Since the establishment of its legacy literacy programmes in 2015 the Volkswagen Community Trust has focused on a clear and ambitious goal: to ensure all learners are functionally literate by the age of 10 years. If this can be achieved, socioeconomic equality could be well within reach.
Volkswagen Community Trust: 30 YEARS OF CHANGE
The Community Trust at Volkswagen Group South Africa (VWSA) was established in 1989, as an answer to the needs of the communities in and around Uitenhage, where the company’s local plant is based. Today, the Trust is still the vehicle for VWSA’s corporate social investment initiatives and programmes.
“We saw the need to invest in communities as early as 30 years ago,” explains Nonkqubela Maliza, VWSA’s Director: Corporate and Government Affairs. “The circumstances were very different then. The political situation has changed radically over the years, but the socioeconomic issues are still there and, therefore, we are still investing deeply in the communities – though our focus areas have changed in keeping with the changing times and circumstances.”
While the Community Trust also invests in community development, its main focus areas are education and youth development. “We believe these are the key drivers to solving the problem of inequality in our immediate society and in South Africa. Through education and youth development, people have access to opportunities that can drive up income levels and contribute towards reducing inequality.
“Within the education space in particular, we have shifted our focus to the first 10 years of life. Our legacy initiatives are about making sure learners are functionally literate – in other words, able to read for meaning – by the time they are 10 years old. We believe this is a gateway to all education and learning. Investment in the early years of education yields better outcomes – not only for individuals, but for societies, economies and countries – than any other interventions later on in life.”
The Community Trust runs a range of projects that benefit and support the youth across different age groups: from its five literacy centres, established at schools in Uitenhage and manned by volunteers who assist children in learning to read, to the Ikhwezi Lomso Montessori Early Childhood Development Centre, a school started by VWSA in 2011 in the impoverished community of KwaLanga.
“We’re also very proud of our loveLife Youth Centre, which I believe is one of the very best,” says Maliza. “It is a multifaceted youth centre in Kwanobuhle in Uitenhage, with a fully staffed clinic, a computer centre, sports facilities, a radio station, an arts and culture centre, and much more. It’s about giving young people from the local community a safe place to go after school and on weekends, where a spectrum of their needs are attended to.”
Joining Hands: Employee involvement in CSI
In 2010 VWSA conducted a survey among its employees in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape to gauge their interest in participating in the company’s various CSI projects. “The response was overwhelmingly positive. Employees said they definitely wanted to give of their time and talent towards uplifting the community. They were also interested in our existing focus areas, such as children and education.”
This is how the Show of Hands programme was born – an initiative that brings employees together to volunteer to the benefit of the local community. The most recent Show of Hands events in July 2019 saw the Uitenhage employees renovating the Dr Ambrose Cato George Skills Development Centre in Port Elizabeth and packing 20 000 meals for local charity organisations. Meanwhile, the Gauteng- based employees partnered with Rise Against Hunger and packed 40 000 meals, which were donated to 153 Early Childhood Development centres through the organisation Ntataise.
“We also have a mentorship programme running in Johannesburg in partnership with the Alexander Education Committee, where our employees mentor young learners on weekends. It is about giving them exposure to the world of work and preparing them for what they can expect. Many of these children live less than 10 kilometres from Sandton but some have never been to the cinema, for example. We try to bridge the gap for them, so that they are socially prepared when they go to university.”
Aside from offering their time to benefit their communities, many VWSA employees also opt to contribute financially. “We have partnered with One Hour for the Future, which is a global Volkswagen programme through which employees can choose to contribute the equivalent of one hour’s salary to a CSI programme. In South Africa this programme is Ikhwezi Lomso. There is definitely a lot of interest and involvement from our employees, and we continue to inform and involve them, because we believe they are the best advocates of the work done by VWSA.”
The importance of outcomes
“One of the challenges of our CSI initiatives is that socioeconomic development is never linear or immediate. It takes time and continuous investment, and you must be willing to learn as you go along and correct your course if needed.
“In order to do that, you have to be quite scientific in your approach. You can’t be sentimental or emotional; you have to let the facts speak for themselves and then respond to that. We are focused on not just doing things that feel right and good to us, but things that really show objective results. We measure and evaluate constantly, and focus on outcomes and impact.”
This methodology proved crucial in the Community Trust’s literacy programmes, which is now in its fifth year. “When we started, we conducted a survey to find out how many grade three learners in the Uitenhage area were functionally literate and found that only two out of ten learners could read with understanding. We put our programme in place and two years later when we did the survey again, we found that – even though there had been some improvement in that more children were reading – the results had hardly moved. The difference we were making was not significant enough, so we had to make a decision.
“We decided we would be fooling ourselves if we kept giving children books and posters for their classrooms and doing nothing more, so we did a further evaluation of the programme. Since then we’ve introduced coaches in the classrooms and focused much more on the teachers, because what happens in the classroom is the most important driver of our outcomes.”
“The Community Trust has partnered with Rhodes University in Makhanda and the non- profit organisation Funda Wande, in order to train teachers specifically for the purpose of teaching children to read. “People think the problem is that children don’t have enough books, but that is only a part of it; you still have to make sure there is someone who is able to teach them how to read the books you give them.”
The Community Trust continues to monitor the impact of the literacy programme and its new interventions. “Monitoring and evaluation is integral to what we do. You have to be clear on the result you want, and then measure and keep measuring, so you can understand the root cause of the problem and address that, as opposed to just addressing the symptoms.”
Partnering for systemic change
Though corporate social investment programmes in South Africa are contributing approximately R10 billion each year to upliftment and development, Maliza believes this is not sufficient to change the country’s socioeconomic problems.
“It is a sizeable contribution from the private sector, but CSI initiatives on their own are not able to bring about systemic change; it can be a catalyst but it is too small – relative to the size of the country and the size of the problem – to bring about total systemic change.
“Only through effective partnerships with government can these initiatives bring massive change. That is what we try to do with our literacy programme. We piloted an approach at five schools, and once we have an approach that works, government may be able to expand it to 20 or 50 schools. On our own we don’t have the capacity to run the programme in 50 schools, but once we can show it is effective, government could support us and expand it across Uitenhage or Nelson Mandela Bay. As corporates we might have more freedom to pilot such projects and we are more agile; that is why we can innovate and test things.”
Going forward, the Community Trust aims to continue and expand its efforts in eradicating illiteracy. “So few learners are able to read and write for meaning by the time they are 10 years old. That is why we would really like to see our programmes around literacy expand. You cannot have an equal society when the bulk of your young people cannot read or write.”
VW Community Trust | 041 994 4399 | www.vwcommunitytrust.co.za