Filling in the caps

2011-06-28 00:00

THE recent “diagnostic overview” produced by the National Planning Commission and presented by Minister Trevor Manuel identified nine challenges facing South Africa. The most critical are unemployment and education.

As Manuel himself conceded, the information presented sounds “familiar”, but he still tried to put a new spin on it by stating that it is “backed by research and designed to build national consensus about the way forward”. The Daily Maverick, however, still called it just “another candle in the wind”.

The question remains, what is to be done about these “challenges” and who is going to do it?

A local movement that is emerging to try to address the challenge of unemployment, particularly among school leavers, is Qhakaza cc. Qhakaza means “a blooming in springtime after winter barrenness”, which captures the group’s inspiration and impact.

When visiting a local township school, SchoolTrade’s Colin McKay saw a pile of broken desks. Rather than buying new ones, he arranged for a group of pupils to be paid to mend the broken ones. This sparked his imagination as he saw that for the cost of 20 new desks, a group of high school pupils could be taught to renovate nearly twice as many broken desks. Besides returning badly needed desks to classrooms, the approach also taught young people skills, earned them some money and promoted a culture of refurbishing furniture rather than replacing it.

McKay saw the potential for a scheme to organise teams of young people to undertake practical projects at state schools, while acquiring a range of other skills.

“This country has all the right policy documents and initiatives, but there’s a huge gap between school and employment or further education and training. Initiatives such as the expanded public works programme are great, but they are not a long-term answer. There are lots of people talking the talk, but too few walking that talk.

“The statistics show that about 40% of people under the age of 30 have never been in formal employment. One in 30 young people who have passed matric are at home looking after younger siblings. There are numbers of youngsters with matric or FET qualifications who cannot find work or access funding for further education or training. And, even if they have matric or a qualification, there are often many gaps in their education and life skills,” said McKay, whose organisation is behind the Qhakaza initiative in association with Cynthia Ngubane, a lecturer in enterprise development at Msunduzi FET College, and Dave Froneman, a businessperson and squash coach with a background in construction.

“What is needed is action at grassroots level to help young people fill in the gaps and get from where they are to where they want to go. That requires personal mentoring as well as formal skills training or further studies. That’s the vision for Qhakaza — a kind of gap-year experience to stand in the gap between school and the world of work, and fill in the gaps in young people’s personal development,” said MacKay.

Qhakaza is modelled on the YouthBuild programme in the United States that started in Harlem, New York City, in 1978. YouthBuild is a youth and community development programme that addresses problems facing low-income communities: housing, education, employment, crime prevention and leadership development. The programme helps low-income young people aged 16 to 24 to study, transform their lives and roles in society, learn skills and serve their communities by working on community projects such as building affordable housing. There are now 273 YouthBuild programmes across the U.S. Since 1994, 92 000 young people have helped build about 20 000 units of affordable housing in 45 states, Washington DC and the Virgin Islands.

Qhakaza’s first intake of five students is just completing its first project: renovations to the dormitories at Zakhe Agricultural College at Baynesfield. Under the mentorship of a trainer, Thami Khanyile, the students — Wellington Ross (23), Anton Zuma (21), Rachel Ross (22), Ntando Kaula (19) and Sbongisine Dladla (22) — have cast concrete walkways, built concrete steps, installed ceilings, cupboards and gutters, fitted doors, cleaned roofs and painted inside and out. They also had a chance to test their leadership skills by supervising teams of school pupils to work with them.

Khanyile is a trained builder and carpenter with many years’ experience in the construction industry. He has taught his charges practical building skills, and, together with Froneman acting as the project manager, instructed them in the allied skills required to run a small contracting business, like costing and estimating and other financial skills. According to MacKay, Khanyile has also given the students intangible but essential life skills by mentoring them, one-on-one. Zuma and Wellington Ross confirmed this: “He is not like other adults. We can talk to him about anything. He takes time to listen to us and takes us seriously. We have learnt so much from him. It is a pleasure to work with him.”

Froneman is also a key player in Qhakaza. For many years he owned his own construction company and is also a passionate squash coach. He has been responsible for overseeing the day-to-day running of the scheme. “What attracted me to the project was the training and development opportunities it offered young people, and the chance to make a difference at rural and township schools. It has been great watching these young people develop and grow, and it would be great to replicate the model and extend the opportunities it offers to many more youngsters in future.”

BASED on the YouthBuild USA programme, the initiative aims to give young people a practical “gap year” of 10 months. During their internship, they receive a monthly stipend to work in teams carrying out building or other projects, thereby gaining these skills at the same time, as well as receiving mentoring, personal development, life skills, financial, building, computer and other skills. The initiators of Qhakaza are looking for projects to work on. Involvement in the project would be a way for businesses to earn BEE status (Enterprise Development). Qhakaza is also exploring assistance through government-enterprise development initiatives such as Seda. “We need our own equipment and tools, and a vehicle,” project manager Dave Froneman said. “We are willing to take on construction projects of any kind. However, we aren’t interested only in construction work, but anything that will teach the team new skills, such as a small catering contract, which would provide experience of another area of the job market.”


• Contact: Qhakaza cc, Dave Froneman at 081 465 6180.

RACHEL ROSS, who holds a certificate in information technology, plus a diploma in management assistance, was the only woman on the programme. However, she mixed concrete and pushed wheelbarrows along with the men, and felt included as one of the team. “This has been a new learning experience and something to add to my CV. I have gained people skills after working in a team and supervising the school children. I will use the construction skills I have gained if an opportunity comes, but my first choice is to get into IT networking.”


WELLINGTON ROSS has a matric and his dream is to study towards becoming a chartered accountant. “I see this as an opportunity to learn these skills, which are something to fall back on if I need them. My dream is still to get a financial training, but I need finances.”


ANTON ZUMA also has a matric and would like to study a B.Comm accounting, but lacks the finances necessary. “I have enjoyed the financial element of our work — the calculations, costing, and practical application of financial skills. I may go in a different direction after this course as I now have an idea of how to run a small construction company, but I hope to come back to my dream one day.”


All three believe that Qhakaza is very worthwhile and would like to see it continue and expand: “It could help a lot of youngsters who are unemployed, sitting at home with a matric, doing nothing or getting into trouble,” Wellington Ross said.

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