Leading from the front

An angel focused on educating

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A son of Mpumalanga with an outsized personality and passion to match, Mduduzi Manana is leading the charge to transform education in South African. In a world where the Fourth Industrial Revolution demands high-level thinking and critical skills, the Mduduzi Manana Foundation is ensuring that no African child is left behind.

The Foundation was launched in 2012, the same year Manana was appointed as Deputy Minister of High Education and Training after three years serving as a member of Parliament. It was this time spent in public service that taught Manana about the limitations of Government: “I realised that Government is a highly regulated space. They follow certain principles, there are certain things that they cannot do, and there are budgetary constraints. There was so much that I wanted to achieve, but I realised that actually government can only do so much.”

At that point, Manana decided he could do his own lobbying in the private sector to get more people involved in education. “Only after I went to government did I appreciate that education is not government’s responsibility alone. If anything, industry has to play a greater role, because students are being educated and skilled for industries.”

As Deputy Minister, Manana saw that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) lacked funding to cater for all deserving students. Moreover, because NSFAS funding is limited to students at public institutions, some career paths were excluded. This is where the Foundation stepped in.

“A number of young people who wanted to be pilots came to me because NSFAS only funds students at public universities. None of our 26 universities offer aviation studies, so they have to go to private flight schools. However, the NSFAS system is not financially equipped to respond to such a demand. The Foundation is a vehicle to mobilise the private sector to get our young people into these flying schools, for example,” Manana explains.

The private sector has been very receptive. “Initially I thought maybe the private sector is not willing. On the contrary, government is not demanding that the private sector play a role because Government erroneously believes it has all the solutions. When I personally went to the private sector for help, the private sector was very obliging. Of course it carried weight that I was a Deputy Minister.

“To date, the Foundation has funded more than 50 graduates who are now in the workplace. Four of them are pilots. This is just one organisation. The private sector through their CSI programmes can do the same.”

Social compact

The role of government, Manana believes, is to facilitate dialogue so that all parties can contribute. “The private sector especially should direct a portion of their assets to education, healthcare and so on. My motto is we can only be a developmental state if there’s a social compact between government, private sector, non-governmental organisations, and civil organisations. Once there is a sense of working together for the common goal of a prosperous South Africa, then we will have achieved what we wanted when we spoke of a democratic South Africa.”

Regarding the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Manana calls for a coordinated approach. “There has to be synergy of efforts. There has to be a single, coordinated coherent national strategy, and that will require government, the private sector and more universities to come to the party. I want universities to do the necessary research on how to drive this digital age programme within our education system. Whatever new approaches we develop must be research based. Currently many government departments are talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but somewhat incoherently. Then you have the private sector pursuing its narrow and ambitious interest rather than striving for a common goal.”

Equality through education

For Manana, education is above all an equaliser: “With the Foundation and through the many government programmes I led, I have taken young people from the deep rural areas, who are very poor, who had come from broken families, and put them into the education system. We gave them all the support they needed—they finished their schooling, acquired their degrees and went on to work, and life changed almost immediately after that.”

However, many high school students are simply not prepared for tertiary studies, with unfortunate results. “My focus is on rural youth. There’s a high rate of first-year drop-outs in our universities, and most of them are from rural areas, township schools, poor families. Billions of rands in funding are going down the drain because students are overwhelmed by the realities of tertiary education. Often they have never used a scientific calculator and that hinders their progression.”

For Manana, the solution is to prepare learners from an early age: “It is impractical to begin promoting the skills which are most critical in the country such as engineering only when students get to university. They’ve got to know about these skills and opportunities when they are still at high school, so that they then choose the right subjects. Strong career guidance from an early age would entice them to pursue these kinds of post-school studies, which will then improve their employment prospects at a later stage.”

Manana distinguishes between unemployed and unemployable youth. “In South Africa we’re not dealing with the issue of unemployed but unemployable youth. That is why we have to import skills from time to time from outside. At some point the Medupi project was short of welders, which we had to take from Thailand, for instance. Now these are skills that we are not producing. Not all young people must go to universities. You can’t have more young people preferring to go to universities than to vocational institutions. We need artisanal, vocational and occupational skills.

“I learned that Germany owes a lot of its success to investing in vocational education and training, so I drove the project of promoting Technical Education and Vocational Training (TEVT) colleges. Now they have become very attractive because of the work that we did within five years after the establishment of the Department Higher Education.”

Future skills

A major part of South Africa’s chronic skills deficit is a skills mismatch owing to a lack of mathematics skills.

“There’s a lot of skills mismatch, first and foremost where young people are starting at universities and entering the wrong programmes, programmes that will not lead them to employment. If you visit universities, you will walk into a maritime class and find only a few young people, but there will be hundreds of students in the Faculty of Humanities. There is nothing wrong with that faculty but we are now called upon to explore more scarce and critical areas of study. If you ask the Vice-Chancellor what is happening here, where are these people going to work, the Vice-Chancellor says, ‘career guidance is not the responsibility of the universities’ and they are right because the core mandate of universities is research and development, teaching and learning and community engagement, Manana explains.

“We did a skills audit and found that the overwhelming majority of occupations in high demand in South Africa require mathematics, science and accounting. Consequently, as a Foundation, our primary goal is to eliminate the skills mismatch. We want to harness the collective skills of young children so that they develop interest for mathematics at an early age. People perceive mathematics as difficult, hence they run away from it. Others opt to do mathematics literacy or Maths Lit, which does not really take them far because the scarce skills programmes require the original maths.

“We are focused on Early Childhood Development (ECD) because we wanted a seamless movement from pre-schools to primary schools so that by the time they get to primary school they are already familiar with and interested in numbers and mathematics. Then when they get to high school, they have the thirst for knowledge.”

Here, the private sector has a ready-made role. “We are running a very big Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programme donating scientific calculators and mathematical instrument sets targeting rural and township schools because these are enablers for our young people to succeed in ther learning. I am passionate about STEM and if we get it right then we will be guaranteed a steady economic growth. A scientific calculator costs about R200—a lot of money for a rural mother.

“We are hoping many companies will join us. We are engaging companies in towns where we have made a footprint, for instance, the mining towns in Mpumalanga. A mine cannot operate without artisans or engineers,” says Manana.

Self-development and leadership

With a BA in Politics and Sociology from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and an honours in International Politics from UNISA, Manana has a passion for continuous self-development.

“I am completing my Master’s degree this year in Global Diplomacy with the University of London, after which I will start my PhD. Learning is a life-long process. You always want to develop as an individual to become a better person and a greater contributor to the development of our country.”

Manana’s personal leadership style reflects his principles. For him, self-development is the key to a sustainable legacy.

“I always encourage associates to acquire new knowledge all the time. Harness more skills, don’t be comfortable with the degree you acquired some ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. My vision is for the Foundation to continue delivering to our people long after I have gone, and associates must have the knowledge to be able to do that.”

To develop the capacity for leadership among his workforce, Manana encourages employees to be solutions-driven.

“When they come to me, they shouldn’t tell me of a problem but rather present the solution they are already thinking of, just to touch base. It is very important to create leaders after you, and that is one way to do it.” 

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