James Urdang, CEO & Founder - Education Africa
James Urdang can easily be described as a Social Entrepreneur and humanitarian of note. He has dedicated more than 29 years of his life to a cause that is very close to his heart - helping to bring about real, positive and meaningful change to the lives of disadvantaged Africans.
James’ journey began in 1989 when he set out to establish Education Africa and, over the years, he has conceptualised many projects and secured the funding not only for their establishment, but also for their on-going sustainability. He has become known as someone who thinks outside the box; someone who is not interested in re-inventing the wheel. Rather, he believes in bringing project partners on board so that their expertise can be harnessed for the ultimate benefit of the community. His tireless energy and ability to make things happen have resulted in a number of dynamic projects which have, without a doubt, made a huge impact on the communities throughout South Africa in which they are implemented. Just in the past ten years alone the reach of Education Africa’s projects has impacted tens-of-thousands of learners directly and well over a million learners indirectly through educator training and support.
However, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for James or for Education Africa.
During James’ early years at school he was diagnosed with severe dyslexia and was consequently required to attend a special needs school. He eventually did enter mainstream schooling, so he has first-hand, personal experience of what it means and takes to overcome educational challenges. On reflection, this has been to his benefit as he knows that education does not come easily and it has enabled him to develop unique educational programmes supported by world class training methods and educational materials.
After school James worked in the family business, and in the late 1980’s, when South Africa was going through its turbulent times of change, James saw the desperate need to bring communities together through social cohesion. In the early days of Education Africa, James met Walter Sisulu and they instantly formed a connection. Their common desire to provide educational opportunities for disadvantaged communities resulted in Walter Sisulu mentoring James from 1991 until his passing.
James was honoured to have been asked to speak at the funeral of the late Chris Hani at a time when South Africa was very much on edge as the country laid the foundations for the birth of democracy. He was also entrusted by the ANC with the task of developing a historic video calling for the lifting of sanctions in October 1993 which was pre-recorded by Nelson Mandela prior to its release in November 1993 and only after Nelson Mandela at the United Nations asked for the lifting of sanctions save for oil and arms. James also got the leaders of the PAC (Pan African Congress), DP (Democratic Party), Inkatha Freedom Party and COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) to contribute to the video. James was the custodian of this video and earned the trust of many high-ranking ANC officials by ensuring it’s safe-keeping.
It was at around this time that Education Africa received an award by the Hostel Peace Initiative which recognised persons and groups who, against all odds, committed themselves to peace and bringing about a new South Africa.
When Nelson Mandela (who was also mentored by Walter Sisulu) became South Africa’s first democratically elected President, James was the first person in the non-profit sector to lead President Nelson Mandela and had the honour of presenting him the Golden Doves of Peace Award at an event with the National Peace Secretariat. President Mandela attended a number of Education Africa events during his term of office, and personally struck the first 5oz proof gold medallion to commemorate his inauguration. It was President Mandela’s wish that proceeds from the sale of these medallions would go to Education Africa, thus providing the organisation with some much-needed funding.
The biggest challenge for James has always been the sustainability of Education Africa and his dream is to create an endowment fund so that Education Africa can be self-sustainable for generations to come. This will also enable James and the organisation to grow their Africa footprint – a plan which was conceptualised following a strategic planning session facilitated by Deloitte. The aim is to educate, equip and empower more and more African communities beyond South Africa’s borders through a Social Franchising initiative of some of Education Africa’s key projects.
James is committed to a lifetime of Making real change Happen through providing educational opportunities to enable Poverty alleviation through Education. He has had the opportunity of interacting and working with many celebrities, government and community leaders, and top business people. Those who work with James are extremely motivated by his will to succeed and his willingness to make personal sacrifices to do just that, for the betterment of others.
He is a true example of an Africanist who strongly believes that it’s Africa’s time.
In July 2018, James was named as one of the winners of the 2018 Klaus J. Jacobs Awards honouring social innovation and change-making in the field of child and youth development.
James’ story is that of an ordinary South African who has achieved in delivering educational opportunities to millions of disadvantaged South Africans. What makes this even more remarkable is that he was able to turn his own educational challenges into something positive and inspirational.
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