Walking away is not an option
We all share responsibility for the weak and helpless, says Jonsson Workwear CEO Nick Jonsson
Privileged South Africans have a responsibility to aid those who are powerless to help themselves, says Nick Jonsson, CEO of the Jonsson Workwear group. In a society as unequal as SA’s, refusal to help the weak and helpless is “narrow-minded”.
The group’s corporate social investment arm, the Jonsson Foundation, is lead partner of Rally to Read, the rural education programme now in its 25th year. Founded in 1998, Rally to Read provides remote primary schools with educational materials and teacher training. The foundation underwrites the programme’s day-to-day costs, and offers management support, allowing organisers, including the FM, to concentrate on delivering literacy to areas where it is most needed.
One simple statistic explains the need for Rally to Read. At the age of 14, when they are due to enter high school, the average rural child in SA has a reading age of seven, rendering them incapable of progress. Rally schools bridge that gap, enabling children to continue their education — some to university.
The programme relies on sponsorship from corporate and individual supporters. Jonsson Workwear was one of the first sponsors, then upgraded to lead partner after the foundation was created in 2018.
Jonsson says he was originally persuaded by friends to take part. Once he had seen the conditions in rural schools, he increased his company’s involvement. SA has thousands of rural schools where educational departments provide little or no support. Books, pens and writing paper are scarce, desks broken, and teachers demotivated and often absent.
“The moment you see the conditions these children face, you have to be a hard person not to be moved,” he says. “You can’t just walk away.”
On one of his first visits to a school, he commented on the stifling heat in classrooms and offered to provide fans. Thank you, said the principal, but the school had no electricity to power them.
It’s not an uncommon situation, though the picture has improved in some areas. Having originally resented Rally to Read’s activities, most provincial education departments now co-operate with the programme.
Rally to Read is unique in that sponsors don’t just hand over money; they also have the opportunity to meet the children they are helping, as well as their families and local communities.
Approximately two-thirds of sponsorship money raised buys portable libraries containing books for classroom and private reading. The rest pays for teacher training.
Before Covid, sponsors — accompanied by family and friends — would spend weekends travelling to schools in off-road convoys, to deliver libraries and stationery in person. That had to stop during the height of the pandemic and handover events became much smaller affairs.
Subject to social distancing and health requirements, the scale has started to grow again in 2022, and organisers hope further development will be possible later this year.
Do those people who, on principle, would deny poor children an education also deny themselves private security and health care because it’s the government’s job?
Despite consistent support from sponsors, not everyone likes Rally to Read. Some critics say the private sector should not be doing the state’s job and that programmes such as this encourage government officials to abrogate their educational responsibilities.
Jonsson agrees, in principle. “They’re right. We shouldn’t have to do this. It’s the government’s responsibility.” But, he adds, it’s also the government’s responsibility to make the country’s citizens safe and provide them with health care. It’s failing there too.
As a result, a huge private sector security industry has sprung up and medical aids make billions from medical support. Jonsson asks: do those people who, on principle, would deny poor children an education also deny themselves private security and health care because it’s the government’s job?
Covid has had a devastating effect over the past two years. Independent research has shown that SA’s no-fee schools, many of them rural, have lost most of their classroom teaching since early 2020.
Unlike many of their urban counterparts, these schools have no access to technology that allows them to offer online teaching. Illiteracy has as a result “enjoyed” a resurgence.
That’s why Jonsson says the need for Rally to Read is greater than ever. As lead partner, he says the foundation knows it’s money is well spent. “Those who run the rally are reputable and transparent. We are confident that every cent is going to the right place.”
Rally to Read is one of four Jonsson Foundation initiatives. One offers secondary and tertiary education bursaries to young people with leadership potential and a “curious, entrepreneurial mindset”.
Jonsson says: “We have a shortage of good leaders in our country.”
Special emphasis is placed on the clothing and textiles industry, in which Jonsson Workwear operates, and a number of students from Durban University of Technology are trained in clothing and textile management.
“People with Purpose” is a programme to support individuals and groups engaged in environmental activities, social justice, entrepreneurship and other social projects. And then there’s the chair’s fund. Unlike other activities, which are guided by trustees, this fund is Nick Jonsson’s personal gift.
“There are no guidelines. If someone approaches me with a very good idea, I will try to do something for them,” he says. He’s particularly proud of the association with the Jes Foord Foundation, which raises awareness of, and seeks solutions to, SA’s dreadful record of rape. “Jes is a remarkable woman. I’m in awe of her,” he says.
Though the company is based in SA, most of Jonsson Workwear’s textile factories are in Lesotho, and there is also a presence in Eswatini. Jonsson says the foundation’s activities cover all three countries. “It’s not just about what we can do for our workers, but also about what they can do for the communities in which they live. We all share responsibility.”
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