Submitted by:  Stella Cockburn

In 1992, when a German teacher from the Deutsche Schule Hermannsburg, now known as Hermannsburg School, went visiting local township schools, he had no idea of the events which would unfold 28 years later.  The school, situated in a remote, but beautiful area near Greytown in Kwazulu-Natal, has been educating children since 1856.  Originally started by missionaries to educate Zulu children in the area, the school has been producing well-rounded, successful, and active citizens since then.

His mother, who was a teacher, immediately grasped what a life-changing opportunity this was. 

This German teacher was hugely impressed by a young Grade 7 pupil, Zola Mkumla.  When  Zola first heard about the opportunity of studying away from home, he thought it was going to be too far from home, so he was extremely nervous and rather reluctant.  He was offered a full scholarship to Hermannsburg School.  His mother, who was a teacher, immediately grasped what a life-changing opportunity this was.  She had a bit of convincing to do with Zola, but once he understood that it was not that far away, he became excited.

Ending his Grade 7 year was a little stressful for him, as all his friends would be going to the township school in their neighbourhood.  Faced with the unknown – a strange, white school – Zola was understandably anxious.  He was leaving his family and friends behind.

He understood the wonderful opportunity he had been given and did not want to waste a moment. 

His first year was a huge learning curve.  There were three Zulu boys recruited into the scholarship programme and Zola, Xolani, and Vusi became, and remain, great friends.  They only went home during holidays, but through all these challenges Zola started to shine and his radiance kept growing as he firmly entrenched himself in his new scholastic life.  The teaching staff and his classmates made it easy for him to settle at boarding school.  He understood the wonderful opportunity he had been given and did not want to waste a moment.  His time with sport, specifically cricket, became a passion and saw some of his favourite sporting moments.

He matriculated in 1997 and earned a full bursary from BASF to study at the University of South Africa, completing a Bachelor of Commerce Degree.  He continued with his tertiary education earning a Post-Graduate Diploma in Business Management.  This in turn led him to a year’s internship position with BASF in Germany.

Upon his return to South Africa he joined First National Bank and quickly rose through the ranks, holding an executive position and chairing the SETA IT committee.  After a few years, he decided that banking was too boring and ventured into the sustainable energy sector, investing in four solar parks in the Northern Cape.

Education is very close to his heart

It was during this time that Zola and his two sisters, Funeka and Nompilo, founded The Dikeledi Mkumla Education Trust in 2013, named after their late mother.  This trust has facilitated access to high-quality education for many scholars in the Pietermaritzburg area.  It was when he sold these voltaic parks two years ago, that he mentioned to his wife, Bessie, he would like to start a school. 

Education is very close to his heart and Zola acknowledges the role his scholarship and his years at Hermannsburg School played in shaping him into the man he is today.  He felt the need to pay back all the blessings he received because of the wonderful gift that he had benefitted from during his school years.

Mrs Stella Cockburn, his Zulu teacher, and a current board member of the school, talks of Zola’s humility, both during school and in the years to since.  He was a driving force behind school reunions and an enthusiastic participant at school events.  Zola talks of Stella with fondness, and it is no surprise these two have grown close over the years.

Little did anybody know of the events about to develop!

In 2016 Zola was invited to join the school’s board of trustees, which he happily accepted and became a cog in the wheel which helped his alma mater turn.  Little did anybody know of the events about to develop!

The chairman received a very distressing letter in 2016.  Germany needed to drastically reduce their funding to Hermannsburg School.  They needed to keep the capital in their country, assisting with the huge refugee influx, which Europe is still experiencing.  In 2018 the board was invited to “a very important meeting”.

The bad news unfolded and they were presented with three options for the future of the school, none of them too promising.  Requesting assistance from the old scholars was not a long-term solution and they did not want to consider closing their doors just yet.  Selling to a private group or a school franchise would change the essence of the school.  The chairman asked each board member to table their preference for the route to follow.  Stella chose prayer and patience rather than any definite decision.

It was the miracle that many had waited for.

When he called on Zola to voice his opinion, Zola requested he return to him at the end.  An incredibly emotional and incredulous reaction came from board members when Zola declared that he would be interested in buying the school.  In his typical, humble, soft-spoken way, this amazing man, made such a massive offer, which was going to turn the fate of Hermannsburg School around.  It was the miracle that many had waited for.

Hermannsburg School 2020 Olympiad Team

Starting in January 2019, the very long legal process to change everything the school was involved with, into what Zola is continuing to do for this tiny hamlet, began.  The school functions as a sort of municipality for the little village, providing water and sanitation.  Zola has taken the school and the village under his generous wing, the service to the community remains, the connection to the local Lutheran Congregation will continue to exist, and most important of all, the school will continue to provide an excellent education to young South Africans of all cultures.

It is all about providing opportunities through education. 

He has made significant and exciting changes already.  From new VW school buses to a total upgrade in the boys’ boarding house.  There’s even a revamped and refreshed menu in the dining room and a pizza oven for the boarders to have a bit of fun and creativity with food!

It is all about providing opportunities through education.  The school currently has a number of scholarships and over the next few years, as interest of German companies and other potential funding sources step into the financial void, they hope to expand these.  The school has come full circle from where it started 164 years ago in 1856 with a hand full of Zulu children, to 2020 with a student body of 200 boys and girls from grade RRR to Matric. 

The Mkumla Magic, together with the innovative leadership of principal, Trevor Harbottle, aspire to be able to influence and shape the youth of South Africa.



Edited By: Michelle Pagel

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