There is no better time to refocus our attention on South Africa’s future than now – directly after our fifth democratic elections. So said Chris Whelan, CEO of Accelerate Cape Town (ACT), as he opened the business think tank’s Thought Leaders’ breakfast in Stellenbosch on Friday, 9 May 2014.
The two hour work session was sponsored by PricewaterhouseCoopers and dedicated to the role of business in education with special emphasis on securing a robust talent pipeline of relevant skills.
Whelan explained that the City Vitals* or globally acknowledged imperatives for successful cities and regions, comprise four areas, namely connectedness, distinctiveness, innovation and, above all, talent. “For the Cape to thrive and increase its contribution, it needs to become a net attractor, and generator, of relevant talent and skills,” he said.
“Building a skilled labour force presents challenges. We need to rapidly improve the quality of SA’s educational system, currently ranked 146th in the WEF Global Competitiveness report; address labour inefficiencies for which we are placed 116th; relax our rigid employment termination practices for which we are ranked 147th, and many more. Raising education standards, creating relevant skills and more productive labour will thus be critical, given the country’s high unemployment rate of over 20 percent, with the rate of youth unemployment estimated at close to 50 percent. When the bigger picture seems formidable, it is often best to hone in on specific areas. Today, we’ll focus on the role of business in education to help ensure a robust talent pipeline with which to underpin growth,” Whelan added.
Keynote speaker – former CEO of the FirstRand Group, Paul Harris – supported Whelan’s approach by calling for a similar shift, from a macro to a micro approach, to solution finding. “Plant lots of small seeds in the form of enterprising ideas. Many will grow into saplings and soon you’ll see big trees standing proud,” he said. “At FirstRand, in the eighties, we started a Volunteers’ Programme with a single facilitator. Today, 6 000 employees donate their time skills and resources, which is matched by the firm.”
Harris also spoke of his role as Chairman of Penryn College, a not-for-profit private school in a rural area of Mpumalanga that has achieved a 100% matric pass rate since its launch in the early nineties. Attached to Penryn College is Penreach, the largest teacher outreach programme in Africa, which uses the facilities and resources of the school to upgrade the quality of teachers in the surrounding region. “From the outset, we knew that quality education depends on the capabilities and skills of the headmasters, headmistresses and teachers that stand in front of learners every day. As a result, Penryn College staff are not only carefully selected, but also committed to making themselves available to teach and mentor their peers. On an average weekend, 1500 teachers from the area come to Penryn for the coaching they need to help elevate standards of education in their schools.”
Harris further discussed his involvement with UkuFUNda Virtual School and Mixt Reach – initiatives designed to apply technology to help strengthen education in SA. His daughter, Nicola Harris – trustee of the Click Foundation – expanded on the topic as she told of the Foundation’s interventions from early childhood to high school stage. “We have 6,000 young learners in our programme and have created employment for 35 facilitators to date. Our overriding purpose is to harness young people’s love of technology and games for the purpose of learning,”
Introductions to the Pinotage Youth Development Academy, various World Design capital initiatives and many more small, yet enterprising ventures spanning progressive internship programmes and peer-to-peer learning, were shared by the group.
Whelan concluded: “The innovative and meaningful solutions shared today are reassuring in the short term, and bear much future promise. Most encouraging is the fact that so much is already being done, and so many pockets of excellence already exist. The role of business in education is an extremely meaningful one. The challenge is, perhaps, not to get too distracted by the formidable nature of some of our large, national challenges, but to start small, think big and scale fast.”
* CEOs for Cities, City Vitals 2.0, 2012