Cynthia Mpati

Emprendedor social de Ashoka
South Africa
Fellow desde 1992
This description of Cynthia Mpati's work was prepared when Cynthia Mpati was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1992.


A teacher and a teacher trainer, Cynthia Mpati is addressing the massive shortage of qualified teachers in rural black South Africa. She has developed a teacher training program to upgrade teachers' skills and to improve the quality of education. The program has the potential to become a model throughout the South African educational system.

La idea nueva

Cynthia has designed a very practical three-year program to upgrade both subject knowledge and the teaching approach of rural teachers. She will initially target 4,000 uncertified teachers who have been teaching for at least 5 years (the majority have been teaching for 10 to 20 years) in Natal province. Since the teachers are spread out in townships and farm schools and are not able to leave their jobs and families for extended periods of time, the best way to reach them is by correspondence.
Cynthia has used her expertise in correspondence teaching to develop a program which is not only able to reach large numbers of teachers in isolated areas but also make up for correspondence teaching's greatest shortcoming: the isolation of the trainee.
"Interaction with teachers and among peers is an integral part of the learning process," says Cynthia. And that's why the program starts with a four-week intensive face-to-face course (Bridging Module) followed by meetings twice a year.
In the Bridging Module, student-teachers learn how to study by correspondence and concentrate in improving English fluency and understanding of the Western thinking/learning process, often foreign to them. They also choose a mentor teacher, a volunteer coach, on the basis of his/her outstanding teaching skills. The mentor-teacher becomes a concrete link to the system when the student-teachers return to rural areas.
The other six modules cover different subjects such as mathematics, geography, history, health, psychology, and pedagogy. In pedagogy, teachers learn lesson planning and self-evaluation of results, and practice new ways of teaching. In this program, the watchword is practice: actual application of new materials and approaches in the workshops and then in the teachers' own classrooms. In this way, understanding of theory emerges from successful practice.

El problema

The grossly inferior education provided to blacks in South Africa is one of the most damaging aspects of the apartheid system, sure to last for many years after apartheid disappears. Unqualified and demoralized teachers have to deal with appalling physical resources and terrible overcrowding. The teacher-pupil ratio for black students is 45 to 1 (in some cases a single teacher has to handle more than 70 students), compared to 16 to 1 for whites. Just to maintain even the current ratios, there is a shortage of 37,500 classrooms with an existing total 82,000 for blacks. The average annual per capita student expenditure for black students is $160 compared to $1,003 for white students, in US dollars. Only one of every 20 black students who enters the school system reaches the final year of secondary school, with three-fifths dropping out before the end of primary school.
Half of the teachers in black schools have not passed the final matriculation examination. Only 42 percent have the minimum requirement for teachers, matriculation plus one year primary teaching certificate. Just 7.3 percent have the preferred three year primary matriculation teaching certificate. "Sometimes there is only one certified teacher in the whole school," says Cynthia, and "the principal is in many cases noncertified." Noncertified teachers receive even lower wages and are ineligible for benefits.
In the Natal area, the center of violence in South Africa, there are 6,900 noncertified primary school teachers, half of whom have been teaching between 5 and 20 years. Many of these teachers have suffered physically, mentally, and emotionally at the hands of the state, which was particularly harsh in its attacks against attempts to improve the educational system during the 1980's.

La estrategia

Since the 1976 Soweto student uprising, education has been at the forefront of the multiple crises gripping the country. The struggle to end the inferior education system for blacks came to symbolize the wider struggle for equal political rights. The recent political changes and the prospect of a majority government in the near future have opened the doors to new ideas and new players, but also to a power struggle. "To promote change in the educational system in South Africa one has to be a negotiator, a diplomat, and a strategist," says an expert with the University of Natal. And Cynthia has been all of these. In her own words, "I consider my most important achievement to have brought all the concerned stakeholders together to plan and work as a team. What we have in common is that we are all desperately looking for practical solutions to address the overwhelming needs of education in our country." Cynthia has been able to gather support from the DAT (the government's education agency), the ANC's NECC (National Education Crisis Committee), experts in education from different universities and nongovernmental organizations, and the teachers themselves. With the government, Cynthia was able to negotiate the official approval for the program and the right to have their own (and not the government's) accreditation examination. She has also been successful in negotiating a change in the school syllabus, recruiting experts from the best known education NGOs, such as SACHED and the Urban Foundation, to design the different modules.
Cynthia envisions this program as a possible model for addressing the overwhelming shortage of teachers in South Africa. "There are several different possibilities, but basically we'd get high school graduates to work as teachers' aides, while studying to become teachers," she says. "It would make the study more relevant to the work and save time and money. But the way to convince people is to make this program work; based, then, on the results of this work, we'll have a stronger case for expansion."

La persona

Brought up in a family of educators, Cynthia was inspired by her grandparents to see all the children in their village educated. "They were semi-illiterate," says Cynthia of her grandparents, "but they understood the importance and the power of education. They preached education to other villages and organized them to build their local missionary school in the area. For years my grandmother took care of more than 20 children, who lived too far to commute to school. She never charged them anything, only the pleasure of seeing them getting educated and improving themselves." Cynthia's father, brother, and sisters are all educators. Now her father runs a counseling center in his home village. In 1970, Cynthia graduated from teaching school and returned to her village 50 miles south of Durban. She wanted to continue the family tradition, but her involvement with Steve Biko and her work on making the education given to blacks approach the quality given to whites caught the attention of the Special Branch of the South African Police, prompting her to leave the country.