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FirstRand’s co-founder: A man of many ideas and few words

Paul Harris on education, philanthropy and social networks.

CAPE TOWN – Contrary to what some people believe, South Africans have many things in common. Chief among them, says Paul Harris, co-founder of FirstRand, is a desperate desire to see South Africa succeed.

However South Africa can’t succeed unless steps are taken to fundamentally improve the education system. “It’s broken,” he told a group of Western Cape business executives at a recent Accelerate Cape Town event.

“The things I am gatvol of are wish lists and blame-games. And the vast amount of time wasted and money spent on education conferences. The summary of a conference is ‘so where is the next one? Will I see you there?” Instead, he says, it should be about action lists and getting things done.

The South African government budgets about R250 billion on education a year. Over and above this, corporate South Africa invests R2 billion into education. “That is 1% of government spend. At this level we cannot solve the big problems – the strategic framework and implementation of education in South Africa. But we can make a contribution in assisting the state with skills and ideas, and the giving of our time voluntarily.”

What complicates this is the lack of trust between business and government. “It is sad but true. We – both sides – are trying to do something about it, but it is something I accept.”

Harris adds that this mistrust is not a new development. “There was no trust in PW Botha’s time either.” He is not advocating that business and government get cosy. “Business must be independent of government. If you believe its not what you know it’s who you know – that is the thin edge of corruption. Getting more access to government or currying favour with government is not the way to go.”

So how does one make a difference when the problem is so vast and the corporate budget comparatively small?

“We should encourage people to plant lots of small seeds in the form of enterprising ideas. Not all of these will germinate, but many will grow into saplings and soon you’ll see big trees standing proud,” he said.

RMB, he reminds the audience was started with R10 000. Dr Anton Rupert rolled his first cigarette by hand and Apple started in a garage. “I believe we can do this in education.”

Seeds of change

In his time, Harris has planted a few seeds. “At FirstRand, in the eighties, we started a Volunteers’ Programme with a single facilitator. Today, 6 000 employees donate their time, skills and financial resources. The firm will match any money raised by its employees.

In 1991 he helped to found Penryn College, a not-for-profit private school in Mpumalanga that has achieved a 100% matric pass rate since its first group of matrics sat in 1998.

He launched Penryn’s teacher-outreach programme, Penreach, which aims to help improve the quality of education in under-resourced schools in rural communities. It’s the largest project of its kind in Africa and reached 900 schools, 2 400 rural teachers and 400 000 learners last year. “Quality education depends on the capabilities and skills of the headmasters, headmistresses and teachers that stand in front of learners every day,” he says.

The programme costs about R10 million a year to fund, a figure that was becoming difficult to raise given the enormity of need in SA. So in 2006 the Shalamuka Foundation was founded. “I think it’s an example of how people with skills in certain areas can use their skills.”

The fund has a net asset value of R100 million and in future will negate the need for fund raising.

Harris is not trying to change the world alone and where possible will collaborate with other companies or initiatives. One is Symphonia’s School @ the Centre of Community, a leadership development process that creates an opportunity for business leaders and school principals to develop their leadership skills in a co-learning partnership. “Mentoring of headmasters or mistresses is very important,” he says.

Social networks, technology and education

Harris and fellow RMB co-founder GT Ferreira are investors in the social network Mxit. “We think social networks are the way of the future – they are game changers. This is why we are buyers of Facebook shares not sellers.”

There is more to these social networks than entertainment. Harris discussed his involvement with Mxit Reach and UkuFUNda Virtual School. The former uses the technology built by Mxit to create free mobile educational, health care, agricultural and community applications for people on the Cape Flats. The latter is a Mxit initiative that brings a fun, interactive learning environment to kids on their feature phones.

“We have developed curricula in four subjects for Grade 8 to 12 for cellphones. It is designed for groups to work together and is one way to create an educational standard that is dependent on any specific teacher.”

The 66-year-old is also behind the Click Foundation, which is funded by the Harris family and run by his daughter, Nicola. The foundation operates as a ‘skunkworks’ and tests unconventional technology-based ideas that can scale and impact education for individuals.

“We will finance ideas up to the pilot stage. If it looks scalable then we go out and raise the money.

“These are some of the seeds we planted. Some are small and are not nationally scalable,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter if they aren’t. Too much talking about the big problems often creates inertia and is immensely frustrating.” 

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