The Trevor Noah Foundation: Improving Education in South Africa


TACOMA, Washington — Education in South Africa faces major challenges and people living in poverty are more negatively impacted when it comes to education access. Due to COVID-19 shutdowns, access to education has been greatly impacted for students overall. As a result, The Trevor Noah Foundation, which has been working in South Africa since 2018, is making efforts to positively impact students during COVID-19.

Impacts of Poverty on Education

In 2018, about 18.9% of South Africa’s population lived below the international poverty line, on less than $1.90 a day. Poverty has a significant impact on education in the country. People living in poverty were recently affected by a 1% increase in Value-Added Taxes (VAT), from 14% to 15%.

School uniforms, and some other essential items, have not been exempt from VAT. This adds to the “burden of indirect costs of education for people living in poverty.” Families living in poverty also have less available capital to spend overall on educating their children due to the VAT increase.

Learning Outcomes in South Africa

A study called “Predicting secondary school dropout among South African adolescents: A survival analysis approach,” examined dropout rates in South Africa’s education system. According to the report, only about 52% of students of the appropriate age will remain enrolled in school until grade 12.

Additionally, “out of each 100 learners that begin school in Grade one, half will drop out, 40 will successfully complete the NSC exam, and only 12 will be eligible to pursue higher education.” This is a high dropout rate compared to other countries, such as the United States where the high school dropout rate is typically about 4.7%.

What is The Trevor Noah Foundation?

The Trevor Noah Foundation, a non-profit started in 2018 by Daily Show host Trevor Noah, works to improve educational outcomes for students in South Africa. Currently, the foundation is working on two major programs to positively impact education.

The Kulani School Programme is a program that focuses on four secondary schools in South Africa, Willow Crescent Secondary, New Nation School, Siyabonga Secondary and Eqinisweni Secondary. It partners with local implementation agents and the Gauteng Department of Education to invest in “learner skills development, teacher training and support and infrastructure.”

On the other hand, the Education Changemakers Programme focuses on helping leaders in education by providing them with the skills and connections needed to affect change at their schools. It runs in partnership with the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI.)

In an interview with The Borgen Project, Executive Director of The Trevor Noah Foundation Shalane Yuen said one of her distinct memories working for the foundation occurred at the first school to be a part of the Kulani School Program. The foundation brought speakers from two universities to provide students with information about higher education.

“Afterwards, one of the students ran up to me—her name is Belhah—and she was chasing me. She said, “‘mam, mam, mam, I’m so excited because now I know what math score I need to achieve if I want to get into UP,’” said Yuen.

Belhah Mlimela is currently studying at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She received a full scholarship through Charlize Theron’s Foundation, the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Program Youth Leaders Scholarship.

Impacts of COVID-19 on Education

In South Africa, only about 10% of households have access to the internet. When schools closed due to COVID-19 lockdowns, many students were left without the ability to access online learning. The University of Stellenbosch education released a paper reporting that practically no “curricular learning” was occurring for the poorest 80% during the lockdown.

“Our education system really mirrors the inequalities of the society and all COVID-19 did was really shine a light on those gaps even more,” Yuen said.

The Foundation’s Efforts During COVID-19

Due to the government going back and forth on schools being open and new health measures, Yuen said some school officials were facing obstacles amid the transition. The foundation held focus groups for the schools in the Kulani School Program and “walked the journey” with them in order to help teachers and other school leaders adjust to the changes.

“In order for us to best understand how to continue supporting our schools in this new normal, it was really important for us to have those constant touchpoints with the schools,” Yuen said.

In addition to helping school leaders, The Trevor Noah Foundation also partnered with two organizations to address food insecurity for students at the schools it supports. The foundation already works with the largest food charity in South Africa, Food Forward SA. This organization redistributes food that would have been thrown away to other non-profit organizations in order to address food insecurity.

“We sponsor a membership for Food Forward SA for some of the orphanages where our students live,” Yuen explained.

The Trevor Noah Foundation also partnered with the Kolisi Foundation to provide food to vulnerable families at the schools it supports. The Kolisi Foundation has a distribution network that provides parcels designed to support a family for three months. Each parcel includes nutritious meals, hygiene, sanitation and cleaning items.

Looking Forward

The education system in South Africa still faces challenges. COVID-19 has shined a light on existing issues, while also exacerbating problems with education access. Despite these obstacles, The Trevor Noah Foundation has been working to improve education in South Africa, as well as conditions for students during COVID-19.

Melody Kazel
Photo: Flickr


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