soweto college PYRAMID SCAM

Vusi Ndlovu

Vusi Ndlovu

Sane Salif has hit on a great way to keep his decrepit college afloat and gather fees from students: he runs it as a pyramid scheme.

Students may not write their examinations until they produce two others to enrol at the rundown campus in Orlando East, Soweto.

Salif runs the grandly named African Gainako Poverty Alleviation Project which is registered as a non-governmental organisation but functions as a profitmaking training institution.

African Gainako has set up shop in the premises of the defunct Emthonjeni Primary School, just a few hundreds metres from the Orlando police station, where it offers courses for call-centre and computer operators.

A disgruntled student last week complained to Sowetan that she had registered for the call- centre course two weeks ago, but said she and her fellow students had received no instruction.

She also complained about the hazardous health conditions at the college, where students sit on bricks at lectures, the stinking toilets overflow, broken windows abound and the buildings appear not to have been cleaned since Emthonjeni closed in 2000.

This reporter spent four days at the college to perfect his skills as a call-centre operator and to investigate the shambolic institution.

I found that our informant's complaints were only the tip of an iceberg of bizarre practices guaranteed to sink the hopes of any aspirant worker hoping to pick up marketable skills for an intensely competitive labour market

I was allowed to start two days after classes had started.

An assistant in the overcrowded small office explained the enrolment system: "Registration is free, but you pay R17 for the notes. You will also have to pay R175 to write the exam and another R35 for a profile photograph.

"But you will have to get two new students to enrol at the school as part of your marketing [training] in order to be able to write the exams."

Tallying that up quickly it transpired I had to fork out R227 for the one-week course. But the assistant tried to soften the blow by saying that a mere R225 extra would entitle me to enrol in a three-week computer course.

Salif stressed the importance of taking the computer course with the warning: "There is no call centre without computers."

I was shocked by the overcrowded class, where desperate students sat on buckets, disused computers and monitors, gym benches, old car seats and scrapped desks.

Salif was one of the instructors for the call-centre course. Two colleagues introduced themselves as Vivian and Lethukuthula Zulu, but others just wandered in and set about their business without even introducing themselves.

When confronted, Salif denied he was running a college. He called the place a community centre that trained children in mathematics, science and telemedicine. But his administrative staff knew nothing about these subjects and could not offer them to prospective students.

"Parents are working [and] they need to leave [their] children here," Salif said.

But all the students I encountered were adults.

He said he had three trained teachers and a few unqualified instructors who came to the college for practical training.

Salif produced a photocopy of a certificate that described African Gainako Poverty Alleviation Project as an NGO. But he said that the registration was mistaken and the group was a non-profit organisation (NPO).

The Department of Trade and Industry confirmed that the organisation had been registered as an NGO.

Asked why students had to recruit others before they were allowed to write their exams he said: "It is practical training.

"If you work at a bank and you have to look for clients, they give you a phone to call 50 people a day. You must convince two of those people. This is their practical training to get clients," he said.

Sounded like marketing to me, but that isn't offered as a subject.

Salif maintained that Africa Gainako's standards surpassed those at other training institutions, including the University of Johannesburg.

He said he had been running the centre for four years, and had similar centres in Tembisa, Katlhehong, Evaton and in Mpumalanga.

When asked about the unhealthy conditions and the overcrowding, he bristled and declared that his operation was not a college but a community centre.

"We use the available resources here. I have approached the department of education, but they do not respond. I have spoken to Mbeki's office; they promised to come back to me but never did."

An official at the Gauteng education department said it did not know about Salif's operation, but said the building had been taken over by the department of public works after Emthonjeni Primary closed in 2000.

The department of public works said it was investigating if the building was being occupied legally.