadership

The input by the teachers (Mpho Lephalo, Tinyiko Bvuma and Siboniso Khomo – *look out for an article on their work by my colleague, Takudzwa Pongweni, later this week) flew in the face of the lazy stereotype of a public school teacher. 

They are inspired, passionate, reflective, driven and solutions oriented. They have led demonstrable change in their schools.  

They described to the audience their own development after attending a Columba Values-based Leadership Academy: 

“You watch me now, you see life,” said Tinyiko. “Columba made us sing like parrots.” 

“I’m one of the few principals who will take his own kids to his own school,” said Kgomo.  

The two learners were Naledi Ngobeno and Jabulani Siyoyo, both from very difficult personal circumstances. Naledi sounded as if she came from one of the best girls private schools. Jabulani, a former troublemaker in school (a “leader of the wrong sort”, as Columba calls it) is now its president. They gave the impression they could talk forever as they excitedly took the audience through a slide pack displaying the transformation they have initiated in their school: scholar transport fixed, library and science lab cleaned and equipped, student hunger – food garden.

The key, said their energetic drama teacher, Lerato Phooko, is to “deal with the learner’s mind”. 

“It’s amazing what happens when people feel seen,” says Hackland.

Taking solutions to scale

The Columba leadership course has now been run for 277 schools with 11,259 participants. That’s a big enough sample to say that it works! But it has learnings that go far beyond the education system and could be an advantage to our country as a whole.

The first is that there are solutions, and they are usually known to each affected community and the people who work on the frontline of the system: be it in education, health services or food security. Second, the solutions can be implemented if only they could be taken to scale with political will and financial resources.

We are simultaneously so close to disaster… and so close to solutions.

Another is that the marginalised, overlooked and downtrodden people of South Africa are more than victims; they are fully capable of effecting dramatic changes if they are seen and avenues are opened. Despite stories of bullying, violence and teenage pregnancy, as Hackland says: “Young people in schools are a force for good.” 

These two truths are not mutually exclusive.

Which is why I feel so discombobulated when I reflect on another feature of my week last week: several people approaching me independently of each other, sensing correctly that we are on a knife edge as a country and wanting to discuss what they can do.

“Do you have time for a quick coffee this arvie? Really want to revisit our conversation about active citizenry!! Feeling a little desperate right now.”

“Just checking if you have a few mins to chat today? Won’t be too long,” wrote another, before initiating an anguished state-of-the-nation conversation. Like so many others, they want desperately to help but don’t know where best to invest their energy and expertise.  

And there’s the paradox that makes a calamity of such short democracy: we are simultaneously so close to disaster… and so close to solutions. 

Many of the socially sensitive people I speak to fear South Africa is close to another “July 2021”: there are too many people living in unbearable conditions; too much poverty cheek by jowl with too much wealth; and a few people who would happily pull the trigger on chaos for political and material ends.  

People committed to our constitutional vision… have to work for change locally and in our neighbourhoods, but find a collective voice nationally.

South Africa’s greatest untapped resource for capital creation is its people, but we refuse to invest in them. 

But ask yourself: should we be forced to spend billions once again mopping up after a destructive conflagration from which South Africa may never recover? Or would it be better to spend billions preventing it, with unimaginable spin-offs for people’s dignity, energy and innovation? 

Open movements

So, what do I say to my friends? 

In a recent newsletter imploring people to “remain hopeful”, Janet Jobson, the CEO of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, quotes Rebecca Solnit, noting: “This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It is also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.”

However, to facilitate greater engagement we also have to look at the way we organise ourselves. 

In the words of Anand Giridharadas in his 2022 book The Persuaders, Winning Hearts and Minds in a Divided Age:  

“Some of the most dangerous and anti-democratic movements of our time had managed, in spite of those features, to make their causes appear welcoming and newcomers feel at home, whereas some of the most righteous, inclusive and just movements gave many the feeling of being inaccessible, intractable and alienating.” 

In recent editorials I have tried to persuade readers that to flip the balance between threat and opportunity, equality and inequality, corruption and integrity, we will have to see and work differently:

Read more in Daily Maverick: Keeping the lights of hope on – harnessing the real power of South Africa’s people

Read more in Daily Maverick: Murders most foul – South Africa is spiralling downwards

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Where’s your compassion?’ It may just save your life

We have to stop being fixated on critiquing the bad.      

We have to join up the good. 

Business and patriots with money have to invest at scale in transformational initiatives and projects like Columba. There are many out there.

People committed to our constitutional vision – and I mean the whole vision, particularly the equality and human rights parts – have to work for change locally and in our neighbourhoods, but find a collective voice nationally. 

In the general election of 2024 we have to shake up the existing political system, but that means starting to organise now.

It is possible. South Africa’s problem is not a lack of solutions but a lack of power. However, with the right approach even that is a problem that can be solved. DM/MC


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Frank Janssens says:

    A very hopeful and inspiring view for South Africa. I am a Belgian citizen owning a house in South Africa and we often say: this country is a boiling experiment in democracy. As you write you still can add the right ingredients – all available in your beautiful country – but you have to remove the current c(r)ooks from the lab before the whole thing explodes. In a sense your experimenting democracy shows more signs of vitality than our old and worn-out democracies. For example your journalists and cartoonists are really an example. You have so many fantastic authors and artists. Can you imagine that in Belgium, especially in Flanders 20% of the voters are longing for an autocratic system with a strong man. Your press is far better than the one in the the US and UK. But good and free press is considered as elitist and producers of fake news. I am glad you made my day with this article. Thank you.

  • Jeffrey O'Malley says:

    Thanks Mark; we all need some hope and inspiration these days, which the story of Columba does indeed provide. That said, there are countless inspiring, innovative and effective community initiatives not just in South Africa but around the world. I’ve spent a huge amount of my career both within such activities and trying to help succcssful community activists access the resources they need to increase their reach. I realised belatedly that I was too committed to ‘bottom up’ and too ignorant of the broader context within which such work has an impact at scale, or fails. So thank you too for implying that we need progress from the “top down” as well as “bottom up”: “People committed to our constitutional vision … have to work for change locally and in our neighbourhoods, but find a collective voice nationally.”

  • Nic Tsangarakis says:

    Thanks Mark. Columba is an amazing success story that can the leveraged far and wide. There is a lot of good in our country. Hopefully enough good to eventually overcome the bad.

  • . . says:

    Roll back the state, empower people, invest in individuals – ideal Heywood just repeating the DA’s election manifesto?

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