Few things could sum up SA’s education disparity, or the willingness of South Africans to bridge the gap, as the scene two weeks ago at The Campus conference centre in Bryanston, Joburg.

In one room, well-heeled business executives heard how they could take their companies successfully into a world ruled by artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR). Scores queued for selfies with Sophia, a humanoid robot that her inventor believes is the face of the future.

Next door, staff from Duke Corporate Education, the business school running the conference, balanced hundreds of new and used children’s books on top of each other in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reach the ceiling. There were more than enough books to do so, but safety eventually trumped ambition.

The average 14-year-old in rural SA has a reading age of seven. That means millions of young people are condemned to illiteracy and a life of subsistence living

The books, donated by conference delegates, are destined for remote primary schools supported by Rally to Read, the rural education programme in which the FM is an organising partner.

Children in these schools have never heard of AI or VR, nor are they likely to. How can they, when they are unable to read and lack access to even the most rudimentary educational materials?

A quarter of a century into democracy, and with SA onto its fifth president, education has not changed for many of SA’s rural communities. Thousands of schools lack basic educational resources such as books and stationery. In the worst cases, school buildings are damaged and there are no desks, electricity or sanitation.

It would be easy to turn away and declare this to be someone else’s problem. It’s not. The average 14-year-old in rural SA has a reading age of seven. That means millions of young people are condemned to illiteracy and a life of squatter camps and subsistence living. That has implications for everyone.

Since 1998, however, Rally to Read’s direct action has changed the future for many of these children. In those 21 years, the programme has made a difference to more than 1,600 schools, 12,000 teachers and 250,000 children.

It’s a straightforward idea. Rally to Read provides rural schools with educational materials, such as portable classroom libraries and stationery, then ensures the children and their teachers are equipped to use them. The Read Educational Trust, Rally to Read’s NGO partner, provides teacher training and monitors literacy progress over the three years that each group of schools is supported.

By keeping it simple, the programme delivers the promised results. Independent research shows that the literacy gap in Rally schools closes quickly. Instead of dropping out of education, children are able to progress successfully through high school and, in increasing numbers, on to university. A number of children benefit from bursaries available through the programme.

Dates to diarise

There are six Rally to Read rallies planned for 2019. Dates for an Mpumalanga weekend have still to be finalised. Confirmed dates are as follows:

August 31 (single-day rally): KwaZulu-Natal (Richmond, Pietermaritzburg region);

September 7-8: Free State (Reitz, Petrus Steyn, Tweeling);

September 14-15: KwaZulu-Natal (Bergville);

October 12-13: Eastern Cape (region to be decided); and

October 19-20: Western Cape (Villiersdorp, Wolseley).

This focused approach is possible because many of Rally to Read’s original organisers are still involved. Brand Pretorius, who founded the programme as CEO of the McCarthy group, heads the steering committee, whose members include several other "veterans". This ensures the programme sticks to what it does best.

Like other education projects, Rally to Read relies on sponsor support. A full corporate sponsorship in 2019 costs R36,000, with an R18,000 option for private individuals. That money buys stationery, reading books and teacher training. Then, at no extra cost, sponsors and their guests — these may be colleagues or family, including children of any age — are invited to join a weekend rally to deliver their goods in person.

Convoys of off-road vehicles travel to far-flung locations to meet the children, families and communities benefiting from the programme. The travel — under the guidance of experienced team leaders — is adventurous, and the reception at schools often overwhelming. In some cases, hundreds of people turn up to greet sponsors.

Meal and accommodation costs are borne by Rally to Read’s partner companies: Mercedes-Benz SA; Ford SA; Shell; the OneLogix transport group; and the Jonsson Foundation, the social investment arm of the Jonsson Workwear group.

For more information, or to become a sponsor, visit rallytoread.co.za. Or contact Brand Pretorius on brand@brandpretorius.com