Investing off the beaten track might just show us the best way

Opinion piece by Ryno Strydom, a director of Elegant Fuel


In the far north-east of South Africa, just west of the Kruger National Park and to the south of the Zimbabwean border, lies the village of Lukalo. It’s miles from anywhere, and home to only a few thousand people.

Lukalo is surrounded by typical Limpopo bushveld, and its residents by and large live in grinding poverty. Nothing about it really stands out, but for one thing: Milton Mpfumedzeni Secondary School.

Well more than 1 000 children from Lukalo and neighbouring villages attend Milton Mpfumedzeni, a no-fee school where there are five classes per grade, with more than 50 learners per class. This is a far-from-ideal situation, as any educationist will of course tell you, but smaller classes are just one more luxury this community cannot afford.

Those of us who have enjoyed a first-class education, and live in cities replete with options, often don’t appreciate how difficult it is for rural children to receive halfway-decent schooling.

They have few choices regarding schools, their parents are frequently poverty-stricken, teaching resources and good educators are scarce, and they have to travel long distances to get to and from school. Often their long-term education is pitted against the short-term necessity for them to help their families survive, and it’s a no-brainer which one usually takes precedence.

But the kids of Milton Mpfumedzeni Secondary School – thanks largely to the commitment of their parents and educators – are getting an education, and they are getting the opportunity to dare to dream about a better future. And that’s the whole point: schools such as this one are more than simply schools, they are places where young people’s dreams can be enabled.

However, situated as it is in a deep rural area, the school – like so many others – faces enormous challenges, many of them financial in nature. How does it maintain those facilities it has, let alone expand on them? How does it pay its water and electricity bills? How does it ensure that its learners have sporting facilities? Or the basic dignity of flush toilets?

We all know the government is struggling to fulfil its mandate in multiple ways, not least in education. This is not a judgment, but recognition of our country’s reality. To expect this situation to radically improve in the short term, and for schools such as Milton Mpfumedzeni Secondary School to suddenly have everything they need, is not feasible. But the children who are currently there cannot wait for things to get better one day – they need an education now.

This is where the private sector enters the picture. It has the capacity, the liquidity and the corporate social responsibility budgets to make a difference, and it should. If for no other reason than recognising that today’s youngsters are tomorrow’s employees, customers and leaders, it should.

This is why the Limpopo-based company for which I work, Elegant Fuel, puts its money where its mouth is.

Elegant Fuel – one of the few independent fuel providers that are members of the South African Petroleum Industry Association (SAPIA). The company’s SAPIA membership is a mark of its credibility. Elegant Fuel’s fuel throughput has grown year on year and is currently more than 400-million litres of fuel a year. The company is one of the largest independent fuel providers in the country.

We’ve developed a relationship with Milton Mpfumedzeni Secondary School because we believe that potential exists everywhere – even in a dusty, hot backwater such as Lukalo. Who knows how many great South Africans could be hidden within its student body, just waiting to be given the chance to unlock their greatness?

Our support for Milton Mpfumedzeni includes keeping its campus in good condition, upgrading facilities such as toilets, covering utility bills and assisting well-performing matric students to further their studies. Our commitment is growing, to R250 000 in 2017 compared to R90 000 in 2016. We see the value in continuing our support; simply making a donation and walking away will do little good, wasting money and dashing dreams instead.

(Our support for education doesn’t stop there, by the way. We also invest millions each year in bursaries for deserving students to attend all of South Africa’s leading universities, giving a much-needed leg up to those who have demonstrated their academic ability but lack the means to obtain a tertiary education.)

But why support a rural school in this way (apart from it being in our home province)?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that only elite schools produce achievers, because that’s often how it is. But it’s not really true, and rural schools have educated many of our most prominent citizens, Nelson Mandela being a case in point.

As a small boy he tended cattle in Qunu, in the rural Eastern Cape, before attending several Methodist mission schools (at the initial insistence of his mother, Nosekeni). These schools set him on the life path he would eventually follow. Without them, he would not have been accepted into the University of Fort Hare, where he met Oliver Tambo; or later move to Johannesburg, where he met Walter Sisulu and had the opportunity to become a lawyer; or become involved in the Struggle and, eventually, be South Africa’s first citizen and an international statesman.

Mandela didn’t attend silver-spoon schools, but he did nevertheless receive a good education. While he would not have herded cattle for the rest of his life, being of royal blood, without his education he almost certainly would never have become the remarkable, world-renowned leader that he was. His mother, who was illiterate herself, likely didn’t anticipate how far he would eventually go, but she evidently grasped how valuable an education was to him.

For all we know, another Mandela (or a future academic, business tycoon, engineer or scientist) is a pupil at Milton Mpfumedzeni Secondary School, in the middle of nowhere in rural Limpopo. But that person’s potential greatness can only really be unlocked with a proper education.

Investing in our children’s futures is how we’ll find out. And even if there isn’t another Mandela at Milton Mpfumedzeni, helping the learners there to succeed in this unforgiving world will uplift them and their communities, and ultimately our country and our economy. And their children, and their children’s children, will be better off for it.


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