Twenty years after a white electorate voted convincingly in favor of dismantling apartheid, South Africa is still very much a nation in transition. This was evident today in Pretoria to the team (pictured) from SAP – eleven of us from three continents who have assembled in a fourth, Africa, to participate in SAP’s second social sabbatical program. The idea: supported by SAP’s corporate sustainability program, we will spend the next four weeks working with three non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Pretoria. We will learn from them and, hopefully, contribute something in return.
After a weekend of warm welcomes from the local South Africa team, we had assembled this morning at the offices of PEN, one of the NGOs, in the grand Dutch Reformed Church (Groote Kerk) at the corner of Bosman and Madiba streets. The other two NGOs, Employment Solutions for People with Disabilities and Fair Trade in Tourism – South Africa, had also sent its leaders. It was a beautiful sunny day. Outside, Pretoria’s jacaranda trees were just beginning to bloom.
Thinus Schrage from PEN (which stands for Participate, Empower and Navigate) was explaining how his organization started. In the tumult of the early 1990s, white South Africans started fleeing Pretoria’s city center for the suburbs to be replaced by poor black Africans. Within a short while, a majority of Groote Kerk’s conservative congregants had gone. The remaining few had to decide whether to close or relocate the church or to do something for the new demographics of the neighborhood. In 1992, five congregants started PEN. Twenty years later, PEN, whose mission is “bettering the lives of the people of inner city Pretoria,” is vital to the community. And in these two decades the demographics of inner city Pretoria have changed yet again. Today there are a large number of immigrants from other parts of Africa living in the vicinity of Groote Kerk.
PEN provides subsidized housing, day care and affordable health care to the community. We toured a spotless medical center called Sediba Hope Medical Centre, built with help from donors such as US AID. The medical center is located within “a social housing complex.” Upstairs, PEN provides subsidized space for small-business entrepreneurs: Regina Curtain Manufacturers and Prosperity Business Brokers (specializing in accounting and company registration papers) were among those who had set up shop. Downstairs, we passed Angy’s Hair Dresser and Zozo’s Bite, a restaurant. Schrage explained that the woman who owned Angy’s had the skills necessary to become a hairdresser, but couldn’t afford to rent a place. PEN helped out, and now she had her own business. Zozo’s Bite had started out as a canteen for the PEN employees and volunteers, Schrage said. After a few years, the woman who ran the canteen was operating it so well, PEN helped her set up a restaurant.
“If a poor person has a place to stay and work, it dignifies him or her,” Martha Venter, one of Schrage’s colleagues, told the team. “It tells people you belong.”
The dignity of belonging – it was a sentiment we would hear again later in the day from Ilze Meintjes, the head of Employment Solutions for People with Disabilities, which helps handicapped people work and belong in society.
I will describe the other two NGOs in my entries later this week.
After the kickoff at Groote Kerk and the tour of PEN, the SAP team split up into three sub groups. One would work with PEN, the second with Employment Solutions for People with Disabilities and the third with Fair Trade in Tourism – South Africa.
The PEN group stayed behind, while the other two went off to visit their partners for the month. I was among the ones who left. As we headed out, we got the smell of frying fish. The owner of Zozo’s Bite was getting ready for the lunch crowd.
Saswato Das is a director of Media Relations at SAP.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.