Rapaport Magazine

Designing New Opportunities

Black Economic Empowerment Programs are giving disadvantaged youth job training, but will it lead to jobs?

By Leah Granof
RAPAPORT... Twenty-year-old Roerphy Mokgalbone is bent over a wooden table carefully guiding a blowtorch through small brass rings. The sound of his fiery torch and the nearby clank of hammers nearly drown out the sizzle of the hot metal rings as he plunks them into a jar of cold water. The elaborate preparation is for a bracelet that Mokgalbone will eventually make by cutting the rings and linking them together.

Mokgalbone and 20 other students have gathered in the once-famous South African gold-mining town of Barberton to learn the basics of jewelry design and manufacturing. They are training under the auspices of the Vukani-Ubuntu Community Development Project, a nonprofit organization established under the umbrella of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE).

BEE is South Africa’s official government program enacted to redress the inequalities of apartheid by giving historically disadvantaged groups — mostly black Africans — new economic opportunities. The program aims to establish at least 25 percent black ownership in various industries over the next ten years by providing businesses with economic incentives to hire and train black Africans.


It was within the framework of BEE that Vukani’s founders — Demos Takoulas, Fana Maseko and Andrew Abramovitz — gathered in Takoulas’ kitchen one night in 1999 and decided to establish a nonprofit organization to train black youth in the art of jewelry design and manufacturing. The endeavor, which eventually developed into the Vukani-Ubuntu program, has two main goals: to provide poor, minimally educated black youth with employable skills in the jewelry manufacturing industry and to benefit South Africa by utilizing its natural mineral resources.

Maseko, looking much younger than his 50 years, is the only black founder of Vukani and currently serves as chief operating officer (COO). He worked for a foreign film production company during the apartheid era. Ignoring the discriminatory laws at the time, the film company promoted him to be one of its first black managers. Because of his experience, Maseko found himself uniquely qualified to serve both as a mentor to the students and a production manager in the Vukani program.

For Takoulas, chief executive officer (CEO) and Vukani’s main fundraiser, the project was a way to fulfill his Greek mother’s dream of helping black South Africans whose treatment she found appalling when she arrived in the country in the 1960s. That’s why, when Abramovitz, a jewelry designer himself, approached Takoulas with the idea to open a nonprofit school, he readily agreed.

“From a personal point of view, it is my mother’s work,” Takoulas says. “I was very into money, and suddenly I got this notion that I was chasing the wrong ideals.”

By developing a curriculum that offers students practical skills development, the Vukani founders hoped manufacturers would be eager to hire its students under the benefits of BEE. So far, the idea has worked. To date, the group has graduated close to 200 students, 95 percent of whom are currently employed by local manufacturers, according to Takoulas.


Vukani’s students are trained on eight individual campuses spread over four provinces in South Africa. Maseko runs the flagship campus in the township of Atteridgeville, located on the western side of Pretoria. Most campuses are located in, or next to, townships that used to be segregated “locations” under apartheid. Today, they remain almost exclusively black underdeveloped urban residential areas. Vukani’s Atteridgeville campus can support close to 30 students at any given time, with most students taking up residence in the 300,000-person township during the length of the program.

Students attend the school for free. The cost of funding an individual student is roughly 20,000 ZAR— $2,800 — a year. Private donors, including South African mines, support the program; the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and the Kellogg Foundation currently serve as the two largest donors, each having given 1.3 million ZAR —$185,100 — over the past year.

Because of space limitations, Maseko accepts only 20 students from the 150 who apply for each 18-month program. Despite the large applicant pool, Maseko weeds out students through aptitude tests that measure skills such as eye-hand coordination and basic knowledge of mathematical dimensions. After screening, only around 40 applicants actually qualify for admissions, Maseko explains.

Even qualified applicants, however, need intense instruction just to reach a basic level of competency. Critics of the program argue that the training time is far too short, graduating barely capable students.

Margaretha Wikberg , who teaches art history and drawing to students on the Barberton campus, explains the challenges she faces during the hour and a half she spends with the students each day. “Before I can talk about Egyptian art, I have to explain Egypt: what it is, where it is, why it is a desert and other basic social studies,” she says.


Nevertheless, Vukani’s training model has been copied by other programs looking to emulate the project’s success. That, according to Chris Van Rensburg, chairman of The Jewellery Manufacturers of South Africa, is not necessarily a good thing. He argues that such projects will not be sustainable in the long term if they do not move toward a profit-making business plan that can continue running when BEE money dries up.

Although he is quick to call Vukani “the most successful program out there,” Van Rensburg blames such projects for flooding the market with what he believes are less qualified students. “The problem for us specifically as a manufacturing industry is that because of all the beneficiation issues, we have hundreds of people being trained, but we can only absorb 10 to 20 percent of those being trained,” he points out.

Takoulas does not deny such criticism, but claims that under BEE, employers should expect to provide further guidance to students who have achieved only the most basic skill sets. In the meantime, he already has his sights set on larger goals.

“We have reached level one — training in basic skills. The second level is making them their own entrepreneurs and setting them up with their own businesses,” Takoulas explains.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - May 2007. To subscribe click here.

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