TSiBA’s Leadership Development Perspectives: Joy Olivier, Co-Founder and Director, IkamvaYouth

By Jackie Lagus, based on an interview by Anna Morris.

“Being a little spark under the potential of everyone around you. I think that is really what leadership is about.” These are the words of social entrepreneur and activist Joy Olivier. It is also the success story behind IkamvaYouth, an organisation focussing on youth education through a system of tuition and mentoring programmes.

Olivier started tutoring young learners in 2003 and, within two years, the programme had begun paying dividends. “IkamvaYouth works with learners in township schools, providing after-school support, and then helps them to get the grades, skills and experience they need to access university or employment,” Olivier explains. “The first year our students matriculated was 2005, and they got really brilliant results. We got a one hundred percent pass rate, and sixty five percent of them got into university. The township average is less than ten percent, so we were only aiming for thirty percent. I was quite amazed by that.”

Olivier is undaunted by the scale of educational discrepancies and the enormous gulf in opportunity between more privileged learners and those disadvantaged by their economic environments. She is actively working on the change she believes is vital for the future of the country. “The mission of our organisation is to enable disadvantaged youth to pull themselves out of poverty and into university and employment,” she says. “The focus is on education. So we are really trying to help people to create, not only the passport that they need – the report Co-Founder and Director, IkamvaYouth with decent academic achievement – but also a real understanding of the fields they are studying. Really knowing how to learn, how to build knowledge, how to access information, how to communicate that – that is quite a tangible skill that we teach.”

The philosophy of the programme and the spirit of activism that spreads through its entire focus put collectivist ideals ahead of individual determinism. The mentors and tutors for the programmes are carefully selected for their history of volunteerism. “A long history of service in one’s community is something that everybody should have,” Olivier believes. “When we are employing people, we look at that more than we look at their qualifications. It speaks more about the values they have and the action they have taken. “There are a lot of people talking about how things should be, and how they wish things could be. That is all very well, and we enjoy those conversations. Ultimately, however, it comes down to the actual doing. That is something we really look at,” she says. “Our value of commitment is very strong, in that we require our learners to attend seventy five percent of all our sessions. That includes afternoon tutoring two or three times a week, computer classes, and tutoring every Saturday morning. Then during the holidays, we have a two-week holiday programme. Our KwaZulu-Natal branch also does a summer school. It is a huge amount of time that the learners and volunteers are required to give, and over many years. Learners need to be in the programme a minimum of two years, all the way up to five years. They are basically giving up all their spare time to learn and help each other learn, and to progress through these different experiences that we offer.”

Asked about the people or events that have shaped her life, Olivier talks about the country’s history and the anti-apartheid activists who were so instrumental in shaping a different national identity and an altered political landscape. There were many, but Olivier is currently most moved by a recent reading of Jay Naidoo’s book, Fighting for Justice. “I think he is quite phenomenal,” she enthuses. “His autobiography tells his story right from the beginning: how he started to get involved in social justice as a young man. I think some of the choices he has had to make are quite amazing – walking that fine line between making decisions that not everybody agrees with and being a representative of the people. And he has managed to do that.” Translating this skill into the leadership style she admires in the workplace, Olivier points to those people who are able to have the contentious and difficult conversations. “The work that we do is emotional. That is why we do it; we are not doing it for the money. I really admire the people who can have those difficult, contentious conversations and then let that emotion go and move on – to be able to deal with the difficulties, but then also not carry them, to just let them go and move forward. I think that is something one has to learn how to do as one builds.”

Being open to change and willing to acquire knowledge all the time is half the battle, in Olivier’s opinion. She is not afraid to take chances, learn from others and make difficult choices when needed. By the same token, she provides others with the latitude to do the same. Olivier characterises her own leadership style by referring to a comment from a colleague who attended strategic planning weekends she facilitated. “The way that our organisation works is that we have got a decision making process that is very democratic and involves a lot of voices,” Olivier clarifies. “So it is quite complicated, but simple at the same time. We have come up with a model that tries to strike a balance, getting everyone’s input in a democratic decision without things taking forever, so that we can actually be effective and get things done. “Andrew, our Gauteng regional manager, said that I am very good at creating space for people to share their opinions, and for everybody to be involved in decision making,” she reports. “He said that I have found ways to get lots of people to own the work that we do – to feel that their voices really do have an impact in the decisions that are made. I appreciated that. And I think it is because of this that people volunteer and stay with the organisation for so long.”

Olivier also attributes the success of the programmes to the fact that they operate in parallel with the existing curriculum, and with input from teachers in the education system. Additionally, the value of having young tutors and mentors coming from the same disadvantaged circumstances to facilitate their study schedules provides direct, living examples that learners’ aspirations are possible to achieve. “It also works because these mentors are modeling the approach,” Olivier explains. “So the pedagogical method that we employ is not teaching; it is tutoring. The learners have to bring the work that they need help with, and then they sit in small groups and take responsibility for their own learning. They drive the learning process themselves. The tutors are just facilitating peer-to-peer learning, and teaching people how to solve problems. They show learners how to teach themselves and each other by showing them that the first step of learning is to identify what you do not know. The tutors encourage creative thought and diminish the fear of being wrong. In big classroom situations, that is difficult to do. Most teachers just want learners to be quiet so that they can get through the curriculum.”

Admitting to failures, learning from mistakes, discarding those practices that did not work and embracing the opportunities that new insights bring – according to Olivier, all these elements help to create a strong leader. She believes very strongly that leadership is not an inherent characteristic or a set of predetermined traits, but rather an acquisition of skills along the way. From that perspective anyone, given the right encouragement, can become a leader. “So let’s take a learner in a township with potential to be a leader,” Olivier proposes, noting that “every single learner has that potential. When the people around them believe that about the person as well, then they start to believe it themselves. The more positive reinforcement, encouragement and support one has, the better one can be. But all of that needs to be coupled with very high standards of achievement. “With our branch coordinators, for example, we set very high targets. If you were to look at the statistics in the context we work in, you would say those targets are unreasonable and impossible. Yet we use them, and we always exceed them. I think it is something about having very high aspirations and a lot of support and belief in the vision. It is a mix of having support and being challenged; really pushing for people to work hard and continually extend themselves in their knowledge and experience. The mix of those things – support and challenging environments – that is what produces leaders.” But as with any theory or plan, the real test lies in the outcome, in the tangible and practical results.

The exciting story of IkamvaYouth comes to life in the tales of those learners who have been through the programme and are now embarking on their futures – and who, in turn, will shape and influence the aspirations of others. “Our first ex-learner who became a board member of our organisation is Thobela Bixa,” Olivier relates.“When he joined in 2004, he was in Grade 11. There was a whole group of learners that year who worked really hard together and produced quite phenomenal results. Thobela is now doing his masters in chemistry at UCT. He has travelled the world, doing research at amazing institutions. He has received great fellowships and scholarships. He is basically going to pull his family out of poverty. When I met Thobela just a few years ago, he was saying that we could not charge learners for photocopying, because many of them do not have fifty cents to pay for a photocopy. Only a few years ago, he was one of those learners. “Another one would be Funeka Kalawe,” Oliver continues. “She also started in 2004. When she first joined IkamvaYouth she was one of those who had Es and Fs on her report and had never used a computer before. I do not think she spoke the whole of the first year. She was extremely shy when she started. Funeka has now got a qualification in information systems, and she runs the computer programme at our Makhaza branch. She has been responsible for about three or four years’ worth of learners being computer literate by the time they graduate from Ikamva. Funeka works at Capitec as a software tester, and is also the breadwinner for her extended family. She is now a very confident, amazing woman. We went on a trip to Canada to present our model to the Canadian government, and she spoke on a panel at this massive international conference that was on Canadian national TV. She looked like a TV star. She was super confident, eloquent, smart and engaging. I could not quite believe it!”

Olivier has a seemingly endless pool of success stories. “Then there is Phillip Mcelu, who joined in 2005,” she recalls. “He is a very enthusiastic mathematician who has been an incredibly committed volunteer. Phillip is now running a maths programme for the Grade 8s, managing a project that we have partnered with Education Without Borders. “The people that I would say are the success stories are those who have not only achieved amazing things in their own lives, in terms of pulling themselves out of poverty and into amazing positions of postgraduate study and employment,” Olivier elucidates. “They are the people who keep coming back to create those opportunities for more people. It is people like Funeka, Thobela and Phillip who are ensuring that the results we produce each year are produced again. “That is really the concept that underpins the entire operation. It is the real spirit of ubuntu that is so often used to evoke a sense of camaraderie – the greater good triumphing over the individual need. It is these values that have distinguished the visionaries, those leaders who have shaped the destiny of entire countries through their remarkable compassion for others: the likes of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Aung San Suu Kyi… the list goes on. “And there are the unsung heroes, who are cultivating the leaders of the future. These are the people within IkamvaYouth who are making things happen.

Each branch is run by a committee comprising the young people who are most committed at that branch: learner representatives and volunteers. They make all the decisions for the branch, and are responsible for programme delivery. Each branch committee has two paired people, one coordinator and one assistant. Everybody else is volunteering. They take responsibility for running programmes, being in meetings, delivering on progress reports and making decisions. They draw up budgets, take minutes, meet with partners and raise funds. “All these things they are learning to do make them very employable. While they are studying, they are also building this work experience. These are the leaders at university level, people who are really engaged in their university studies and also in their communities, who are gaining work experience by implementing programmes.” The branch coordinators, Olivier reveals, are really the people that ultimately make the IkamvaYouth model work. These are typically young social entrepreneurs in their early twenties to early thirties. They are the individuals who inspire, mobilise and recruit volunteers, and who motivate the learners to keep showing up and working hard. They coordinate much of the administration required to track the programmes and their outputs.

“Ultimately, it comes down to the branch coordinator to report at the end of the year, when the matric results come out, what those results were; how many of our learners accessed university; how many of them got into jobs,” Olivier explains. “That is how we can see whether or not we are achieving what we set out to do: our results. They have been pretty good. Since 2005, we have had between an eighty seven percent and one hundred percent matric pass rate every year. More than sixty percent of those are usually passes that enable access to tertiary education. For the last three years, more than seventy percent of our learners have accessed tertiary education. We have had some branches that get one hundred percent placement in terms of tertiary education, learnerships or employment. “About forty percent of all South African youth between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six are unemployed and not enrolled in any education,” Olivier points out. “If you look at township youth, it is a whole lot more than that. So the results we are producing are pretty remarkable, given that this is the context in which we are working.”

Boosted by the outcomes of the programmes, Olivier wants to extend them to as many people as possible, as any leader would. She and her colleagues at IkamvaYouth are thinking about how to scale their models. Critical to this initiative is doing it in a way that is sustainable. “Right from the beginning, the model has been designed to be replicable,” Olivier says. “It is partnering with libraries, universities and companies, and whoever else will partner with us. We have managed to keep our costs really low through liberating strategic partnerships and volunteerism. We are able to produce amazing results with very little financial input. The question is, how do we scale this up? Even though it does not require a lot of money per learner, we want to get thousands of people into university, and with scale comes the need for a lot of money. Figuring out the best way of getting that money and having it arrive when it needs to be there in a sustainable way is quite a challenge.” Olivier is candid in her assessment of the structural inequities in leadership development trends in the South African context. “Young people from middle-class backgrounds, they have that challenging, supportive environment that I spoke about,” she says. “They have what they need to be able to develop their leadership capacity. The learners or the young people without that kind of support – that is really where our pool of talent lies. That is where we are missing things. We are missing out on that huge pool of people that we need for driving our economy and getting us through all the challenges of a new democracy.”

Yet Olivier does see some hopeful trends. There are new models for leadership development programmes, and more individuals involved in this kind of work. There is also greater collaboration between organisations, projects and people; and the vision is bigger, encompassing shared resources and a more integrated approach to harnessing the talents of new generations of learners. “That is really the only way that we can do something with really significant impact, and on scale,” she asserts. “So these trends are quite heartening.” Figuring out how to turn this potential into reality is Olivier’s next big challenge.

For a full transcript of this interview please visit 

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