Donaldson Trust

Labour Intensive Training and Engineering


The origins of LITE go back to when the Donaldson Trust began working in Sekhukhuneland (Limpopo) with Operation Hunger. The King of Sekhukhuneland, Kenneth Kgagudi Sekhukhune (KK) explained to the trust that the greatest difficulty facing his people unemployment.

The chairman at the time, Ian Haggie, took the trustees to Sekhukhuneland to confirm trust`s commitment to the area. Haggie noted the devastation caused by lack of maintenance and by overcrowding and suggested the possibility of upgrading the roads and other public works by using labour intensive methods similar to those used in other parts of Africa.



Ian Haggie was chairman of Haggie Rand Ltd and a trained engineer. He had a keen eye for the benefits of a solid, well-designed engineering project. He suggested that a dam, built using labour intensive methods, would enhance the infrastructure and provide employment at the same time. And Benjy Donaldson, a trustee and now chairman of the trust, commissioned a local firm of civil engineers, Eksteen, van der Walt and Nissan (now E.V.N.), to investigate the feasibility of constructing a dam near Mohlaletse, the traditional home of the Sekhukhuneland (Bapedi) kings.

E.V.N. did a site inspection and recommended that, due to the extensive heavy silting problems it would be more cost effective to work on the water reticulation system. Water was and remains a priority in the area. The scheme, however was fraught with difficulty and was too expensive, and so was shelved.

There was another difficulty too, in that the apartheid government was trying to depose King KK. The Pedi king been a thorn in their side ever since the Fetagoma uprisings of 1958 and continued to defy them over the creation of the homeland system in which King Sekhukhune would rule a ‘Mickey Mouse’ country called Lebowa. King KK defied the government at every turn and incurred it’s wrath, financial withdrawal and determination to depose him.

None-the-less Benjamin Donaldson approached Professor McCutcheon, who was a leading proponent of labour- intensive methods. They began to conceptualize an employment creation project of a labour- intensive nature that could be implemented once funding had been sourced.

Nearly a decade later, professor McCutcheon, then the head of the engineering faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), had instituted an arrangement with the University of Twente, in the Netherlands, whereby final-year engineering students from Twente would do their internship at Wits.

From this pool of students, a volunteer was selected to do his internship in Mohlaletse. The trust allocated the necessary funding and Hubert van Zandvoort, a self reliant and particularly enthusiastic student, was chosen to go to Mohlaletse and manage a trial, labour-intensive, road-building project. Professor McCutcheon also made available an engineer named Willem van Steenderen, who was dedicated to labour intensive methods and whose services proved to be invaluable.

The specifications for the roads were done by other Dutch interns in the Wits engineering department. These were for a properly cambered road laid on top of a good foundation, and adequate provision for drainage. Drainage included stone gutters, culverts and roman-arch bridges. Hubert van Zandvoort did exceptionally well. He lived and worked on site, his days being taken up with supervision and his evenings with writing reports and reviewing the next day`s tasks. The work-force was originally set at 25 but he quickly expanded this to 90.

The drawback was that when Hubert`s three month internship finished, the project could not continue and the employment came to an end. It had, nonetheless been a great success and the aim then became to establish it on a permanent basis. Clearly, this could not be done using student volunteers. But, by using the existing network between the two Universities, a Twente engineering graduate, Arjen Bouwmester was employed. He’d done his internship at Wits and was familiar with the project.

With funding from the Donaldson Trust, which voted R600 000 grant (R200 000 for three years) the project was launched. Over the following years the trust granted a total of R 1 397 751. Benjamin Donaldson formed the non-profit company, Labour Intensive Training and Engineering (L.I.T.E) to which Wim van Steenderen and Professor Mc Cutcheon were both appointed directors.Arjen Bouwmeester was on a one-year contract and, like Hubert, he lived and worked on site. He also had the assistance of the Dutch interns at Wits. He experienced difficulties in communication, however, which, after two months, prompted him to call a meeting of all the workers in which they were invited to voice any dissatisfaction.

They had complaints but these stemmed, almost without exception, from a misunderstanding of the amount of work required for the various tasks. One example, which was typical, was where a man complained that he had been allowed no more time to dig a trench 10 meters long than another man who only had to dig a trench 5 meters long; what he did not appreciate was that the width of his trench was only 1 meter whereas that of the other trench was 2 meters.

It became clear to Arjen , first, that the workers had not grasped what he been trying to explain to them, and, secondly, that they had practically no idea of volume. It was Christmas time and the project was closing down for the Christmas break. And Arjen resolved not to start up again until he had trained team leaders, whom he would select from the results of a qualifying test which he would set for them – a test that would be on the content of a simple, literacy and numeracy, two-week crash-course which he intended to give them immediately after the break. The test confirmed his misgivings: some of the would-be team leaders did not even know that there were 100 centimeters in a meter, and the only way he could get enough team leaders for the project was to drop the pass mark from 75% to 35%. Once they started working, however, and could apply measurements in a practical way (where they could understand, for example, that a cubic meter was the amount of earth that one worker was required to move in a day), they progressed by leaps and bounds.

Before this could happen, however, they had to undergo some intensive training for which the training modules had yet to be prepared. Wim van Steenderen wrote the modules in Johannesburg and handed them to Arjen who taught them in Mohlaletse, Limpopo. Each module took one week to teach; the theory in the classroom, followed by the practical part on site where the pilot project was operating purely for the benefitof the trainees.

Distance was a problem. Mohlaletse is six hours drive from Johannesburg, of which two hours is on appalling roads, often cut off completely by rain. Arjen usually picked up the modules when he came back to Johannesburg or Wim would take them when he went to Mohlaletse for site inspections. Either way the communication pressures were intense.

The pressure was exacerbated by a determination to avoid the communications problem, which had caused the temporary suspension of the project in December was the very reasoning behind the training: Arjen was on the alert to notice how well the trainees understood the work and, if he thought that they were having difficulty with a module, he would ask Wim to revise it.

Sometimes a module would have to be revised more than once, and so the pressure was not simply to prepare the new modules but to revise the old ones at the same time. The result was that at the end of the six-month training period, Wim had written twenty modules which had been tried and tested, both in the classroom and in working conditions, and which were accredited by the South African National Qualification Authority. Once the training was finished, Arjen restarted the project and when contract ended he was replaced by Hubert van Zandvoort.

In the meantime Anglo Platinum had given L.I.T.E. R 500 000 to upgrade the road between the nearby Atok mine and the village of Monametse where most of their mineworkers lived.  Hubert was thus running two sites at the same time and expanded the project into a self-sustaining business rather than a project reliant on volunteer work. He had a work force of 130 split up into 12 teams, each with its own team leader, and, although the team leaders were trained, they had had no experience and needed a lot of support.

It was difficult to provide that level of support, especially over two sites 35 kilometers apart on impossible road. But Hubert managed. He was young, energetic and, above all, dedicated but, in the long term it was unrealistic. The reasons were two-fold. First, in the normal commercial environment, no one (qualified or not) would be prepared to make that kind of commitment. Secondly, a qualified engineer should achieve a much wider impact by delegating simple work to lesser qualified subordinates.

Hubert found two such subordinates: Sidney Mello who held an engineering diploma from the University of the North, and Raymond Mariri who was in his final year of study for the same diploma. They were allocated to the respective sites of Mohlaletse and Monametse and given the authority to act independently. They took responsibility for their actions and reported back to Hubert on a regular basis to discuss progress and iron out problems.

Hubert visualized employing five to six managers at diploma level, who would be each in turn responsible for five to six team leaders, who would be each responsible for a team varying in size from five to 20 workers. He would then have an economically viable project, headed by a qualified engineer, employing between (5×5×5) 125 and (20×6×6) 720 workers, that would be competitive both in its pricing and in its wage-structure. In achieving viability the project would have the further advantage of providing the training ground for team leaders and effective and self-reliant managers.

In the meantime, the project could only go as quickly as the funds and the abilities of the workforce allowed. The roads had to be designed according to the abilities of the workforce, and this was still being done by the Dutch intern students at Wits who lived, and often worked, at the church premises of Philomen Sekwati, which at times took on the flavor of a small Dutch village. Philomen Sekwati, a well-respected local businessman, pastor and advisor to King Sekhukhune, became a director of L.I.T.E.

And the workers themselves had to be trained, not like the team leaders but at least to be proficient in their tasks and in the use of the labour-intensive machinery. And they also needed to build up their physical capabilities. The labour- intensive machinery, apart from picks and spades and shovels, included cement-mixers and stone-crushers, both operated by hand, water carts, trailers and compacters. There was also a one-ton roller that had a motor but was designed to be controlled by someone walking behind it using a clutch.

The water carts were drawn by donkeys and operated by their owners who were all local people. The trailers were for the cartage of stone, and were drawn by tractors owned and operated likewise, by local people. Without the tractors or motor driven roller, neither of which was absolutely necessary, the road building was completely self-contained in that it could all be done by hand.

Whilst the project was thus building up strength, another labour-intensive initiative had been embarked upon by the Limpopo Province, which had, at the time, an efficient and extremely enterprising roads department. It was, arguably, the most enterprising roads department in South Africa and had enlisted the help of the British government`s DFID (Department for International Development) to institute a rural roads, maintenance programme in the province The programme would be mentored jointly by DFID, the International Labour Organizatio (ILO), and the Limpopo Roads Agency.

The strategy of the programme was to send small, prospective contracting-teams to the Department of Rural Roads Lesotho for training in labour-intensive methods. When they returned they would be offered contracts to upgrade and maintain roads in Limpopo. Thus employment for between 100 and 150 community members would be provided.

The contracting teams would comprise two site technical-assistants, with matriculation level science and mathematics, a site agent at technical-diploma level, and the contractor, who would have an education at diploma level or, alternatively, have a competency measured in terms of being able to run his or her own business. The programme was called Gundo Lashu (SiVenda for ‘victory is ours’) and received £ 1 500 000 from DFID in the form of technical support over its duration which was scheduled for three years.

This was far bigger than L.I.T.E’s Mohlaletse project. It embraced the whole Limpopo Province, and DFID, which had a separate Gundo Lashu programme running in Kwa Zulu-Natal,hoped it would serve as a model for the rest of South Africa. There was no reason for L.I.T.E not to participate in the training. It had a built-in advantage in that its working site at Mohlaletse was in the middle of Limpopo, and was known and accepted by the surrounding communities. Wim van Steenderen`s team-leader course was at much the same level as Lesotho`s course for the matriculation level technical assistants. And the training that Hubert was giving to the diploma-level managers, albeit not in the form of a previously prepared, academic course, was done and gave them the opportunity to acquire the practical, hard-earned experience that could only be acquired in working conditions.

L.I.T.E.’s hope of participating in the Gundo Lashu training was coupled with the hope of being absorbed into the Limpopo’s rural roads maintenance programme. This would provide the financial support that L.I.T.E needed from government. Funding had become a cause for concern. Funds were expected from Anglo Platinum for the Atok mine`s Monametse road, but it had not yet materialized, and the Donaldson Trust had already exceeded its budget. But the project was growing stronger all the time. The constant presence of the Dutch students at Mohlaletse provided an enormous boost to both the project and to the community. For this and the expertise of Wim van Steenderen, the project was hugely indebted to the engineering faculty at Wits University. In addition, Wits also introduced the project to the Umsobomvu Youth Fund.

Umsobomvu was committed to the development of the youth (anyone between the ages of 15 and 35-years-old) and gave L.I.T.E an 18-month contract for R 4 200 000 to provide on-site training for 60 prospective team-leaders. The contract also covered training in first aid and in life-skills and all building costs, including professional design. It enabled L.I.T.E to rent office space in Johannesburg at the offices of James Croswell and Associates, the engineering consultants who had prepared the budget and secured the contract. James Croswell was a director of L.I.T.E.

More staff were employed, including two more diploma-level managers, a wage clerk (studying for a Bachelor if Commerce degree) and another recently qualified Dutch engineer, Wouter Tichler. The enthusiasm and dedication of Hubert van Zandvoort and Wouter Tichler earned them the acceptance and the respect, of the community and of the local Fetakgomo Municapilty. They worked long hours and, in their spare time, took a keen interest in the life of the community. A question that they frequently raised was the sad fate of previous projects and why none of them stood the test of time.

While preparations were being made for the start of the Umsobomvu contract, L.I.T.E. submitted a proposal to the local Fetakgomo Municipality for inclusion in the municipality’s five-year Integrated Development Plan. It gave an estimate for rehabilitating and maintaining all rural (access) roads, and also for providing water and water-born sewerage to every community using small-bore pipes. The estimate, over the five year period, was R72 million for 465 kilometers of road and R 98 million for 500 kilometers of reticulation for water and sewerage.

The Five Year Integrated Development Plan was a plan by government to address as many of the needs of as many communities as possible. It was an imaginative plan, and ambitious, because in order to do this, it had to ascertain what people needed. But it did so most effectively by advertising the plan and inviting all community organizations, big and small to attend meetings at their municipalities and articulate their needs. All the information was then gathered and collated, and incorporated into a workable plan.

Following these meetins, the Fetakgomo Municipality identified 53 roads totalling 156,7 kilometers and asked Lite to assess them and give an estimate for their rehabilitation. Wim van Steenderen spent five days inspecting and measuring the roads and another five days assessing the results. L.I.T.E. quoted a figure of R 43 574 000, but nothing came of these efforts because the municipality had more pressing priorities. Umsobomvu had, in the interim, got underway. 80 prospective team-leaders were employed, based on an estimated drop-out rate of between 20% – 25% so that, at the end of the training, about 60 would qualified. They received half of their training in the classroom, and the other half on-site where they worked on the roads, and on building a school for Umsobomvu and site offices for L.I.T.E. The practical work was planned to complement whatever had been just taught in the classroom.

All this was in addition to the work which was already in progress, so that the number of people employed on-site had grown to over 200 people. Sadly, changes in management impacted negatively despite the project`s growth. Management was transferred from the site to the new office in Johannesburg with the unfortunate result that it became impersonal. Equally unfortunate was that the Wits st, so that the flow of Dutch students came to an end.

This was a great loss to the community at Mohlaletse and to the fundamental energy that drove the organization. With the Umsobomvu project only six months old, Hubert van Zandvoort resigned in order to complete his master’s degree in civil engineering, and not long after that Wouter Tichler also resigned. There was no-one left on site with a good rapport with the Fetakgomo Municipality.

L.I.T.E still continued fund raising and Wim van Steenderen did an assessment of the roads at Anglo Platinum`s Modikwe mine. He gave an estimate for upgrading the roads linking five feeder villages to the mine but, again, his efforts were in vain. He resigned shortly afterwards. After the first eighteen month contract had been successfully completed, Umsobomvu gave L.I.T.E. another 18-month contract for R 8 200 000. At this point the new management at L.I.T.E. was looking to expand the training on a national level instead of building on what L.I.T.E. had achieved so successfully namely the training facility at Mohlaletse which would have provided a training ground for years to come. Management had developed shorter training courses at diploma level for urban venues across the country but the courses did not offer a practical component.

When the second 18-month contract drew to a close, Umsobomvu made it clear that although it was still prepared to pay for training, which included the wages for the building of the roads, it was not prepared to pay for the materials. Since a lot of the materials including stone, sand and water, were free, except for the labour, this meant that L.I.T.E would only have to fund the remainder which would comprise of any additional materials that had to be purchased. L.I.T.E. had no funds other than what it received from Umsobomvu, but an opportunity to obtain funding from the Expanded Public Works Programme presented itself. This was another imaginative and ambitious programme by government in which municipalities were obliged to set aside a certain percentage of their public works budget for labour-intensive projects.

L.I.T.E needed to convince the Fetakgomo Municipality of the advantages of the programme, but the rapport it had once enjoyed was gone and with it, the last chance of saving the road-building project at Mohlaletse. Fortunately for the communities of Mohlaletse, labour-intensive road building was still active and growing stronger with the Gundo Lashu Programme and roads continued to be built which were of great, benefit to the area.

L.I.T.E. continued to give short training courses around the country and secured contracts from municipalities who had set aside a percentage of their funds for the Expanded Public Works Programme, thus finding employment for some of its team leaders. These contracts were signed with government agencies, some of which reneged on payment and eventually L.I.T.E closed.

Hubert van Zandvoort and Wouter Tichler, however, both returned to South Africa in the hope of continuing their involvement in labour- intensive employment. And Wouter Tichler and Benjamin Donaldson returned to the Fetakgomo Municipality and to inquire about the Expanded Public Works Programme. They learned that the priorities of the municipality were first, water, and secondly, housing. Wouter was offered the contract of supervising the building of 35 homes but the contract was so far behind it would’ve been impossible to meet the delivery date, and so he had to turn it down.

Fetakgomo fell under an entirely new municipality which was new and inexperienced and viewed the Expanded Public Works Programme as a burden instead of a solution. Wouter then went on to introduce Thubelisha Homes to Fetakgomo to assess a project for 200 houses, but the project was already overspent and, although Thubelisha Homes produced a plan for completing it, nothing came of it.

Wouter Tichler and Hubert Van Zandvoort are no-longer involved in labour-intensive work but are executives in well-known engineering consultancies.

L.I.T.E still exists but only on paper.