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Mammuso Makhanya is changing lives through literacy at Wordworks

The highly experienced and talented Mammuso Makhanya was originally a beneficiary of an education-based nonprofit organisation. Now, with a Masters in Public Management & Policy and a career that spans the development sector and countries across Africa, she heads up Wordworks, an NGO dedicated to changing lives through literacy. Mammuso talks to Andrea George about the state of the NPOs during these difficult economic times and challenges corporates, especially technology companies, to invest more heavily in the sector.

Tell me about yourself. What was your ‘career journey’ up to this point?

I began my career in the education development non-profit sector. Over the past 30 years, I have worked with corporates and non-profit organisations, and my work has spanned a wide range of sectors, including Early Childhood Development, Basic Education, Youth Development, Sports, Arts and Culture, as well as Corporate Social Investment Trusts and Foundations. I also worked across Africa on donor-funded social development and education initiatives.

What prompted your decision to join Wordworks?

I am blessed that my two loves and passions collided at the right time – working in development, especially early education, and living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, which allows me to enjoy the environment. I wish more South Africans of all persuasions could come and live here at some point. 

What are Wordworks' main focus areas at the moment? What are the main successes?

Our non-profit organisation focuses on early language and literacy development in the first eight years of children’s lives. We have worked with under-resourced communities to capacitate those adults best positioned to impact on young children’s language and literacy development – parents and caregivers, family and community members, home-visitors, early childhood development practitioners and Foundation Phase teachers.

We developed innovative, high-quality, multilingual materials to support early language and literacy learning. We work with a growing network of individuals, schools, organisations and institutions that promote the importance of, and support the development of children’s early language and literacy, through their association with our programmes and materials.

One of our highlights is our partnership with the Literacy Association of SA (LITASA) which set up the Dr Shelley O’Carroll (Wordworks Founder) Early Literacy Award to honour her pioneering contribution to the field of literacy, tabled annually at the LITASA conference.

The success of Wordworks rests largely on our committed, diligent staff over the years who make the organisation what it is. Our staff is the centrepiece of our success. We value them and want to retain them for as long as possible.

How would you describe your current job in simple terms?

As the Executive Director of Wordworks, I am privileged to lead the most caring and committed team on earth as we work towards our audacious purpose of changing lives through literacy. Basically, I manage the organisation’s activities to reach our vision and mission.

What are the key issues you regularly deal with?

    • Ensuring our team is supported to use their skills and competencies to drive performance optimally.
    • Driving resource mobilisation efforts among donors, partners, and government; and fulfilling contractual obligations of our support.
    • Managing our various stakeholder relationships.
    • Ensuring our board is supported in fulfilling their full fiduciary oversight role.

How do you take care of yourself, while working in such a challenging and demanding space?

Firstly, prayer and keeping my faith alive with all the needed resources is the cornerstone of my life. Everything else flows from there. I cherish in moments of solitude, and the Western Cape environment is rigged in my favour – I take advantage of the outdoors to stay centred, energised and de-stress. I thoroughly enjoy books and newspapers on socio-economic and politics to help me stay connected to the world. I am eternally grateful for the gift of traveling widely. Lastly, my boys are my world and help me unwind and view the world in a different light!

What do you see as the biggest challenges for NPOs generally?

The non-profit sector doesn’t generate any profit, but desperately needs funding to carry out its work. Unlike in established economies, here on this continent, the struggle to attract and retain talent that is remunerated equitably is a huge challenge. Progress is slow, and we hope a time will come when NPOs’ salaries and benefits will be enhanced. The NPO sector needs a sustained supply of talent as experienced talent moves on; but at the same time, our globe continues to battle social, environmental and economic challenges.

What advice do you have for non-profits at the moment, who are under considerable strain due to the long-term effects of the pandemic?

We have sadly lost some NPOs due to the pandemic, and others have considerably scaled-down essential services due to funding constraints. I don’t have a magic wand of course, but at Wordworks we are learning to seek out mutually beneficial collaborations actively and partnering with organisations that complement what we do, and jointly approach funders/government for support. 

During this post-pandemic era, we are learning to capitalise on technology to provide and scale our services and products. The challenge is still a lack of sustained funding for our web-based work to make it accessible and affordable by our constituencies. We are calling on tech companies to support our sector in this regard.

What about advice for people wanting to work in the NPO space or just starting out a career in an NPO?

Again, the biggest challenge facing our sector is funding constraints, which impacts the attraction and retention of talent in our sector. The NPO is still by far the biggest training ground for young professionals and school leavers, whether serving as volunteers, interns or starting out their careers. I would like to encourage more youth and adults to volunteer in the sector and provide services and skills to those needing them. We have many inspiring stories of people who joined our sector as volunteers and interns but decided to stay on beyond these assignments. Those who decide to move to the private, government or entrepreneurship sectors would carry the wonderful skills and community development spirit garnered from the NPO sector.

If you could have a superhero on your team, what would you want their special power to be, and what would they be called?

When I think about it, I didn’t grow up in a world dominated and influenced by superheroes. In the 70s and 80s we used to envision liberation struggle heroes coming back into the country from exile or Robben Island to rescue our country from the clutches of the apartheid system. As part of my team, I’d like to have a super heroine that can have healing powers for our mental and spiritual selves. We are experiencing big stressors in our personal and professional lives daily and if unchecked, they can negatively affect our physical wellness and work performance. This is an issue that requires more attention.

Where do you see Wordworks in the future?

Wordworks is on an upward growth trajectory. We see ourselves growing into a continental organisation that provides services and products beyond the South African borders. We are at a point in our country where there’s a growing appreciation of the value of building a solid educational foundation for better socio-economic future outcomes for the country.  In 2022 we saw the Early Childhood Development function shift from the Department of Social Development to the Department of Basic Education. With this move, our work is increasingly getting the attention it deserves, and more donors are looking at funding the space of early learning. Despite this shift, we would still like to see more financial and human investments in this area, as Wordworks and other NPOs have been advocating for many years.

Andrea George, Wordworks Communications Manager

Super User

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