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Rhodes University VC wants to transform Makhanda into a world-class education hub

Rhodes University VC wants to transform Makhanda into a world-class education hub
Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor Professor Sizwe Mazibela. (Photo: Supplied)

Professor Sizwe Mabizela and the university’s partner organisations explain how they are slowly but surely transforming the city’s education landscape – from the foundations up – by using the ‘enormous’ academic resources at their disposal.

Makhanda is home to one of South Africa’s leading higher education institutions, Rhodes University. That very same university has a plan to win the small city situated in the Eastern Cape another accolade, turning it into South Africa’s leading educational academic city.

On Saturday, 27 January, educators, NGOs and civil society organisations converged on the university for the Makhanda Education Summit, where they celebrated the strides the city has made in transforming the education landscape.  

In 2013, Makhanda, formerly known as Grahamstown, was the 10th worst-performing educational district in South Africa. Recognising the crisis that had befallen the city, Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor Professor Sizwe Mabizela and a team of brilliant educational minds jumped into action and rolled out an ambitious plan to improve Makhanda’s early childhood development, primary school and high school education.

rhodes makhanda education

Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor Professor Sizwe Mabizela stresses the important role universities play in ensuring the education system works for everybody, from ECD to matric. (Photo: Instagram)

“We took a decision that it was time that we mobilised the entire Makhanda community around education to ensure that the city of Makhanda becomes the leading education city in this country,” Prof Mabizela told Daily Maverick.

“The mobilising goal, the vision is to ensure that Makhanda becomes the leading national Centre of Excellence in Education from early childhood to tertiary. We were able to wrap our arms around the city.”

Read More in Daily Maverick: ‘An unmitigated disaster’ – South Africa’s education system needs widespread reforms: reports

Prof Mabizela looked back to when he was first inaugurated as VC in 2016, remembering the commitment he had made to work with the community of Makhanda to ensure that every child in the city would be afforded the opportunity for quality and life-changing education.

Less than 10 years later, the city’s educational landscape is transforming into something almost unrecognisable. Saturday’s education summit served as a celebration of those achievements.

Improvements in Makhanda

The fruits of the interventions could possibly be best showcased by the city’s 2023 matric examination results, which saw a pass rate of 80% with 300 bachelor’s passes from 824 candidates. The pass rate has risen 20% in only three years.

The 2021 Pirls study made headlines when it revealed that only 19% of Grade 4 learners could read for meaning nationally. Makhanda fares far better, with 40% of Grade 4 learners being able to read for meaning in 2023.

Speaking to Daily Maverick, Dr Ashley Westaway, the education manager at Gadra Education, one of Rhodes University’s partner NGOs, detailed how this was achieved. While the university and its partners had a number of initiatives in place, one stood out above the rest for Westaway: the Nine-Tenths mentorship programme.

Westaway said the programme was inspired by the saying that “nine-tenths of education is encouragement”. Under this programme, more than 100 Rhodes students actively mentor 220 matric learners in local schools, helping them navigate the academically challenging year.

“I think this is where it is really interesting because it’s been a genuine community effort. If you think of the demographic of the city, we’ve got, let’s say 90,000 people in the city, and Rhodes University has got about nine, ten thousand students. We’ve got a tenth of the population. Bring[ing] incredible academic capital into the city.”

Westaway went on to explain that Mhakanda has the advantage of having some of the best private schools in the country, meaning the district has a huge teacher community.

“When you put those two things together, and you’ve got an enormous academic resource. So the success truly has been about recognising the academic intellectual resources we have in the city and coupling it with this commitment to partnering and working together,” Westaway said.

According to Prof Mabizela, the results speak for themselves:

“The success has been absolutely phenomenal. I think in 2011, it must have been about 12 young people from Makhanda managed to be enrolled at Rhodes University. As a caring institution, we could not sit and watch the young people of this town losing hope. Since we started this initiative, the numbers have increased significantly. The numbers have increased more than tenfold, in excess of 164 young people registered at Rhodes University in 2023.” 

Read More in Daily Maverick: Matric class of 2023 beats the odds with record 82.9% pass rate — Angie Motshekga

Universities’ role in bettering education for all

Speaking on the role tertiary education institutions can play in improving the basic education system, Prof Mabizela said universities could not sit and cross their arms and criticise the quality of students who applied to their institutions. 

“We can do something at the lower levels to make sure that those young people are better prepared for tertiary education,” Prof Mabizela said. “My main criticism of our education system is that we invest inordinate resources at the back end of the education cycle, in Grades 10, 11 and 12, where young people lack foundational knowledge that they need to succeed. It’s really just patchwork, and that reflects itself even at universities where you have students who struggle to read,” Prof Mabizela said.

The VC added that foundation education needed to be strengthened to create ideal conditions for teachers to teach and learners to learn so that pupils were prepared for education.

“This has always been my guiding principle, which is a Chinese proverb which says it is better to light a candle than cast darkness. So rather than condemning and castigating and bemoaning the state of our education, do something about it,” Prof Mabizela said

While the various initiatives introduced in the past 10 years have shown some fruitful results, the collective work to improve the education system in Makhanda hopes that by 2028, the city will be the education hub of South Africa, from ECD to tertiary.

“This is not only about becoming the best education city in the country in metrics; it is also about being recognised as such. Once the country recognises that there is something unique going on in Makhanda. Something very South African that is informed by the values of Ubuntu, that there is something that belongs to us. At that point, it can become something very influential,” Westaway said. DM


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