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The firefighter on a boat

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This canoeing champion had challenges paddling through life, but his talent caught the eye of those who helped change his circumstances.


For many rural communities, the river serves as a source of life-giving waters with multiple streams of functions. It is what locals turn to for the sustenance of their livestock, to keep clean, and for many children, a source of entertainment – for them to live with reckless abandon. It is through self-expression in this unrestrained environment that a young village boy acquired an affinity for canoeing – a sport that rarely makes its way to lesser-affluent communities.

Nzolo Nkosi, a 32-year-old born in rural Mkhambathini outside Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), South Africa, was introduced to the sport at the age of 12.

“I did canoeing from school when someone introduced it as a sport in the valley back home. The valley is called the Valley Of a 1,000 Hills.”

The valley hosts one of the country’s biggest canoeing events, the Dusi Canoe Marathon,  which is where it all started for him.

Nkosi never looked back and seized every opportunity to be inside a canoe, rowing back and forth the valleys of the capital of KZN, Pietermaritzburg. His passion, love and dedication earned him a spot in the South African junior national canoeing team at the age of 17, contending in his first international competition in Senegal. There, he managed to get himself two gold medals and two silver medals in 2005, just before he moved to Johannesburg. 

“I came to Johannesburg in 2006 when I was 18 to look for greener pastures. I was initially here to visit my friend, who also canoed. I lived with him and that’s when I decided that I am not going back to KwaZulu-Natal. This was because I couldn’t go to university, my parents were not working. It was clear to me that there was no way that I was going to study,” Nkosi says.

When he moved to Johannesburg, he battled at the beginning. It was never going to be easy in the City of Gold.

As he was already involved in the sport, he would frequently visit the Dabulamanzi Canoe Club at Emmarentia Dam, in the north of the city. He would borrow a boat to paddle around and people began to notice him and would ask about him. That’s how he bagged his first job as a gardener. One of the canoeists at the club, Jacques Theron, eventually gave Nkosi the job after enquiring about him. Theron told Nkosi he had to start somewhere to get somewhere and gave him a place to stay. However, he had to pay rent.

He left the friend’s house to start a life of his own in Johannesburg.

He worked hard to stay afloat.

“I was using the money that I earned to pay rent and put food on my table, that’s when I was pushing harder in my canoeing, making sure I win some cash at events. It was about R200 ($14) an event. Winning every weekend could tie me over for the month so I had to make sure I train and work hard to win and eat,” he says.

Nkosi was approached by another canoeist, Brad Fischer, this time, offering him a job as a driver. Thinking it would be easy, he started saving more from his canoe winnings for a driver’s licence. He received his license and the job was his.

“I chose Nkosi because of his enthusiasm, discipline, his drive and his concern for the younger guys and his team mates. He stood out,” says Fischer.

Nkosi recalls his first day on the job.

“The following morning, I went dressed in my nice clean clothes, they were not fancy. My job was to deliver documents to clients. I was given a few envelopes and a map book. It was the first time seeing a map book. I had six documents that day, I only delivered one and it took me the whole day because I couldn’t use that book. I had to study the book that night and later things got easier and I earned R20 ($1) an hour.”

That was more money and he still kept the garden job. He also trained at the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club. At this point, he had three incomes, which wasn’t much combined but it was better than what he had initially.

With his savings, he went on to train as a basic ambulance assistant in 2007 after seeing that there were a lot of injuries in the sport.

In 2008, another canoeist approached him and offered him a job at a retail store; he quit within 10 months because his love for aquatic activities was diminishing.

Fortunately, he got an offer from Fischer to manage the canoe club in Soweto. The previous manager had left the watercourses for another job.

Due to the persistence of his employer encouraging him to forge his own path, Nkosi saw a fire-truck and pursued being a firefighter.

By this time, Nkosi had qualified to move to the senior category in his professional canoeing career.

“It was tougher there, but because of my hard work, I made the Gauteng team and eventually, the senior national team. We went to the African Championships in Ivory Coast in 2009, there I got two silver medals. By that time, I was already a coach of the Soweto team,” he says. 

The same year, he registered for basic training which was for four months; he had more money saved because of the multiple incomes. He then volunteered at the Rosebank firestation. Shortly, Nkosi was a full-time firefighter for the City Of Johannesburg.

“When I started working at the station as a full-time firefighter, I saw the club was going down and losing members. I thought to myself, ‘there’s something missing’. When I came to Johannesburg, I got help from a canoeist, my career started with these guys, the sport worked as a stepping stone for me to be a full-time firefighter,” he says.

“So on my off days, I would go and put my energy at the club and make a change in other people’s lives. Four days at work and four days with the club.

“I teach kids how to swim, how to canoe, and take them to racing, as well as, assist with school work, this is how I relax when I’m off work. I am giving back because this is the sport that changed my life and I want it to be a part of changing other people’s lives.”

Tinyiko Nahwayi is a mother of three children who are part of the club in Soweto. She is proud of her children, seeing their grades improving at school and participating in the sport.

“The kids are in the house, if not, they are at gym or at school. We also get food parcels for each child. I’d like to thank Nkosi.These kids are like this because of him. He has time for them, he can communicate with them and treats them the same. He always inspires the kids,” says Nahwayi.

Back when Nkosi started canoeing, he says KZN was the only team that had most black players compared to the rest of the teams in South Africa. Today, there is an increased number of black people who participate at a national level.

Nkosi says, internationally, the sport does not receive much support.

For a majority of black people, it is not easy self-funding the sport. The organization Canoeing South Africa covers a certain percentage but the individual has to cover the rest. That is why you find black people targeting mostly only the events taking place in South Africa, he says.

The Dusi Canoe Marathon, which runs for about 120kms from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, has three stages and has a grand prize of R40,000 ($2,913). That is one of the biggest prize monies won in South Africa. If one wants to prepare for and win the marathon, they will be spending more than the R40,000 to prepare. The funding goes towards buying the best equipment by those who can afford it.

A canoe costs about R16,000 to R30,000 ($1,165 to $2,185).

Besides canoeing, Nkosi is a runner because in the line of duty, his body needs to be fit, hence exercise is important. He also cycles for charity, raising funds for the underprivileged.  

The firefighting canoeist still competes and is studying fire technology.

“My goal is not to go and win a gold medal; with the silver medals I’m happy. The win that I want is the win that is won by someone I taught to swim and canoe; to see a young kid from an underprivileged background having a smile on his/her face, happily jumping and claiming that win, getting gold and finishing a race. Seeing them smile makes me happy, that’s good enough for me, it’s not about the money,” Nkosi says.

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Current Affairs

The Rage And Tears That Tore A Nation

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Snapshots of the outrage against foreign nationals and protests against sexual offenders in South Africa in recent weeks, captured by FORBES AFRICA photojournalist Motlabana Monnakgotla.


As the continent’s second-biggest economy, South Africa attracts migrants from the rest of Africa. But mired in its own problems of unemployment and political instability, September saw a serious outbreak of attacks by South Africans on foreign nationals and foreign-owned businesses. And they have been ugly.    

The spark that fueled the raging fire was in Pretoria, the country’s capital, when a taxi driver was shot dead by a foreign national who was selling drugs to a youngster in the central business district (CBD).

The altercation caused a riot and the taxi industry brought the CBD to a standstill, blocking intersections. It did not stop there; a week later, about 60 kilometers from the capital in Malvern, a suburb east of the Johannesburg CBD, a hijacked building caught fire, leaving three dead. As emergency services were putting out the fire, the residents took advantage and looted foreign-owned shops and burned car dealerships overnight on Jules Street.

The lootings extended to the CBD and other parts of Johannesburg.

To capture this embarrassing moment in South African history, I visited Katlehong, a township 35 kilometers east of Johannesburg, where the residents blocked roads leading to Sontonga Mall on a mission to loot the mall and the foreign-owned shops therein overnight.

Shop-owners and workers were shocked to wake up to no business.

Mfundo Maljingolo, a worker at Fish And Chips, was among the distressed.

“This thing started last night, people started looting and broke into the mall and did what they wanted to do. I couldn’t go to work today because there’s nothing to do; now, we are not going to get paid. The shop will be losing close to R10,000 ($677) today. It’s messed up,” said Maljingolo.

But South African businesses were affected too.

Among the shops at the mall is Webbers, a clothing and footwear store. Looters could not enter the shop and it was one of the few that escaped the vandalism.

Dineo Nyembe, the store’s manager, said she was in disbelief when she saw people could not enter the mall.

“We got here this morning and the ceiling was wrecked but there was no sign that the shop was entered, everything was just as we left it. Now, we are packing stock back to the warehouse, because we don’t know if they are coming back tonight,” lamented Nyembe, unsure if they would make their daily target or if they would be trading again.

 Across the now-wrecked mall are small businesses that were not as fortunate as Webbers, and it was not only the shop-owners that were affected. 

Emmanuel Nhlane’s home was robbed even as attackers were looting the shop outside.

“They broke into my house, I was threatened with a petrol bomb and I had to stand outside to give them a chance; they took my fridge, bed, cash and my VHS,” said Nhlane.

Nhlane had rented out his yard to foreign nationals to operate a shop. He does not comprehend why his belongings were taken because he doesn’t own a shop. Now, it means that the unemployed Nhlane will not be getting his monthly rental fee of R3,700 ($250).

Far away, the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, was also affected as trucks burned and a driver was killed because of his nationality. This was part of a logistics and transport industry national strike.

Back in Johannesburg, I visited the car dealerships that were a part of the burning spree on Jules Street.

The streets were still ashy and the air still smoky, two days after the unfortunate turn of events.

Muhamed Haffejee, one of the distraught businessmen there, said: “Currently, we are still not trading.” 

Cape Town, in the Western Cape province of South Africa, which hosted the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa from September 4 to 6, was also witness to protests by women and girls from all walks of life outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre, demanding that the leadership take action to end the spate of gender-based violence (GBV) in the country.

There were protests also outside Parliament. What set off the nationwide outcry was the shocking rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old film and media student at the University of Cape Town, inside a post office by a 42-year-old employee at the post office.

There was anger against the ghastly crimes and wave of GBV in the country that continues unabated. According to Stats SA, there has been a drastic increase of women-based violence in South Africa; sexual offences are up by 4.6%, from 50,108 in 2018 to 52,420 in 2019.

A week later, on a Friday, Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile and one of the biggest economic hubs, was shut down by hundreds of angry women and members of advocacy groups from across Johannesburg. They congregated by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), the cynosure of business, singing and chanting, to demand “a 2% levy on profits of all listed entities to help fund the fight against GBV and femicide”.   

Among the protesters was Cebi Ngqinanbi, holding a placard that read: “I’m not your punching bag.”

“We came here to disrupt Sandton as the heart of Johannesburg’s economic hub. We want to make everyone aware that women and children are being killed every day in South Africa and they [Sandton] continue with business as usual, sitting in their offices with air-conditioners and the stock exchange whilst people on the ground making them rich are dying. That is why we are here, to speak to those that have economic power,” said Ngqinanbi.

She added that if women can be given economic power, they will be able to fend for themselves and won’t fall prey to abusive men, since most women stay in abusive relationships because men are more financially stable.

Amid the chanting and singing of struggle songs, Nobuhle Ajiti addressed the crowd and shared her own haunting experience as a migrant in South Africa and survivor of GBV. She spoke in isiZulu, a South African language.

“I survived a gang rape; I was thrown out of a moving car and stabbed several times. I survived it, but am I going to survive xenophobia that is looming around in South Africa? Will I able to share my xenophobia story like I can share my GBV story?” questioned Ajiti.

She said as migrants, they did not wake up in the morning and decide to come to South Africa, but because of the hardships faced in their home countries, they were forced to come to what they perceived as the city of opportunities. And as a foreign national, she had to deal with both xenophobia and GBV.

“We experience institutionalized xenophobia in hospitals; we are forced to pay huge amounts for consultation. I am raped and I need medical attention and I am told I need to pay R5,000 ($250).

“As a mere migrant, where am I going to get R5,000? I get abused at home and the police officer would ask me where I’m from because of my accent, I sound Zimbabwean. What does my nationality have to do with my husband beating me at home or with the man that just raped me?” she asked.

Women stop traffic while they hold up placards stating their grievences against GBV. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

Addressing the resolute women outside was the JSE CEO Nicky Newton-King who received the memorandum demanding business take their plight seriously, from a civil society group representing over 70 civil society organizations and individuals.

The list of demands include that at all JSE-listed companies contribute to a fund to resource the National Strategy Plan on GBV and femicide, to be launched in November; transport for employees who work night shifts or work after hours; establish workplace mechanisms to provide support to GBV survivors as part of employee wellness, and prevention programs that help make workplaces safe spaces for all women.

Newton-King assured the protestors she would address their demands in seven days. But a lot can happen in seven days. Will there be more crimes in the meantime? How many more will be raped and killed in South Africa by then?

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Quality Higher Education Means More Than Learning How To Work

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When people talk about quality education, they’re often referring to the kind of education that gives students the knowledge and skills they need for the job market. But there’s a view that quality education has wider benefits: it develops individuals in ways that help develop society more broadly.

In Zimbabwe, for example, the higher education policy emphasises student employability and the alleviation of labour shortages. But, as my research found, this isn’t happening in practice.

University education needs to do more than produce a graduate who can get a job. It should also give graduates a sense of right and wrong. And it should instil graduates with an appreciation for other people’s development.

Tertiary education should also give students opportunities, choices and a voice when it comes to work safety, job satisfaction, security, growth and dignity. Higher education is a space where they can learn to be critical. It must prepare them for participating in the economy and broader society.

This isn’t happening in Zimbabwe. Graduate unemployment is high and employers and policy makers are blaming this largely on the mismatch between graduate skills and market requirements.

Investigating Zimbabwe’s universities
My research sought to examine how a human development lens could add to what was valued as higher education, and the kind of graduate outcomes produced in Zimbabwe. I investigated 10 of the universities in Zimbabwe (there were 15 at the time of the research). Four were private and six public.

I reviewed policy documents, interviewed representatives of institutions and held discussions with students. Members of Zimbabwe’s higher education quality assurance body and university teaching staff were also included.

I found that in practice, higher education in Zimbabwe was influenced by the country’s socio-political and economic climate. Decisions and appointments of key university administrators in public universities and the minister of higher education were largely political.

In addition, resources were limited and staff turnover was high. Universities just couldn’t finance themselves through tuition fees.

Different players in the higher education system – employers, the government, academics, students and their families – have different ideas about what “quality” means in higher education. The Zimbabwe Council for Higher Education understands quality as meeting set standards and benchmarks that emphasise the graduates’ knowledge and skills.

To some extent, academics and university administrators see quality as teaching and learning that gives students a mixture of skills and values such as social responsibility.

But lecturers must comply with the largely top-down approach to quality. They tend to do whatever will enhance students’ prospects of getting employment in a particular market.

The educators and students I interviewed acknowledged that developing the ability to work and to think critically were both central to higher education. But they admitted that these goals were hard to attain. This was because of the country’s constrained socio-political and economic environment. Academics and students felt that they couldn’t express themselves freely and critical thinking was suppressed.

Stuck on a road to nowhere
The study illustrates how an over-emphasis on creating human capital – skilled and knowledgeable graduates – limits higher education’s potential to foster broader human and social development.

University education should do more, especially in developing countries such as Zimbabwe that face not just economic, but also socio-political challenges. Before building more universities and enrolling more students, authorities and citizens should consider what quality education means in relation to the kind of society they want.

It’s possible to take a broader view of development, quality and the role of higher education. This broader approach – one that appreciates social justice – can equip graduates to address the country’s problems.

The road ahead
Universities can’t change a society on their own. But their teaching and learning practices can make an important difference.

Because quality teaching and learning means different things to different people, people need to talk about it democratically. Institutional and national policies must be informed by broad consultations to identify the knowledge, skills and values they want graduates to have.

University teaching and learning should emphasise freedom of expression and participation so that students can think and act critically beyond university.

Also, academics don’t automatically know how to teach just because they have a PhD. Universities should therefore ensure that academics learn how to teach and communicate their knowledge. Curriculum design, student assessment and feedback, as well as training of lecturers should all support this goal of human development.

When universities see quality in terms of human development, their role becomes more than production of workers in an economy. It gives them a mandate to nurture ethically responsible graduates. These more rounded graduates are better equipped to imagine an alternative future in pursuit of a better society, economically, politically and socially.

Patience Mukwambo: Researcher, University of the Free State

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Roadmap For African Startups

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Francois Bonnici, Head of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, explains how African impact entrepreneurs will continue to rise.


Does impact investment favor expats over African entrepreneurs? If so, how can it be fixed?

There is a growing recognition all over the world that investment is not a fully objective process, and is biased by the homogeneity of investors, networks and distant locations.

A Village Capital Report cited that 90% of investment in digital financial services and financial inclusion in East Africa in 2015-2016 went to a small group of expatriate-founded businesses, with 80% of disclosed funds emanating from foreign investors.

READ MORE | It’s Time For Africa’s Gazelles To Shine

In a similar trend recognized in the US over the last decade, reports that only 3% of startup capital went to minority and women entrepreneurs has triggered the rise of new funds focused on gender and minority-lensed investing.

There has been an explosion of African startups all over the continent, and investors are missing out by looking for the same business models that work in Silicon Valley being run by people who can speak and act like them.

In South Africa, empowerment funds and alternative debt fund structures are dedicated to investing in African businesses, but local capital in other African countries may not also be labelled or considered impact investing, but they do still invest in job creation and provision of vital services.

There is still, however, a several billion-dollar financing gap of risk capital in particular, which local capital needs to play a significant part in filling. And of course, African impact entrepreneurs will continue to rise and engage investors convincingly of the growing and unique opportunities on the continent.

READ MORE | The World’s Most Generous Billionaires Outside Of The US

What are the most exciting areas for impact investing and social entrepreneurship today?

After several decades of emergence, the most exciting areas are the explosion of new products, vehicles and structures along with the mainstreaming of impact investment into traditional entities like banks, asset managers and pension funds who are using the impact lens and, more importantly, starting to measure the impact.

At the same time, we’re seeing an emergence of partnership models, policies and an ecosystem of support for the work of social entrepreneurs, who’ve been operating with insufficient capital and blockages in regulation for decades.

Francois Bonnici, Head of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. Picture: Supplied

The 2019 OECD report on Social Impact Investment  mapped the presence of 590 social impact investment policies in 45 countries over the last decade, but also raises the concern of the risk of ‘impact washing’ without clear definitions, data and impact measurement practices. 

In Africa, we are also seeing National Advisory Boards for Impact Investing emerge in South Africa and social economy policies white papers being developed; all good news for social entrepreneurs.

READ MORE | Naomi Campbell: Africa Is One Of The Leading Continents In The World

What role does technology play in enabling impact investing and social entrepreneurship?

The role of technologies from the mobile phone to cloud services, blockchain, and artificial intelligence is vast in their application to enhancing social impact, improving the efficiency, transparency and trust as we leapfrog old infrastructures and create digital systems that people in underserved communities can now access and control.

From Sproxil (addressing pirated medicines and goods), to Zipline (drones delivering life-saving donor blood to remote areas of Rwanda) to Silulo Ulutho Technologies (digitally empowering women and youth), exciting new ways of addressing inclusion, education and health are possible, and applications are being used in many other areas such as land rights, financial literacy etc.

While we have seen a great mobile penetration, much of Africa still suffers from high data costs, and insufficient investment in education and capacity to lead in areas of the fourth industrial revolution, with the risk that these technologies could negatively impact communities and further drive inequality.

READ MORE | Why Now Is The Time To Invest In African E-commerce

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