When a young girl in a small village on the Eastern Cape of South Africa discovered her passion for technology, learning, and teaching, she found a way out of poverty for herself and her family. Today, as a Cisco Networking Academy instructor at the CIDA ICT Academy in Johannesburg, Ntombozuko (Soso) Luningo guides a new generation of students toward economic empowerment and self-reliance.
Soso is the story of modern South Africa. As a black woman from an impoverished community, she might have remained in the village where she was born. The potential of her intelligence and work ethic might have gone unrealized due to a lack of opportunity. Instead, today, she is an information and communications technology (ICT) expert and inspiring teacher. She and her family live in a comfortable Johannesburg suburb and she was able to build her parents the home and garden they always dreamed of.
The policy of apartheid ended decades ago, but lack of economic opportunity continues to divide South Africans. In a population of 47 million, just 5 million workers earn enough to submit tax returns. Less than 5 percent of the 9000 high schools in South Africa offer ICT as a subject, yet information and communications technology is the backbone of economic growth. Limited access to 21st century curricula, affordable higher education, and opportunity make it difficult for the next generation to find their place in the modern economy.
“When you grow up in a township and go to school there,” explains Alfie Hamid, Cisco Corporate Affairs Regional Lead, “you generally do not have access to 21st century schooling, and, with your financial situation, you cannot afford university, your only opportunity is for menial labor and the poverty spiral continues.”
Soso grew up in a shack in a small village in East London on the Eastern Cape province of South Africa and attended a rural school. After school, Soso would walk to a nearby school built by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which provided ICT training; there, she discovered her passion for technology and a path to a better life. Intelligence and hard work made Soso a top student at her high school, and CIDA City Campus provided the opportunity she needed to realize her potential through a college education.
Founded in 2000, CIDA City Campus in Johannesburg is a nonprofit institution of higher education that serves the educational aspirations of students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds at little or no cost. The curriculum helps students raise their skills to a competitive level and achieve at international standards of excellence. “Our goal is to develop business-minded graduates,” said Khulu Ntuli, director of the ICT Academy, “who can think creatively, engage in open dialogue and who care about transforming Africa. We aim to transform these students into leaders within their communities who will then advance the socio-economic transformation of the country.”
To realize this vision, CIDA founder Taddy Blecher enlisted the help of leading companies, including Cisco, to support scholarships, donate goods and services, and provide expert lecturers. Cisco helped to network the campus and provided the Cisco Networking Academy curriculum, instructor training, and networking lab equipment to launch an ICT Academy in 2003. The academy has become a pipeline for graduates interested in technology and for businesses seeking skilled workers.
When Soso finished at the top of her high school class, she earned a scholarship to CIDA and traveled to Johannesburg to begin her new life. She quickly found her way to the ICT Academy on campus and discovered the Networking Academy curriculum. By 2007, she had earned her bachelor’s degree and a Cisco CCNA certification at the ICT Academy and was ready for the working world. As she put it, “there was no time to waste and I had goals; I wanted to go back home and make sure my parents got paid back for everything they had done for me.”
On the bus home, Soso overheard a debate between some passengers about how to securely connect computers at a new casino. Soso spoke up and suggested the workers consider virtual local area networks (VLANs). When they asked for more information, she told them, “If you want to use VLANs, you had better ask your boss to employ me.”
Soso became the youngest IT technician and only woman on the IT staff at Queens Casino in Queenstown, impressing her co-workers and boss with her skills, knowledge, and personality. Within 3 months, she was promoted to Network Administrator and team manager, providing IT training to her co-workers. With her salary, Soso was able to build a new home for her parents in the Eastern Cape village where she grew up.
After a few years working at the casino, Soso realized her true passion was teaching. When Khulu offered her a position as a trainer at the CIDA ICT Academy, she could not resist. “She is the kind of person who is able to break down barriers for students,” said Alfie. “They might be afraid of IT or have never used computers. She is able to guide them through the process. Students who might be overwhelmed or drop out follow her example and see the program through.”
Students who enroll in Soso’s classes face the same challenges she did, coming from disadvantaged backgrounds with few resources to invest in themselves or their education. Soso shows them a path to a prosperous, fulfilling future, one she traveled herself.
She said: “I love training at CIDA because there are different students every year. Having those faces look up to you to learn something new is refreshing. It’s like having a baby. This baby is dependent on you to help them… it’s like that with the CCNA students I train.”
Soso has become a very employable and valued professional in South Africa. With her skills as a networking professional, a leader, and a teacher, she is in high demand. In addition, companies would receive government incentives for hiring her because she is a woman and she is Black. Yet, Soso remains at the ICT Academy where she can have a powerful impact on the next generation, as part of the 19 percent of Networking Academy instructors in South Africa who are women.
She balances her teaching and family responsibilities with new opportunities for her ICT Academy students. For example, she thought the Cisco CCNA Security curriculum could be a competitive differentiator for CIDA and a next step for her students. So she took the course on her own time, feeling that if she could do it, her students could handle it too, and convinced the director to adopt the curriculum. With a 100 percent pass rate for her security students, her next goal is to add Cisco CCNP, an advanced course. Soso also led the charge to make the CIDA ICT Academy a Regional Cisco Networking Academy by recruiting 6 new academies to offer the Cisco IT Essentials course.
In 2011, Soso’s student, Raymond Mazibuko, was the Middle East and Africa regional winner of Networking Academy NetRiders, a global competition that brings together the brightest Networking Academy students from around the world to test their skills.
Soso’s mother had high hopes for her daughter. She dreamed that she would be able to break the cycle of poverty and work in an office one day. As a teacher, technologist, and administrator at the CIDA ICT Academy, Soso has become much more than she or her mother ever imagined. Regarding the office work hoped for, Soso said: “I do THAT too, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., but at 2 p.m. I fulfill other people’s [her students] dreams.”
In fact, Soso has helped her mother fulfill a dream by building her parents a home with a large garden back in the Eastern Cape.
As her long-term goal, one day Soso would like to run her own Cisco Academy or work directly for the Networking Academy Support Center. When asked what she would say to other young men and women who are considering a career in ICT, she doesn’t hesitate… “You can do it, go ahead.”