Q&A with Joy Olivier


The aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. This is the fifteenth interview in the series. Joy Olivier is co-founder and Director of Ikamva Youth.

1)   Why did you decide to go into education and how did you get where you are?

In 2003 I was working at the HSRC, looking at how research and development and science, technology and innovation (STI) drive the economy. We were also looking at the transformation of the scientific community for NACI, and this brought me to the (then) Higher Grade maths and science results of black matriculants. My colleague Makhosi Gogwana and I shared an office, and talked about this a lot. Initially, I thought there must be something wrong with the data as the numbers of learners who were matriculating with results that made them eligible to study anything requiring Maths and Science in an entire province were more like what should be coming out of a handful of schools. Makhosi had gone to junior school in the Eastern Cape, and then moved to a high school in Khayelitsha for secondary for a better education. In comparing our educational backgrounds, we realised that what’s missing for learners in disadvantaged areas are information and support. Naive, optimistic and driven to do something about the problem we were learning about, we called up Makhosi’s old school and sent emails to our friends asking who wants to tutor. Everyone said yes and Ikamva Youth (IY) was born. I had no idea that what was essentially a hobby would become my full time job – never mind other peoples’!

2)   What does your average week look like?

I don’t really have an average week. In the past two weeks I’ve had to go to Joza township near Grahamstown to deal with an organisational crisis, and am currently at an airport on my way back from a workshop with one of our donors in San Francisco.

My work pings me between the extremities of poverty and wealth; between townships and palaces. It can be quite discombobulating, but I also feel really lucky to have these super diverse experiences. I’m always learning a LOT.

3)   While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick two or three that have been especially influential for you which two or three would they be and why?

He summarises the work that’s been done with disadvantaged, poor-performing high school students very well, and makes a convincing argument that change can happen at this level.

Reminding us that believing that you can do it, and having access to middle-class resources like networks, advice, community norms of tertiary education and access to employment, are some of the things that explain the disparities in academic achievement between under- and well-resourced kids.

4)   Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?

Nic Spaull 😛 He’s super smart and has a wonderful mix of passion to do something balanced with an analytical and critical view on things.

It’s pretty depressing that I can’t think of anyone else right now, but it could also be the jetlag

5)   What do you think is the most under-researched area in South African education?

It’s crazy to me that we don’t know the percentage of black kids going into university that come from disadvantaged areas. Without knowing this and then seeking to improve on it, we’re essentially ensuring the perpetuation of inequality and the widening gap between rich and poor.

6)   What is the best advice you’ve been given?

Leigh Meinert told me that people take you seriously when you start to take yourself seriously. She was right.

7)   If you ended up sitting next to the Minister of Education on a plane and she asked you what you think are the three biggest challenges facing South African education today, what would you say?

  1. Someone has to take on the unions. Teachers are not “workers”; it’s a profession, and not showing up to work and striking when you’re supposed to be teaching is not only unprofessional, it’s diabolical.
  2. Rather than have curriculum delivered to them, learners need to learn how to learn. The focus should be on pedagogy and peer learning; there is WAY too much focus on curriculum and content.
  3. Literacy and Numeracy.

8)   If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?

Hmm good question. Community psychology, maybe. Or perhaps an entrepreneurial venture that has a smart way to reduce inequality. Oh actually what I’m doing falls into both of these things. I think I’d like to find a model that’s self-sustaining and not donor reliant. When things are heavy and the stress of responsibility and challenges get to me I think I might like to be a lady of leisure, although I know that wouldn’t last too long.

9)   Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?

So this was my field, when I worked at bridges.org and then did my masters in Ed and Tech. And it made me a sceptic. However, I do feel that mobile tech and some of the apps are starting to look really promising. I’m excited about what Siyavula and Fundza are doing, and with most kids having feature phones and Internet access gradually becoming more of a reality, I’m shifting back towards potential fanhood.

10) If you were given a R10million research grant what would you use it for?

I’d like find answers to these questions:

  • See answer to q5 above.

Then IY-specific qs:

  • How many learners in township and rural schools would opt into being a part of IY if they had the opportunity?
  • How much of our learners’ results are due to their being a part of IY and how much is due to what they would have achieved anyway without us?
  • Which aspects of what we do feed into the results, and which bits are just nice to have or could be tweaked to be more efficient (eg. learner:tutor ratio, winter school etc.)
  • Piloting different models of online tutoring and seeing what works.

11) Ikamva Youth  is a highly successful NGO providing meaningful opportunities to many South African youth. What would you say are the three or four major “ingredients” in its success?

  •  A culture of learning and collaboration, where learning is cool and learners are motivated to attend
  • Low cost, high impact (with clear metrics for measuring impact)
  • Learners becoming tutors; they’re amazing role models who are changing their communities
  • Focus is on learning and not content

12) Ikamva Youth is a grass-roots organization with considerable links to the community and to students. In many countries around the world there is often a disconnect between what is happening at a national-policy level and what the reality is on the ground – do you believe this is also the case in South Africa? And if so, in which areas is this disconnect most apparent? 

Yebo. There is some awareness of the usefulness of extending school hours, which is great, with SSIP and other after-school programmes being implemented. However, what’s being implemented in most places is just more of what’s already not working for more money. Its really frustrating when initiatives get scaled up and funds spent without any tracking or monitoring of results and impact.

13) What would you say are the three major difficulties faced by civil-society organizations in South Africa, and what advice would you give to people who are in the start-up phase of an NGO? 

  • Hiring experienced, good people who can exceed expectations is a major challenge and a key to getting things right
  • Decide what you want to achieve and how you’re going to measure whether or not you’re achieving it from the beginning
  • Think about self-sustainability models from the beginning
  • Always stretch to implement learnings and grow, but don’t stretch too much too quickly


Some of the other academics/policy-makers/activists on my “to-interview” list include Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Jonathan Jansen, Khulekani Mathe, and Percy Moleke. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

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