People in business aren't usually impressed by talk of magic and miracles. Yet many of the hard-headed funders of Cida City Campus talk of these concepts when they talk about Cida.
It is an institution that started with nothing - no government funding, no student fees - three years ago, and is now a free, accredited and registered degree-granting institution with 1 600 students all on tuition scholarships.
"Unless you believe something is possible, it cannot be created," says co-founder and CE Taddy Blecher.
Blecher does not feel bound by the precepts of conventional economics, the science of allocating scarce resources. "Resources may be scarce but creativity is infinite," he says.
And, together with his colleagues Conrad Mhlongo, Richard Peycke and Mburu Gitonga, he has tapped a string of innovations to launch this pioneering institution.
A tribute to Cida's innovations came last month when Cida was selected as the Age of Innovation 2002 Grand Prix winner for the Most Innovative Organisation in SA.
Cida was selected for its more than 280 innovations and breakthroughs in the field of providing high-quality, mass-scale higher education at low cost.
The Commonwealth Secretariat has identified Cida as "a regional centre of excellence and innovation in higher education", says Blecher.
"This means we have a constant stream of academics from Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics and Insead."
And the institution was honoured by the World Economic Forum this year, when Blecher won the Global Leader of Tomorrow Award for extraordinary efforts in creating a better world.
Cida uses every innovation available to bring out the potential of young people.
Take chess, for example. Students who master the art of forking, pinning, castling and en passant are likely to perform better in the classroom than those who don't, says Peycke.
"Research has shown that acquiring even basic chess skills improves reading and maths scores, promotes problem-solving ability, enhances concentration, encourages responsibility and builds self-esteem," he says.
He has introduced chess to the Cida timetable.
Another aid to education introduced in Cida is transcendental meditation (TM). Blecher and Mhlongo worked on a project in Alexandra township starting in 1997, which uses TM to reduce stress. "We worked in Alex schools for nearly three years, training 10 000 teachers and children," says Mhlongo. "And, while we were there, the pass rate improved by about 25%, while in the control schools, pass rates dropped by 1%, on average."
On the basis of these results, TM was introduced at Cida as part of its holistic approach to education. Students spend their first and final lessons using a scientific meditation technique that is designed not only to reduce stress but "to help students develop in a very profound way and tap their inner potential", says Mhlongo.
Yet another innovation is action learning. Cida's teaching system is based on an extension of this approach (see page 9).
Lessons are structured so that students immediately apply the concepts they have been taught.
"Action learning is used by the most advanced educational institutions in the world, such as Cambridge University in the UK," says Blecher.
Cida has taken action learning a step further than any other institution by sending students back to their own communities to teach what they have learnt. "Through teaching, they achieve mastery," says Blecher.
At Cida action learning goes further. Students make a practical contribution to the institution by assisting in running it. They are empowered to do all the administration work, computer maintenance, admissions, registration, marketing and market research, and even assist with cooking.
This reduces costs and improves skills in a work environment.
Cida, out of necessity, has had to resort to creative solutions to achieve the best results for learning. Visitors to Cida are familiar with the story of the typing lessons and imaginary cricket.
The student relates to the experience of the first intake in 2000, who were promised lessons in computer literacy. However, there were no computers at the time and the lessons had to start without them.
Students were given their first experience of the computer age, learning to type on photocopied keyboards. When they were given their first opportunity to practise on the real thing, students had typing speeds of 25 words a minute and more.
The second story is about the students learning to play cricket. The campus is in the central business district, so lessons started in a hall instead of on a pitch. And, in the absence of cricket gear, players held imaginary bats and bowled imaginary balls, while the coach taught them the basics of the game.
Despite having to play imaginary cricket for three months, Cida's cricket team managed to win nine weeks of live cricket matches in a row.
Suze Orman, the US personal finance expert, said on her visit: "I have never seen a learning institution that I have more faith in."
Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence, accepted the position of patron of the Department of Miracles at Cida, saying it was the greatest honour he has received and left with "a completely new optimism about Africa".
A variety of institutions are researching Cida's model, including Wits Business School, the Gordon Institute of Business Science and the University of Ulster in Ireland. Cida has been invited to talk about the institution around the world.
Corpcapital executive Alec Grant, who assisted Cida from the beginning, says: "The Cida vision is a quantum leap forward in the field of tertiary education. The promoters have implemented an ambitious project, which would have proved impossible for most people."
Yes, magic, innovation and miracles have certainly helped.