07 Jun
2021

Amidst loss, devastation and despair during the Covid pandemic, creativity, innovation, community collaboration and hope is also present.

 

Story by Wendy Jackson, pictures by Rogan Ward.

 

The community of the Lower Molweni valley and the social justice outreach of Kloof’s St Agnes Church have forged into the organisation Philangethemba.

Computer training officer at Philangethemba campus, Siya Khubeka, is gifted with vision and IT expertise. Ross Norton of St Agnes has long realised Siya’s and the community’s need for optimum Wi-Fi connectivity. “Now with lockdown, as online has moved from the fringe to mainstream, the digital divide has become clearer,” explains Ross – a chemical engineer who has been involved with Philangethemba, which means “living through hope”, for fifteen years.

For Siya and Ross the need to provide connectivity for the Philangethemba community became paramount, and innovative problem solving was imperative.

Sharing this challenge with friend and colleague Brad Leggat, a mechanical engineer and programmer/coder, Ross appealed for ideas. Brad suggested a pole with line of sight from Kloof to the computer centre at Philangethemba was needed.

Ross followed Telkom’s line when they introduced fibre to Kloof, where he lives. Searching, he ended up at Telkom’s own pole. Standing on an old tree log, he established the vital line of sight. After bringing it to the attention of Telkom’s technician, Vincent Pheiwae, things started happening. “Within a week,” Ross relates, “Telkom had erected a second pole next to their own.”

What they needed next were two microwave dishes. Brad invited his friend, Rob Goldblatt, whose business involves design and assembly of electronic circuits, to join the team. What about power? The team decided on a solar panel and battery. Ross’s home became an assembly plant, with Siya doing the welding single-handedly.

“On probably the hottest Saturday in February of this year, we climbed our pole with a long ladder to assemble our dish and panel,” says Ross. Two days later Telkom connected the fibre. Siya, who had already assembled the dish at Philangethemba, called via Skype. All four were moved to cheer.

Siya, a man with a huge heart and wide grin, explains the significance of that Skype call: “I live here and know the people,” he says, speaking from heartfelt intensity. “I understand their needs and their frustrations. Before, we never thought we could get beyond this internet problem. Now it has happened.”

Philangethemba is a remarkable achievement. Established in 2004, it has partnered with the Tholulwazi High School and improved facilities, which filter out into the community, including two primary schools and many creches. Now on offer is early childhood development, a toy library, teacher training, a sports field, the ibhungezi sewing co-op, extra school lessons where Linda, Ross’s wife, assists, woodwork classes, and motor mechanics which the multi-talented Siya teaches.

With a permanent staff of six, Philangethemba also employs six interns each year. Most of the interns go on to tertiary education. “We approach corporates with social responsibility projects, and have donations for funding,” says Ross. “Now that we have fibre, we are discussing rolling out the rest of the online learning systems. Symbiotically we hope Brad will be able to teach a Tholulwazi School student who has shown interest in programming,  computer coding via one-on-one video learning.” *

 

 

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