In the heart of the country

13 May 2013

Phillipi Childrens CentreBuilder Bob: Postgraduate student Salma Kagee slaps plaster on bricks. Kagee was one of the Faculty of Commerce's volunteers helping to extend the Philippi Children's Centre. It's linked to the R150 million Starting Chance Campaign, initiated by the Southern Africa Sustainable Development Initiative.

It's a wet day in Cape Town, and Philippi's sprawling vegetable fields are caterpillar-green under heavy skies. In one small corner along Varkensvlei Road, beyond the farmlands, there's more activity than usual.

A new school building for pre-schoolers is going up, and inside the security gates, small groups of people in hardhats and thick-soled boots wait to be briefed.

"Who's keen for the heavy machinery?" asks the foreman. Postgraduate student Salma Kagee's hand goes up. "It sounds like a whole lot of fun," she says, straightening her pink hardhat and kicking the mud off her boots. Her co-workers from the Faculty of Commerce are similarly attired. Behind her is a sign: "Danger - Open Holes". "And dangerous," she adds.

Forty Dutch students were on site the previous week - and they've left their hefty footwear behind. They come every year to build infrastructure where teaching can take root and communities can grow.

From here, UCT - high up against Devil's Peak - isn't even visible. It's one of the reasons Kagee and her colleagues are here. They're part of a move to build early learning centres for children in poor areas. It's linked to the R150 million Starting Chance Campaign, initiated by the Southern Africa Sustainable Development Initiative (SASDI). SASDI has put R2.1 million towards this new development, partnering with Granbuild. They also partner with volunteers - like those from the UCT Faculty of Commerce.

"Children need cognitive stimulation from a very young age if they are to become university graduates with good employment prospects," said Stuart Hendry, director of the faculty's Development Unit for New Enterprise. Hendry is the main fundraiser for the Starting Chance Campaign, and a SASDI board member.

In 2011, the faculty worked with the City of Cape Town to deliver the Mfuleni Centre for Early Childhood Development. In the Philippi playground the children are dogging the Monday Paper photographer, Pied-Piper-like, striking exaggerated poses and making gangster signs for the camera.

At the back, Kagee is now slapping plaster on bricks, working her palette up and across. It looks easier than it is. Behind her, Billy Enderstein of the School of Actuarial Science digs spadesful of white sand and dumps them into a wheelbarrow. She stops to discard a jacket.

Afterwards, she says: "I really wanted to see an NGO on the ground and in action - particularly SASDI. The take-home message is that it is amazing to see what is being done to uplift the lives of others, but being involved takes you out of your comfort zone and into a slice of the reality that others have to live... You don't get this by donating money, you have to donate yourself; otherwise, it remains theory."

The goal, says Hendry, is to deliver 30 Early Childhood Development Centres of Excellence in the Cape Metropole over the next five years. SASDI's integrated approach to developing physical infrastructure and the people who will operate the centres will enable registration under the new regulatory requirements, making it possible for the centres to run as sustainable, community-based social enterprises.

Amid the cement and mud, he looks pleased. During a 'huddle' at the start of the build, he said: "It makes me feel incredibly proud to be part of such a big-hearted faculty."

Dr Justine Burns of the School of Economics invited several of her students along. "My students amaze me with the creative, innovative community activities they're involved in. I also saw this build as an opportunity for them to get outside the ivory tower, to do something real and practical on the development front. "We talk about development issues in class a lot, but that's 'head' knowledge - the build was 'heart' knowledge."

The spirit reflects the previous day's enthusiasm, when mainly PASS staff volunteers got down and dirty on site. They included the key PASS staff in the faculty: Tracey-Lee Braunger, Shieyaam Jacobs, Ronelle Nofemele, Kelly Van der Vent, Waseema Petersen and Fazeela Felton.

(Helen Swingler)

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