By Stephen Leinberger
Social and economic disparity in South Africa (SA) is a pervasive crisis that will take generations to correct. It is not only a matter of public policy, or government action, that will close the gaps or uplift the disadvantaged, but also a matter of private contribution to the cause for social justice.
Hence, a sincere commitment by individuals and corporate entities to economic transformation should be envisaged by legislative measures created to implement it, rather than the other way around. It ought not to be viewed as a grudge purchase but may be seen as a meaningful challenge and a concomitant social responsibility. It can also be viewed as an opportunity to engage with civil society to extract true potential and fulfil policy considerations, such as Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) imperatives.
As members of the legal profession, we may at times find ourselves forgetting that we are privileged to have had the resources to generate a career. It is an easy fact to forget, in the hustle and stress of our daily driven lives, owing in part to the fact that on a basal, semi-conscious level we consider ourselves to be earning our keep, because our work is difficult, stressful, and time-consuming, and it often usurps on our valuable personal time.
For the underprivileged, however, a profession is out of the question, and for many members of society a profession is something that has been taken for granted by economically active people as employment itself is simply not possible.
In fact, it cannot readily be gainsaid that as professionals in the upper earning tier of the population, we have a responsibility to promote the upliftment and empowerment of the previously, and currently, disadvantaged members of the population.
An easy solution is to throw money at a problem or hire graduates who fall into a previously disadvantaged demographic, but direct, hands-on contribution is no easy task, at least on the face of it. It is also perceived as expensive and time consuming, garnering little benefit to a company in a highly competitive industry, but this could not be further from the truth.
Consider for a moment, that taking steps to empower the disadvantaged could in certain circumstances be to the advantage of corporate entities in circumstances where the genuine potential of individuals could be extracted to the benefit of all involved. Some organisations exist, whose very raison d’être is to tap the potential of previously disadvantaged individuals, for the profit and gain not only of the individuals themselves, but for the companies engaging with them.
People Upliftment Programme (POPUP) is an organisation that has created a platform for direct empowerment by the public. POPUP seeks to empower people who have given up on life, let alone the prospects of a career, inter alia, by partnering with corporate organisations that take in learners on a short-term employment basis with a view to develop skills and, in some exceptional cases, retain learners in full time employment. In some ways, POPUP is a mining platform for the extraction of genuine potential, as a partnership programme in the corporate commercial space, and in line with B-BBEE advantage.
POPUP’s motto is ‘empowering the disempowered’. This expression of intent goes fundamentally to POPUP’s approach to their work and is indicative thereof that the organisation recognises the inherent potential in all human beings, notwithstanding their backgrounds or social status. The organisation’s approach is to realise the inherent potential in all human beings.
Originally a shelter for homeless people, POPUP still provides indigent members of the public with certain basic needs, including a meal to those who need one, as well as counselling services. POPUP has, furthermore, partnered with a medical service provider to provide primary health care.
At the turn of the century, POPUP shifted its focus towards empowerment and is now in its 18th year of changing Pretoria one person at a time. The effect of these changes is exponential, because changing the life of one person often results in that person inspiring a multitude of people around them to take a similar positive step.
When people enter the programme, they have more often than not given up hope. Typically, the intake ranges in demographics, and comprises of underprivileged people between the ages of 18 and 45 with no tertiary education and displaying an alarmingly low literacy rate.
Individuals are nurtured in a tough, but compassionate manner through a life skills programme, which forms the basis of a foundation for life and crafting a future. It is by means of addressing this personal crisis and informing values and principles that disempowered people are given the tools to generate a brighter future.
After having completed the foundation for the life skills programme, POPUP advances learners to an Adult Education Training (AET) skills programme, which teaches learners numeracy and English literacy. In order to advance to accredited programmes, learners are expected to reach an AET level four. Skills training follows, with accredited and non-accredited training options being offered, and the learners are registered with the Department of Higher Education, and various training authorities. At the Salvokop branch, POPUP offers ‘soft skills’ training, including computer literacy, financial planning and training in administration and marketing. A year-long entrepreneurship course is also offered. At the Soshanguve branch, POPUP offers training in the artisanal arts, such as plumbing and welding.
As such, many people with little to no formal education are given a platform to improve themselves to such a point where they carry a tertiary qualification, can enter the work force in a meaningful way, and become productive members of society, removed from their previous station. Owing in part to the partnerships that have so far been created, the entire process outlined above, from intake to qualification, costs as little as R 450.
In the result, individuals are empowered with workplace readiness. The aim is accordingly to up-skill individuals so that they can enter the workforce and become productive members of society, and not perpetuate patterns of personal disempowerment. The ancillary benefit is that these individuals influence society at large by being an example to people that change can happen. The transformation process thus has a domino effect on society. POPUP calls this the ‘X factor’.
Corporate entities are given the opportunity of contributing to the work of POPUP by accepting individuals on a learnership programme. This is an integrated skills development programme, which seeks to give practical effect to the training given to the learners by the organisation. Essentially, what this entails is that learners are accepted as employees into the company on a short-term basis so as to equip them with skills in an office environment, and also to contribute to the company by providing cost effective solutions in areas where the company might be wanting. This includes (in a firm of attorneys in any event) teaching learners skills such as office filing, serving and filing documents at court and other administrative skills. The corporate entities are then given the opportunity to retain the learners after the currency of the programme has expired as full-time employees, the learners often having become members of the corporate family, end up being valuable staff members.
The other practical effect of the learnership programme is that it funds the other development projects provided by POPUP and contributes to the social responsibility imperatives of corporate society.
This initiative is also perfectly aligned to the Youth Employment Service initiative that was published in GN402 GG41546/29-3-2018 and announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
From the perspective of the company, the partnership is a cost effective and convenient method by which the company can improve its B-BBEE status, receive tax benefits and attract untapped potential.
After a highly successful first intake it was clear that, not only have the learners benefited from the programme, but an attorney firm’s contribution to the programme has generated radical insight into the inherent potential of all individuals, not restricted to the (for the most part) empowered people that we encounter on a day-to-day basis in the context of the legal profession.
Three learners were employed by an attorney firm and considering that these three individuals were people that had previously given up hope for fostering a better future, and in light of the influence that they will have on the people surrounding them, as well as within the corporate environment itself, the impact of this development on their lives is extraordinary.
It is, furthermore, with confidence that we can assert that the learners who were not retained nonetheless left the programme with additional skills to carry them to a productive future.
One step at a time, the learners are positively changing their personal circumstances, and the circumstances of the people surrounding them, with the assistance of POPUP and corporate society. Perhaps in the future these learners could also find themselves contributing to society in the same way that we do, not only in the context of people upliftment, but also, notionally, as legal professionals.
All of the foregoing goes to show that through compassion and acceptance, and by forming strategic alliances with organisations such as POPUP, we can all use our skills and resources as attorneys to contribute to the empowerment of the disempowered in a healing way. In doing so, the profession at large can play a meaningful role in the development of a more productive society in the context of the legal profession, by advocating positive change, while at the same time exposing ourselves to the benefit of the inherent potential of oft-overlooked people.
It is indeed possible to make a difference, one person at a time.
- Legal practitioners who want to be a part of POPUP should visit www.popup.co.za
Stephen Leinberger BSc (UP) LLB (Unisa) is an attorney at Savage Jooste & Adams Inc in Pretoria.
This article was first published in De Rebus in 2018 (Nov) DR 24.