Classroom. Picture: ISTOCK
Classroom. Picture: ISTOCK

Beleaguered by drought, bankrupted by municipal dysfunction, bedevilled by high levels of poverty and bullied by threats of daily 14-hour Eskom blackouts, Makhanda’s outlier classrooms and lecture halls remain gratifyingly unbowed.

The city — the Eastern Cape’s best-performing educational centre — had a "breakthrough" year in 2018, says Gadra Education director Ashley Westaway: in addition to the stellar results of its public university (Rhodes) and exclusive private schools (DSG, St Andrew’s and Kingswood), Makhanda’s public schools produced their best-ever matric results — well above the provincial average. The pass rate (78%), number of successful candidates (436), bachelor pass rate (43%) and number of bachelor passes (238) were all records.

That excludes the 101 bachelor passes achieved by the country’s most successful "second-chance" school, the Gadra Matric School (GMS), which affords young people who have already written national senior certificate exams the opportunity to upgrade their results. For the third consecutive year, not one of the GMS candidates failed — and the school was again the biggest feeder for Rhodes.

For the past three years, a broad-based civic alliance, "the VC’s initiative", has mushroomed around education (following the vision outlined by Rhodes vice-chancellor Sizwe Mabizela in his inaugural address in 2014). Long-term partnerships between Rhodes, educational nonprofits and civic associations, rapidly improving no-fee schools led by some outstanding principals and support from the department of basic education are culminating in unprecedented success.

The initiative has targeted three local high schools — Nombulelo, Ntsika and Mary Waters — which were last year responsible for 87% of the bachelor passes achieved. Every one of these pupils benefited from a Rhodes-run mentoring programme, The Nine Tenths, in which highly trained student volunteers collaborate with pupils on personal planning, study skills, written work and tertiary applications.

Meanwhile, in just one year, Gadra Education’s Whistle Stop School raised the literacy levels of a grade 3 class by two years — a reminder, says Westaway, that "all SA children are equally teachable".

Makhanda has also mobilised more working-class parents — more than 120 Rhodes workers, dozens of Kingswood staff and parents of children at four no-fee primary schools — into family literacy programmes than anywhere else in SA.

Access to support materials has not been helped by the province’s 203 libraries having no internet access for 18 months or by the dearth of schools with operating computer labs or libraries. However, local nonprofit Awarenet offers learner ICT support in two open-access labs in a township youth centre and will soon offer ICT training, support and materials to teachers and pupils in local schools.

And, in a province that underspends its early childhood development (ECD) budgets, local activist-teacher Pam Sandi has networked 19 ECD centres in Makhanda’s townships.

Makhanda is thus engineering a compelling counternarrative of education innovation and success in one of the poorest parts of SA — and in the face of widespread dysfunction in politics and the civil service.

This has been achieved by diverse citizens identifying and committing civic assets, and organising civic action so the whole of these efforts is more than the sum of the parts. In other words, this is a democratic achievement.

However, this hopeful campfire story will need constant rekindling by networked institutions of the state and civil society if it is to fuel sustainable and scalable change in the years to come.