Mentors are changing pupils’ lives

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‘I really enjoy giving a little of my time to try and encourage a youngster to succeed,” says electrical engineer Yvonne Motsoko. “When I was at high school we did not have anyone to advise us about tertiary education. With a mentor, students have even better chances of making it out there.”

Motsoko has been involved in the Sizanani (isiZulu for “we help each other”) mentorship programme since 2009. She is one of the 64 mentors, among them 33 young black professionals, who look after 78 pupils in the township of Alexandra, which is close to Johannesburg’s business hub of Sandton.

The programme is the brainchild of Linda Giuricich, director of community affairs at St Mary’s School in Waverley. When Motsoko was a pupil in Alexandra she benefited from the Saturday and holiday classes the school has run since 1989.

The mentoring programme started in 2007, says Giuricich. The idea came after she met Laurence Leblanc, manager of the international division of the French company RATP, which operates the Gautrain.

“I thought that the children from Alex needed to broaden their horizons by meeting people from other cultural and social backgrounds,” she says.

In the programme’s first year, all the mentors were French and Belgian expatriates, who took the pupils on outings. “It was amazing to go with them to a restaurant, a museum and a musical comedy. They enjoyed everything because it was often their first time,” says Benoit Parmentier, a French train driver. “I was very surprised that their school did not help them with career guidance.”

It very quickly became clear that the mentoring programme needed to offer much more than exposing underprivileged kids to new experiences. Since then, much has been done to help to them access infor mation about tertiary education. Careers talks are organised every month, a blog has been set up ( and all grade 12 pupils with good marks are helped to apply to universities and for bursaries or loans.

Out of 75 pupils who passed their matric last year, about 20 are now studying for a degree or a diploma at a university or private college. Because getting admitted to university and securing a loan or bursary from the state’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme has become increasingly difficult, “government and varsities should look at how one can simplify the process for those less privileged”, says Carmen Botha, a mentor who works for a large accounting firm.

“I think a lot of talent is wasted,” she says. Although Sizanani’s purpose is not to provide financial assistance, Botha herself partly funded the tuition fees for two pupils who did not get state loans.

Being a mentor is not always easy. Some mentors are too busy with their professional lives to see the pupils every month. Others are disappointed by the low marks attained by pupils who dream of becoming engineers, pilots, doctors or medical detectives — a popular career, thanks to TV programmes such as Grey’s Anatomy.

The pupils’ lack of “soft skills” is a challenge: most of them do not know how to communicate, take initiatives and use the opportunities offered to them. “Some of those I mentor did not make much effort to contact me or even reply to my text messages,” says Arnaud Zerkovitz, a French trade officer who has been involved in the programme for five years.

Many pupils have low self-confidence and are not used to opening up to adults, especially “strangers”. Cultural differences also play a role: French mentors expect to be thanked after an outing, but many of the youngsters are not used to expressing their appreciation. And when they do send a text message, it is often in text-speak, shorthand that is not always easy to decrypt. One of them even used it to fill out a bursary application.

Despite the challenges, at least a third of the participants built strong relationships last year. “I went through a difficult time because we did not have electricity at home for six months,” says Busisiwe Mtya. “My mentor, Koketso Moloko, really encouraged me to overcome the stress at home and she helped me with extra tuition in maths.”

She attained four distinctions and started a degree in biology at the University of the Witwatersrand this year. “Koketso was present, next to my mother, when I got a Vincent Tshabalala bursary. It was the best day of my life.”

Alex youth face many problems that are linked to poverty. Very few still have both of their parents. The top 2012 Alex matriculant, Tshepo Kobe, lived with his grandparents in a two-room house, where he slept and studied on a small sofa in the family room, which he shared with a cousin. But he achieved four As and three Bs in matric. He enrolled for a degree in electrical engineering and now lives in a University of Johannesburg residence.

Of the 52 pupils on the programme last year, 35 said their mentor encouraged them to “study harder”, 30 said they were urged to “believe in myself” and 20 said they were taught to “discover things I did not know”.

“My mentor invited me for lunch to talk about my dreams. He told me that if I went to university I could get a nice house like his,” says Mitchell Manamela, whose mentor was Arnaud Zerkovitz.

Manamala achieved 79% in physics and 78% in maths, and secured one of the three RATP bursaries the French company awards to South African engineering students.

“People in business can really make a big difference to the lives of these youngsters,” says Meshkaya Pillay, one of the 24 Standard Bank Investment Banking young graduates, who participated in the programme last year. “One of the most important things I learnt was the importance of leadership. We have the power to improve our country by adding value to society.”

Valérie Hirsch is the Sizanani mentorshipprogramme’s co-ordinator. Born in Belgium, she has lived in South Africa since 1996 and works as a freelance journalist for Belgian, French and Swiss media. 

  • This article was published on Mail & Guardian.