Many South Africans dread the thought of breaking down on the side of the road. Not Con Roux, Commercial Manager of N3TC since 2002.
“Some of my most memorable experiences have been when plans go awry,” he smiles. He remembers the day his tyre punctured on a dirt road beyond Mooi River after he had visited Carshalton School to plant trees with the kids. The school principal, Nathi Majola, came along a few minutes later and, despite being dressed smartly for a meeting with the Department, got down in the dust and helped to change the tyre. “I’ll never forget a similar incident on my way back from Underberg. I pulled off onto the Impendle Road. A battered bakkie stopped and four elderly gents emerged to ask if I needed help. The problem was quickly sorted so there was time for a chat, and I learnt that one of the elders was a Chief. It struck me how incredible it is that someone with such standing in the community, did not hesitate to help a stranded motorist – despite the delays it may have caused to his schedule.”
Con does not spend all that much time stuck on the side of the road. Each day of his job is totally different. On Tuesday he might be compiling the minutes of a Board Meeting while sipping beetroot juice in a country café, on Wednesday enjoying an early run through frosty fields before starting work, Thursday could include a hands-free conversation about the new ad campaign during the long commute to the office. Friday might offer a celebratory glass of champagne on a township dump about to become a vegetable garden, a television interview will occupy much of Saturday and Sunday could be spent at the Drak Challenge helping the cerebral palsied folk from Pevensey Place to man a refreshment table. Then there is that pot of Earl Grey tea in a forest-side cottage, one Monday morning… That was the start of a good week. Actually, it was the start of a couple of decades of good weeks.
Before joining N3TC, Con had been involved with construction firms negotiating the N3 concession, so had good background knowledge and it seemed like the perfect job – weaving together his legal background, skills in HR and Marketing and his considerable experience working with diverse communities for the National Peace Secretariat in the early 1990s. “I was fortunate during that time to become aware of what was actually happening in our country – not just reliant on the curated news. I met people who, against the odds, were beacons of light. I had the immense privilege of facilitating reconciliation and drawing people together during very challenging situations. These were unforgettable, life-altering times.”
Initially, the N3TC CSI project was to be called Corporate Social Responsibility, but the rebel in Mr Roux refused to call it that, preferring CS Investment. “We were investing in communities. There would be positive returns if we touched lives in a meaningful way. Our focus has always been on sustainability – on socio-economic development within the specific context of the road – developing skills, enterprises and supply partnerships. Major focus areas have been Education, Road Safety, Conservation, Child Welfare and Persons with Disabilities.”
To say Con is passionate about education is, to put it mildly. Con’s personal involvement in the projects has meant one thing leads to another. That cup of tea in 2005, for example. Entranced by the enthusiasm and energy of the fledgeling Midlands Meander Education Project (MMEP), Con agreed, as he sipped his tea, to support the programme with a small grant. This relationship blossomed as the MMEP grew beyond the wildest dreams of the initiators and led to a connection with the Midlands Meander Association which inspired N3TC to form the flourishing N3 Gateway Tourism Association.
“Once you develop trusting relationships with project champions, we find they inform us of other worthwhile activities, and in most cases, I am blown away when I get to meet them. Treverton School introduced us to Les Stanley – it has been an honour to support the amazing work he and his wife Hazel have done in Weenen. Dedicated life support practitioner and firefighter in Van Reenen Ansie Jooste, started the Khanyisile project with Phillip Hull (Community Medical Services) who also told us about the amazing voluntary work that Dave and Mariette Steele did in Ladysmith. Louis Harmse knew about Lusa Community Chest. An opportunity to help a Drak Challenge paddler led to a partnership with S.M.I.L.E.” Being on the ground, hands-on, with an incredibly supportive management team and Board, rather than just being an implementing agency, has been key to growing the Touching Lives programme. The programme now encompasses over seventy projects, with a thousand employees and ninety thousand beneficiaries, between Heidelberg and Cedara. It’s the N3TC eco-system, a web of connected communities all determined to make the world a bit better for the people they meet.
N3TC acknowledge that there is a desperate need along the corridor. “How do we enable people to break the cycle of hopelessness and poverty and aim for better? When I hear stories about it being a major celebration for a child in rural Van Reenen to graduate Grade 7, I despair. Until I think of the amazing work that is being done by so many remarkable people to turn things around.”
“We have certainly seen the returns,” beams Con with obvious delight, “individual lives have definitely been changed and those, who in their context are able to do more, are most likely helping to change other lives too.”
Memorable examples include Vusi Hoyi, a ten-year-old member of the garden club at Shea O’Connor School in Nottingham Road when he first met N3TC, who graduated recently from Rhodes University with help of an N3TC bursary and is now a teacher intern at a well-known private school. Talented musician, Luyanda Mazibuko, a beneficiary of N3TC assistance to attend Drakensberg Boys Choir, won a full bursary to St Stithians College to finish high school. When Londeka Ximba, (who works for N3TC now after completing her degree) was asked why she wanted to study Civil Engineering, was adamant that she needed to help her deep rural community where there were no services. She has become a positive role model in her network and the ramifications of this are not quantifiable. “It is a thrill to watch people take flight. Qhapela Dlamini at KwaZamokuhle inspires me more than I can say – an N3TC bursary helped a disabled child to attend school rather than spend his life crawling about the fields – now he has a bursary to study for a Masters’ in Education Management. We would love to see him become Minister of Education one day.” It’s the relatively small top-up bursaries for local schools like Harrismith School and Underberg Primary that enable kids, that might otherwise have to trudge 10kms to school during winter, to have regular meals in a safe, structured boarding environment. While less than 100 learners out of the millions in need can access this help, providing a better platform for a handful of youngsters to achieve their dreams is worthwhile.
Con is in awe of those who raise their heads above the parapet when there are many factors pulling them down and keep following their passion even though they may be tired. “I cannot believe the stories I hear sometimes. It is the individual aspirations that make the difference. We are trying to create a platform from which people can achieve their dreams and in turn, assist others to achieve theirs.”
Slondile Mhlongo, principal of Lion’s River Primary, moved the entire school to a place where her learners would not have to brave a dangerous road walking to school. Bheki Lepheana turned a dilapidated farm shed into a school and when the rains flooded half of it, simply moved the desks to the drier side and continued teaching. Manana Moloi, concerned about the plight of hungry children in her community, began a feeding scheme after she had retired. Julie Hay, who started the innovative Singakwenza ECD programme, is now sought after throughout Africa to assist with teacher training and inspiration.
Con remembers once hearing Michael Cassidy of African Enterprise say, “If you want to live on the playing field, stay in South Africa.” There is no way that Con wants to spend his one precious life watching from the side-lines. “Even if we have to make it up as we go along, I am determined to do the best that I can, to pay it forward and expect the unexpected.”
What might this next week bring? Tuesday could be spent on the side of the highway with the Truck Driver Wellness Campaign, Wednesday might be a presentation to the Board, Thursday planning the ringing of young Wattled Cranes, Friday a quick visit with Isabel Potgieter and Thandiwe Rakale to an after-care centre in Harrismith, and then chatting to the team who man the N3TC Helpline at the Route Control Centre, and with luck, part of the weekend will be with his family. Then it will be Monday again and who knows where Con might be having a cup of tea this week?
The incredible N3TC team and community is what gets him out of bed in the morning and make him unafraid of any hitches that might occur in his journey.