“When apartheid ended, we had political freedom. But because of the upbringing I had, I knew we wouldn’t have real economic freedom unless everybody had access to quality education. Education’s the back upon which economic freedom is built.”
Taddy Blecher knows this. Pioneer of the free tertiary education movement in South Africa, he began his career as an actuary, gaining numerous degrees and honorary doctorates. By the time he was in his twenties, he was earning real money.
Then he turned his back on finance and started to revolutionise South Africa’s approach to education. Founder of the country’s first free university, he strives to empower the nation’s youth to create their own authentic freedom and equality – something he knows can only come from equal access to education.
Blecher has an unshakeable faith in South Africa’s youth. Having seen first hand the potential that lies within the country’s young people, he is adamant that a child on the street has as much capability to become the next groundbreaking entrepreneur as any private school graduate does.
“You don’t have to just put this kid on a feeding scheme and in a homeless shelter,” he says. “This street kid’s as bright as anybody who built Microsoft and if we really want to build South Africa and take our people forward we have to develop that potential. Africa will become great because of the African people.”
As far as Blecher is concerned, South Africa has all the tools necessary to develop an economy to rival that of the United States, Europe and China: our citizens. He recognises the innate capability within everyone to become leaders in any field, but that our education system has failed to uplift and sufficiently train them.
“We’ve got these 52 million people who are now free,” Blecher says. “But real freedom comes when that individual is allowed to come into their full greatness of why they were born, what they can do in this country, and the value they can add to society.”
Twenty years ago, South Africa held its first democratic election. A promise of freedom was given to all. Since then, we’ve sold ourselves to the world as ‘The Rainbow Nation’, a once fragmented society that has been able to forgive and heal. With a 25% unemployment rate, a soaring crime level and the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of very few, we’re worlds away from real equality.
Equal access to education is the first step in bridging this divide. “It’s actually linked with almost any indicator of positive societal progress,” Blecher says. “How people treat each other, how dignified they are… when people are educated and feel that they have more sense of self-worth and more value in terms of what’s inside them, they just naturally treat each other better.”
The power of education was instilled in him from childhood. The son of a Latvian immigrant, Blecher’s father worked odd jobs as a teenager and saved to put himself and his siblings through university. He ended up putting over 30 people through university. Education drew the entire family out of poverty. This didn’t go unnoticed by his youngest son.
Before devoting his life to education reform Blecher was, by his own accord a “hardened capitalist.” In 1995, he was ready to leave South Africa. With jobs secured in New York, Australia and New Zealand, the 27-year-old actuary packed his life into 43 boxes and was set to become one of the millions of white South Africans who took flight after 1994. At the last minute, he broke down.
“I stayed up all night crying my eyes out,” he says. “I got very emotional and I was just thinking, ‘I’m such a coward, we’re all running away from these problems we’ve created.’” By morning, he knew that if he left he would never be able to forgive himself.
It’s hard to reconcile the warm and animated Blecher of today with the cynicism of that hardened capitalist. A lifelong transcendental meditation devotee, he displays both admirable composure and an infectious enthusiasm. He advocates a holistic approach to education: by focusing on developing every aspect of a human being – their spirituality, their physicality and their intellect – he believes there is no problem society can’t solve.
After deciding to remain in the country, Blecher spent the next four years working with high school students in the township of Alexandra. He and his team succeeded in getting thousands through high school, only to learn that the students were ending up right back on the street. It was then that the idea to establish a free university began to form in the entrepreneur’s brain.
He started at the absolute bottom. “We had no buildings, no books, no money, no teachers, no computers, no software, no nothing.” Blecher managed to secure the use of an empty building and the enrolment of a few hundred students, and, in 2000, the Community and Individual Development City Campus (CIDA) officially opened.
CIDA’s free university model is based on a “learn and earn” methodology, whereby students help to manage and maintain the university while completing their studies. Once they have graduated and secured employment, they pay for the university costs of another student who will follow in their footsteps.
Blecher’s focus lies in the value of consciousness-based education. He believes the standard education practice of focusing solely upon the intellect useless. “It builds a distorted and uneven society,” he says. “We’re a mind, body and soul. We’ve got emotional intelligence, spiritual intelligence, and all these different aspects of ourselves. If education develops an individual holistically, you see a difference both in their educational outcomes and in every other aspects of that person’s life.”
Since the establishment of CIDA, Blecher has gone on to found several other campuses. He also co-founded the Branson School of Entrepreneurship alongside Sir Richard Branson. In 2007, Blecher started the Maharishi Institute – another free educational body – which has assisted over 14, 000 graduates now earning a collective salary of over R700 Million.
Today, he serves as director of the Maharishi Institute and continues to work toward creating equal education opportunities for all. He longs to return to the South African people what apartheid strove to take away. “What apartheid crushed, we want to rebuild,” he says. “For us its about building people up so that they actually learn that they’re valuable.”
Taddy Blecher is the embodiment of Ubuntu. His satisfaction comes from affirming those around him; his life enriched only by the enrichment of others’. The infinite potential of South Africa’s youth that he has seen unleashed time and again keeps him working toward his goal of a truly equal South Africa. “The moment you allow people to really develop their own diversity, then you build a united and powerful nation,” he says. “It’s not about becoming the same as each other, it’s about celebrating our differences. That is where our strength is.”