Oct 06

The Spirit Of Bonnievale

An Article By Ian Kilbride.

There are many places of inspiration across South Africa and definitely one of them is the small town of Bonnievale.  Based in the Cape Winelands District and the Langeberg Municipality within the Western Cape, situated on a beautiful stretch of the Breede River.  Bonnievale has a population of approximately 17 000 with an economy largely reliant on the wine industry and also significant investment in agro-processing and dairy product production.

Like other towns in the winelands, Bonnievale has suffered from the corrosive social problems of high unemployment, single parent households, teenage pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse, poor educational levels and limited life chances. The town also exhibits the same levels of inequality seen across much of rural South Africa.

But unlike a raft of small towns, slowly decaying across rural South Africa, Bonnievale is on the up and it’s worth examining why and how this town is bucking the trend and whether there’s a useful formula that could be emulated elsewhere?

Like all meaningful breakthroughs, Bonnievale’s upliftment really started through a combination of need and vision. It was principally the farming community (the community so reviled by Julius Malema) that recognised that the if the town, its economy and community were to turn things around, business as usual was not good enough. Simple demographics meant that the schooling, housing, employment and sustainability models of the past were not fit for purpose and that it was futile waiting for government (local, provincial or national) to come to the rescue. Thus, was born the vision of building a unique state of the art high school in the heart of Bonnievale.  One that could not only accommodate the growing demand for high school education, but also provide a rounded technical education tailored to the specific needs of the local community. Prior to this, some 1200-1500 junior school leavers were chasing just 350 places at the existing high school. For those who couldn’t travel to outlying high schools, the net result was literally hundreds of scholars dropping out of school, with all the attendant problems of loss of purpose, loss of self-respect and identity, loss of work opportunities and of course, the social decay brought on by inaction and the temptation of drugs.

With 60% of the funding raised by the private sector, farmers, businesses, philanthropists, as well as community members themselves, the no fee Jakes Gerwel Technical (JGT) school was established in 2017 and has become a focal point for scholar and community development. In this modern era of woke permissiveness, JGT distinguishes itself by committing to a set of core values and principles, namely: responsibility, respect, integrity, honesty, humility and discipline. While values are core to the ethos of the school, the subjects and curriculum provided is tailored to the academic and practical needs of the community it serves. So, in addition to the traditional academic subjects offered at high school level and it does produce aspirant professionals, JGT teaches and develops practical and technical skills vital to the local economy, such as carpentry, metalwork, engineering, construction and agriculture.

While JGT is a scholastic bright spot for young learners, it still operates within a broader community beset by the economic and social challenges mentioned above and so, personal guidance and counselling is foundational to the school’s pastoral activities.

In many respects then, JGT enshrines much of what the Spirit Foundation has stood for over the last 30 years namely, assisting in building education and community projects that impact on any disadvantaged community.  One simple goal is to better prepare learners for life after school, as job-seeking and employment opportunities become vital. In this regard, the SF is funding and supporting a local programme which focuses specifically on job preparedness. This is the perfect bridge between school education and employment opportunity, as it provides skills, confidence and of course a potential income. 

The Spirit Foundation supports for Bonnievale 418, an NGO whose overarching goal is to achieve zero youth unemployment in the community by 2030, Bonnie Friends involved in early child development (ECD)  and  other projects such as ‘Crime Watch’, hyacinth eradication as well as pushing for better road, sewerage, clean water and waste removal services by the council.

Bonnievale is just one example of how SF engages and provides support for its programmes and initiatives. We do not seek to reinvent the wheel and waste precious resources on top-heavy or risky initiatives, but rather we engage with communities at numerous levels to find out what they actually want.  Then SF identify and support programmes that are well-governed, produce measurable results and are run by local people with an undying passion to achieve a better South Africa and, very importantly, they have far greater experience and knowledge of all relevant local areas than SF can ever have.

A recent development facilitated by Dr Armand Bam, the MD of SF, is the involvement of Stellenbosch University and its business school, these institutions partner with SF and assist with additional funding and management. In particular the launch of the Small Business Development Programme in 2024 addressing the goal of zero unemployment.

As they say, ‘many hands make light work’, so SF along with parties such as Stellenbosch Business School and political supporters, can have an impact that helps those that need it most in ways that are of real value.