Tightly squeezed between a bright green security fence and a periphery wall of Langa’s Gugu S’thebe cultural centre you’ll find a shipping container buzzing with creative activity. As we approach, Nontuthuzelo Pahlana skips down the three steps of the sewing classroom to greet us.
Her welcome is warm and her enthusiasm contagious. In 2011 Pahlana and Mthobeli Guma, a former lecturer at the University of the Western, established the Sinakho Leadership and Skills Development Centre to train unemployed youth and women in her township, Langa. Cape Town fashion council assisted with the establishment of the non-profit organization by donating R20 000. Six years later Pahlane says, “We have created an enabling space where young women and men can come together and do what they like. They can say ‘Wow, I’m doing what I really like and what I love’.”
This is my first visit to the sewing school where, under the supervision of 75-year-old Tembekha Tolei, a group of about 40 students learn pattern-making and sewing over the course of two-months. The students pay R2000 for the course and are trained in all aspects of garment-making. On completion of the course students qualify with a level three certification and receive a toolkit that will help them start a small business. The toolkit, funded by the Industrial Development Corporation, consists of a sewing machine, a table, material, an iron and ironing board as well as other accessories needed to successfully manufacture garments at home. Places are fully booked for next year. Of the past students, 80% become self-employed, and the others have found employment.
I love what I’m doing here. I see what I’m doing, I see the fruits of my labour. My work is changing people’s lives
Tolei has had almost 30 years of teaching and sewing experience She has studied in Cape Town and in London, and trained sewing trainers. “I love what I’m doing here. I see what I’m doing, I see the fruits of my labour. My work is changing people’s lives,” says Tolei.
Students come to the class at different time slots. They cannot all be accommodated in the classroom simultaneously. They spend three hours at a time using the machines and getting one-on-one attention from Tolei.
The students like to use cotton linen best. But Tolei says they are taught to use all fabrics so leave knowing how to use more tricky fabrics like satin. They also learn pattern drawing, pattern making, drafting, cutting stitching, how to take measurements… “They learn the full making technique,” says Tolei.
Sandiswa Ngqebe, 30, a young DJ is at her machine in the classroom. She has learnt enough, she believes, to make clothes to sell to her local market. She sources fabrics in Nyanga and Mitchell’s Plain and particularly loves bright colours. Her classmate Mxolisi Mhlakaza, 32, left Cape Peninsula University of Technology, to learn his passion here. He became impatient with the theory classes at CPUT. Once he is finished this course, he plans to open a studio at home and specialize in men’s wear. “I’ve enjoyed this course so much”, he says. His favourite designers are Maxhosa by Laduma and Stoned Cherrie.
At the end of the 2017 year graduation ceremony in November, the IDC’s Luana Malan, said in a speech that Sinakho is not just about sewing skills, it’s also about emotional development. She said that when she first read the proposal for funding she knew that the management of the NPO was not only writing about the development of people, they meant it too.
I want this to happen in my township
At Pahlane’s side when I visit the training centre is Khaya Nonkonyana, the senior instructor for leather training. He is a self-taught footwear designer who, when he and Pahlane met, was training HIV positive people how to make shoes. “I was trying to get rid of the stigma of being positive. I would train them. However I didn’t have funding,” says Nonkonyana. He would like to have a factory in Langa, and bring shoe-making back to the township. “I want this to happen in my township,” says Nonkonyana.
His dream of a factory is coming to light. Sinakho is negotiating the lease of a property which lies about 200 metres west from their current location. It’s here they have plans to build a bigger skills training centre using shipping containers. This new space will house a shoe factory, a sewing school, a small textile mill, and a food science laboratory. “We will have big enough spaces where productions will take place. Apart from the shoes and garment skills training, there will be food technology,” says Nonkonyana.
The new site for their centre has an uninterrupted view of Table Mountain. It’s conveniently situated; a five minute drive from the N2 highway and close to many of Langa’s community centres such as churches, town hall, and museums.
Pahlane and Nonkonyana are working tirelessly to keep Sinakho running while raising funds to make the new development a reality. CPUT and TCI Apparel are offering their support while Nedbank has already donated sewing machines, overlockers and 2000 metres of fabric.
The fact, she says, that every year students sign up beyond their intake capacity is evidence that it an appropriate response to community needs.
Tebogo Molefe, from the IDC, says Phalane is someone who gets things done. “She is humble but a stern spirit. Selfless to the core and knows how to make lemons into the sweetest tasting lemonade. Unapologetically she lives out her purpose to serve consistently, sincerely and confidently,” says Molefe.
Communities where unemployement is high, need skills training and economic activity. Molefe says that Sinakho has demonstrated the interest from the community to support the project. The fact, she says, that every year students sign up beyond their intake capacity is evidence that it an appropriate response to community needs.
“Sinakho has big dreams of building a multipurpose centre and a mini factory in Langa. I know this dream of Dr Guma and Ms Pahlana and the Sinakho team will come true,” says Molefe.
Photo credits: Jackie May