Celebrating the many freedoms won through job creation

What does freedom mean to you? The Oxford dictionary defines freedom as the right to do and say what you want or the state of not being a prisoner. Freedom Day is a celebration of the dawn of constitutional democracy and freedom for all South Africans, it was on this day in 1994 that the country saw its first democratic elections

This year South Africans will be celebrating Freedom Day confined to their homes due to the nationwide lockdown. This, however, does not stop us from celebrating the many freedoms won in democratic South Africa.

Work is an important part of people’s lives and means more than just getting paid. Economic inclusion and empowerment means being able to make your own choices about how you want to live your life. Financial security is, therefore, a fundamental human right, but for many tough economic conditions take away from their ability to provide for themselves and others.

The Jobs Fund has catalysed change by partnering with innovative projects that have had a significant impact on the creation of employment and thereby contributing to economic empowerment for its beneficiaries.

South Africa has, a growing national crisis of violence against women. Illustrating this is the fact that the South African Police Services received more than 87 000 gender-based complaints in the first week of the nationwide lockdown.

Most women in these situations cannot see a way out, especially when financially dependent on the abuser. Happiness Makhatini found her courage and freedom through the Jobs Fund and The Clothing Bank (TCB).

"Before I joined The Clothing Bank I cried a lot," she says. "My husband was so abusive, but I didn’t know where to go for help. I had nothing. I didn’t have a job so I had to beg from my husband, even if he had done me wrong. I had nowhere to go. I had no one else who could help feed me and my kids."

Makhatini always harboured the dream to do her own thing. Growing up in a home where her grandmother would plant potatoes to sell to the local community, she was imbued with a sense of independence from a young age. While she longed to complete her studies and go to university her grandmother did not have the funds to support her in this endeavour. On the verge of losing hope, she turned to TCB for support.

“I lost hope before I came here because I couldn’t provide,” she says. “I didn’t think my kids would make it to high school, because it was so hard. I kept on pushing and one day everything just changed. Now I can afford to take them to school, to pay whatever my kids need, especially for their education.”

According to TCB’s CEO, Tracy Chambers, it’s the soft skills training and support provided to the women over the two years they spend in TCB’s programme that transforms necessity entrepreneurs into sustainable business owners.

After two years, the women can continue with their clothing businesses and can choose to either buy merchandise from TCB or use what they have learned to start other businesses. Several have become franchisees of businesses started under TCB’s micro franchise accelerator project.

“I’m proud because I made it,” says Makhatini. “Some women don’t make it, they decide to kill themselves, or drink too much and I don’t blame them. They needed someone to talk sense to them. I was lucky because someone came for me.”

The project plays a critical role in providing previously disadvantaged South Africans who are jobless with an alternative to formal employment by empowering them to become self-employed business people. This is often something they might not have considered or had the self-belief to pursue.

The pursuit of freedom is one that is not limited to those that do not have formal education or trapped in bad relationships. It is one that plagues the youth of South Africa as they fight to be seen, to matter, to be provided with opportunities that will lead to a better future and break the chains that have constrained the generations before them. They just want a shot to be better.

Joining Microsoft’s Student to Business Programme (S2B) gave current Junior Software Developer Kerusha Governder the freedom to take up space and gain credibility in a male-dominated industry.

“Joining the internship programme allowed me to broaden my skill set, gaining growth and experience in the .Net Framework, allowing me to excel in the company I work for and my career,” she says.

Information and communications technology (ICT) skills requirements change quickly, and the sector is a key area in which the youth can make a real difference to the country’s future success by addressing current economic challenges and employment problems head-on. Major scarce skills include cloud computing, software development, software engineering, mobile and web application development, data management and technical support.

By addressing these scarce skills, in addition to the traditional courses, Microsoft’s S2B internship programme has successfully positioned itself as a viable vehicle to create quality and sustainable employment opportunities.

Unemployed school leavers and graduates, who are eligible for learnerships, are placed in Microsoft’s internationally recognised gold certification training programme. The goal is to gain cutting-edge, real-world experience and upon graduation, trainees are offered internships at other Microsoft partners to gain relevant industry experience and ultimately secure permanent employment.

Govender now sees herself as an experienced and confident developer and considers each day as an opportunity to seek new challenges and keep growing as an individual while contributing to the growth of the company she works for.

ICT skills have always been in high demand and the country has had a tough time finding the right ones to fill vacant jobs. During its Jobs Fund implementation period, the S2B programme trained 3 029 young people and placed 2 905 (95.9%) of them in permanent vacant positions against a target of 2 400.

“Having my MCSD [Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer certification] has enabled me to believe in myself, to assure myself of what I know and how I've grown. The company I work for has fully recognised my potential and encourages and motivates me to further my learning. I've also noticed a spike in the number of job opportunities that have come my way,” says Govender.

Govender’s skills and confidence have motivated her to pay it forward and encourage others to find the freedom she did to achieve in her industry.

“As a young woman in a male-dominated industry, I've become more recognised and relied upon in the company I work at. Having my MCSD has also provided a platform for me to encourage and guide our new staff members along their journey towards achieving their MCSDs,” beams Govender.

It was with hope for the future and tremendous pride that South Africans took to the polls in 1994. It was the dream of something better, of opportunities to be free from poverty, to have a voice. It is this same hope that we South Africans carry in our hearts as we strive to do our part in achieving what those that came before us fought for.

This is what binds us as a country, whether young or old, regardless of whether you live in the city or the rural areas.

Nolethu Zikhephe is no different to, she too carries a light inside her that burns brightly because of the gains, big or small that she has accomplished in her life.

Zikhephe is from a small village called Jojweni in the rural Eastern Cape, a province where poverty remains endemic, and participates in the Jobs Fund supported micro-lending programme run by the Small Enterprise Foundation (SEF).

The Jobs Fund and SEF partnered to implement a livelihoods support programme in the province providing microloans to groups of rural micro-entrepreneurs, primarily women.

After relying on money sent home by her older children working in the big city something had to change. Zikhephe joined SEF with some friends in 2013 and started her own business selling sweets, chips, fruits, and airtime. The group members knew and trusted each other well and decided to formalise the group by naming it “Sibonise” meaning “show us” in isiZulu. The support they offer each other has encouraged all the members to work hard and succeed.

One of the group members indicated that: “Because we work well together, our group pays well. We hardly lend each other money, instead, we offer advice and support on how to better run and grow our businesses”.

Zikhephe is now the family’s breadwinner and runs her business from home, where the household also undertakes small-scale chicken and pig farming for its consumption.

“I am now a businesswoman, without the loan I would have remained a housewife,” says Zikhephe.

She received her first loan in August 2013 to the value of R1000 and her loan size has nearly tripled since then. Business can be slow in the rural areas because people buy on credit but Zikhephe remains resilient.

“One of the things I have learnt in business is that it’s not easy. I’ve had a month where the business didn’t make enough to repay the loan that month. I was then forced to use household income to repay the loan,” she reflects.

The group members revealed that they have access to more funds which has enabled them to change what they sell along with the changing seasons and the changing demand. This enables their businesses to be more flexible and to make more money.

The project’s impact can be seen beyond the group.

“The community has changed positively, a lot of people are now interested in starting businesses to assist with household expenses and ensuring their children are educated,” says Zikhephe.

Zikhephe has been able to bring about positive household-level changes. She was able to paint the exterior of her house and buy appliances like a washing machine and microwave. The household income has also increased, and her business allows her to use her savings to buy school-related items at the beginning of each year.

“SEF has given me something to do and to look forward to, so it has improved the way I see myself…I think my husband has renewed respect for me. All the decisions on the resources and finances have now become mine alone. My husband now trusts me to make major financial decisions in the house, even if he is not around. He now sees that I can handle money well,” says Zikhephe proudly.

Microfinance projects like SEF can make a difference at different levels in the lives of people in rural areas. The entrepreneurial spirit is easily cultivated in women in these areas making micro businesses a double-edged sword for fighting poverty and empowering women in places like Jojweni.

South Africa might still have a long way to go to achieve economic and educational freedom for all its citizens, a task that may seem impossible at the moment, but it is through successful public-private partnerships like those of the Jobs Fund as well as stories of hope from people like Makhatini, Govender and Zihhephe that we know anything is possible.