Jonny Gevisser

Ashoka Fellow
South Africa
Fellow Since 1993
This description of Jonny Gevisser's work was prepared when Jonny Gevisser was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1993 .


Jonny Gevisser (South Africa 1996) sociologist and educator, is pioneering the creation of regionally-based extra-curricular centres to complement existing formal educational institutions. These centres will provide active, creative outlets for black students. And, perhaps more importantly over the long term, they will create a subtle, new avenue for reforming state education.

The New Idea

Extra-curricular activities, traditionally the domain of sports and social interest clubs, comprise the only aspect of contemporary school life that is reasonably autonomous from the highly bureaucratized "school day," basically because it falls outside of it! While education policies, structures and curricula in the "new South Africa" are being debated and overhauled at the national level, change from above is painfully slow. Jonny believes that a grassroots reform process begun in the extra-curricular arena can be channeled directly into mainstream schooling in a way that dramatically accelerates overall school reform.

By engaging children's after-school hours in constructive educational and recreational activities, such as camping and survival skills training, conflict resolution training, arts and crafts and career counseling, Jonny's Extra-Mural Education Project offers an immediate supplement to the current inadequate system. He hopes that building the skills and self-esteem of students will reduce drop-out rates, help children develop a more positive attitude toward education and prepare students to face future challenges.

Jonny's vision extends beyond extra-mural education per se, as he uses extra-mural education to make schools into "hubs for learning" for the larger communities in which they are located. A lack of coherence in development planning in South Africa today causes education reform efforts to pour development money into the creation of separate target schools and separate initiatives for adult literacy and vocational education. Jonny noticed, however, that most South African schools, present in every neighborhood, are open for less than 25 percent of their usable time-from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon, five days per week excluding holidays (which last up to three months per year)-and serve only school students.

Jonny proposes to keep schools open during evenings, weekends and holidays to serve as community centers. His program implements services such as teacher-training, organizational development, adult literacy and career counseling classes, vocational training for youth who have dropped out of school and recreation activities. He envisions that these centers will function as "hubs" where parents, teachers, students and other community members will gather to relax, share ideas and engage in a process of lifelong education.

The Problem

The education policies of the apartheid regime were designed to teach black children that equality with Europeans was not for them. Although the new democratic government has begun to institute positive changes in the education system, reforms have not been fast enough to keep up with the needs of a society in transition. As a result, many of the bureaucratic, material and curricular constraints of the apartheid years remain in place in South Africa's schools.

The brunt of this problem falls upon black schools, the majority of which are barracks-like structures, lacking proper academic, technical, library, recreational or arts facilities. Years of inferior facilities and curricula, teacher frustration and militant student activism have led to an atmosphere of rejection and apathy. Since South African education policies have always been instituted from above, entrenched administrators and bureaucrats are unaccustomed to facilitating change at the local level. While they await guidance from national and provincial government, school systems continue to follow the old formal, academic, teacher-centered methods, lacking the traction with the communities in which they are located.

It is clear that the schools are incapable of meeting even the most basic academic needs of South African children. According to recent statistics, only 35 percent of all black youths between the ages of fifteen and nineteen attend school (compared with 89 percent of their white peers). Dropout statistics are shocking: Four out of every 100 black pupils reach the final year of secondary school, compared with 69 percent of white students, 34 percent of Indians, and 11 percent of "coloreds."

With the exception of a tiny minority of privileged white schools, most schools offer little in the way of extra-curricular activities. The student population is typically unoccupied and unsupervised during empty afternoons, vulnerable to the streets, gangsterism, violence, drug use and sexual abuse.

The Strategy

While educational policies, structures and curriculum in the "new South Africa" are being debated and transformed, replaced or overhauled, Jonny proposes that inroads can be made via the extra-mural area, by-passing and even subverting the system's bureaucratic and ideological constraints.

Jonny introduces a new concept-"hubs of learning"-that is based in present-day schools. A key function of the hubs is to make the most of the "after-hours" domain. Schools are crucial here, being the lowest level of public infrastructure, present in virtually every neighborhood. The hubs will consult and negotiate with school principals and parent, teacher and student organizations. Community organizations will be partners in mobilizing, legitimizing and facilitating the establishment of the hubs and their satellites, particularly with respect to identifying the educational needs of the community's unemployed, out-of-school youth.

Together with their partners (community organizations, nongovernmental organizations, local business, big business and provincial government education and health officials), the hub will provide a district's schools with a range of direct and indirect services during their empty afternoons, including support services (health, welfare and psychological services, vocational guidance and specialized education) and "life skills" across the curriculum (conflict mediation; health, environmental and entrepreneurial education; street law; and arts and crafts). Whereas the formal state curriculum offers the barest academic, examination-oriented subjects, courses provided by the hub and its partners will range from language and numeral development to mechanics, electronics, computers and small business development; from metal, wood, clay, leather and textile crafts to art, drama, music, dance, film and a variety of sports; from social responsibility projects and experiential internships with local business and industry to ecology, permaculture and wilderness experiences.

The hubs will act as bulkheads for school reform toward a socially relevant, person-centered school system. For example, they will create partnerships with accredited in-service teaching programs to introduce holistic pedagogical methods into the mainstream; again, the extra-mural area provides a systematic conduit for this vital service.

For his pilot program, Jonny has concentrated upon the transformation of a school in the Khayelitsha township on the outskirts of Cape Town. The Joe Slovo Comprehensive High School (JS), with its progressive principal and active student population, has been a gathering place for the surrounding community the apartheid years since. In due course, Jonny hopes to build further hubs in the Cape Town area and around the country, based on the improvements carried out at the Joe Slovo School. He also envisions the creation of larger regional Extra-Mural Education Centers on the strips of empty public land used strategically by apartheid planners to separate disadvantaged communities. He hopes that these Centers will bring communities together to manage their own education and development needs.

The Person

Jonny grew up in a large, liberal family of Jewish-Lithuanian descent. He began his professional life as an academic, doing post-graduate research in systems theory. Drawn by a love for discovery, creative learning and children, Jonny left his career in academic sociology to teach at a local township school.

At the school, he encountered an entrenched and overly bureaucratic education system, which supported a curriculum that met neither the academic nor the personal development needs of students. He quickly realized that any "real" education would have to take place after-hours. He proceeded to develop the country's first broad-spectrum extra-curricular department with the aim of bringing creativity and self-discovery into every aspect of learning. Because he was classified by the government as white, he was forced to leave his position at this "colored" school after four years.

Jonny then taught at an independent, non-racial Waldorf school. He continued his interest in extra-curricular education by initiating an Activities Department, which harnessed the play instincts and energies of children into educational activities.

Having worked and developed innovations both within the state school system and a leading holistic alternative, Jonny knows how to provide major educational elements not currently found in South African schools, including, crucially, the coherent usage of resources in service to the broader goal of accessible, lifelong development.