Phillip Zulu’s Open Door to Opportunity


When Pat McLeod first saw the University of Pretoria-Mamelodi, he noticed that it seemed out of place. The campus looked like any other modern college campus in South Africa. It had manicured lawns and high walls and barbed wire for security. Large brick buildings contained updated science labs and computer rooms. But just across the street, a squatters’ village of ramshackle huts was expanding up the hillside.

When Pat finally stepped onto the campus, he expected to find it full of local South African students. Instead, he found a ghost town. Even when classes dismissed a few minutes later, just a half-dozen students emerged. And only two of them looked like the other black South Africans that populated South Africa’s Mamelodi Township. Instead, even years after the racist policies of apartheid had ended, the majority of students were white.

What was keeping the local black South African students out of this school? Could Pat do anything to help?

Above, four men spend time in Nelson Mandela Park, in Mamelodi Township. In 1953, the apartheid government of South Africa established Mamelodi Township, now home to hundreds of thousands of people.

The birth of the Mamelodi Initiative

Pat works on elite U.S. campuses as a Cru® staff member in Boston, Massachusetts. Convincing Ivy League students to eschew Wall Street internships in favor of summer mission trips has proven difficult for him. No matter how much students want to reach the world, they receive unparalleled opportunities to network and learn about their chosen career fields. These prospects can be hard to pass up. So, Pat had to take a different approach when he began taking students on summer mission trips to South Africa in 2007.

Pat McLeod (above), along with his wife, Tammy, helped to launch the Mamelodi Initiative in 2007 as a way to scholastically and spiritually mentor young students in Mamelodi Township.

Students helped in varied ways so they could develop professionally as they shared the love of God. At the time, the AIDS pandemic was particularly acute in South Africa. So, Pat and his students sought to enter into the crisis. Pre-med students worked in AIDS clinics. Future engineers refurbished orphanages. Others researched the causes and severity of the AIDS outbreak, with at least one student developing her master’s thesis on the true needs of orphanages for children affected by AIDS.

A group of U.S. students and Cru® staff members take part in a prayer walk around Mamelodi as part of their orientation to the South Africa: Pretoria Summer Mission in June 2017.

In the midst of this, Pat found the University of Pretoria-Mamelodi. The racial inequality shocked him. He and his wife, Tammy, sought to better understand this problem.

Pat and Tammy went straight to the top, asking the university president what caused such a disparity in the student population. The president, who had fought against apartheid in his youth—as evidenced by the scar from a bullet wound on his chest—explained that entrance exams were an insurmountable hurdle for many students. University staff members found only 40 students from the 18 township high schools who qualified for acceptance.

Pat’s students set out to help Mamelodi high schoolers do what Ivy League students do best: take tests. This was the beginning of the mentorship program, the Mamelodi Initiative. But more than scholastic mentoring, these American students were also committed to teaching their young pupils about God. They opened class each day with a devotional, and the mentors talked about Jesus with interested students. These practices continue today.

Students participating in the Mamelodi Initiative take an assessment exam at the start of the program to determine class placement.

Cru® students and South African volunteers make up cheers in groups as a way to get to know each other during volunteer training. During this particular program, more than 100 South Africans volunteered to help with the initiative.

“He just kept showing back up.”

Not long after the team began the mentorship program, they met a ninth-grade student named Phillip Zulu.

Phillip’s mother died of tuberculosis when he was a child, leaving him to be raised by his grandmother. As he grew up, he formed dangerous friendships with young criminals. His friends introduced him to drugs, letting him sample for free until he developed an addiction, and then taught him to shoplift to fund his new habit. During his second attempt at thievery, he was caught by a security guard. The punishment for stealing would be time in juvenile prison and a criminal record for Phillip. His actions threatened to cut his education drastically short.

After Phillip Zulu’s mother died, his grandmother (above, in her home) raised him. The two continue to have a close relationship.

But the security guard let him go. “He told me to stop whatever it is that made me do this and to never again steal in any store, for I won’t get mercy next time,” Phillip recalls.

And then the security guard said something that caught his attention: “May God be with you.”

Soon after, Pat and his team showed up at Phillip’s school. Two students took an interest in Phillip and committed to helping him study.

Cru® student volunteers and South African volunteers work in tandem to ensure the summer program’s success. One-third of this year’s volunteer teachers graduated from the initiative and are now attending university.

Phillip remembers being surprised by these Americans who chose to give up their summer to help struggling students. Most of all, he was touched that these students took a personal interest in him. When he would draw during lunch, they asked what he was drawing and compliment his abilities. One even asked what he would like to study if he could go to college.

One day, Phillip asked, “Why is it that you came this far?” The students responded by telling him about Jesus. They shared that Jesus cared for all people, including the poor, and that He brought hope with Him wherever He traveled. Phillip had never heard this message before, and he says that it opened up “a whole new dimension” for him. He put his faith in Christ and continued to faithfully attend Mamelodi Initiative classes and events.

Pat laughs that Phillip came the first day and “just kept showing back up.”

Phillip (above, at right), who studies engineering at the university, specializes in teaching math to participants in the Mamelodi Initiative.

The volunteer teachers, including this American university student (above), tutor students in two primary subjects—English and mathematics. The students can also take elective classes in subjects such as poetry, dance, rap, chess and Bible study.

Mastering the exam

Now, years after Pat and his team met him, Phillip is in his third year at the University of Pretoria-Mamelodi. In addition to ushering him into a relationship with Jesus, the Mamelodi Initiative gave him the skills necessary to ace his entrance exams and succeed in college.

God used Pat’s team to save Phillip not just spiritually but also from a life of drug use and theft. Instead of drugs, Phillip introduces students to the life-changing love of Jesus. Rather than teaching others to shoplift, he teaches them about the Bible, mathematics and good test-taking techniques.

Phillip (left) plays a pickup game of soccer, one of his favorite pastimes, with two key Mamelodi Initiative leaders, outreach intern Godwin Ndabandaba (middle) and co-founder Richard Kelley (right).

During the school year, he is often busy with long hours of engineering homework. But during school breaks, like this particular break in July, he finds joy in being with students and sharing the same gift that the Mamelodi Initiative gave him as a young high school student. With each calculation he writes on the dry erase board in the classroom, Phillip exudes passion for passing along what he has learned. Even as Phillip marvels at the fact that he could overcome the odds and attend college, he works to help others achieve the same dream.

In Mamelodi Township in the early evening, neighbors and friends gather over a game of cards. The Mamelodi Initiative serves neighborhoods like these, and touches the lives of nearly 1,000 young people every year.

For more information on the Mamelodi Initiative, visit Or take a look at others’ lives who have been changed through the program in the video below.

Words by

Elliott Dodge

Elliott is a journalist with Cru®. He grew up in South Carolina and graduated from the University of South Carolina (the real USC) with an English degree. He plans to visit every continent; so far he’s been 71 percent successful.

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Images by

Tom Mills

Tom is a photographer with Cru®. He loves seeing beautiful sights out of airplane windows and enjoys meeting new friends all over the world. His wife, Karen, travels with him whenever possible, which makes every trip even better. Tom has been photographing for more than 40 years.

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