Mining helping to show how rich and poor South Africans can work arm-in-arm as volunteers

Rick Menell (left) and Murphy Morobe (Photo by: Darlene Creamer)



Johannesburg- ( – Every year, 700 000 to 800 000 young South Africans leave school with extremely limited prospects of obtaining employment, adding to the statistic of three- to four-million people younger than 25 who are already unemployed.

One of the country’s most pressing challenges is finding ways of preparing these young people for employment and life as adult citizens in a constitutional democracy. (Also watch attached Creamer Media video).

An organisation that has been meeting those needs is City Year, which began functioning ten years ago in the offices of the former Anglovaal Mining (Avmin) in Main street, Johannesburg.

Co-chaired by anti-apartheid struggle stalwart Murphy Morobe and former Avmin CEO and banking luminary Rick Menell, City Year would now like to see the concept of a year of voluntary youth service spreading beyond Johannesburg to South Africa’s other main urban centres.

So far, it has provided 1 683 young people with the chance to perform voluntary after-school tutoring and mentoring of 23 000 school children, with the volunteers using the year as a launch pad into a wide range of careers, entrepreneurship and new learning opportunities.

“It’s the cheapest way to prepare people for the world of work,” commented Menell, who heads Credit Suisse South Africa.

Willingness to offer help voluntarily to others is seen as a way of building a society that “isn’t all me, me, me; grab, grab, grab”, he added in the attached video interview with Creamer Media’s Mining Weekly Online.

Volunteers of all races are screened for demonstrated commitment to community service and must have matriculated because of the role they play in helping younger children with their academic work.

“Often we get graduates from university. We try to get as much diversity as we can to show that South Africans, arm-in-arm, rich and poor, can engage together in voluntary work,” Menell commented to Mining Weekly Online.

Limited resources have restricted the yearly intake to between 100 and 200 volunteers a year, but City Year is now increasingly being seen as an enormously valuable model that the country should expand.

“I believe we have the basis for scale,” Morobe, the national director of Jika iMfundo, told Mining Weekly Online.

City Year receives 40% of its funding from the public sector and 40% from South African and foreign corporates, with most of the mining houses and banks coming to the table and many individuals and foundations putting their hands in their pockets.

It costs between R40 000 and R50 000 a volunteer a year, which is much higher than the R18 000 set as standard for youth service, which City Year believes is inadequate.

There is, thus, a funding challenge, but return on investment a year is enormous when one takes into account the opportunity cost of having people in their twenties and thirties being out of work indefinitely.

It is seen as being cheap when the full impact on people’s lives is taken into account, particularly when the number of younger learners who are tutored and mentored by volunteers is considered.

“We would love to see hundreds of thousands of youth doing a year of service. We think it would transform South Africa,” said Menell, who is also deputy chairperson of Gold Fields and a non-executive director of Sibanye Gold and Rockwell Diamonds.

But that would require a constellation of organisations and a central government funding mechanism.

It would generate the take-up of a sophisticated service model that is a far cry from initiatives like the expanded public works service, where participants dig for six months, receive a stipend and walk away with little but the ability to work with a shovel.

“A strong element is about initiative. Once the self-confidence is built up, these people exhibit a strong sense of initiative,” said Morobe. (Also watch attached Creamer Media video).

Ten per cent of the graduates have founded their own businesses. One of the alumni, Daylene van Buuren, currently runs the organisation as City Year South Africa executive director; and another, Danny Tong, founded the InvesTong Group, a multidisciplinary 100% black-owned investment holding company, and this year became the first past graduate to donate to the City Year programme.

Teams are challenged to leave a legacy project in the schools where they have served for a year, such as a feeding scheme, a market garden or a library.

“We believe voluntary civilian social service – not military service – is the best model,” said Menell when asked to comment on the national youth service initiative proposed by the investment banking division of Goldman Sachs, which proposes that 300 000 unemployed youth become part of a National Defence Force programme over the next five years.

South Africa’s youth development policy of 2004, which was introduced by the Mbeki administration and which remains today, is seen by City Year as being sound and centred on developing youth entrepreneurship as a way of providing opportunity, education and training initiatives.

It is regarded as a clearly articulated programme, offering youth a chance to do useful social service for a year while being trained for at least 40% of the time that they commit.

The volunteers are paid a stipend so that they have sustenance, can make decisions about income and gain work experience.

City Year is thus entirely aligned to the objective of South Africa’s national youth policy, making it one of a handful of organisations that is officially accredited.

Many of the members of its volunteer teams who tutor eight- to-14-year-old school pupils are from single-parent or no-parent families and it has been found that a caring mentor can change young lives and have a huge impact if taken to scale.

With the mantra of spirit, purpose, discipline and pride, the volunteers used to be dressed in uniforms that Timberland provided.

One of City Year’s biggest supporters has been the Department of Environment Affairs, which is currently providing the organisation with R5-million a year and with which City Year is partnered as an implementer of the Youth Environmental Service Programme launched in 2013.

As a nonprofit organisation for people between the ages of 18 and 25 who have provided more than a million hours of service, City Year serves nine primary schools across Gauteng in Tsakane, Tembisa, Sebokeng, Meyerton, Randfontein, Westonaria, Kagiso, Diepkloof and Lawley.

Founded in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1988, it is active in 27 communities across the US and has international affiliates in London, Birmingham and Manchester, in the UK.

Menell’s own commitment to the sector was triggered personally in the early 2000s when he was driving to a luxury game lodge in Sabi Sabi and passed a high school from which 400 incredibly bright-faced energetic youth were leaving for the day and pouring out into the street jabbering and engaging.

Owing to his work in the private sector with corporate social investment programmes, he was well aware that only 5% of those 400 had any chance of getting gainful employment and improving their lives.

“It’s a shocking statistic. I just looked at these kids and I thought, my God, what a tragedy.

“And that’s what drives us and I think it drives everybody who cares for the country,” Menell confided.

He loves the Goldman Sachs numbers of training 300 000 young people at a cost of R62-billion over five years, which is more than R200 000 a head a year, but calculates that 100 000 youth in service would require 10 000 team leaders, or sergeants, and 1 000 officers to manage it. He regards City Year as being a potential training ground for those thousands of team leaders and mentors.

“Military service is admirable service to society but it’s within a command and control environment of ‘break them down and then build them up’, so that they obey orders.

“That’s not what we’re about. We’re about self-directed citizens who are volunteering to serve their fellow citizens in a thoughtful and a principled way through work – a military process cannot achieve those values in the same way,” Menell contended.

Morobe suggested that Goldman Sachs might consider grafting some of the City Year values into its proposed programme.

“It’s easy to get the 300 000 people but once you’ve got them, what’s the model, what process do you take them through, for them to come out on the other side with a set of values that links up with the constitutional paradigm of a new democratic environment, a work ethic and their ability to conceive of how they fit in to an adult life in society,” he queried.

City Year spreads the message of voluntary service being a vital tool for dealing with youth unemployment and also for consolidating a successful constitutional democracy.