SA at work: Building skills on the home front

2014-03-02 08:00

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‘Localisation’ is not the most user-friendly word, but it’s the process the government is pushing to make sure the buses, trains and taxis South Africans use every day are largely manufactured and produced at home.

Local factories are producing components and even building these vehicles from scratch, creating thousands of jobs in the process.

City Press visited a bus factory in Gauteng to put the spotlight on the sector.

When a Gautrain bus drove past Ellen Ndzovela a while ago, she couldn’t contain her excitement.

After all, she helped build it. “It was just beautiful,” she says. “I was so excited, when I got home I told everyone about it.”

Ndzovela (29) has been working at Busmark’s factory in Randfontein for the past nine months as part of its ­apprenticeship programme.

Before that, she was struggling to get by with temporary work installing geysers. Sometimes she had no work at all, which isn’t an option, she says, because she’s a single mother supporting two sons and her two younger sisters.

Her parents are dead and she’s the head of the family.

“I have to work to survive, to provide food at home.”

When City Press caught up with Ndzovela, she was constructing the panelling doors for bus luggage compartments.

By the end of her apprenticeship, she will know how to build all the parts of a bus from scratch, from the electrical work and welding to creating the panels that make up the main body.

This kind of experience is difficult to come by because apprenticeship ­programmes are very competitive.

She says she applied to several companies before finally getting this position.

“To get this apprenticeship was a huge opportunity. It has changed my life.”

She’s one of only a few female apprentices and though she says it “isn’t easy being a woman here”, she grins as she explains she has no trouble getting on with her male colleagues.

“If you respect yourself, they will respect you.”

She’s always wanted to work in this kind of environment – lots of noise and action and heat.

It’s the furthest thing from a desk job you can imagine.

“Most girls want to do things like commercial studies, but I want to do something that will challenge me.”

Ndzovela is upbeat about her future. “I wish in five years that I will be very far, being more than an artisan, maybe a foreman.”

Nine months ago, she wouldn’t have believed any of that was possible.

Busmark is contracted by the government to help build buses.

So far, it has ­produced 80 buses for Durban’s transport system, 220 for Cape Town’s MyCiTi system and 125 for the Gautrain in Johannesburg.

Its major focus is on localisation – manufacturing parts here at home rather than outsourcing the work – and on job creation.

General manager Danie Human says 90% of the company’s bus parts are ­produced locally. “We just don’t have the technical skills to produce [the other 10%].”

Andre Grobler, Busmark’s financial manager, says: “At this stage, a typical South African bus complies with government procurement policies.”

These policies in effect mean that at least 80% of a bus must be constructed from locally manufactured parts.

“The problem comes in with the bus rapid transport systems. There have been great advancements in the IT on buses, state-of-the-art tracking systems, vehicle monitoring, the advertising systems and the air conditioning.”

He says that these products are not available in South Africa yet, but this can change “if the government starts to support the guys who can make those things”.

Grobler calculates that it takes 2?000 hours to construct a single bus, and each worker is on site for 200 hours a month.

That works out to 10 jobs created per bus – and this doesn’t even take into account the business that’s provided to external local suppliers.

At the moment, there’s “a lot more funding” coming in for these projects from overseas, but localisation is becoming more popular as the government comes on board with tenders for companies like Busmark.

It is all very well to create jobs, but effective training is what drives employment forward.

Human says skills transfer is high on their agenda, and Busmark puts particular emphasis on creating jobs and training the youth.

“We even had one lady [Kgomotso Sethoga] who started working as a cleaner who is now a welder – a wonderful story,” he says.

There are 60 apprentices on the company’s artisan programme, including Sethoga and Ndzovela.

They work closely with experienced foremen and Ndzovela says they are easy to learn from and care deeply about her progress.

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