Entrepreneur success story: how local business people inspired a community to build a ‘miracle school’

Take a few local entrepreneurs with a vision of a better future and unshakable faith and passion. Add the backing of a community, united as never before. What you get is an unusual entrepreneur success story. This success story made the prestigious Jakes Gerwel Technical High School (JGT) rise in record time on the threshold of a poor neighbourhood in the Western Cape town of Bonnievale.

Like many similar communities in South Africa, the people of Mountain View did not have much hope for most of their kids to finish school and flourish.

“Imagine waking up in Mountain View and looking down at hope,” says Philip Jonker, owner and winemaker of Weltevrede, Jonker Family Vineyards and long-time YehBaby client. Jonker is deeply involved with this community, especially with the local church.

He says he’s seen it so many times, how the kids start off with a sparkle in their eyes, and how the sparkle later fades when they realise how the odds are stacked against them. “We just had to do something.”


Struggling to stay in school

This sense of duty found an echo in Wilhelm de Wet, owner of South African Actuaries Abroad (SA3), governing body chairman of Hoërskool Bonnievale and another YehBaby client. Hoërskool Bonnievale, a Model C school with a reputation of excellence on many terrains, has to turn down hundreds of applicants every year because of a lack of space.

Curran Kuhn, an electrical engineer who grew up nearby Happy Valley and returned to Bonnievale after his studies, was one of the lucky ones who got into Hoërskool Bonnievale. He experienced first hand the divisions this created in his circle of friends and his community. It also means that people who can least afford it, have to pay for transport or boarding fees in neighbouring towns if they want to keep their kids in school.

He was inspired to join the funding trust governing body to help make the JGT  high school a reality.

The plan

When Wilhelm and Philip approached the Department of Education, Western Cape Minister of Education Debbie Schäfer and her team sent them back with a challenge: Find a suitable location and 60% of the funding. If Wilhelm and Philip managed this, the Department of Education would contribute the rest of the building costs, as well as the teacher salaries for the future.
Barely a week later, they were back with a plan. Philip and Wilhelm began making the 12 Ha piece of vineyard that borders Mountain View usable. The future Jakes Gerwel Technical High School had begun to take shape.

The vision was clear and ambitious: a school of excellence offering learning streams that make it possible for kids to attain university exemption, but also provides practical and entrepreneurial skills that create a path for kids who don’t aspire to become academics or professionals.

It was decided to name the envisioned school after Professor Jakes Gerwel, well known South African academic and political activist. Coming from an impoverished and humble background, he grew to become a prominent influence in the shaping of South Africa.

The three members of what would later become the JGE trust started working behind the scenes. The goal was ambitious, and not a little crazy: to start admitting the first students in January of 2018, just 2 years after getting the green light from the Department.

The timing coincided with the run-up to the 2016 local elections. To avoid political cynicism and deep historical distrust, the JGT trust decided to keep the project a secret for another 8 months. Then the vision was shared to take root within the community.


How a community came together

The community came together, spending Saturdays collecting rocks, removing rubble, and rolling up wire.

Local architect Theuns Coetzee agreed to design the buildings free of charge. The land surveyor, engineers and attorneys all agreed to work pro bono. Môreson Grondwerke also provided equipment and personnel pro bono to level the slopes of the land for the buildings, three rugby fields, netball and tennis courts and, later, a school hall.

“All that we had to provide was diesel, almost half a million rand’s worth of diesel. The majority of this was donated by farmers in the area,” says Wilhelm.


The Jakes Gerwel Technical High School: an entrepreneur success story

They kept going in the faith that approvals would be given and that resources would arrive in time. In June of 2017, the first sod was turned. As proof of a true entrepreneur success story, the school opened in January this year with eleven classrooms, two computer labs, and two technical drawing rooms. Before the building had even been built, 160 students had already applied to join. Fundraising for further building phases is still ongoing. The hope is to build another ten classrooms, six technical workshops, three consumer studies classrooms, four tennis and netball courts and a changing room.

The school is transporting students by bus from five surrounding farm schools. Students receive lunch and an aftercare service where they are able to do their homework with educators before they head home.

Speaking to the people of Bonnievale, one gets the impression that everyone, rich and poor, feels both excitement and pride for “their school”, a testament to defeating adversity.

Shafer and her team came to see the school a few months before its opening, and were astounded by the sight. She praised the speed at which the project was executed, the quality of the buildings, which would not be out of place on a prestigious wine farm, and the cost effectiveness that has brought out the goodwill and pride in the community.

“I think we should call it the miracle school,” she joked.