Aug 06
August 6, 2013

From Survival to Success: Zethu Ngceza on Ubuntu's Mission to Change Lives in South Africa


In the coastal community of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, residents have struggled with widespread poverty, HIV/AIDS, a reported 80 percent unemployment rate, and the dark legacy of apartheid. In 2012, Ubuntu Education Fund made a CGI Commitment to Action to address this reality by launching the U.ME.WE. Campaign — a three-year, $25 million initiative to develop Port Elizabeth’s Ubuntu Centre into a world class health and education campus, transforming the lives of 2,000 children and their families by engaging them from cradle to career.

Today, President Clinton and Chelsea Clinton visited the Ubuntu Centre and met with Zethu Ngceza, an Ubuntu graduate with an incredible story — which she recounted powerfully at the 2007 CGI Annual Meeting.

We asked Ngceza to share her story and tell us a bit more about Ubuntu’s CGI Commitment to Action:

CGI: What is the reality like for children and families in Port Elizabeth? How does Ubuntu aim to substantially impact their lives?

Zethu Ngceza: Growing up, township children and their families face many seemingly insurmountable obstacles—food insecurity, HIV/AIDS, over-crowded and underfunded hospitals, and failing schools. The region is burdened by a rampant unemployment and pervasive inequality, and many families earn only a few dollars per day. Parents must often choose between sending their children to school or feeding them, as their income cannot cover both uniforms and maize. Children who are lucky enough to attend school must learn in over-crowded classrooms, from teachers who never attended secondary schools, and with textbooks that are no longer relevant. Many of them never make it past primary school, and the few often fail their matric exam.

To fundamentally transform the lives of township children and their families, Ubuntu provides comprehensive household stability, health, and educational services. We understand that there are many contributing factors to poverty, and our model seeks to address all the complex, multifaceted challenges that our clients face. We tailor our interventions to each child’s situation, working with them from cradle to career.

Ubuntu, thus far, has achieved unprecedented results. Our students graduate secondary school at more than twice the rate of their peers. Our clients’ adherence rates are well above the communities. And, every $1 that Ubuntu invests in its children will result in real lifetime earnings of $8.70. Upon graduating from Ubuntu, scholars will each contribute approximately $195,000 to society over the course of their lifetimes, while non-Ubuntu clients will cost society an average of $9,000.

CGI: You are a graduate of an Ubuntu program yourself. Can you speak to that experience and your personal story? What’s been the most memorable moment from your journey?

Zethu Ngceza: Orphaned at just 11 years old, I was left alone to care for my two younger siblings after losing both of my parents in just a year. Because I was too young to qualify for government social funding, we moved in with my aunt and her children and, when they moved from Port Elizabeth, we were left alone in a cardboard shack without any source of income.

I first met an Ubuntu counselor at my primary school, where the organization taught life skills classes and built a computer lab. She enrolled me in Ubuntu’s programs and, almost immediately after, my life drastically changed. They gave us literally everything that we needed—food security packages, routine medical check-ups, homework help, university scholarships, and home security improvements. I began to get better grades in school and, in 2007, President Bill Clinton invited me to speak at the Clinton Global Initiative’s semi-annual meeting on child-headed households. This trip was, perhaps, my most memorable moment.

I had never before seen a plane let alone flown on one. I had never left my township, and I had only seen New York City in the movies. I remember being in absolute awe of the buildings surrounding Central Park, the Statue of Liberty, and the sheer number of people in the city. The trip made me feel important, special, and valued. When a flight attendant asked me if I wanted water or when an Ubuntu supporter wanted to meet me, I felt significant. It was incredibly empowering to feel that relevant; it’s something that I could not have imagined in Port Elizabeth.

And now, six years later, I am a graduate of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and the first Ubuntu client to work for the organization. I am currently Ubuntu’s external relations coordinator in South Africa.

CGI: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned?

Zethu Ngceza: Although I may be a "success story," my road to university and to my job at Ubuntu has not been easy. Over the years, I have learned the value of challenging yourself to want things that society has defined as "out of reach." I have grown immensely from wanting things that I was told I could not have. Yet, I have also learned the value of patience—of understanding that success takes years. I have learned that, during that time, you have to have faith in yourself and in your abilities.

CGI: Ubuntu scholars are encouraged to give back to the community through their own commitment. What are some inspiring things you’ve seen?

Zethu Ngceza: This past year, I sat in on one of our out-of-school youth discussions, where the students were supposed to speak about challenges that they had recently faced. At first, everyone was quiet; no one wanted to share their stories. After a few uncomfortably silent minutes, a girl began to tell everyone about an incredibly horrific experience—the day that she was gang raped. She was only 12 years old. What I remember most is her strength. When everyone in the room was in tears, she was stoic. Her voice never wavered. She never cried. When she finished her story, girls came forward with their own stories, feeling more secure after she had broken the silence. It was one of the most inspiring, humbling moments of my life. I don’t think I have ever before seen that kind of perseverance.

CGI: You spoke at CGI when you were just 16. Can you update us on what you’ve been doing since that time?

Zethu Ngceza: After the Clinton Global Initiative meeting, I went back to Port Elizabeth, graduated secondary school, and attended university. At first I struggled with my schoolwork. University classes were significantly harder than my Grade 12 classes. I struggled to achieve the balance between my care-giving responsibilities and my academics that I had achieved when I was younger. But, despite a number of setbacks, I graduated. I went on to intern with Ubuntu and, just this past May, I was hired as the organization’s external coordinator.

CGI: On Wednesday, you’ll join President Clinton and other leaders in an interactive, global conversation on Africa, themed "Embrace Tomorrow." As a graduate of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, a resident of South Africa, and someone who had to navigate a very difficult childhood, what does "embrace tomorrow" mean to you?

Zethu Ngceza: For Mandela, I think that "embracing tomorrow" meant building a peaceful, diverse nation. It meant reconciliation and equality. It meant accepting differences and making hard choices. "Embracing tomorrow," for Mandela, was about thinking about the long-term effects of his decisions. And since Mandela created a path for South Africa that deviated from every trajectory that other Africans had taken when they gained power, the theme also meant embracing the uncertainty of that his choices fostered.

For me, personally, "embracing tomorrow" is about believing in yourself and in your tomorrow. Mandela’s faith in himself and in his vision for South Africa never wavered even when the world challenged him. Like Mandela, I believed in myself. I dreamed of becoming a university graduate, of wanting more for myself than my circumstances dictated.

CGI: How has Nelson Mandela — his leadership, example, or lessons — impacted you?

Zethu Ngceza: Although he is credited with much of South Africa’s success, Nelson Mandela did not move the country forward alone. He was surrounded by people who believed in him and his vision. If anything, Mandela’s success is a tribute to his community. I think that, although it is possible to achieve success alone, it is most always done with the help of others. For example, without Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mandela could not have built the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mandela always recognized this and promoted the ideal of working together. Great impact, then, is always achieved with others.

CGI: What dreams do you have for your own tomorrow? Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?

Zethu Ngceza: Five years from now, I want to earn my master’s in marketing. I want to work for a corporation to gain relevant experience so that, in 10 years, I can open my own business. I’m not completely sure of what type of business I want to manage. But I want to have a sense of ownership and independence in what I do, and I also want my business to give back.

Because of my own personal experience, I really do believe in empowering youth. Ubuntu gave me so many opportunities. They believed in me and pushed me to surprise myself. I want to do the same for children growing up in my township. I want to help them grow, succeed, and surprise themselves, too.