Maureen Ncube in Johannesburg
WALKING eight kilometres everyday hungry and barefoot to school was the only reality eight-year-old Sonwabile Xaluva of Libode Village in the Eastern Cape knew two years ago.
Solely responsible for the welfare of her six-year-old brother since the death of their parents, she had to convince him each morning to brave the cold without any warm clothing for the sake of their education.
Luckily, her memory of the daily ordeal is now hazy, as she now owns a few jerseys, brand new shoes, gets two filling meals on week days and a bus ride to school every day.
Sonwabile is one out 300 pupils from the impoverished OR Tambo Coastal District who are benefiting from the munificence of Zimbabwe-born South Africa-based businessman, Mr Justice Maphosa, originally from Gwanda in Matabeleland South province.
The man popularly known for keeping Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa at his Pretoria home when he was briefly exiled in South Africa last year adopted the school after being invited by a teary village elder in 2016.
“We were raised by elderly people and the tears of this old man who invited us here really moved me. I had initially refused to come here because we don’t make our money in the Eastern Cape. I didn’t even know this school,” says Mr Maphosa.
He was to later discover that a lot of Xaluva’s colleagues at Upper Corana Primary School share a similar story with her.
“Most of the learners here are from child-headed homes. They are orphans and half of them have lost their parents to Aids-related diseases,” explains a teacher, Nozibele Mgemani.
The school, which was on the verge of closure early in 2016, has become one of the most coveted by parents in the area. It is now home to 300 learners, up from 30 just under three years ago.
In fact, the school’s Principal Nomandla Ndamase says she was weeks away from quitting when Mr Maphosa came on board.
“I was contemplating resigning from this school because of the sad situation that we found ourselves in, but Maphosa arrived on the scene and revived our hopes. He has even hired teachers for us. I keep telling the teachers that the onus is now on us to deliver on the core teaching business,” she said.
The Big Time Strategic Group founder and CEO Mr Maphosa, pays four teachers and three non-teaching staff through his company. Interestingly, when the company started paying salaries, the school was left with only three teachers. Presently, Upper Corana has 13 teachers, nine of them paid by the department of Education.
Mgemani, who teaches English, says that Big Time Strategic Group’s teachers’ incentive programme has had a great impact on the teacher-student ratio since it attracts more teachers to the school. She adds that this has led to a significant improvement in the school’s examination results.
“Most children here are orphans and come from child headed homes. They can’t afford uniforms and buying food so what Big Time is doing has really made a difference.”
Upper Corana’s benefactor, Mr Maphosa, reveals he shed tears during his first visit to Upper Corana when he saw a six-year-old walk barefoot in winter while his wife was wearing gloves and a warm jacket.
Since then, his conviction has been quite simple: “If I can educate one child, I would have liberated an entire household.”
He is pleased with the results of his efforts in the school and intends to continue supporting its learners and teachers in every way.
He, however, believes more still has to be done and has since commissioned the construction of new classroom blocks.
Big Time Strategic Group is also renovating classroom blocks of the neglected school, adding a teachers’ staff room and the headmaster’s office. The company is also drilling a borehole and installing 40 000 litres tank for running water and ablution facilities for pupils and teaching staff. On completion, the school will take up to 700 learners up from a capacity of 350.
Add to that, the company is also erecting a fence and providing a 24-hour security guard to enhance the school’s security.
“The challenges faced by Libode residents pushed me to give back to this community. The African continent nurtured me so I must give back as I know what it means to be poor. As Africans we must stop the syndrome of relying on begging or waiting for other continents to do things for us. It must start at grassroots’ level,” explains Mr Maphosa.
The Department of Education’s district director, Varkeychan Joseph, says the situation in his area needed urgent intervention.
“The district has got 652 schools. Out of these 652 schools, at almost 300 schools, the situation is not conducive for teaching and learning. You can imagine the magnitude of the problem, and also the situation of this disadvantaged area.”
Joseph also called for more public-private-sector partnerships from corporate South Africa to chip in and help alleviate the learners’ plight in the OR Tambo District which comprises of Ngqeleni, Libode, Port St John’s, Lisikisiki, and Flagstaff.
Nobandla Goniwe (70), the great-grandmother of two of Upper Corana learners, expressed gratitude towards Mr Maphosa for saving the school at the verge of its closing down.
“I always tell my grandchildren who attend this school that I want them to learn from Mr Maphosa to be generous when they grow up,” Goniwe says.
And Mr Maphosa is prepared to hold on to his conviction because he wants to liberate one household after another.