An innovative public employment initiative creates employment opportunities that help build social value in communities.

Author: Linda Daniels

The national Social Employment Fund, launched in 2021 may pave the way for future grassroots and government collaboration towards sustainable development.

Khanyile Jara (19) conducts household surveys which provides relevant data about the community’s needs which VPUU responds to. Jara is also part of the Check-It team which repairs public infrastructure in the Lotus Park community. Credit: Barry Christianson

Khanyile Jara’s (19) dream of opening a successful car wash became a reality this year when he began earning wages through a national public employment scheme, allowing him to invest a portion of his earnings into his business.

The R800 million Social Employment Fund (SEF) established last year is a unique public employment scheme that has kickstarted thousands of new work opportunities across South Africa. The Fund enables 28 civil society organisations, working in partnership with grassroots partners, to recruit and train unemployed people to deliver community-building programmes like providing arts in schools, early childhood development, and community safety. The SEF aims to create 50 000 part-time work opportunities in rural and urban areas across all nine provinces.

Jara, who lives in Lotus Park, an informal settlement located in Gugulethu, Cape Town, was employed earlier this year by the community development programme Violence Prevention Through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) to do household surveys and repair and maintain public facilities in the area.

“After I matriculated last year, I intended to start my own business, but I didn’t have funds. Not everyone is Bill Gates who started a business out of his mom’s garage. You need capital to start a car wash business,” says Jara.

Jara is one of 677 people employed by the VPUU in the Western Cape under their SEF-funded programme, Towards Building a Community Circular Economy (TBCCE), which enables healthy communities through placemaking, education, greening the environment, and digital inclusion, among other things.

As a data collector, Jara plays a pivotal role in ensuring that VPUU is responsive to residents’ needs. He is also part of VPUU’s ‘Check-It’ team that repairs and maintains public infrastructure in Lotus Park.

“I go to the field to collect data on public infrastructure such as streetlights, public toilets and taps to see if it’s working and needs repair. It’s been a good experience. Sometimes we encounter residents who are hostile, but we’ve had no serious issues or there’s the occasional dog that wants to bite you in the field, but we know how to move around these streets.”

Since he began to earn a regular stipend from VPUU, Jara has regained hope and optimism and plans to expand his fledgling car wash business beyond Gugulethu. He has also been able to support his family.

“What I earn supports my younger brother who lives with my grandmother. I give him transport money to get to and back from school. So, 50% of what I earn goes towards helping out in the house and 50% goes towards growing the business. You have to have goals. Being ambitious is not a bad thing.”

A multiplying effect

The SEF multiplies social value in communities through a collaborative partnership between the government, contracted civil society organisations known as Strategic Implementing Partners (SIPs), grassroots community-based organisations that collaborate with SIPs to implement the SEF, and participants who are paid for the community-building activities that they provide under SEF-funded programmes.

Lotus Park in Gugulethu is one of several communities in the Western Cape that benefits from the SEF-funded Towards Building a Community Circular Economy (TBCCE) programme run by the VPUU. Credit: Barry Christianson

As intermediaries between the government and communities, SIPs and their community-based organisation partners are best placed to implement the SEF thanks to their on-the-ground networks, local intelligence, and long-standing relationships with communities. The Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), the fund administrator, deposits the SEF stipend directly into participants’ bank accounts, ensuring the payment is accounted for by participants.

The SEF could inspire future grassroots and government collaboration towards sustainable development initiatives that builds lasting social infrastructure. Co-creative strategies, like the SEF, reimagine a collective response to shocks such as the Covid-19 pandemic, and  help to develop grassroots resilience by restoring the self-esteem and dignity of the unemployed with work that also adds social value to communities.

Collaboration and learning

The rollout of the SEF is supported by the Social Employment Network (SEN), a learning and support network which facilitates a regular meeting space for SIPs to address common challenges and collaborate around opportunities. The network also shares and documents learnings that are fed back to government as structured input to inform the design of future iterations of the SEF.

The SEN is convened by the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership (EDP), the DG Murray Trust and the IDC.

VPUU Chief Executive Officer Michael Krause explains that the SEN encourages peer-to-peer learning: The SEN allowed us to share our experiences with other SIP’s and to formulate a common position for collective action. Additionally, it made it possible for us to find synergies as well as identify duplications and alignment. It is also good to have an independent facilitator who is not involved in the implementation of the SEF which allows for a bird’s eye view.”

Yvette Hardie, Director of ASSITEJ SA, a SIP with a national footprint explains the value of the SEN. “The process of reflection and learning has been very rich and has certainly made us look at our own ways of working, both recognising our strengths and seeing areas where we can improve and bolster our practice.”

For Hardie, the SEN is a space for resource and idea exchange among partners: “The level of connectivity and exchange between SIPs is high, and rather than this being a space in which we are competing for resources, as is so often the case, we are building a supportive framework which can only serve the sector well into the future. This is a real social compact in action!”      

Read the VPUU case study and the ASSITEJ SA case study                                               

To find out more about the SEF and SEN, read this FAQ