How to triple your matric pass rate in one year and sustain it: A lesson from Manyangana


In 2011, just 32% of learners at Manyangana High School in Utah, Mpumalanga passed Grade 12. In 2012, the pass rate had nearly tripled to 91% and a year later, it’s up to 99%. School principal, Elvis Siwela credits Columba Leadership and sponsors Buffelshoek Trust for showing the educators and learners that the magic lies within Manyangana.

In 2011, his teachers were unmotivated, learners were uncooperative in the classrooms and absenteeism was rife – a grim learning situation by all accounts, which was compounded by social and environmental problems in the dusty village near the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. The Grade 12 class of that year achieved a 32% pass rate.

Something had to be done. With financial assistance from the Buffelshoek Trust, a group of Grade 11 learners, teachers and the principal attended a six-day Columba Leadership Academy in 2012. They came back to Manyangana with the tools and understanding of true leadership: Awareness, focus, creativity, integrity, perseverance and service. This top-down and bottom-up approach resulted in a remarkably different picture by the end of that year. Local community support from the Buffelshoek trust also laid a good foundation of trust.

“After coming out of the Columba Academy, I made a promise to myself, that in five years’ time, I would be the best principal this school had ever had,” says Siwela. He began to focus on his staff and visited their classrooms regularly, making sure the educators had everything they needed. “I became a coach. We started problem solving; I would let them come up with ideas and then I would try to help to implement them.”


At the same time, the learners began leading by example and started making changes too. One of the group’s first projects was to clean and paint the school’s toilets – a simple task that instilled pride in all the learners. “This boosted confidence, morale and cleanliness of the learners,” he says. The learners continue to clean the school environment two years on.

Before, learners and educators alike had low morale and a ‘don’t care attitude’. Now, everything was different. “We made use of the very same staff but changed the focus, and also gave them the opportunity to have their training revised so they do not look down on themselves…they had to believe that they were equally capable as the teachers at other schools,” explains Siwela.

“I was not having [sic] the confidence in myself and you are not able to stand up and speak to people when you don’t have that confidence. So I did not believe that one day I would be able to lead others,” comments Pinaar Sithole, one of the learners, on how he felt before joining the programme.

After returning to school, these new youth leaders gave motivational talks in assembly, led study groups and encouraged their fellow learners to take ownership of their futures. “The other learners listened to them because they had a message to preach: You are not different to other pupils elsewhere. You can change your future. You can become one of the best,” says Siwela. The teachers had begun to believe this too.

“There was a good vibe in the school – attitude changes obviously get good results. I now had teachers who wanted to be in the school. They would even ask for more time with the learners because they were now enjoying the company of each other!” The interpersonal relationships had improved dramatically.

“Learners realised the importance of studying and took responsibility of their studies. They met around and studied together – which was a big change and something that had never happened,” explains learner, Mikhongelo Ndlovu. The daily study groups would continue even without a teacher present. “If you allow learners to be in charge of their own programme, then they will take responsibility for its success,” says Siwela. Every learner’s confidence grew and the improved exam results in June and September 2012 revealed the real progress being made.

A second group then attended the Columba training in 2013. By mid-2013, the pass rate for internal assessments across all grades had increased dramatically to 80%, illustrating the growing impact of the Columba group. “When people are passing, you get stability in terms of the educators – everyone wants to be associated with a school that’s passing!”

The group also planted a garden, with support from the Buffelshoek Trust. “We have the most wonderful garden than any school around can only dream about,” says Siwela, “not only do we supplement the school nutrition programme, but we are now able to earn some extra income to plough back into getting the resources our teachers and learners need.” He says the local game lodges have become regular customers of the Manyangana food garden, picking up a fresh supply of vegetables every week.

Change was not only evident in the learners’ behaviour inside the school. In 2011, 18 learners fell pregnant. In 2012, this dropped to three and in 2013, only two cases were reported. “When we teach about focus (one of the Columba leadership values), we would tell them that they must not focus on getting babies but they must focus on their books,” comments Matimba Elone Mathebula, one of the Columba leaders at Manyangana.

The new positivity and hope at Manyangana since the Columba intervention also spread to the community and a support system was developed between community leaders, parents, educators and learners. Columba also works closely with the Department of Education.

After two years of good results, Siwela is hoping that 2014 will be the year that Manyangana receives a 100% pass rate. He also wants the educators and learners to focus on the quality of results, which will lead to more tertiary education opportunities.

His advice to other schools struggling to motivate staff and encourage learners is this: “Happy staff produce good results. Learners do their best when they feel part of things and things are not just pushed down their throats. They want to be part of the process, feel comfortable. If you show a learner you care, then they don’t want to disappoint you.”

He is looking forward to seeing the learners who have gone on to study teaching to return to the dusty community and become teachers at Manyangana, fulfilling the promise made by their principal and classmates, that they can be one of the best!

Columba Leadership Biography:

We are a values based Youth Leadership program that accesses the full potential of young people and puts them to work as agents of change equipping them with skills to succeed in learning and life. This is a two-year process that includes meticulous community engagement, experiential learning and practical experience with youth led projects. Adult support and peer-group leverage achieve sustained impact with a large multiplier effect in their schools and communities.”


Rob Taylor was a Director of Dimension Data in 2007 and part of the team who globalised the organisation. He retired in 2007 to start the David Rattray Foundation and is the Chief Executive of Columba.