There's hope in education - and it's not coming from government
Inside the spacious conference venue in Muldersdrift, the spirit moved.
It was the annual conference of Ntataise, the famous early childhood education organisation started by a progressive farmer and his wife, Anthony and Jane Evans, in Viljoens-kroon in the Free State.
The venue was packed with leaders in early childhood education. Somebody started to sing an uplifting song. Women rose from their seats and formed a moving chain as they sang in preparation for the word.
Everybody greeted by hugging each other. Whoops of joy with the reunion of older hands. I felt I was in a charismatic church.
Except this was ECD (early childhood development), a sector that touches tens of thousands of pre-school children daily throughout the nine provinces and prepares young black children for formal schooling.
Ntataise (meaning "to lead a young child by the hand") has reached half a million children, but its real achievement is taking women whose families work on farms and turning them into teachers and leaders in ECD.
The first time I met Puleng Motsoeneng, she was a shy, reticent woman in conservative Viljoenskroon, which the right-wing AWB once surrounded in protest against the coming democracy. Now, the well-travelled Motsoeneng, who has represented ECD and South Africa overseas, takes to the podium with grace and authority, and my heart swelled with pride.
Jane Evans had quietly handed over the running of the organisation to mainly black women who now lead in the field.
This, I said to myself, is transformation.
Anthony, the Rhodes Scholar who put up the resources from his Free State farms for this to happen, had recently passed away.
I tell the enthusiastic audience that educational research is notoriously equivocal on almost every aspect of schooling except one - that investments in early childhood education produce durable social and learning attainments into grade school and effectively close the equality gap between middle-class and poor children in a range of educational achievements.
The government, despite occasional rhetorical commitments to pre-school education, does not have the political will to implement quality ECD for every child. Hell, it cannot even fix the formal school system. That is why the work of Ntataise and other non-governmental organisations is so crucial for the social wellbeing and educational futures of millions of children.
On the other side of the country, Nozibele Qhamngana is a force of nature. The beautiful young woman could be a student on an Ivy League campus anywhere in the world. But she is in Zwide township, Port Elizabeth, changing the lives of pre-school children and their parents.
The Ubuntu Centre, all of 2300m², is in one of the most impressive education buildings you will find anywhere and has won architectural awards in the US and South Africa.
Built for orphans and vulnerable children, the centre now offers a comprehensive package of services to the community, a one-stop shop for health, education and development.
A journalist once asked: "Why do you need such a top-quality building in a township?" "Because black children deserve no less quality than any other child in South Africa," came the appropriate response.
Inside one of the spacious and beautifully decorated classrooms, small children sit against a parent or grandparent playing educational games and singing familiar songs. This is a preparatory class for future enrolees of this famous centre that former US president Bill Clinton and other luminaries once visited.
I watch through the window as the parents and grandparents interact with the still hesitant children, and as the preschool teachers make the families comfortable in this bright new space.
"I once sat on that floor as a child," whispered Qhamngana. On the walls are striking aspirational photographs of children from this centre wearing the uniforms that come with the careers they desire to follow - firemen, nurses, photographers, doctor ...
Ubuntu was a vital oasis in a poor township community.
Then it struck me. There is a parallel education universe in South Africa. What the government provides for poor children, and what hundreds of NGOs, large and small, provide on a daily basis to struggling communities.
If I were wealthy, and a betting man, this is where I would put my investments - in the other education system populated by the Zwides and the Ntataises. For one simple reason - they provide the quality of early education that makes a difference over time.
I would then pull all the donors into one room and ask: How do we take this to scale?
Forget the parliamentary performances with other people's money; these organisations are where I put my vote of confidence in the future of South Africa.