Targeting Social Problems in South Africa at Their Root Causes

Volkswagen offers "help for self-help"
Apr 20, 2015 10:05 AM ET

Themba Maseti is beaming. Indeed, he is almost vibrating. The powerfully built manager of the Love Life Youth Center can scarcely keep his positive energy under control when he takes visitors on a tour of the facility. We are in KwaNobuhle, a district of Uitenhage near to the Volkswagen plant in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. Despite the holidays, the Love Life Center is very busy.

The 38-year-old races through the new building, greeting people, gesticulating and explaining each and every section. The medical consulting room, the music and dance area, the chill zone and the sports zone. "Every day, we provide support for up to 300 children and young people who can play football, table tennis or billiards, borrow books and use a computer. Here, they can find a protected space that allows them to think about other things."

There are real problems in this district. Some of the houses around the Center are simple huts or shacks without any electricity or running water. Everyday life is dominated by a sense of hopelessness. "People suffer from extremely high unemployment and high levels of domestic violence. Many seek refuge in alcohol and drugs and come into contact with HIV and AIDS. Girls become pregnant when they are far too young. Anyone can come to us who needs somebody to talk to and to listen. We try to help."

The Center, supported by a joint investment of the IG Metall trade union and the Volkswagen group totaling €2 million, offers a variety of services and events. With health advice, theatre courses, the small L2K radio station and a debating club, the small team of nurse, psychologist, social worker and youth adviser have had their hands full since the center was opened two years ago.

The Youth Center reaches every third teenager in the township and is now visited by more than twice as many young people as originally planned. And the numbers are growing. Themba Maseti: "We want to provide encouragement and build confidence so that the young people can lay the right foundations for their futures."

This also applies to the multilingual Ikhwezi Lomso School ("Little Morning Star") in KwaLanga, another district of Uitenhage. Poverty seems to be even more severe here. The pre-school facility is supported by the Volkswagen Community Trust and donations from the workforce. Care and help is provided in English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa to make sure that the girls and boys at the facility reach the point where they are ready to attend school.

Five and six-year-olds, many of whom are simply parked in front of the TV at home, train their memories and concentration and improve their physical fitness on a climbing wall and a balancing beam. In the afternoon, they meet other children in the reading club and receive what is often their only hot meal of the week in the soup kitchen.

A journalist from Germany who travelled to see the facility is astonished: "The standard here is higher than in many kindergartens I have seen in Berlin and Hamburg," he says.

These two projects are only a small selection from the "Volkswagen for good" program that pools the activities of Volkswagen Group South Africa in the field of corporate social responsibility. The main focus is on education and on helping people to help themselves for the solution of social problems.

The Volkswagen Business Center in Uitenhage was created with this in mind. Most young entrepreneurs of South Africa fail before they have reached the third year. In a country with an unemployment rate of about 25 percent this is especially alarming. In cooperation with startup-consulting firm Raizcorp the Volkswagen Business Center assists 21 young enterprises, which recently achieved an increase in revenue of 45 percent and recruited 159 new members of staff.

For Nonkqubela Maliza (47), Director Corporate and Governmental Affairs at Volkswagen Group South Africa, it is important not just to distribute money indiscriminately. "We think on a long-term basis and always ask whether our contribution will ensure sustainable progress in the community."

Responsibility is really one of Volkswagen's top priorities. "Other companies also do good but many of them spend a lot on public relations work to make sure that everyone knows about it. Our projects are intended to speak for themselves."

Nonkqubela Maliza adds: "We want to make a real difference in our environment, which is why we invest significantly more than 1% of our profit after tax in the community. We call this contribution Corporate Social Investment – an investment by the company in people."

Ms Maliza emphasizes: "Of course, we do not receive any interest on this investment in financial terms. Our return is often the smiles we see and the success of people whose lives we have been able to change for the better."