Celebrating Human Rights Day: The Story of the "Miracle School"

Thursday, 21 March, 2019
WOSA Blog, Julia Moore
Disrupting a vicious cycle, Bonnievale builds a "Miracle school'

To many a tourist, Bonnievale is a picturesque village true to its name. But look beyond the lush, green vineyards and towering mountains and you will soon see the poverty and depravation endemic to a typical rural farming community.

Philip Jonker grew up on the Weltevrede farm in Bonnievale. His family has been farming since 1912, making Philip the fourth generation to farm there. “I believe in investing in relationships, not in things,” he says plainly. “Although this is a family wine estate, it’s not just the Jonker family that’s involved, it is everyone, in every family that lives and works on this farm.” His mission is to restore the ‘self-worth’ of every member of the community and he plans to do it from the bottom up.

“Walk around here and you’ll see little kids with bright eyes and big smiles. But by age 8 or 9, the light in their eyes has dimmed and it is scarily evident that they are losing hope, submitting to a future of poverty, bound to continue in their parents’ limited footsteps.”

But Jonker’s mission is to derail that cycle and to do that he realised that education was the best place to start. A quick survey of the community showed that, due to restructuring of local schools by the Education Department, by 2018 there would be 1 500 school children chasing only 350 places in the local high school.

So Philip gathered 15 role players in the community and together they approached the Education Department to ask them to build a school. To their dismay, the Department turned them down. The demand for schools is a national phenomenon and they are struggling to build and equip schools fast enough. Undaunted, they negotiated a joint venture with the Department, getting them to agree to funding 40% and running costs of the school, if the community could come up with land and the remaining 60%. That’s a tall order for a village of only 12 000 people!

The Jonkers nailed their colours to the mast by donating 12 hectares of their vineyard: “We needed a site that was within walking distance of the learners’ homes, and a portion of our farm stretched right into the community.”

Next, they needed to get the school designed and the local architect was approached and asked to design the school at no cost. Miraculously he agreed, and so did an impressive succession of engineers, electricians, earth movers, a project manager, land surveyor and even an attorney. “Everyone shared our vision and was willing to buy into the project.”

We started with a budget of R50million, but very soon that grew to R100million,” says Philip incredulously. “No-one gave more that R1million, but many, many people donated their time, their talents and their expertise to make this happen.”

Philip tells a lovely anecdote of when he approached the local rugby club. “They said they had no money, only muscles, so we soon had them pulling out all the vines so that the earthmovers could level the site. They worked tirelessly after hours and on weekends to remove every vine stump.”

The large budget is because the vision for the school is not simply to be a run-of-the-mill academic institution, but one that can teach useful skills that learners can use in their community. “We are an agricultural economy and we need workers with technical skills to work in our cellars and factories.”

But at the same time, they did not want to limit the opportunities of those who could one day make it to university. So, breaking the mould, the school offers two streams: there is the straight academic route with Mathematics; Science; Biology etc. and then there is the technical route with subjects such as Consumer Studies; Mechanical, Civil and Electrical Technology; and Computer Application Technologies (CAT). Impressive workshops allow learners to acquire practical skills with the added focus being the development of character, sound moral values and entrepreneurial skills.

The school serves both breakfast and lunch which is funded by the Department; and after-school sport and cultural activities are compulsory, with time built in for completing homework at school.

The school is called the Jakes Gerwel Technical School. Although Jakes Gerwel grew up in a farming community in the Eastern Cape, he managed to educate himself and rise above his circumstances to serve his country both as an academic and as a politician. He became vice chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, but also served President Nelson Mandela as Director-General in the Office of the Presidency and was a friend and inspiration to the Bonnievale Community.

The school was finished in record time and opened in January 2018 with every seat taken and every teaching post filled. “Each teacher is given 20 pupils to mentor,” explains Jonker. If a pupil doesn’t arrive at school, their mentor will visit their home to find out why not. This was quite a surprise to a community who didn’t really take education seriously before. But after one term things are going well, the teachers are finding their rhythm and the pupils are beginning to realise that they are being taken seriously.

Minister Debbie Shafer (MEC for Education in the Western Cape) was most impressed when she visited the school. “I think I’ll  call this the miracle school,” she said

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