Social entrepreneurship at the heart of Madiba’s legacy

INKULULEKO ekugcineni! UMnuz Nelson Mandela noNkk Winnie Madikizela-Mandela ngesikhathi ephuma ejele iVictor Verster ngoFebhuwari 11, 1990

Each year on July 18th South African citizens are joined by the world in commemorating the life of uTata Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela in what the United Nations General Assembly has declared as ‘Nelson Mandela International Day’. However, we South Africans have embraced to extend our remembrance of uTata to the entire month of July. During this period, we are encouraged to reflect on Mandela’s legacy not only in thought and emotion but also (and mainly) in deed – through stepping out of our shells to actively contribute to making our world a better place. 

This culture of selflessness is one which uTata himself modelled for us in his resolute commitment to human rights and passionate pursuit of equality and better welfare for all who (would) call South Africa home. Speaking at Walter Sisulu’s 90th birthday in May 2002, he enunciated: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

Mandela’s heritage is fairly well at the heart of social entrepreneurship. This category of entrepreneurs is defined by the Business Dictionary as “individuals who act as agents of change for society and work to develop sustainable solutions for the purpose of changing society for the better”. Thus, for social entrepreneurs, every day in the field is Mandela day. These agents of change routinely engage to address complex sustainable development challenges in society through innovation and cooperation. 

In this regard, Littlewood (2015) contended that South Africa, in agreement with the global community, shows a growing trend in social entrepreneurship efforts. The establishment of learning hubs such as the University of Cape Town’s Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship; and the launch of several practitioner networks (e.g. The African Social Entrepreneurs Network) are evident to the rise in enterprises driven by social objectives.

Not surprisingly, South African youth are among the beacons of hope making strides in addressing the country’s most critical challenges through innovation and entrepreneurship; from unemployment and poverty to energy and healthcare access. In 2016, SME South Africa profiled a number of young social entrepreneurs making an impact in their communities. Among these were Thato Kgatlhanye (25), founder of Repurpose Schoolbags, an initiative aimed at recycling plastic bags into schoolbags fitted with solar panels which harness energy during the day to provide light after dark, making it possible for learners from off-grid households to study at night. Kgatlhanye’s initiative has received recognition from various platforms such as the Centre for Public Service Innovation, the South African Innovation Summit as well as Redbull Amaphiko. Ranjan Sewgambar (32) is another young entrepreneur with a social mission. 

Driven by a desire to contribute to reducing hearing loss incidents in the Kwa-Zulu Natal province, he founded an audiology practice which offers affordable and accessible private hearing healthcare services to children and adults in the Durban area. Semwagambar’s work was awarded second place at the 2015 South African Breweries (SAB) Youth Entrepreneurship Development Programme awards. Moreover, a Khayelitsha trio; Wandisile Nqeketho (28), Siyabulela Daweti (29), and Faith Leburu (30), have launched Ilima Green Solutions, a company providing alternative renewable energy solutions in the area. Currently, the company sells environmentally-friendly alternatives to coal and runs environmental workshops in public schools in Khayelitsha. These young social entrepreneurs taking action to inspire change and make an impact in society are a direct embodiment of Madiba’s ideals.

Mandela also strongly advocated for equal access to basic resources. In his speech at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), he persuaded delegates to prioritize water and sanitation, among other basic needs, in their economic and social welfare goals. “Access to water is a common goal. It is central in the social, economic and political affairs of the country, the [African] continent and the world. It should be a lead sector of cooperation for world development”, he said. 

Heeding Madiba’s call to quality water access is social enterprise VulAmanz Water Systems. The company, in collaboration with the Water Research Commission, Stellenbosch University and Gelvenor Textiles, has invented non-electric point-of-use water filtration systems for rural dwellers who collect water directly from untreated sources such as rivers and dams. These devices are an affordable sustainable solution particularly for areas where installation of piped water has proven difficult due to complexity in the topography and spatial distribution of the houses. 

The filtration units have been demonstrated in two villages in the Capricorn district of the Limpopo province as well as in the Bizana area of rural Eastern Cape. In both regions (and through rigorous laboratory tests) the units were proven to remove microbial contaminants and produce water suitable for drinking and other domestic purposes. The residents of the villages where the units were rolled out have expressed praise for the devices, claiming that they have improved their lives. Strong interest was expressed also by neighboring communities outside both regions. These filtration systems evidently show much promise in relieving the burden of unsafe water in rural areas.

Social entrepreneurship is undoubtedly making an impact in South Africa and keeping Mandela’s legacy alive.

Thembela Ntlemeza is a Technology Transfer Officer at the Water Research Commission.