Non-profit Umphakathi empowers South African youth through practical learner programmes.

Learners get to work.

Learners get to work. Images supplied by Umphakathi

Judith’s Paarl is a suburb that is squeezed up between Bezuidenhout Valley and Troyville. To the west of the suburb, the familiar Jozi skyline juts out, pouring noise and busy-ness into the streets that lead out from it.

Just over four kilometres to the west of Judith’s Paarl stands a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, close to where he once had his law offices in what is now called Gandhi Square. “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” is a paraphrased a quote attributed to Gandhi.

In Judith’s Paarl, though, they are putting Gandhi’s words into practice through a remarkable, empowering initiative called Umphakathi, which seeks to provide learners with hands-on work experience, skills development and digital literacy.

Umphakathi’s skills village is alive with the sound of youth at work. Circular saws screech, the crackle of welders can be heard, and the sound of hammering provides a rhythmic beat. And while this is going on, a gentle murmur comes from the kitchen upstairs while learners busily prepare meals.

These grade 10 and 11 learners from surrounding communities converge on the skills village during school holidays and weekends to take part in skills development programmes. They learn anything from carpentry and hospitality to welding, and of course, plumbing. School leavers who are on the work experience programme will spend a year here.

Upstairs at the skills centre, which is part of the skills village precinct, learners have constructed a bathroom. They have done all the work from the tiling all the way down to installing the sanitaryware and piping. Learners are responsible for the planning, the sourcing of materials and the installation.

Hands-on training is provided

Hands-on training is provided

They get real-life experience, too. Umphakathi partners with companies that can assist with on-the-job experience and there are eight or nine projects on the go, offsite, that learners are involved in. Any money that they receive from this work is funnelled back into Umphakathi.

Much of the organisation’s activities are funded by founder Gerard Ohlson de Fine himself. Learners get to participate and learn for free as well as receive free meals during the day. However, mentors who offer their time and expertise need to be paid and materials need to be acquired for the various programmes and projects.

The idea behind Umphakathi is to prepare young people for the workplace and to provide them with the experience they need in order to find work once they leave school. These vital skills, and the portfolio of work that the kids are able to build during their time on the programme, increase their chances of employment.

Ohlson de Fine, states that the organisation’s mission is to break the cycle of “no experience means no work, and no work means no experience”. With the skills and knowledge the learners gain from Umphakathi, they can confidently display the experience that they have gained. Still, they need funds to continue to do what they are doing, and it’s Ohlson de Fine’s vision to have several Umphakathi hubs all over South Africa.

 Umphakathi means “community” in Zulu, and it is not only community that drives the project, but community that benefits from it, too. Umphakathi offers a comprehensive programme. Learners have the opportunity to discover how various industries work together in order to drive the economy, from those who plan events and do catering, to those who do the electrical work and plumbing to make all of this possible.

Learners at the skills centre.

Learners at the skills centre.

And while they are learning, they are improving the buildings in and around the skills precinct as well as other buildings on the projects that they work on outside of Umphakathi. This in turn improves the living conditions of their own families and their broader communities while improving the prospects for these young people who are so eager to apply themselves.

Gandhi, so long ago, championed empowerment. No doubt he would have been impressed and overjoyed to see Ohlson de Fine’s vision unfolding not so far from where he once began his journey to greatness, as a lawyer in the heart of Johannesburg. What great futures await these determined young people at Umphakhati? Great ones, we are certain.