South Africa’s greatest natural resource may be the huge reserves of untapped potential in its people. In a population of 47 million, just 5 million workers earn enough to submit tax returns. Official estimates of unemployment hover around 25 percent, but the real figure may be as high as 50 percent when those who have stopped looking for work are added. This is the story of two men and one woman who broke the cycle of poverty with the support and encouragement of companies that need their skills to grow and prosper.
Ephraim Ralethata grew up in Tsakane, a township formed in the 1960s near Brakpan, an affluent, segregated suburb where blacks were not allowed. “I used to dream of staying there and I used to pass by and say ‘one day,’” he recalls. “My sister said, ‘maybe you will, if things turn out okay.’” Upon graduation, he found work in operations management at a casino in Brakpan and aspired to make his home in the now open community.
In the small town of Belfast in northeast South Africa, Promise Nkosi loved to study science, math, and technology. She worked hard and did very well, but her family lacked the means for her to continue her education. She became a waitress to support herself and applied for every scholarship she could find. She was accepted to CIDA City Campus, a non-profit institution of higher education in Johannesburg that serves students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds at little or no cost.
Mankwe Mokgabudi grew up in Tafelkop, a rural village in Limpopo, the northern-most province of South Africa. Raised by a single mother, Mankwe became the sole support for his family when his mother could no longer work due to health issues. His only option was difficult and dangerous manual labor, first cutting down trees, then working as a butcher in a sub-zero freezer without proper protective clothing. Though he had the intelligence and motivation for higher learning, he had no financial means to pursue it. When he was accepted to CIDA City Campus, he had to borrow money from a local gas station owner just to make the journey to Johannesburg.
Ephraim, Promise, and Mankwe are the potential in South Africa that every company hopes to tap. They are highly motivated problem solvers who aspire to success. Each one found a way into the Global Talent Acceleration Program (GTAP), started by Cisco to increase the skilled information and communications technology (ICT) talent in South Africa by investing in individuals and making sure they succeed.
Launched in 2007, GTAP recruits 18 to 24 year olds who are starting their careers, have an aptitude for technology, and are considered previously disadvantaged individuals (PDI), a government distinction use to incentivize hiring people of black, colored or Indian decent. The intensive 5-month program prepares them to become network consulting engineers, project managers, customer support engineers, system engineers, and account managers. As they become experts with high-demand technical skills, they also learn the essential soft skills that make the difference between success and failure in the real world. Torque IT, a South African Cisco Specialized Learning Partner, provides high quality Cisco-authorized IT training, enablement, and certification to GTAP.
The investment is great, the stakes are high, and the selection process is competitive. GTAP receives about 1000 applications each year from people like Ephraim, Promise, and Mankwe. A small number of these initial applicants are invited to attend a full-day workshop where they must pass a number of tests and work in groups to solve problems. “We look at initiative, energy, and how they treat their peers,” said Edrei Schoeman, Cisco Offset & Countertrade Manager of Business Transformation & Operations, Supply Chain in South Africa. “We are looking for self starters who are motivated and have the logical and technical ability required to do the work.”
The applicants with the most potential interview with sponsors—companies that provide a stipend for living expenses, internship opportunities, and a 12-month contract for a job upon completion. Just 16 people are selected per cohort and several are wait-listed. Each year, GTAP trains 3 cohorts, specializing in security, routing and switching, or voice and data center operations.
Those who make it through to the GTAP program show unconventional motivation and fortitude. They knock down barriers with determination, hard work, and ingenuity. At the end of the program, they have the talent, skills, and connections to begin their IT careers.
Promise also became a Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) during her GTAP studies. “I studied, and pushed and pushed,” recalls Promise. “There were no more holidays, there were exams, studying every night, sleep late, wake up early, you have to go.”
Ephraim found the program personally challenging and fulfilling: “You are never fed in GTAP what to do. When you ask questions, they say ‘no, you go and fail and come back to us and tell us why you failed and you will learn from that and find answers’… they told me to work for it.”
Nearly derailed from his dreams by a degenerative eye disease, Mankwe refused to give up and return home. Instead, he put on his best clothes, made a sign explaining his ailment, and stood on a street corner in hope of finding help. An eye care company professional saw his sign and became his benefactor—providing for his corrective lenses and driving him to appointments. Just weeks after receiving his corrective lenses, Mankwe was informed that the South African Revenue Service (SARS) would sponsor him for GTAP. He now works in the Head Office of the Modernization & Technology and Ops Enabling Division of SARS. For Mankwe, the network “is a human chain, human experiences delivered over a wire.”
Before GTAP began, there were just 121 Cisco Certified Internetwork Experts (CCIE) in South Africa, and the lack of expertise limited growth for any business that relies on information technology. From 2008 to 2012, GTAP recruited 239 candidates who achieved a total of 653 Cisco Technical Certifications; 198 have CCIE Written Certifications, on their way to full certification. “We have new jobs and new, highly skilled workers in support of the ICT market,” said Edrei. “If we could eliminate poverty in South Africa, we would have an amazing country.”
The casino where Ephraim worked used to hire outside consultants to manage its network. Now Ephraim has the skills and knowledge to do the job, and an advance in his salary and position. “I didn’t know what GTAP would entail, all I knew was that I would learn the networks of Cisco,” said Ephraim. “When I arrived, it was nothing of what I expected, a life changing experience. I now think like a router man.” Ephraim explains that he learned to manage his time, how to present himself professionally, and how to plan and make decisions to achieve his goals, such as buying a house or a car.
Mankwe has gone from struggling to provide for his family and deteriorating health to a technical professional with improved vision. Mankwe is building a house for his mother and plans to help his brother go to college. He continues to dream big and hopes to one day open his own networking services company. To prepare for that he plans to continue with his Cisco networking studies and eventually complete his CCIE, the pinnacle of networking certifications.
Promise completed GTAP in 2011 and works at SARS (South African Revenue Services). “I personally believe that one day I will be a top CCIE,” she said. She hopes to someday work at an IT company where she can learn, be at the cutting edge of new technology, and perhaps even invent something new to change the world.
“I meet everyone before they begin,” said Edrei of the GTAP participants. “You would not believe the change. When they finish, they are proud, hard working, and confident.” At the conclusion of each program, GTAP invites a former participant to return and speak about his or her experience. “Lindiwe Ramaila, a recent graduate, said she would never look back and never live in poverty again. She asked her peers to go back into the community and do what Cisco has done for them for their own people.”
“My parents are very proud,” said Promise. She is the first born of five and the only girl. She is also the first in her family to go to university and find a job. She encourages her siblings to stay in school and consider careers in technology. “I will take them around to see the places where technology is used and where technology comes from. If they understand that, they will feel that they can help other people. Because with technology you are not just helping yourself, you are also helping people all over the world.”
Ephraim lived in his township, Tsakane, for most of his life before he was able to buy a house for his family and move to Brakpan—the town he always aspired to live in. He is proud to be a role model to his daughter and son, guiding them to activities and opportunities he did not have as a child. “Going through GTAP helped me do this,” he said. “It is just a question of time when it comes to accomplishing things. Just give yourself a time frame and say, ‘in this time, I can achieve this, then, you can.’”
“GTAP gave me the edge to compete and sit with the experts of this industry,” said Mankwe. “It is because of Cisco Networking Academy and GTAP that I am able to dream and hope for a better tomorrow for myself and my family. In my village, many people who formerly did not know about Cisco are today finding it to be a career of choice because they see me, a life transformed and hopes renewed.”