Chris Arnot

A few samples of my work

No easy walk to Hope Street

The higher education minister visits Cape Town to see what UK universities have helped to achieve

The ministerial convoy swings into Hope Street, an appropriate address for this small settlement on the edge of the sprawling township of Khayelitsha on the outskirts of Cape Town. There is hope in the new houses. They have proper walls rather than wood or corrugated iron, tiled roofs rather than tin. Hope, too, at Zola high school, where the British higher education minister, Bill Rammell, turns up with his entourage.

Rammell is in Cape Town to look at the work of Tabeisa, which stands for Technical and Business Education in South Africa, a collaboration between Coventry and Greenwich universities and four South African higher education institutions. Since the end of apartheid 11 years ago, Tabeisa has created over 3,000 new jobs, a figure it expects to quadruple by 2009. The jobs are much needed, with unemployment in the townships running at well over 50%.

Rammell will in due course have to contemplate how best British universities can help Africa make progress, in the wake of promises made at this summer’s G8 conference at Gleneagles. For now, though, he has an appointment at the bottom of Hope Street, where a sign proclaims: “This is a gun and drug-abuse free school.”

Inside Zola high, drumbeats echo down the corridor from the main hall like hail pounding a tin roof. The minister picks up two sticks and gamely joins in. This lengthy cacophony turns out to be a prelude to a play about HIV/Aids by a drama group from the Tshwane University of Technology. The minister confides afterwards that, either because of the hall’s acoustics or because he had been temporarily deafened, he found it difficult to follow all the words. But the target audience has no such problem. Pupils aged from 14 to 16, drawn from all over Khayelitsha, applaud vigorously.

The actors have brought books called How 2b Aids Aware, Tabeisa’s contribution to combating the disease that has devastated sub-Saharan Africa. Around 150,000 copies are in circulation, thanks to a cover price of about 80p. They are written by academics, but they use clear, direct language.

When the universities first came together in 1994, their aims were twofold: to offer expertise, so that township businesses could expand, and to spread a spirit of entrepreneurship through the higher education system in South Africa.

It soon became apparent that they would get nowhere until textbooks, outdated legacies of a colonial system, had been rewritten. As Professor George Lenyai, Tshwane’s deputy vice-chancellor, explains to Rammell: “The white cliffs of Dover don’t mean much to a black teenager from our Soshanguve campus. Yet our material was peppered with those sorts of references.” Professor Jane Conlon from Coventry University points out that, for most students, English was a third or fourth language. “No wonder there was a high failure rate,” she says. “Our learning materials now are concise by comparison, yet highly structured. We bring in humour when we can, use a lot of graphics and, throughout, we put a strong emphasis on entrepreneurship.”

Conlon is the project director, and a passionate advocate of Tabeisa as an example of how universities can become directly involved in poverty reduction. Her pride in being able, at last, to show their work to a British minister is obvious.

“It’s extraordinarily impressive,” says Rammell as the convoy moves back up Hope Street and on to one of the broad, sandy roads that slice through the squalor of Khayelitsha. “You can sense the enthusiasm. What’s encouraging is that it’s about practical outcomes, for real people, setting up real businesses. The Open University is also doing some really practical stuff, sourcing digitally enhanced materials to help train teachers.”

The OU’s vice-chancellor, Brenda Gourley, once held the same post at the University of Natal and so she is sharing her knowledge of South Africa with the minister. “Part of the purpose of my trip,” Rammell says, “is to see what more can be done and to weave the contribution of British universities into a cohesive whole. By providing skills and knowledge, we can play a really important role.”

That knowledge, he accepts, might be most valuable not here on the ground but in a laboratory, investigating ways to make anti-retroviral drugs widely available at affordable prices. “The agreement at Gleneagles makes that prospect more real than it has been for some time,” he says.

Rammell glances out of the window and sucks air through his teeth in recognition of the scale of the challenges. A warm wind is rustling through the black dustbin bags that cover holes in the shacks.

Rammell introduces himself to Michael Gungubele, owner of a small stall selling sweets. There are very few packets on show, but then Gungubele has little purchasing power. “The banks are very conservative about lending to small-scale black entrepreneurs, because they don’t have any collateral,” Dr Oswald Franks, national chair of Tabeisa’s Technical Enterprise Centres, tells the minister. “But this is the kind of operation we might be able to help by showing him how to produce a proper business plan that stands up to scrutiny, or how to access funding from other sources that we’ve identified.”

We move on to the Peninsula University of Technology, where Rammell announces a £50,000 grant to help with the start-up costs of a new Tabeisa enterprise centre in Ghana. It amounts to a quarter of the £200,000 the British government is putting towards building partnerships between British and African universities. All the same, it sounds comparatively meagre when set against the €13.5m the European Union has invested in Tabeisa since its inception.

Conlon, however, appears genuinely pleased. “Over the years we’ve become quite practised at using money to make more money,” she says as the ministerial entourage disappears down the drive.

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