Change the world


The Tangible Africa team at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa is a small group of passionate people working to change the narrative for careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).


To date, more than 100 000 children on two continents have been exposed to Tangible’s coding outreach, and more than R80 million has been raised for bursaries to enable them to study after school. Tangible is an engagement project of the Leva Foundation, a non-profit organisation, in partnership with Nelson Mandela University, with AWS in Communities its largest sponsor.

HIGH FIVE: Professor Jean Greyling congratulates a youngster during a coding activity; SUCCESS STORY: Professor Jean Greyling with Nelson Mandela University BSc Computer Science student Culumanco Komanisi, who was introduced to TANKS in Grade 7

Its founder, Professor Jean Greyling, is an unassuming academic, deliberate in choosing “we” over “I” in interviews, and quick to name colleagues and students, present and past, for their contribution.

The head of the Department of Computer Science at Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha says it has not been an easy journey.

“The biggest wall to break through is that 16 000 of the country’s 25 000 schools do not have a computer lab,” says Greyling of South Africa’s education system.

“It doesn't make sense to go into a school and talk about programming if they've never touched a computer. You are talking in a vacuum, and it can be a useless exercise.”

Furthermore,  he says “teachers do not always know how to introduce coding to learners”.

Classrooms without computers and teachers who do not know the subject have not daunted the Tangible Team. Instead, it has been an inspiration to innovate.

Professor Greyling and one of his past honours students, Byron Batteson developed their first ground-breaking coding game, Tanks, in 2017, using puzzle pieces and a mobile application. Then came Boats and Rangers.

Since then, the games have won numerous awards.

Simply put, Tanks, Boats and Rangers are a way to introduce learners from under-resourced areas to coding concepts without using a computer – and this is vital in a country like South Africa that faces a desperate shortage of software developers.

”The kids immediately get addicted because of the gamification but they are actually doing quite complex problem solving,” says Greyling. “We are introducing coding concepts to a Grade 7 child in a rural school that I would teach to my first years at university.”

ENGAGEMENT IN ACTION: Professor Jean Greyling in a classroom in Ezibeleni, rural Eastern Cape; TANGIBLE GOES TACTILE: Robyn Fick from Bona Ubuntu and Professor Jean Greyling watch as Masibulele Naki from Khanyisa School for the Blind tries out tactile coding.

One of the keys to its success, he says, is that “teachers are the facilitators and the learners drive the process”.

“We have a lot of activities and tools that focus on problem solving, creativity, strategy and group work, all the 21st century skills,” says Prof Greyling.

Building skills for the future

Playing the games prime the learners – starting at primary school level – for careers in STEM, in this way cultivating the coding ecosystem of the future.

However, he emphasises, “it is not our responsibility to make them coders or software developers, but rather to make them aware of the careers in coding”.

They are introduced to the problem-solving technique of computational thinking, the logic of decomposition, abstraction, pattern recognition, and algorithms.

“Those are basic components of any problem-solving skill, whether it's coding or managing your marriage.

“Once we have identified their skills we also need to help them get a good matric. Then they can apply to do a computing degree at any university in the country.

“At school we nurture them in various ways towards a degree in our department, and then we see them through to get employment, through a holistic approach of support.”

Prof Greyling also credits one of his past doctoral students, Melisa Koorsse (now Van der Merwe), for laying a foundation for Tangible Africa.

While doing her doctorate in computer science, Koorsse worked on using the Mxit instant messaging application to help teach CAT (Computer Applications Technology) at South African schools.

“These kids did not have textbooks, they did not have context, so we worked on a Mxit dictionary which the kids could go into at any time and find descriptions for the terms,” says Prof Greyling. “We had 100 000 queries per month. Every hour of the day, 24/7, the dictionary was busy.”

In a similar way, Tangible uses unconventional methods help teach coding, sparking curiosity for this field.

‘Bursaries change lives’

Seeing how many youngsters could not afford to move on to tertiary education prompted Prof Greyling to start a bursary programme.

Since starting  this in 2016, Prof Jean Greyling and his team have raised more than R80 million towards bursaries, which enables between 80 and 100 students to enroll each year.

“Bursaries change lives,” says Greyling. “The bursaries project dovetails with Tangible and it is very close to my heart. We try to take a holistic approach because most people who get bursaries also come from challenging backgrounds.”

Here he mentions three women who ensure students are nurtured while they study: Carol van Onselen, Fezi Fani and Geraldine Fraser.

“They are part of our holistic team to make sure that our bursary holders don't just get money from us. It includes weekly tutorials, and medical assistance such as glasses, life coaching, and counselling.”

It works – and not only for the student beneficiaries.

“Companies like that they are not giving a million rand and never knowing who the recipient is.

“No one wants to throw their CSI spend into a black hole, they do want it to be personalised. We can link 10 students to that million rand and they can call us any day to find out how it's going.”

The Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa and Engineer IT magazine has also honoured Prof Greyling with its Distinguished Service in ICT Award for his work in promoting programming and IT careers via Tangible Africa.

While the metaphorical carrot at the end of the stick is seeing a student gain employment and flourish, the stick is seeing those who are on campus with nothing to eat.

Student hunger is common at universities across South Africa, and there are several initiatives at Nelson Mandela University to combat this reality.

“One student said to me that December and January was never a time of festivities but rather of worry, of ‘how am I going to fund my studies next year?’.”

The challenge for universities

The good news is that career prospects are good for computer sciences graduates. Although South Africa has unprecedented levels of youth unemployment, this discipline has an employment rate of over 90%. Salaries also tend to be generous.

Ironically, however, this is a challenge for the higher education sector when it comes to retaining talent, especially young black researchers and academics, says Greyling.

Prof Greyling completed his PhD from Nelson Mandela University and has been an Associate Professor there since 2004.

“There are exorbitant salaries in the private sector, so you really need to have a calling to remain in academia.”

Today, aged 58, he is happy where he is. In matric he had considered becoming a pastor, and that sense of service to society still drives him today.

“I can see lives are being changed, so at this stage of my life I wouldn't have chosen anything else.”

However, he does admit to his academic shortcomings: “as an Associate Professor, I've never really excelled in research. Also, I struggle to focus on one thing, I've got so many things that interest me.

“Engagement is what drives me. Teaching students and interacting with them has been my passion since I started in 1992. It’s the part of the job that I enjoy the most.

“We have a much bigger dream than South Africa, we believe that this is a solution from Africa, for Africa, and our dream is to take coding into the whole of the continent, reaching millions of learners across Africa.”

Nelson Mandela University and Leva Foundation’s Tangible Africa is also well on its way in increasing an active footprint across Europe.

2022 saw the launch of Bona Africa, a partnership which brought coding to visually impaired people in a novel way.

In 2023, Tangible shared a #Coding4Mandela event across 70 sites in Africa and Europe, culminating in a virtual coding world championship involving teams from 21 countries.

Sometimes the individual success stories have the most impact.

Buhle Pikoli, 21, is evidence of Tangible Africa’s success. The course of his life changed one afternoon in 2018, when he played TANKS at Cowan High School in New Brighton. Within three days he completed all 35 levels of the game, and he went on to study Information Technology at Nelson Mandela University. Today he is a junior software developer.

“Buhle is the first person we know of who completed the whole journey. He is now in the economy. May there be thousands more,” says Greyling. 

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057