Power lessons from the Mother City

Khayelitsha's Department of Coffee, situated in the tall red buidling, is an establishment run by youngsters with a marketing boast for the best cappuccino in town. (David Harrison, MG)

Khayelitsha's Department of Coffee, situated in the tall red buidling, is an establishment run by youngsters with a marketing boast for the best cappuccino in town. (David Harrison, MG)

Her fingers are tapping in her lap. A mentor mother at Philani, a maternal child health and nutrition organisation in Khayelitsha, is a little nervous. She is about to share her experiences with family planning, childcare, drug and alcohol abuse, and talk about the importance of education to the MBA students in front of her.

“I have thought so long about what to tell and how to tell it,” she begins, “but, now you are standing here, although I feel a little tension, I know exactly what I’m going to tell you.
I can’t change the whole township, but I want to change what I can.”

Last month I, and 40 of my fellow MBA classmates from Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands, made the trip to Stellenbosch University’s business school.

The journey is made by Nyenrode students every year, with the purpose of learning how business is conducted in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, ridding ourselves of any preconceived ideas we may have had about South Africa and, most importantly, taking these lessons back home and applying them to our own lives.

In the eight days we spent in Cape Town, we travelled to many different areas and met local business people and entrepreneurs. We visited social projects such as Philani, and talked to residents. With each day that passed, my eyes were opened wider and wider.

The biggest lesson my visit to Cape Town has taught me is that individual action can make a big difference in society. The Philani Maternal Child Health and Nutrition Project is a great example of this.

It supports pregnant mothers with education and training, prevents child malnutrition and rehabilitates underweight children using mentors who are based in the community. A mentor mother’s task is not to take on the challenges of a family, but rather to help them find their own solutions by sharing her knowledge and skills.

One common challenge in Cape Town is the limited number of people who can work in South Africa’s new and emerging industries. On average, the unemployment rate is quite high – one in four people is out of work – but in the townships of Cape Town this rate is even higher, creating huge gaps; in other areas such as Camps Bay the unemployment rate is low. The difference is that people in Camps Bay have better access to education.

During our trip we met Luvuyo Rani, who founded Silulo Ulutho Technologies in Khayelitsha. He explained that the majority of adults living in the townships were educated to work with their hands in manual trades – skills that are no longer suitable for the work on offer in the area. “I have difficulty finding the right people for my business here,” he told us.

One thing I have always valued and relied upon is my education. It has been essential in getting me to where I am today.

While walking through Khayelitsha, I met many young adults and children who did not have a job or a school to go to. The problem is so large and complicated that it’s not easy for the government to solve. But examples like Philani show that individual efforts are effective and can be cultivated.

This was also stressed by the young entrepreneurs behind “the Department of Coffee”, a Starbucks-style coffee shop ran by youngsters in Khayelitsha.

“Come in and look what I learned,” a teenage girl said proudly. “I can make the best cappuccino in town.”

The teenagers started their business because they had ambition. Knowing they had to take their futures in their own hands, they acted. At 14 they were already role models.

They showed me that you should not wait for something to happen or for someone else to take action. Being proactive is the key. The other major lesson I learned is that South Africa and many countries in Europe face similar societal challenges.

In countries such as Greece and Spain, unemployment rates are comparable with those of South Africa. One in four is unemployed; to make it worse, one in two youngsters aged between 15 and 24 is neither employed nor at school. All eyes are on preventing the creation of a “lost generation”; an effective European approach has yet to be found.

Healthcare workers and doctors in Cape Town told me that many of their colleagues had left the country to take on positions with better pay and conditions.

The same is happening across Europe too, both in education and employment. For example, many Dutch students go to Belgium to study medicine while the less educated people stay behind with limited options.

The middle class is disappearing as the gap between well-educated and less-educated grows. This places pressure on the need to develop alternative ways of acting and thinking. Political and business leaders in every country should be doing more to address the gaps – creating opportunities for young people to build their skills and put them to use in their societies.

The examples of social empowerment in South Africa are a great place to start but, like the young people at the Department of Coffee, we must also learn to take action for ourselves.

My time in Cape Town has taught me that creating real change at a grassroots level starts with us – the next generation – as members of global societies. As individuals we must act and take action for ourselves on what we have direct influence over. Hopefully, one day, individuals and governments can meet halfway and work together for the greater social good.

The Department of Coffee showed me that you should not wait for something to happen. Being proactive is the key

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