Maths fundis in rural South Africa


As the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science at Nelson Mandela University in the Eastern Cape, I want to congratulate the top maths, and maths+physical science matriculants in South Africa, both from Limpopo.

Takalani Bambela from Tshivhase Secondary School in the rural Vhembe district is the number one national achiever, followed by Khodani Wonderful Nemalamamgwa from Thengwe High School in Mutale. Congratulations also to Limpopo’s top overall matriculant who is one of the top overall matriculants in South Africa, Anza Tshipetane from Mbilwi Secondary School in the Vhembe district. Vhembe District is the top performing district in Limpopo – both in terms of quality passes and top achievers.

According to the matric results released by the Department of Basic Education, Limpopo has the highest number of top national achievers (five) featuring 8 times across different categories, followed by the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and Western Cape with three top achievers each.

Mpumalanga, Northern Cape, Northwest and the Free State have one top achiever each. Limpopo also came out tops in the 2016 matric results, with 12 of South Africa’s 22 top achievers hailing from the province.

The majority of Limpopo’s top achievers are from the Vhembe district, a very poor rural area that routinely demonstrates its resilience despite its circumstances and the problems it has experienced. One example is the district’s Vuwani, Vhuronga 1 circuit, where 30 schools were torched in 2016.

Yet, in the 2016 matric results, Vhuronga 1 circuit still emerged as the top performing circuit in Limpopo and Vhembe as the top-performing district.

What repeatedly stands out in the matric results each year is the performance of three high schools in the Vhembe district – Mbilwi Secondary, Tshivhase Secondary and Thengwe Secondary. Their principals and teachers need to be recognised for the work they are doing in regularly producing top achievers.

We also need to recognise the communities in Vhembe, as they play a central role in the success of the learners, as do the administrators of the Vhembe district of the Department of Education.

These schools in Vhembe are getting it right and we need to emulate what they are doing in schools throughout South Africa.

In my role as a physics researcher, maths and science educator, immediate past President and international liaison councilor of the South African Institute of Physics (SAIP), and Executive Dean of Science, I am extremely concerned about the state of maths and science education in South Africa. It cannot continue along its current trajectory of poor performance. What schools like these in Limpopo demonstrate is that our learners are every bit up to outstanding achievements when given the right kind of guidance.

I know these schools well; I am from rural Limpopo and have worked with them. In a recent one-week science festival in Vhembe District my faculty visited all three schools last year. Nelson Mandela himself opened a block of classes at Tshivhase Secondary. These schools are achieving up to a 100% pass rates in maths and science – and I am not talking about 100% pass rates where all the learners pass with 30%; I am talking about quality passes of matriculants with distinctions, which is what we want in all our provinces.

This is one of the key reasons I took up my position at Nelson Mandela, driven by my vision for science in this country. I want to help change the state of maths and science education in a province like the Eastern Cape. As academics, we cannot sit back and watch our learners fail at school, fail to gain entrance to university and fail at university.

What is encouraging about the 2017 matric results is that the Eastern Cape is starting to produce top achievers, following Limpopo. The three most under-resourced provinces, including KwaZulu-Natal, produced top quality learners, and we need to build on this. We already have the plan.

Prior to joining Nelson Mandela University I was the founder and director of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) Soweto Science Centre where I was based from 2010 to 2016. My team and I demonstrated that significant successes in maths and science are absolutely possible.

From 2011 we offered focused maths and science mentoring and inspiration to approximately 1000 Grade 8 – 12 maths and science learners from Soweto and the surrounding areas. Many subsequently matriculated with distinctions in maths and science, contributing to the quality of passes in Soweto, boosting Gauteng’s performance by township schools and the number of university entrants.

The first cohort graduated from universities throughout South Africa in 2015.

They are part of our research pipeline, joining the global community in addressing leading scientific questions, including at our own SKA.

At the same time, the UJ Soweto Science Centre, together with the SAIP, also mentored and inspired learners and teachers in Limpopo, notably from the Vhembe district. Together with colleagues from the University of Venda and University of Limpopo, we engaged with their principals and teachers over several years.

We collaborated on outreach projects and sciences camps at schools in Limpopo, as well as in Soweto and Northwest, attracting girl and boy learners into physics and stimulating an interest in the subject by showing them that studying physics can be fun. Physics is the fundamental, basic science underpinning all sciences, engineering and technology.

While they are still at school, these learners are introduced to possible careers in physics, science, engineering and technology and ways to obtain funding to further their studies, including introducing them to companies that offer sponsorships, bursaries and internships.

They have also been exposed to science expos, science exhibitions and the Science Olympiad. Many of these learners have gone on to be top achievers.

In 2015 a student from Mbilwi Secondary, Hamandishe Mathivha, won silver medal in SAIP’s Physics Olympiad and then become the top maths and physical Science matriculant in South Africa. In 2017 a student from Mbilwi Secondary, Anza Tshipetane, won the Science Olympiad and went to London to represent South Africa. As mentioned earlier, she is now one of the top overall 2017 matriculants.

Now that I am at Nelson Mandela University, our Faculty’s flagship Science Education, Communication, and Outreach Programme (SECOP) is focusing on science education from Grade R learners to undergraduate university students, with outreach programmes for learners, teachers and communities across the Eastern Cape.

This year, as part of the university’s Mandela centenary celebrations, we will be visiting and hosting maths and science exhibitions, expos and the Science Olympiad throughout the province and cultivating the ethos of ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ by encouraging parents and communities to take an active interest in their children’s education and to be part of growing a culture of learning.

We are partnering with a range of educational outreach activities in the province already being run by various departments within Nelson Mandela University, and combining our expertise. We are coordinating maths and science teacher development projects in the province to advance their skills in teaching these subjects in a way that gets through to learners.

Together with the Executive Dean of Education at Nelson Mandela University, Dr Muki Moeng, we are partnering the iKamvelihle Development Trust in rural Cala in the Eastern Cape. The Trust, which is chaired by Dr Lindiwe Msengana-Ndlela, is made up of a group of professionals who contribute their skills and expertise to learners at schools in financially impoverished communities, with an emphasis on improving the quality of education in these

communities. It is yielding positive results. The participating schools in Cala have improved from a from 50% pass rate in 2016 to 67.56% in 2017 – improvement of 18%, with 11 learners achieving distinctions and 12 gaining university entrance.

We are also partnering with the Department of Science and Technology and the Eastern Cape Department of Basic Education to run science programmes at the newly built, state-of- the-art Science Centre in rural Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape. And we are forming key partnerships, such as between our faculty and the Institute of Physics in the United Kingdom, SAIP, American Physical Society, and African Physical Society. Once this is formalised, we will invite other institutions in the Eastern Cape to form a consortium.

I am a strong proponent of looking at ourselves as academics in science and changing the way we do certain things, including changing attitudes that perpetuate a failure consciousness. It is not acceptable to tell students that our courses are very difficult and that only a few of them will pass. Instead, we need to achieve an overriding success rate by investigating our policies, methods and approaches, and changing or improving those that do not serve 21st century dynamic, relevant African science faculties.

At Nelson Mandela University, we pride ourselves on being a community-engaged Faculty of Science, and we therefore need to proactively strengthen science and science education for the benefit of society, nationally and globally, and live up to the university’s ethos: change the world.

Having worked in maths and science advancement for many years, I know where many of our learners, students, postgraduates and researchers are coming from. I know the difficulties they face, and I am motivated by the potential and what we can achieve in the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and throughout South Africa in our schools and universities.


Professor Azwinndini Muronga is the Dean of the Faculty of Science at Nelson Mandela University in the Eastern Cape