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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 June 2005, 08:13 GMT 09:13 UK
University for South Africa's poor
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Students have to teach at schools in their holidays
Taddy Blecher must be the first person to have founded a university from a fax machine.

Five years ago, from his office in Johannesburg in South Africa, without any university buildings, courses or staff, he began faxing out a letter of invitation to 350 schools.

He asked the brightest and poorest students to apply for a new university - and promised them the "best business education in Africa".

This was going to be South Africa's first free university, created to serve talented youngsters from the poor black communities who could never afford to send their children to the established universities.

The letter struck a chord - and because the only address on the letter was the place where Dr Blecher was working - would-be students began gathering outside the plush consultancy offices.

Paper computers

"It went ballistic. We had 3,500 applications for a university that did not exist. Security would be saying who are these people outside? And the students would be saying 'Your university building is so beautiful.' And the security would say: 'Go away, it's not a university, it's a consultancy company."

Taddy Blecher
Taddy Blecher wants business skills rather than hand-outs

With only a fortnight to spare, Dr Blecher and a handful of colleagues were able to borrow a building for the university.

And without computers, the hungry-to-learn youths practised typing on photocopies of a keyboard.

But the university - CIDA City Campus - has become a remarkable success story, gaining blue-chip sponsors, a campus and a reputation for innovation. Five years later, it has taught 1,600 students.

Apart from only being available to poor students, who get a virtually free education, it is unique in what it expects from its intake.

Students have to help run and maintain the university buildings, and in their holidays they have to teach young people in their home villages - reaching hundreds of thousands.

When they graduate, they have to pay for the university costs of another student who will follow in their footsteps.

The founder, in London to launch a fund-raising foundation, says that this is part of a "no hand-outs" philosophy.

"In one year, these students will be earning more than their families could earn in their entire working lives," he says, so it is only fair that they should pay something back for the next generation of students.

Dr Blecher's own story is also not exactly the run-of-the-mill academic career.

'Education and entrepreneurship'

Wealthy, white and in his thirties, earning a big salary in financial services and on the verge of taking up a job offer in the United States, he made a life-changing decision.

Instead of heading towards the departure lounge, he went to the black townships around Johannesburg.

Students at CIDA
College leavers have to sponsor the next generation of students

"I'd never been into the townships before. I'd always just made money and gone on nice holidays," said Dr Blecher, a slightly-built, passionate talker, who had been trained as an actuary.

His reaction to seeing the poverty was to open his wallet and give them money. But he saw that this kind of dependence on donations was "de-humanising" and what was needed was "education and entrepreneurship".

If South Africa was going to develop a long-term, sustainable future, it needed to provide a way into the professions for the poor black majority. It needed to give them a stake in society.

"With wealthy families in South Africa there's no question that they're going to university and get a good job afterwards. But only 3% of the black population over the age of 20 has a degree. It's a shocking situation," he said.

This meant that out of 23,000 accountants, only 400 were black and out of a black population of 35 million, there were only 47 dentists, he said.

Squatter camps

And his response to the divide between the impoverished townships and South Africa's super-rich was also highly individual.

CIDA city campus
The CIDA City Campus in downtown Johannesburg

From an economic perspective, he decided that higher education was the driver of wealth - and that he would create a free business university that would provide the gateway for those who would otherwise be excluded.

Hundreds of thousands of black youngsters were leaving school every year without any decent job prospects, "like lemmings falling off a cliff".

The free university would provide a way out for them. And once started, Dr Blecher tapped into the business network to find people who could teach business skills - and had an immediate response from companies wanting to attract talented black youngsters into the financial services sector.

"Our students, from squatter camps and townships, were learning from people who had done three billion rand business deals," he said.

The university now has 1,400 computers - recycled machines from Britain - and a library filled with books donated by publishers.

The campus, including the building where Nelson Mandela joined the ANC, was acquired from businesses shifting out of downtown Johannesburg because of fears of crime.

He says that the university is looking for ways to reach out further - such as setting up "hawker schools" for street sellers and looking at ways of providing for the growing numbers of children orphaned by Aids.

Dr Blecher also talks of plans for a "university in a box", which could extend to other rural areas and to other African countries the concept of using education as a lever for social progress.

In a continent often seen as being filled with turmoil and trouble, this could be the first revolution in Africa to be led by an advance-guard of accountants and bankers.

  • The CIDA Foundation is launching a drive in the UK to raise funds to put students through university. Information from www.cidafoundationuk.org

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