Minimum Wage and the Stingy South African Employer

Should the proposed National Minimum Wage of R20 an hour (R3500 per month) be implemented, around 6.6 million people will benefit.

We should take a moment and allow that to settle in our souls; an estimated 6.6 million people earn less than R20 an hour. R160 per day. And get this, I know people who know people who are paying R11 an hour with no contribution to transport. R88 per day with up to half of that lost to transport. R44 a day. Most of these people are domestic workers who care for our children, our elderly and our homes. We entrust our loved ones and our most valuable assets to people we pay somewhere between R50 and R120 per day. There are a few unavoidable consequences when people are impoverished and demeaned in this way. Here are a few of them – I am sure you will think of some more:
  1. People live with unimaginably high levels of stress
  2. People resort to debt simply to live
  3. People steal and engage in other criminal behaviours to survive
  4. People may turn to alcohol and abuse of other substances as hopelessness sets in and they lose the ability to dream.
  5. Loyalty and work ethic often diminish
  6. Anger and resentment build
And yet I know people who know people who are resisting paying their staff well despite all this. And we must remember that the word ‘minimum’ is just that; a minimum. We should be striving to pay significantly above this. When The Peace Agency began the first Baby Home in Durban, South Africa we resolved that one of our key objectives as an NGO was to pay our team of staff a poverty-busting wage. One year, we doubled each staff member’s salary and from then on, everyone received at least one, sometimes two significant increases a year. Everyone always gets a 13th cheque. Yes, this means that as an NGO we can “do less” in terms of babies. But the reality is that we are caring for more people. As a team, everyone feels dignified and empowered. This dignity and empowerment – not to mention resources – is then imparted outside of the workplace in our families and communities.  Not only that, but because we are well cared for as a team, we can care well for the babies in return. People want to work at the Durban North Baby Home. If we cannot afford to pay at least the minimum wage, then we cannot afford to start companies or NGO’s, and we cannot afford domestic staff. Poorly paid work is not better than no work at all as it destroys people’s humanity and hence the very fabric of society.

New Graduates Take a Big Hit

My wife and I recently attended the graduation ceremony of a staff member of ours who had completed a course in Early Childhood Development through Embury College. It was quite an affair.

300 odd graduates most of them with a guest, in a conference room at the old airport decked out like a wedding reception; round tables; crisp table clothes; decorations; white chairs with gold tie-backs; a buffet-style meal; an official photographer. Although the courses were short – 1 year – every graduate wore a graduation gown complete with mortar board. We were like proud parents. Before I continue I should point out that our staff member runs our NGO’s creche up in Hammarsdale near Pietermaritzburg. She is lucky enough to be employed. Many of her fellow graduates will only get work after they qualify and at that, if they are lucky as most of them are young and inexperienced. We wrongly assumed that her graduation was included in the course fee. So, you can imagine our shock when she told us that she had to cough up R400 to attend her own graduation – they all had (as opposed to the R150 per head us guests paid). And this excluded photos, which is really what they all wanted. Now to put the economics of all this into some perspective, the whole course only cost R1600. The photographer hustled them relentlessly for business and his price list ranged from R250 for 3 x A4 pics (no frames) to R450 for 3 x A4 pics (no frames). Frames were an extra R50 each. So, if they wanted pictures in a frame, this event would have cost these young, unemployed ladies from some far-flung areas between R650 and R850. That’s before they bought or hired fancy outfits (and they were fancy!) and got transport. Of course, few of them could afford photos and by the end of the event the sleazy photographer was offering pictures for R20. Did this event really cost Embury roughly R165,000 to stage (300 x R400 plus 300 x R150)? And why did the guests pay R150 and the graduates R400? R250 for the hire of a graduation gown? We must celebrate success wherever we find it – particularly in education. But come on Embury! Why not have these graduations in the communities the graduates come from and get local graduates to project manage them for a fee? They can commission community suppliers – cooks, flower arrangers, local DJ’s, photographers et – to do the event at a fraction of the cost and channel the money back into the communities where it is needed most. Or is there perhaps something I’m missing here?

Youth Unemployment: The South African Tragedy

One of the most tragic parts of working in some communities in South Africa is the unemployment that one encounters among the youth.

The tragedy of this phenomenon is given graphic expression when one calls a community meeting for say 10am on a Tuesday and the venue fills up with youngsters mostly around 20 or 30 years of age. They have usually come with two questions in mind: 1) Do you have a job for me and 2) will there be lunch provided? Of course nine times out of ten the answer to both these questions is negative. It is at times like these that my colleagues and I embark on long and usually somewhat fruitless debates on how to create large-scale employment for young people who are short on skills. I mean what can a kid – often with nothing more than a grade 8 or 9 – do for gainful and decent employment? How do you even train such a person? We assume that our oft-quoted expanded unemployment rate of somewhere upwards of 35% means that there are simply no formal jobs available. So we begin looking at alternative options such as litter collection and rock crushing. And then the question becomes – and this is arguably even more challenging for me personally: are we – as citizens of our country – simply meant to sit back and watch as these young people slowly sink into the mire of poverty; turn to substance abuse and perhaps even a life of crime? Is there nothing we can do to arrest this descent? Is there no part we can play – even if it is simply a case of “doing for one what we wish we could do for all.”  Now, regular readers of this column will know not to use the ‘g’ word in my presence! It offends me greatly. This is because when we use the ‘g’ word we are usually shifting total responsibility from ‘I’ to ‘g’. These questions have no easy answers and if our only solution involves invoking the responsibilities of government then we have missed it. Why? Because as I have said in the past, if our democratic government knew what to do about youth unemployment or indeed any other devastating issue on our list of devastating issues, then it would probably do it. This is because results are the best way to win elections. In addition to this, a maturing democracy must see us make the shift in problem solving from the “you” (government must solve all the problems) to the “I” (I will solve all the problems alone – a disease suffered by many NGO’s in our country) to the “we” (we must work together to solve the problems). The thing that we need to get our heads around is that we – i.e. you and me – can be playing a much bigger role in solving youth unemployment than we might think. There are two things we can do immediately that would help move us into the space of the “we “when it comes to helping solve this issue: As I have advocated before, we urgently need adults who are prepared to mentor our vulnerable young people. Mentorship – the simple act of walking the journey of life with a youngster for a short period of time – has been proven to be highly effective in causing children to go on and live happy, functional and productive lives. Just one hour a week with a caring adult is often all it takes to turn a troubled kid’s life around or keep a balanced kid grounded. Simple as that. Secondly – and this can be done as part of your one hour a week – you can teach a young person to ride a scooter or drive a car (if the youngster you are mentoring is of age of course). Youth Unemployment Now, the first part – becoming a mentor – is straightforward. You can sign up to mentor a child on our Bright Stars Mentorship Programme (e-mail or visit for information). The second part is even more interesting. A recent Sunday Times article totally disproved most of what we believe about youth unemployment. According to mobile recruitment start-up Giraffe, there is a serious shortage of motorcycle drivers in South Africa. The same applies to cashiers, hotel/restaurant workers, drivers and call centre staff. Who knew? Now these positions often require nothing more than practical or on-the-job training and then some assistance in getting the young person in contact with companies like Giraffe ( And Bob’s your auntie as they say in the classics. You have helped to reduce the unemployment rate in South Africa by one. Now, I know what you are thinking; what difference will one make? To answer that you simply have to imagine how different your one life would have looked if you had never had a job. Imagine if no one person had ever given you – one person – a break. How different would things have turned out for you?  Having done that, isn’t it time to pay it forward?  Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.   This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.   

Lessons from a South African mine

There was an air of anticipation in the room as they filed in and took their seats. This was the second and final day of the workshop and by now the nerves of day 1 had subsided. New friends greeted one another and old friends laughed and chatted. They took their seats and focused intently on one of my colleagues who would be facilitating the session. Silence descended and then she asked the question: “What makes you valuable?” 15 pairs of eyes looked shyly down and hands were folded nervously in laps. An aching silence fell over the room. The question had been posed to the group at the end of day 1 and their homework was to go and ask wives, husbands, children, and neighbours what it was that made them valuable. My colleague – aware that a group of frontline mine workers may never have considered such a question – allowed the question to hang. Silence. She repeated the question: “What makes you valuable?” After what felt like an eternity a man stood up slowly and tentatively. The room held its breath: “My wife told me that I am just a good father to our children.” Eyes looked up slowly and then the applause began. The man – an older African gentlemen – looked somewhat confused. His eyes seemed to say: “Perhaps they didn’t hear me correctly; perhaps my English wasn’t correct; I said that all that made me valuable is that I am a good father to our children.” But the applause continued. He smiled; the broadest, proudest smile I have seen in years. He had risen to tell his story as a man who saw himself as valueless. He took his seat once again filled with a sense of his own self-worth. And one-by-one they stood and spoke. The group – predominantly men – recalled what wives, kids and community members had said about them. And they loved it! But fascinatingly, most of their stories included the word ‘just’: ‘”My family say that I am just a good provider.” “My kids say I am valuable because I just buy them food and gifts.” “My neighbour says I am just a good member of our community.” “My wife says I am just a good husband”. I do not believe for one moment that their friends and loved ones used the word ‘just’ to describe any of these incredible men; what was said about each of them was so far from ‘just’ anything. But the hard truth is that for years, decades – we have spent our time exploring what it is about one another that we dislike; what it is that makes you less valuable to me. And no one knows a lack of value better than frontline mine workers in South Africa. If any group has fundamentally internalised and accepted a lack of personal value, it is this group. I believe that it is this fact – not the reason that so often presents itself; dispute over wages – that leads to the violence that we see on our mines. People learn to interpret their value by the size of their pay packet and violence erupts when their ‘value’ is not increased sufficiently. But what option have people been given to experience true value and worth in any other way? I sat at the back of the room listening and watching as the confidence of the room grew; as men began to sit up a little straighter and smile as if they meant it. And I wondered if Marikana might have been avoided had Lonmin taken the time to ask their people the question; “what makes you valuable”- and really listened to the answers? And I wondered how much of the destruction that we see in our country wouldn’t be avoided if we all took the time to explore one another’s value – give value to another – beyond the tasks that we are employed to fulfill. At a time when mines are trying desperately to hold onto their own value, Richards Bay Minerals is counter-intuitively working to instill value into its people. This is not just good in terms of healing and building individuals, communities and the nation at large; it makes solid business sense too. By being willing to speak to the intrinsic value of the human being, this company is giving each member of its staff-force a deep and abiding sense of self-worth. And they have learned that self-worth is the cornerstone of an inspired, safe and productive workforce. This is the lesson that businesses – and most urgently mines – need to learn in South Africa. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.

White Entitlement in the new South Africa

I have a friend called Clinton dos Santos. He is a young, middle-class, white South African male. Given what we know about employment in South Africa, Clinton would be better off emigrating than seeking work here. But the odd thing about Clinton is that he is never out of work. I recently ran a workshop for a group of leaders from a large company. The conversation turned to employment equity and BBBEE and many of them had a great deal to say about the fact that as white, male South Africans they were being excluded from the job market. They failed to see the irony until I pointed it out to them. One of the older guys – a 57 year old white Afrikaans man – then revealed that he had recently put his CV out and within 3 days he had received 10 job offers. A mythology of white victimhood has grown post 1994 and this manifests in our reactions to employment equity and BBBEE. There is a palpable sense that – as white folk – we have been hard done by. But my friend Clinton – and so many others like him – prove this to be false. He refuses to fall victim to victimhood. What differentiates Clinton from other white males is that unemployment is not an option for him. He will make coffee or wait tables. He will do odd jobs or clean streets. Not for all, but for many white South Africans employment equity and BBBEE has become an excuse. Anyone can sit on a couch and moan. It is much harder to get up and serve food, tend gardens or sweep streets. There is always a job of work to be done – if we are prepared to do it. But how much of all this is our belief that certain work is beneath us; that it is only for the ‘previously disadvantaged’? In many ways we white South Africans are the ones with the sense of entitlement. If we aren’t living the lifestyle to which our privilege ‘entitles’ us, then we simply turn our sights on employment equity and BBBEE and blame that for our plight. Black folk are constantly being fingered for blaming apartheid for everything yet we do just the same only in reverse; we blame the demise of apartheid for everything. Let us begin by challenging what we know and by changing the conversations that perpetuate a false narrative. Only then will we begin to understand that our country is still fundamentally unbalanced – in favour of whites. This post is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered.