OP-ED

Using Barack Obama’s organising model to tackle SA’s unemployment crisis

By Ayal Belling 21 January 2020

(Photo: Adobestock)

Organising for Work, a new volunteer-based unemployed movement, has sprung up in Cape Town’s highest unemployment areas. Run at no charge for and by the unemployed, it highlights and alleviates the active discouragement employers impose on job-seekers and connects the unemployed directly to employers from where they live.

Organising for Work was launched in August 2018 in Langa, Cape Town and has since opened eight branches in high unemployment areas around the Cape Flats, trained 110 unemployed volunteers to staff them, inducted over 1,800 members and played a role in around 200 people finding work of some duration.

Branches are open to unemployed people of all ages, abilities, education and criminal records and employers can search for and contact members for free. Relying on volunteers to staff them, donated laptops and phones, and by being predominantly located in public libraries with free WiFi, branches can be opened and run at near-zero cost.

In April 2018, Luke Jordan and I started conceptualising how to catalyse a social movement around unemployment. The stats were horrifying and the daily reality of it was crushing people’s lives. Those not working were facing it alone, their voices largely unheard. As one of the biggest constituencies in the country, they had no power.

The issues facing the unemployed in their search for work were also not being challenged in a coherent way. There was severe discouragement of job-seekers due to the cost of the search (travel, copying, data etc), particularly in the context of far too few jobs in the countryjust 16 million for 38 million in the working age. There were also the deep structural factors that made staying in a job hard, including poverty wages and the distance to places of work.

I have no background in community organising, but Luke is the founder of Grassroot, a Johannesburg-based organisation that enables participatory democracy by helping communities mobilise and organise. Our goal was to catalyse a sustainable grassroots movement that could, through the voice and power of the unemployed, challenge the discouragement employers impose on them, make finding and staying in work less taxing and demand better policy, governance and implementation for the creation of decent jobs.

Neither of us had the faintest idea of what might work on the issue of unemployment. We agreed, though, on a couple of principles. The first was that our initial ideas, as two middle-class white men, were likely to be ineffective and disconnected from what was needed. Learning on the ground from, and in co-operation with, the unemployed themselves through experimentation was required. The second was that the movement had to be structured in such a way as to eventually transform the motivations and capacities of its members so that they became the leaders in their own struggle.

We were aware of various groupings of the unemployed having formed locally to demand jobs in public and private projects in their vicinity. We were also aware of the grassroots formations such as the Unemployed People’s Movement in Makhanda and the Botshabelo Unemployed Movement in the Free State which had three branches and around 500 members.

Both do excellent work against intense economic and structural headwinds. However, we were keen to incorporate the principles of a different mode of organising and experimentation. We had as our local models the outstanding achievements of the Treatment Action Campaign and the United Democratic Front. But, we also favoured elements of the Marshall Ganz style of organising carried out by Organising for Obama which saw 2.2 million volunteers sign up to help him eventually win the United States presidential election in 2008.

Having a background in tech, I also spent the months in the lead-up to our launch building a website that would let members of our notional unemployed movement build CVs and let employers search them.

Closer to our launch, I secured free, shared use of the Old Post Office in Langa, then a museum in Cape Town’s oldest township, to be our first branch. At the same time, I hired two unemployed local residents (Siphokazi ‘Mampho’ Gwani and Lusindiso Njokweni) for a short paid contract to help launch the movement. Mampho had a history of working in churches and ministries and was awaiting a move to join her husband in the Eastern Cape in December of that year. Lusindiso had some experience of organising within a major political party and a diploma in business management.

Phase 1. Launching and Learning

Sitting together on day one on 13 August 2018 surrounded by the museum’s images of the history of Langa, the three of us felt a sort of horror vacui. Now what? Clearly, a movement needs members. So, there was nothing for it but to hit the streets. This we did, accosting everyone we passed. We suggested they come to the Old Post Office the next day for an introduction to a new movement for the unemployed.

What followed was four months spent frantically running introductions, contacting employers and training providers, hosting recruitment events and trying out a variety of workshops. We also got to know many members and their stories. Over 600 Langa residents engaged with us in that period and we learned a great deal about employer recruitment practices and the severe discouragement of a market with too few jobs, costly applications and myriad advance payment scams.

Starting with the companies that wanted to interview our members, we began to implement principles for better treatment of the unemployed by employers and recruiters. Our members were being compelled repetitively to spend on travel, copying, certifying, data, grooming and clothing for applications and interviews, with, in each case, an exceedingly small chance of getting the opportunity. The discouragement this caused led to our members putting off or giving up searching altogether. It was just too expensive and so often fruitless.

We started to convince employers wanting to contact our members to accept our digitally captured images of members’ documents attached to private versions of their CVs. We also convinced some employers to come to the Old Post Office to conduct interviews. We requested those that couldn’t to instead conduct an initial phone pre-screen with our members to prevent wasteful travel by candidates with no chance of getting the job.

In the first four months, we tracked 80 members getting offers, jobs and learnerships. They included many with and without matric, several with criminal records, and of all ages. Around half of them had been directly assisted not just by Mampho, Lusindiso and myself, but, increasingly by other members. There was a vibe in the branch. Members brought in friends and family, some of whom reported having previously given up the job search. In this period, Lusindiso got a permanent job with the City of Cape Town.

It felt like a good start.

Phase 2: Volunteerism, New Branches

In January 2019, we took on new counsel in the form of Keren Ben Zeev, a Cape Town-based civil society veteran working for the Heinrich Boell Foundation.

At the same time, with Mampho and Lusindiso having departed, we decided to take the risk and switch abruptly and entirely to volunteerism. While organisations run by volunteers can be chaotic and unpredictable, they have the virtue of enforcing engagement with and speaking deeply to the needs of members. Volunteerism, when well organised, can also give an organisation power and independence – two essential elements of any social movement.

The amount of time some members had spent in the branch in the first four months, combined with their willingness to help others whether asked to or not, did suggest that the switch might be possible. Suddenly, though, members were being asked to do full-day shifts, often more than once a week. And not just that, there were procedures to be followed, reporting to be done, phone calls to be made and difficult social dynamics to navigate.

On 5 March 2019, buoyed by our experiences in Langa, we launched our second branch in Kensington Library; 120 residents of the area attended the introduction. Around 25 of them put their names down to be the branch’s first volunteer staff. Over the next week, the group was whittled down to eight who completed the first round of training.

The vibe in Kensington was curtailed somewhat by the strictures of the library setting, and the branch was not quite as busy as our Langa one. However, many members and volunteers experienced a swift improvement in their job prospects, particularly as Woolworths called them for interviews. The retailer was one of the first employers to open up to our providing them with candidates and had already hired around 15 in Langa.

Just a month later, we set about opening our next branch, this time in Gugulethu Library; 320 people attended the launch event on 18 April and 80 started our volunteer training the next day. Despite the number of people who had put their names down, we had not expected so many to arrive for training. In the end, only 12 finished the week. Sadly, many simply opted out of this first round of training, seeing that it was not going to be possible to get through the material with so many in the room.

By October 2019, we had settled on six clear and straightforward tiers of membership. What was required to achieve each tier appeared to be making our members more likely to find work from their own efforts. Higher tier members were more actively job seeking, sending their checked CVs out to many employers.

The tiers work as follows with our volunteers taking members through them in workshops and one-on-ones:

Tier 1: completed an induction and accepted the terms of membership;

Tier 2: started on their CV;

Tier 3: their CV has been checked by a volunteer for errors and how well it markets the member;

Tier 4: are familiar with our tools to email their CV to many conveniently-located employers (whether they are hiring or not);

Tier 5: gone through and passed our “dealing with hard interview situations” assessment;

Tier 6: trained and working as branch volunteer staff.

While the tiers improve members’ chances of finding work through their own efforts, we also incentivise rising through them. We show higher tier members above lower-tier ones in the results employers see when they search our website. Also, the higher a member’s tier, the more likely they are to be selected as a candidate for opportunities that Organising for Work has any control over.

Phase 3. Setbacks, Further Expansion and the Future

We experienced our first major setback at the end of June 2019 when the Kensington branch closed after being open for just three months. Eight of the 12 volunteers who had been trained there had found work and, despite this signal of success, we struggled to find members to replace them. Similarly, our inability to generate new volunteers in Langa has recently made it hard to keep the branch constantly open.

Despite the setbacks, we pushed on. In September 2019, we informed SmartCape, the free WiFi provider for libraries, about our members’ experiences of submitting job applications with just 50MB of free data per day. As a result, in November, SmartCape instituted a trial (still ongoing) at 250MB a day, making the service more useful for the unemployed across all 102 libraries in Cape Town.

In the last three months, we have opened five new branches; three in libraries in Khayelitsha (Harare, Site B and Site C) and one in Bonteheuwel Library. As we have not yet had any donor funding (I have personally funded the movement from the start), this expansion could occur only because the operating cost of each branch was brought close to zero.

Between May and November 2019, with some circumspection about the perils of donor-beneficiary relationships to civil society and social movements, we decided to go through the process of becoming a tax-exempt public benefit organisation. Luke, Keren and I currently form the board and have worked, to date, like our 110 volunteers, pro bono.

To be sure, the story of our first year and a half is not one of unalloyed success. We have many challenges in our branches related to motivation, energy and outreach. Also, while unemployed volunteers are leading our branches, we have yet to elect one of our members to the board of the movement.

We are addressing these issues with urgency. In October we started a process of selecting members and volunteers to place on a director track. To develop leaders and infuse more energy into our branches, we are beginning to incorporate more elements of the Obama campaign style of organising.

Volunteers are starting to be trained on telling their personal story, holding house meetings to bring in more members and get more done, in doing “hard asks” (asking people to do stuff for the movement) and running their own projects. For an excellent example how to motivate and connect with an audience, listen to Barack Obama telling his personal story in the first three minutes of his Democratic National Convention speech in 2004.

While our movement has found some ways of making the job search a little easier, a little more dignified, a little less solitary, we have finally taken the first steps towards our other major goal. That is, to achieve not just better policy to create jobs, but also the governance and implementation to deliver them.

We are keenly aware that to achieve this lofty goal and to prosper as a movement, we must build society-wide coalitions. Our branches are currently inviting community, union, church, business and civil society leaders to planning sessions to formulate and frame a rallying call to massively reduce unemployment – one that can receive broad support.

But, we also need your help. Tell employers they can search for and hire our members for free. Let them know, too, about our principles for avoiding discouragement of work-seekers. Give us your old laptops that are gathering dust. We will wipe them and put them to good use in our branches. Tell us your ideas as well as your suggestions for collaborations. And finally, volunteer with us. We need your time, skills and support to grow the movement and to open more branches around the country. MC

Ayal Belling is a founder of the unemployed movement, Organising for Work. He previously worked in finance and tech in London and Cape Town. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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