How ‘one act of kindness’ changed many SA lives for the better – Professor John Volmink

Stellenbosch University will soon give honorary doctorates to six outstanding individuals. One of them is Professor John Volmink, a transformation educationist, who has been asked by every post-apartheid education minister to play a role in transforming the country’s education curriculum. Originally from Athlone in Cape Town, Professor Volmink lived overseas for 25 years before returning to South Africa when Nelson Mandela was released. He has been instrumental in the establishment of non-governmental organisations to help with development in different parts of the world. This includes the Umalusi (Nguni for shepherd) organisation that sets the standards of education in South Africa. In a report published in February 2020, Amnesty International described education in the country as ‘characterised by crumbling infrastructure, overcrowded classrooms and relatively poor educational outcomes, is perpetuating inequality and as a result failing too many of its children, with the poor hardest hit’. In a 2016 report, Volmink said that the teachers’ unions in the country exerted undue influence on education because of the weak authority of the education department. He tells BizNews about a defining moment when a man (who looked like Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Saunders) changed his life and how he believes civil society should help sort out the ‘mess’ in South African education. – Linda van Tilburg

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I live in the house where I grew up in Cape Town, Athlone. I had hoped to go to university to study mathematics, but that hope was dashed because my parents couldn’t afford it. My father was a labourer at the city council and my mother was a factory worker. They had seven children. I was the older one and there was a lot of pressure on me to go out, work and not go to university. But there was a second reason. If I went to university, I would only go to study maths, which is a school subject I liked. Unfortunately, I was discouraged by some pronouncements by the then Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd that a black child shouldn’t be doing mathematics, you know, that famous quote. I became quite cynical about it and said, well, then in that case, I’m not interested.

I’m going to jump to a point when I was in my matric year, having reached the point of discouragement and giving up on my dream. I was asked by the Lions Club to attend a course for 10 days in the September holidays. My principal chose me and another young girl and, in each case, somebody was asked to get up and give a speech. I should say in brackets, I grew up in Athlone and in the days that I grew up, I didn’t see any white people – apart from the police and they weren’t the friendliest.

He took us around and said we were going to have lunch with the Mayor of Cape Town. He then wanted me to deliver a speech. I almost died, because I’d never – at that point – given a speech. Anyway, I gave this speech and the same man from the Lions Club came to me and said, “I liked your speech, can I come and record it at your home tomorrow, and by the way, what are you going to do next year?” I told him my dad got me a job at the city council. I was going to be the person collecting the money for water and electricity at the Athlone Civic Centre. There was great celebration in my neighbourhood, that the labourer’s son was going to become a clerk. I was happy with that. He asked why I was not going to university. I said, no, the thought was no longer occurring to me. He came to my home the next day and made a recording of the speech I gave.

In the presence of my mother who happened to be home that day, he told me that the Lion Club had a meeting the night before and they agreed to give me a scholarship to go to university, but they were only going to fund me for two years. He said, after that, “you’re on your own.” At that point, this man changed me in many ways and not only me – my whole family.  I went to university because of this intervention. It also helped me to understand that this was a man from a different race, a white man for whom I only had fear. For him, it may have been a random act of charity. For me, it was a defining moment.

“He told me that the Lion Club had a meeting the night before and they agreed to give me a scholarship to go to university.”

It changed my entire life. I went to university. After two years, I ran out of money. So, I went to teach for another two years to get money for my final year. I went back and finished my degree. That defining moment not only changed me, but my siblings all became aware that university can be possible. They would have had me as a role model sitting at the civic centre, collecting water money and electricity money. But instead, this man changed the direction. I want to write a book one day about my life. I have already started it and it’s called ‘One Act of Kindness’. One act of kindness changed my life.

And that’s the kind of hope you would like to give to every South African child, that you always need some kind of support or something to open that door?

Absolutely. Somebody needs to do that. It’s very important. The intervention of others in your life is something that’s quite significant. This man not only intervened in my life so I could go to university, but all my other siblings went to university. The one just after me went to UCT and then to Harvard. He did a master’s degree there and then from there went to Oxford for his PhD. Today he is the Dean – part retired – at Stellenbosch University’s medical school. It all started with that man that intervened in my life. He gave us all hope. Peter, the next brother, went to Duke University after finishing his law degree at the University of Cape Town. He has finished his PhD at Wits and is a very respected advocate. All of us have been changed by that one act of kindness.

You said you are still very involved in education in South Africa. When you look at some of the statistics, I’ve just read something that Dr Mamphela Ramphele wrote recently, that 80% of children in Grade 4 can’t read. 60% of pupils a year older cannot add or subtract whole numbers. When you look at this, how do we change that? How do we bring the hope that you found to those pupils ?

The minister and the department have a constitutional responsibility to deliver on education. Those statistics that you mentioned are worrying. And yes, you can’t just sit back in a closed room and close my curtains and my door and hope that things will change. I have no reason to hope unless I do something about it. The constitutional responsibility for education is that of the minister. Civil society should come in and join and help the Education Department and I must say in this country, that is happening.

So, what I can say to you – because I do serve on the committee that looks at what you’ve just said – is that I admire the civil society in South Africa. I serve as the chairperson of a large foundation, the DG Murray Trust. In our latest strategy, we tried to find out better ways of working with the state, not only in education, but in health, nutrition and in other areas. Without walking together, I think this will be too much. You know, somebody said, we are all in this boat together. It’s a very poor boat. It leaks, it’s very insecure, and we are in uncharted waters. Since 1994, we were in uncharted waters and our boat is leaking. This boat is seriously leaking.

Now, when that happens, there’s no point in me saying to you, “it’s leaking on your side of the boat” because we all go down that way. We all have to scoop whether the water’s coming in on your side or my side. We have to work together to get this water out. That, to me is an analogy that says, unless we address the problem of reading, unless we address the problem of mathematics in particular (which is my area) and also of preparing people for the 21st century, and unless we challenge the existing policies, I think we will not get to the other side of this ocean and beyond.

My view is that – and I agree with the Director General in Education when he says – we are a nation on the rise. We are not a nation in decline. Yes, it sounds horrible that 78% of children in the fourth grade can’t read from meaning.  They can read. It’s not that they can’t read, they can read mechanically. I am involved with a coalition, the National Reading Coalition consisting of many NGOs together with the government. I’m chairing that, although reading is not my expertise. But I see it as fundamental to our education system.

We had a conference last year where we brought about 500 people together. They are different members of civil society, universities, NGOs and government. We call that the National Reading Coalition, which is a coalition of the willing. We said you don’t have to give up your autonomy. It’s a loose confederation of autonomies and we are tackling reading together. In the same way, we would have to do something in mathematics. I think it’s a long road to quality education. The Education Department and civil society together must build the quality.

“I have no reason to hope that things can get better. I have no reason to hope unless I do something about it.”

Matriculants are going to start writing their final exams. They normally start writing in October but this year they will write a bit later, finishing in mid to late December. This year, because there was no June supplementary examination, there will be an added 260,000 people to the 640,000 full-time students who will be writing matric exams in December. So 1.1m people will be writing the matric exams. Now imagine that. 670,000 of them are full-time students and because of various factors, about 150,000 would pass at a level that is acceptable to universities. But the universities only have space for 70,000. So, we have to find alternate pathways. In a young democracy like ours and with an economy that’s not very strong, that doesn’t inspire me with hope. Because there are lots of young people that are not in education after matric, not in employment and not in training.

That is a problem in this country that we need to address because there are people that gave up hope. They are not looking for jobs anymore. There are young people sitting by the side of the road together with some older people, looking for a way in which to survive. That is a very serious threat to our social fabric. So, I just feel that we cannot stop. We have no choice but to move forward and keep hope alive. Give people a reason to believe that we – when I say we, the state together with civil society – are very serious about increasing your life chances. We are on a burning platform and I don’t think there is a silver bullet – but there are always choices. So, when you’re dealing with complexity, you have to accept that there may not be one solution, but they are always choices, always.

We need to work together to decide – from the maybe dozens of options that we have – what are the most important things that we need to focus on as an education system? To turn it around? At the moment, and I can always provide evidence for that, there is somebody called Dr Nick Taylor (CEO of the National Education Evaluation & Development Unit or NEEDU) – whom I respect very much – and he has done some research to show that we are improving, but from a very low base, very low and we need to accelerate that. We can’t go at that rate and become competitive.

We’ve got lots of work here in this country. I came back to make my own small contribution. I believe if you have a dream and I’ve told you what my dream is –  a better education system – it’s not sufficient. You have to work in partnership with others who share your dream. In other words, you can die with your dream, if you don’t find ways to empower them. The only way to empower your dream is to work in partnership with others who share your dream. There is a lot of negativity, as you could guess. But I encourage people like that because some of them who are not completely disillusioned will say, “Okay, let’s give it one more try” and I grab that opportunity with both hands.

“You have to work with others who share your dream. You can die with your dream if you don’t find ways to empower them. The only way to empower your dream is to work in partnership with others.”

My life had been changed by the person that gave me hope by intervening in my life. It was a defining moment for me. It not only changed me, it changed my family and my community. Essentially, I will always remember. I’ve never seen this man again, because this all happened in the late 1960s. There were no cell phones and there was no way I could go into white areas to look for this man. But every time I go to Kentucky Fried Chicken, I think of him because he looks just like Colonel Saunders.

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