At a pioneering academy in Johannesburg, underprivileged Africans are learning to become entrepreneurs.
Fred De Vries | October 2007 issue
Behind the public library, at the corner of Commissioner and Sauer streets, the problems of Johannesburg—and other cities on the African continent—are sharply defined. Shops are boarded up. An apartment building with broken windows screams urban blight. The residents were evicted several days ago “for hygienic reasons.” These newly homeless families have created a kind of campsite on the sidewalk with mattresses and rope. Toddlers crawl through the rubble.
Some 30 metres away at No. 54 stands the City and Community Development Association (CIDA) City Campus: a glass-and-steel beacon of hope. It is a business school for South African youth who are on the verge of falling through the cracks. The students, selected based on their school exam results and leadership qualities, can get a degree in business administration for next to nothing, largely funded by sponsor companies and benefactors. After four years of study, the graduates have good prospects of a well-paid job.
Sello Kgosimore was one of the first students to graduate from the program. His mother was a cleaning woman for a white family in Johannesburg. He never knew his father. His illiterate grandparents raised him on a farm where they worked as farm labourers. As a youngster, Kgosimore dreamed of going to school, getting a car and buying a house for his mother. But his scholarship applications to universities were repeatedly rejected. “CIDA was my only study option,” he remembers, “so it was crucial to me to succeed.” With his diploma under his arm, he got a job as an auditor at DaimlerChrysler. Sello Kgosimore is now driving a Mercedes and wearing a tailored suit.
With his burgeoning career, his ambitions and perseverance, Kgosimore is a living advertisement for CIDA. What about the house for his mother: Did he ever buy it? He smiles from ear to ear: “Yes.” ›››
“Our location is extremely symbolic,” says Taddy Blecher, the 40-year-old founder and executive director of CIDA. He describes how in the early 1990s, when apartheid was on its last legs, blacks in large numbers migrated to downtown Johannesburg, once the heart of the national economy. “Seven years ago, this was a no-go area,” Blecher says. “Very few ventured here. Certainly no whites.”
Along with many of his family and friends, Blecher too was preparing to emigrate. America was to be his destination. A successful accountant who bears a resemblance to Harry Potter, he could have gotten a dream job. His bags were packed. Then he noticed that his decision was making him sick. “South Africa has a lot of potential,” he says. “If we all run away, this country will never get anywhere.”
That’s when he began thinking about building a university for the poor, right in the inner city. Blecher wanted to prove that the vicious cycle of unemployment and poor education leading to social problems like violence, crime and AIDS could be overcome. He wanted the school’s graduates to be trained as social entrepreneurs.
Who would finance it? The business community, Blecher decided. Companies would, after all, profit from a flow of qualified young employees. Who would be the students? Blecher resolved to ask secondary schools in the poor townships to pick their most promising students.
The school opened its doors in 1999, and 750 students have now graduated. According to CIDA’s administration, these graduates earn a combined 40 million rand (more than $5.6 million) annually. A record 1,500 new students were admitted for this school year. The growing list of people who sponsor or otherwise support this innovative business school is impressive: Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Oprah Winfrey, as well as the Somalian supermodel Iman. Zanele Mbeki, the “First Lady” of South Africa, is the school’s chancellor.
And billionaire Richard Branson became a supporter two years ago when he started the Branson School of Entrepreneurship in co-operation with CIDA in Johannesburg. “The South African economy,” said Branson at the opening, “is dependent on entrepreneurial activity for creating future economic growth and jobs.”
CIDA’s first campus was in a condemned building a few blocks from its current home. Together with three co-founders, Blecher put ads in newspapers, on the radio and in community centres: The city has a free business school! the ads read. Come to opening day! In reality, CIDA’s founders had nothing but a few hundred plastic chairs they happened to find in the building, and plenty of guts.
Sitting down on those chairs, the 350 curious young people who turned up for the meeting quickly discovered CIDA would be no ordinary school. The four men who stood at the improvised podium introduced themselves as the board, the administration, the teachers, the switchboard operators, the janitors. In other words, they announced, We’re building a school together—with you, if you want to grow with us.
There were no computers, so students learned to type on photocopied keyboards. The first day, 100 students dropped out. As underprivileged as these students were, this didn’t fit their idea of what higher education should be.
Sello Kgosimore, on the other hand, was among those who passionately believed in the opportunity he and the others had been given. “These people have a vision,” he kept telling his fellow students when they grumbled. “Let’s give them a chance. If they fail, our options will fall as well.”
Blecher, a consummate optimist, persevered. The South African investment bank Investec was impressed by the founders’ ambitions and creativity, and offered them the building on Commissioner Street, which has been CIDA’s home for the past seven years. After that, the institute took off. CIDA has welcomed more than 50 students from other African countries and grants degrees that are recognized by national and international universities.
And CIDA, with plans to expand to other African cities, now offers more than a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Students can also get information and communications technology (ICT) training—and in July, the School of Investments opened on the fourth floor. The investment bank JPMorgan has become that program’s main sponsor.
No posters on the CIDA campus announce wild student parties or concerts. The walls of the main reception area are covered with framed articles published about the school in the press. “Capitalism’s Soul” and “Jo’burg’s Miracle University” shout the headlines.
Throughout the building you’ll find quotes like this one: “If we focus on survival, life becomes miserable. If we focus on progress, life becomes glorious.” They come from Maharashi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian guru whose ideas not only influenced the Beatles but also the founders of CIDA; transcendental meditation is part of the curriculum. Initially required, it is now voluntary following protests from devout Christian students.
And you don’t see any bored-looking students in grungy jeans and sneakers. In preparation for business careers, students—an equal number of men and women—are expected to dress the part of successful business people. Former student Grace Gadise explains: “Once when I wore a low-cut blouse to class, I was immediately told it was not professional.”
Gadise, 23, graduated in 2005 and works at the information technology (IT) company T-Systems. She will soon start a new job as project coordinator with NedBank. “At CIDA I learned flexibility and perseverance,” Gadise reflects. “I never thought I’d study business administration. But I did. Then I never thought I’d become an IT expert. But I did. CIDA taught me that it’s possible to recreate yourself!”
Gadise isn’t the only one who exudes passion and self-confidence. “Whenever I have vacation I go back to my school to motivate the students,” says Lindiwe Mthemba, who now has a paid job at CIDA. “I tell them that I sat at the same desk, wearing shoes that were even more worn than theirs. And look at me now! Here I am, a success story!”
William Kgaphola learned to type at CIDA on Blecher’s famous photocopied keyboard. Now he runs an Internet café in his remote village where the café’s computers offer the locals access to a world that would otherwise remain far out of reach.
Shadi Ditshego, who makes his way to the dusty station at KwaThema township every day to take the train to downtown Johannesburg, says, “I distribute CIDA enrollment forms every day to young people. Most set them aside. They don’t want to study for four years. But,” she adds fiercely, “after I graduate I’ll go back. I want to show them they’re wasting their time. I want to prove there’s more to life than hanging around in the township.”
Students are required to work 10 hours a week for the university. They clean the classrooms and the toilets. They answer the phone, help with office work, make photocopies. It keeps costs down and teaches discipline and humility, but more important, it reinforces CIDA’s social mission: Students are expected to give something back. They learn, for instance, to create
products and services that are useful to the poor, or to set up a company that would create jobs or to contribute to solving a social problem. The idea is to start a snowball
effect that will break Africa’s cycle of poverty and hopelessness.
Every student is an agent of change, according to Blecher. That’s why they are all required to return to their old secondary schools in the townships during holidays to teach computer science or economics, or to talk to young people about AIDS. Students are also assigned to reach young people or the unemployed in Johannesburg and show them there’s hope. “We want to achieve a social transformation,” Blecher underlines. “We are making it clear to those with little prospects that they are smart and valuable. That they too have the right to opportunities and that they too can contribute to society.”
Fred de Vries is a freelance journalist who lives in Johannesburg.