Many people don’t know that the head of an international labour organisation, with affiliates across many countries, calls Cape Town home. She is Cape Town born and bred Sahra Ryklief who also serves as our Board Chairperson.
Ryklief is the Secretary-general of the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations. She holds an MA in political science from the University of Liverpool and is an adjunct instructor for the Labour Studies and Employment Relations department of the School of Management and Labour Relations at Rutgers’ University, New Jersey, US.
Ryklief is also the former director of the Labour Research Service and represents the LRS as the chairperson of Ditikeni. We sat down with her during Women’s Month and asked:
Take us back to the beginning of the Ditikeni story, and your journey with the organisation?
I am one of the founders of the organisation. In 1995, an organisation in the Netherlands had a discussion with their partners about the need for sustainability among the 20 organisations that they supported in South Africa at the time. They wanted to make sure that these partners had the support they needed. I realised that this could be achieved if we had the ability to generate funds for ourselves, and to fill the financial gaps that was created through the increasing move towards project funding (as opposed to funding of an organisation). I told them that I would approach my predecessor at the Labour Research Service (Mr Gordon Young) as he had by then worked with trade unions to set up the Community Growth Fund, a social responsible fund and the first of its kind in SA. I asked him to help us set up a similar fund for our organisations. Our meetings with Gordon and our discussions, ultimately led to the entity that you see now – an empowerment entity that helps communities with the financial resources they need. This was real empowerment that helps NPOs and puts benefits back into the communities. This was before government came up with the broad based BEE model that you see now. We set it up as a socially responsible investment vehicle, and recently celebrated 20 years of existence and R44.5m given to shareholders and partners.]
Did your vision for the future of Ditikeni materialise?
Totally. We had certain rules from day 1 and they are still there. We wouldn’t invest for example in tobacco or alcohol or in arms. Secondly, we, the NPOs, would become owners of shares – so that we actually could build an endowment, because that is the only real solid foundation for sustainability in non-profit organisations. But we would be silent shareholders, and not actively involved in doing business. We screen our investments very carefully, so that we look for vehicles that add value to society. Our business model has also become the model that broad based BEE in South Africa has followed. I am worried though that recent plans by the BEE Commission might actually reverse a lot of the benefits that have been achieved and take SA back to the old BEE type of investment, where empowerment benefited individuals instead of broader communities. Development funds are very constrained – through Ditikeni our NPOs have a portion of their funds that they have complete control over, over and above the donor funds they get from other sources. I am proud of what we have done.
What is your passion? What keeps you going?
I am not really someone that sits around and just relaxes – I need to keep busy. I am actually getting ready to go spend a week in Kleinmond (after this interview) for a ‘digital detox’. I am involved in a centre there. I matriculated at the age of 16 and immediately started working. We were too poor for me to be able to go to university at that time. I worked as a shop assistant while I was in high school, which helped me develop an acute awareness of how vulnerable ordinary workers are especially women. I became aware also back then of the differences between the lived experiences of different races and different income brackets, and this has stuck with me and keeps me going. I am not a person in the frontline – my time as an educator certainly helped give me confidence to stand on stage in front of a group of people, but I tend to be the person behind the scenes. I don’t consider myself as a ‘traditional’ activist that goes around beating down doors. I see my role as a person that provides information and tools so that activist can do the necessary work to make their lives better than it is. I have a deep love for informal education. The education work I do, really makes me feel like I come alive!