Realising the power of education through active citizenship

By Cyril Madiba CA(SA), Senior Finance Specialist: Financial Control at Absa and Founder of The Growth Switch

One of the most powerful quotes by Nelson Mandela, former South African President and Nobel Peace Prize winner, is: ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’

These words are equally relevant today. Education remains the proven way of empowering the underprivileged, breaking the poverty cycle, and bridging the inequality gap in society. But education is not only about acquiring knowledge and skills; it is also about restoring dignity to our lives through the opportunities that arise, be it entrepreneurship or employment, or a combination. This enables us to have access to services such as better healthcare and education, resulting in an improved quality of life for ourselves and our close families and contributing to the economy for the betterment of the community.

I have seen this transformation in my own life. I grew up in rural villages and townships, and access to quality education has opened opportunities that catapulted me and my family to a more privileged position.

South Africa consistently ranks as one of the countries with the highest Gini coefficient (a measure of the level of inequality in a country) in the world. In a bid to remedy the situation, providing the country’s citizens with quality education needs to be a key part of the plan.

Because of the above challenges, obtaining good-quality education is a massive challenge, particularly for those from previously disadvantaged parts of the country (which happens to be a large portion of the population).

Access to funding continues to be a major issue for those looking to study at tertiary institutions, and consequently, it is often the source of student protests. Other issues include a lack of a strong support structure during the learning journey, for example access to adequate resources or tools and guidance and advice from experienced individuals (mentors).

Funding is an integral piece of the puzzle

For many young people, the lack of funding is a big obstacle in achieving the qualifications that will enable them to become active participants in the economy. As someone who has been in that position, I can attest that it is an emotionally and mentally taxing experience. I am among the fortunate who have received funding, but it took multiple rejected applications. There are many others who are not so lucky.

The need for funding will only increase as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Organisations that have been around for decades are shutting down because they cannot cope. As part of their corporate social initiatives, corporates are often key partners in the provision of bursaries and funding. Thus, if corporates’ financial standing is negatively affected, all funding providers feel the ripple effect. Innovative ways of maximising the available resources become of paramount importance.

Other than corporates, government subsidies or grants, as well as charitable donations from individuals, are a vital source of resources for funding providers. In all these instances, recurring funding is preferred to once-off donations, as the more predictable flow of funds allows for better planning. This is particularly true of funders who commit to support students throughout the qualification process as opposed to those that provide support on a discretionary basis.

The other component of the funding issue is that through no fault of their own, those in need of funding sometimes do not know where to seek such support. This is why raising awareness in key environments such as schools is crucial. It is a tactic that has delivered in the past and can still do so.

The role of funders is to support students with a view to the beneficiaries becoming active participants in the economy, be it through employment or entrepreneurship. This means that the criteria that define the individuals that get supported need to take into account the skills that are required by the market. And therefore funders that continuously produce unemployed graduates need to review their criteria for efficacy and relevance.

One might look at the lack of funding as an issue that needs to be resolved by the government, corporates, or funders themselves. This is partly true, but each one of us has a role to play in the solution. If you currently find yourself in a privileged situation, it is important consider the majority of the country’s population who are not in a privileged position. Supporting student-funding providers by donating however much you can would go a long way towards helping alleviate the problem. It’s now how much you contribute, it’s how often you do so. Consistency is key. And once the people who have been helped succeed, they also contribute. In time, this cycle will yield a positive result.

Those who have travelled the road know it best

In IsiZulu there is a saying, ‘indlela ibuzwa kwabaphambili’. This means that if you want to learn more about a path, ask those who have walked it before. The same can be said about education: not only in relation to the qualification for which you are studying, but for what comes thereafter. Having a strong support structure is of the utmost importance.

It is only by asking for support that you can be connected to individuals or organisations that can provide support. Requesting assistance tends to be perceived as a weakness, but if utilised appropriately, it is actually a strength. Also, you have nothing to lose by reaching out to an experienced individual for guidance or advice, and therefore this needs to encouraged.

In conclusion: quality relevant education remains a powerful way of combating inequality and empowering the nation. We all can play a part in solutions, monetary and non-monetary, that produce a strong and supportive environment. Is there a fund you can contribute to? Are you able to avail some of your time for that person who needs your guidance?

Let us all be active citizens.