When private enterprise invests in rural education, the results are nothing short of transformative

Bheki Mashaba is the manager of Good Work Foundation’s Facilitator Academy in Hazyview. Photo: Supplied

Bheki Mashaba is the manager of Good Work Foundation’s Facilitator Academy in Hazyview. Photo: Supplied

Published Jul 2, 2023


By Bheki Mashaba

Life in rural South Africa is not always easy.

There are things that city and township people take for granted that we rural dwellers can only dream of, like cinemas and malls.

But I have experienced first-hand how the gift of education can turn communities like mine around, and make it worthwhile for us to stay there and contribute to the rural economy.

Today, at the age of 29, I can proudly say I have worked my way up the ranks to be the manager of Good Work Foundation’s Facilitator Academy at its Hazyview Digital Learning Campus in Mpumalanga. But life wasn’t always so rosy.

I was born and raised in Huntington, a village in the greater Bushbuckridge area of Mpumalanga. The poverty there is extreme, with some estimates saying that about 70% of the community is economically inactive.

Despite being situated on the border of the Kruger National Park, where local and foreign visitors flock to spend tens of thousands of rands at exclusive game lodges, for a long time our village saw very little benefit.

When I was growing up, we struggled with a lack of infrastructure and poor service delivery. There was only one primary school in the village and when I went to high school, I had to walk kilometres every day to attend classes in one of the other villages in the area.

But, having never been exposed to the benefits or lifestyle of living in a township, this situation was normal for me. I had to accept it and work with what I had.

I must admit, though, that it was a challenge being a young person back then: understanding the value of education, yet finding education difficult to access.

A life-changing experience

Some time after I left school, I joined Good Work Foundation, an education non-profit that had started building digital learning campuses in the Bushbuckridge area. It’s supported by game lodges in the Sabi Sand Nature Reserve, an international donor community, and some South African corporates.

It honestly changed my life. Even though I had to walk for an hour from Huntington to the Justicia Digital Learning Campus every day to attend GWF’s Bridging Year Academy (BYA), and then walk for another hour back, and still do chores at home before preparing for the next day’s classes, I didn’t mind. It was like an enormous door opening for me.

Suddenly, my future was full of hope and possibility. I was learning vital skills that would help me succeed in the workplace of the future – digital skills, professional skills, people skills, English skills and life skills.

I was so excited that when a GWF digital learning campus opened in my home village, I just had to be part of it. Once I’d graduated from the BYA, I volunteered at the newly built Huntington Digital Learning Campus. It gave me an immense sense of pride to see my own community thriving thanks to this investment in education in its own backyard.

My Good Work Foundation journey since then has been one of fresh challenges, and finding my passion. I’ve worked at various GWF campuses over the years and have now found my niche heading up the Facilitator Academy, which trains young adults in how to facilitate GWF’s programmes (or other programmes in any education environment).

It’s been an amazing journey, and I’ve met some incredible people along the way. But one of the main things I’ve noticed over the past seven years is how the rural communities where we operate have been enriched by having digital learning campuses on their doorsteps.

Green shoots of improvement

Huntington, for one, has progressed – despite still facing challenges. We now have a high school in the village. Children no longer need to walk kilometres to school every day. I’ve noticed new creches springing up, too. Since GWF took a leap of faith and opened a campus in my village, there are more employment opportunities for young people. I get a kick out of walking into shops in town and seeing former GWF students working there.

Most significantly, people from the community are being employed at lodges in the area, thanks to the training they received at GWF and its career academies (which offer conservation, hospitality and information technology training).

I also get so inspired when I see former students excelling – like Patlego Machete, who has channelled her passion for conservation into her new job as a conservation facilitator in GWF’s Open Learning Academy. She takes children who participate in that programme into the bush on safari experiences to help build their interest in, and love for, wild spaces and wildlife.

The Huntington Digital Learning Campus is sponsored by the Lion Sands Game Reserve and the More Community Foundation. We are grateful for this investment in our community and its upliftment. Thanks to such partnerships with the lodges, digital education is provided to primary school children and young adults, giving them opportunities they never would have had otherwise. This is an excellent example of the private sector working hand in hand with the community and non-profits, to the benefit of all in the area.

Critically, building an education campus in a community instils a passion for learning and self-improvement in residents. The benefits are there for all to see – locals are being employed in tourism and hospitality establishments in the area, giving hope to others.

A decade ago, I felt demotivated, lacked confidence and was uncertain about my job prospects. I dreamed of being a soccer star but realistically saw myself doing manual or physical labour. I never imagined I would become proficient in computer skills and work in a professional environment.

Having the education door opened for me has helped me to find myself. I’m proud to say that my two siblings are following suit and have enrolled at the Bridging Year Academy to become workplace- and university-ready.

All of this underscores the importance of a community and its private sector joining hands to become partners in education and training – so everyone can reap the rewards.

Bheki Mashaba is the manager of Good Work Foundation’s Facilitator Academy in Hazyview.