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Let Them Shine

by Ella Grimwade / 27.01.2014

His face furrowed in concentration, slowly, haltingly, Dylan fought his way through a sentence. As he planted a full stop at the end, he looks up at Linda for her verdict. “Well done!” was the enthusiastic response. I was sat in the Shine Classroom at St Agnes Primary School with around 15 Grade 2 pupils who have fallen through the cracks, make that gaping chasms, of South Africa’s educational system. “He has improved so much, this year he has gone up 3 levels” Linda, head of the St Agnes Primary School Shine Centre, informed me as Dylan tottered of to get his literary reward.

Making quality education available to everyone in South Africa is fundamental in building the country’s future, but Minister of Education, Angie Motshekga has admitted that for Grade 3 children the national average performance in literacy is 35%. Large class sizes, inadequate resources, lack of qualified teachers, and disempowered parents are all factors. Despite decades when lack of education was a tool for repression and division, this government spends just 5% of GDP on education. A developed country’s quota, for a nation who’s educational system is far from developed.

Established in 2000, Shine provides storybooks, learning materials, and free eye-tests to Grade 1 pupils, providing spectacles when required. But most importantly it gives the children time and individual attention. Recognizing the importance of support from home, Shine offers training workshops and classes that enable parents to help their children with reading practice and home work. This isn’t just about making school grades look better, this is about empowering children, and their families, to get the qualifications necessary for an independent adult life. The Shine program works, as proven by the annual school exams – the number of children who have progressed from “at risk” to “good” is outstanding. Linda, with justified pride, confirmed that every single child in the program had shown improvement over the past year.


Moving to sit with Wendy, another volunteer, she told me of the progress of Rose, the Grade 3 pupil she supports. From only recognising 4 letters, she is now reading and writing fluently as the execise books Wendy proudly talked me through proved. It was near the end of the year, and as Rose had completed all of the Shine work exercises and games, she was permitted to spend the whole hour reading, and boy did she read! Genuinely engrossed in the stories she ploughed through 5 stories as all the while Wendy was looked on with affection and a real engagement with what Rose was saying. There is a relationship between the volunteer and the pupil, clear from the warm hug which marked the start and end of their interaction. There was an affection, enthusiasm, and enjoyment in that room which itself has driven Shines success.

Yet Shine, like many small charities, suffers from a chronic shortage of volunteers and funds. This can be attributed both to governmental shortcomings and general apathy in society. That’s not to say South Africans are selfish, but when you drive past multiple examples of extreme destitution on your daily commute, there is an almost unavoidable hardening of the heart. South African society has an opportunity to demonstrate to the world how charity should be undergone, and shake some of those NGO-colonial ties. It may not be as tangible as building a hospital or handing out food parcels, but if you genuinely want to unlock the doors of South Africa’s inequality, improving education is the key.

The educational benefits to children in Shine program is reason enough to want to participate. Shine operates by assigning each volunteer to one, at most 2, children. They work with that child every week for the school year, giving both parties the opportunity to build a genuine connection. For the child it provides consistency in their learning, and helps their confidence through making them feel important and special. For the volunteer, it is a priceless reward to watch a child flourish.


Perhaps the most rewarding thing about Charity is that it gives you a chance to genuinely make a difference and reawaken feelings of connection, and validity. Charity is partially selfish, if you want to look at it that way. We feel better if we believe we’ve made a difference. Personally I feel that the fact human beings are hard-wired to get a high from helping others is one of the most beautiful aspects of human nature. In a world with more than a little cynicism, apathy, and less wholesome methods through which people try to make themselves “feel good”, it’s a refreshing change witnessing people genuinely getting a kick out of making a meaningful contribution.

There is an argument that when society takes on the issues facing the nation it takes pressure off the government to take responsibility for improving social infrastructure. That may be true to a certain extent. But how likely is it that the government has the capacity, or will, to take the initiative if these organisations ceased to exist? It’s not a gamble society can take. The ideas, policies, and organisations featured here incorporate local knowledge and genuinely tackle the underlying causes of South Africa’s social woes. Most importantly they empower individuals to change their own futures in a fundamental and lasting way.

The irony of charity is that, in order to truly be acting to end inequality, you need to put your energies into projects for which the end goal is making the volunteer superfluous. At the end of a school year, when the child has got to a good level of English and can re-join the main class, off they go hopefully never to return. They can have the qualifications they require, a better job, and a better future for their own children. Shine, and its volunteers, are working to make themselves redundant. That is true charity.

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