Social Innovator

James Urdang’s journey with Education Africa began in 1989. To this day, James strives to live up to the advice given to him by the organisation’s first chairman, Dr Aggrey Klaaste who instilled in him the philosophy that “it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel”.

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 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 made a huge impact on the communities throughout South Africa in which they are implemented.

James recognises and acknowledges that once he conceptualises an idea, it takes a team and money to make it happen.

Examples of James’ innovative vision have led to the following Education Africa projects


“No Easy Walk to Freedom”. James was able to bring together different political parties to support the lifting of sanctions. The ANC with support from Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Thabo Mbeki amongst others; the DP (Democratic Party) with Helen Suzman and Dr Zach De Beer; the PAC (Pan African Congress) with Benny Alexandra; and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) with Mangosuthu Buthelezi. James earned the trust of all these key players which would over the years be beneficial to Education Africa under James’ leadership.


The Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Presidential Medallions are struck by the South African Mint and supported by Nelson Mandela (1995) and Walter Sisulu (1997). Proceeds from the sale of the medallions went to Education Africa.


Masibambane College became the first quality educational institution in Orange Farm, south of Johannesburg. It was built with funding sourced by James and Education Africa, initially as a primary school which would over the years be expanded to incorporate a high school as well. James brought St Johns’ College on board as a partner in this initiative to provide teacher training, management and administrative assistance to the school to ensure its sustainability.


The Education Africa Presidential and Premier Education Awards were launched. This innovative initiative brought government and civil society together to put education at the forefront, and enjoyed the support of the Office of the President, Raymond Mhlaba and Terror Lekota, the Minister of Education and the 9 Provincial Premiers.


 James and Education Africa were asked by Minister of Education Prof Sibusiso Bengu to assist with the co-ordination of a high school Model UN Debating competition which formed part of the UN’s 50th Anniversary celebrations. 12 learners were chosen to accompany President Nelson Mandela to New York, and in 1997 Education Africa developed the concept of this competition further to launch the SAMUN (South African Model UN) project – a unique concept that drives social cohesion by twinning a disadvantaged school with an advantaged school to form a combined team, thus ensuring equal access and sharing of resources, team-work and co-operation. Run in partnership with UNIC – Pretoria, it is the only truly national Model UN in the world. Over 500 schools participate annually.


When James heard about discarded bicycles in the City of Osaka in Japan he approached the Osaka Prefecture and arranged for the shipping of these bicycles to South Africa. The Cycle Aid for Africa project distributed over 11 000 bicycles to disadvantaged school children over the years, significantly cutting back on time spent getting to school and back and allowing the learners to focus on their school work instead. Over the years, this project evolved and focused on sourcing funding for more durable mountain bikes with solid tyres.


James saw the need to start a discussion about education in the country and put together an Editorial team that went on to publish 6 Editions of Education Africa Forum - an annual publication that gave expert input from key role-players in education.


Together with UNISA (University of South Africa), James and Education Africa  developed two certificate programmes after Walter Sisulu said that disadvantaged learners needed access to tertiary education.


Edu-bike Africa is launched with funding from the Japanese Government. James and Education Africa facilitated the production of cross-curricular education workbooks that brought fun learning support to the classroom. Over the years, more than 167 000 learners received their own workbooks and approximately 1 000 educators received teaching aids.


Following on the success of the Edu-bike Africa workbooks, James and Education Africa created a workbook aimed at educating learners about the United Nations, as well as debating skills. This workbook has been updated over the years and is still used for the Education Africa SAMUN project today.


James and Education Africa produced a comic book on the history of South Africa, which would bring a balanced history of South Africa to many schools both locally and abroad.


James was devastated after the passing of his mentor and wanted to celebrate his life, so he produced a unique legacy pack on the late Walter Sisulu, which was supported by Albertina Sisulu and Nelson Mandela.


James and Education Africa teamed up with an Austrian NGO on a project to build sustainable facilities in a disadvantaged community. This later developed into Education Africa’s Social Architecture project whereby international universities get the opportunity to design a preschool using sustainable materials and come to South Africa to physically build the school in disadvantaged communities.


Realising the need to empower the women who run day-care centres in disadvantaged communities, James and Education Africa started the Education Africa ECD Project to teach and mentor caregivers and enable them to turn their day-care centres into learning centres which are able to ensure that the children in their care are ready for formal schooling by the time they are 7 years old.


James with the Robben Island Museum conceptualised the first ever student overnight stay on Robben Island linked to Education Africa’s Model UN project.


James and Education Africa introduced the Marimba (African Xylophone) to Masibambane College and started International Arts & Culture Tours to Vienna in 2009. This programme was to grow when James met Joan Lithgow, Education Africa’s Marimba specialist and today, Education Africa has its own set of Marimba’s in New York, London and Vienna to enable many international tours to take place for disadvantaged children. Joan was instrumental in growing this Education Africa project which today runs a number of Marimba Hubs in disadvantaged communities. In addition, she started an annual Education Africa International Marimba & Steelpan Festival which today has over 2 000 musicians participating in a two-day event.


In partnership with Sydenham Shul, James conceptualised a social cohesion concert that brings between 150 and 200 children on stage in the “Sounds of Celebration Concert” - a music extravaganza directed by Joan Lithgow.


James is instrumental in evolving the Education Africa ECD programme, which today is a NQF (National Qualification Framework) level 4 Train the Trainer programme.


With the support of the Deputy Minister of Education, Enver Surty, James and the Robben Island Museum team conceptualise and host the first Education Africa Executive Experience 'A Day in the Life of a Prisoner'. This is a unique and exclusive overnight stay on Robben Island.


In keeping with the times, James initiates the upgrade of the Education Africa UNISA programmes and a pilot project is launched which uses technology to teach the programmes. New teaching support technologies are also introduced which has improved the programme’s success. This move away from paper based teaching easily and successfully allows students to use technology and submit assignments directly from their homes, giving easy access to tertiary education in townships and rural areas.


James sees two major opportunities to improve access to quality education in South Africa and across the African Continent:

1.      The fourth industrial revolution will enable millions to access educational opportunities by using technology as a platform to teach and learn from. This applies from ECD level right through to tertiary education.

2.      The scaling of educational opportunities through social franchising as a way to deliver projects across the continent using the know-how and experiences of existing, successful and sustainable projects.

James and the Education Africa team are ready to take on these future challenges.

By investing in an Education Africa endowment fund you will be able to ensure that Education Africa will be able to continue “Making real change Happen” by providing “Poverty alleviation through Education” for future generations.