For the last four years, local government and NGOs in Stellenbosch have joined hands to help change the fate of many poor, unskilled or semi-skilled, and unemployed youth in Stellenbosch and from the looks of it, that collaboration has been reaping many fruits.

On 15 June, 13 students who completed Bergzicht Training and Development’s City & Guilds’ Professional Cooking and Food and Beverage Service Programme thanks to the Mayoral Youth Skills Development Programme of Stellenbosch Municipality, graduated with their training certificate during a ceremony at The Private Hotel School (PHS) in Vlottenburg. The PHS works with Bergzicht Training and Development, a skills development NGO in Stellenbosch, to train students in the City & Guilds’ Skills Proficiency Awards in Basic Food Preparation, and Food and Beverage Service.

“We are really grateful to Stellenbosch Municipality for the funding we receive via their Mayoral Youth Skills Development Programme to support youth from Stellenbosch and provide them with sought after, internationally recognised skills for the hospitality industry. Collaborations like these allow us to make a greater impact on unemployment in this region,” said Renske Minnaar, CEO of Bergzicht Training and Development.

For Bergzicht Training and Development graduates Xolisa Masimini from Kayamandi (33) and Melissa Paulse (23) from Cloetesville, sponsorships from the municipality in 2016 and 2015 respectively have allowed them to obtain an internationally renowned professional cooking qualification and build careers within the hospitality, tourism and catering industries. At the same time, it has changed their lives completely.

A few years ago neither Xolisa nor Melissa had much hope of ever rising above their circumstances.

In 2002, while still completing Grade 11, Xolisa started working as dishwasher at Spur in Stellenbosch to help support his family, in particular his four younger siblings. Not too long after, his ability to speak English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa and Sotho saw him move from the kitchen to the restaurant’s bar section and dessert prep area and then to waiting.

“My mother was unemployed and my father was the only one working and we were really struggling,” explains Xolisa. “I arranged my shifts in such a way that I could go to work after school, but then I missed my final biology exam and failed Grade 11, all because I had overslept after working a double shift the Sunday evening.”

For the next 11 years, Xolisa would work as a waiter at various Spur branches in the Western Cape, at Rocomamas, and at Stellenbosch Hotel and Devonvale, where he also assisted with banqueting events. However, in 2012, he decided to visit his parents’ former home town in the Eastern Cape and while there enrolled at an Adult Basic Education and Training centre to finish his matric. A year later he graduated as the top student at the centre and even served on the centre’s student body.

However, when he returned to Stellenbosch, he had his matric but no job. “My sister was studying Health and Frail Care at Bergzicht Training and Development at the time and she told me about the programme in hospitality.”

“I thought I knew the hospitality industry well,” says Xolisa, “but when I got to The Private Hotel School, I realised there were a lot of skills I needed to learn to add to the knowledge I had obtained while working in the industry. I did not know anything about the back of house and about preparing, cooking and presenting a meal, but I learnt so much at the Hotel School. Before I thought everything revolved around the front of house and waiting and getting a tip, but at the Hotel School I also learnt about the importance of the guest experience.”

Last year, when his former managers at Rocomamas decided to open The Alumni Café, a fast food restaurant that serve traditional South African foods with a Durban influence, they contacted Xolisa to take up the position of head cook because of the City & Guilds’ qualification he held. “I had never cooked in the industry, only at the school, so when my boss told me he expected me to run the kitchen I was scared, but really excited too.”

He says his ability to take on such challenges easily is all thanks to the school. “They really opened up my mind. Each day they would give you a menu, give you the ingredients and tell you to cook a few things and it was up to you to do it, to improvise and add your own twist and that is how you learned and grew and how your cooking style improved.”

Melissa completed matric in 2011 and started studying at Boland College, but soon realised that the course she had enrolled for was not something she was interested in. She deregistered and tried to find work, but after struggling to secure a permanent job, she chose to complete a City & Guilds’ Basic Food Preparation and Cooking course at Stellemploy to further improve her skills. Again she tried to find work, but still came up empty, only managing to find intermittent work as a temporary cashier at the local Caltex garage.

“I really felt hopeless,” says Melissa. “I prayed every day for work and I spent a lot of time crying, asking God why it was that my friends who had studied had found good jobs, but yet I was still unemployed. It was hard visiting my friends’ homes and listening to how proud their parents were of their achievements. It made me feel really bad, but even then, I still had hope and I knew that one day God would open a door for me.”

That door opened in 2015 when Melissa enrolled for the City & Guilds’ programme. For years she had been interested in making food, however, at PHS she was also able to learn how to bake and acquire barista skills too. Not long after completing the programme, she was offered a contract job as a waitress at Hillcrest Berry Orchard in Stellenbosch for six months.

This was followed by another year spent at home looking for work. In the same time, her stepfather lost his job and the family of five – Melissa has two younger brothers – had to depend on the salary of her mother, who is a cleaner, to make ends meet.

“It was a really tough time,” says Melissa.

While most people would have thrown in the towel, she was driven by the prospect of acquiring a job in an industry she loved.

In January 2017, her determination was rewarded when she was employed at the Blue Crane and the Butterfly as a pastry chef.

“When the boss offered me that job, I was thankful to God, because I knew, this was my time now.”

“Being able to study the City & Guilds’ Programme has made a huge difference in my life. We do not have a lot of money, so if my family had to pay for the programme themselves, I would never have been able to do the programme. I am thankful to Bergzicht Training and Development and the municipality for the difference and the impact that they have made on my life. I will never forget it.”

“I want to encourage the youth that are unemployed to never stop dreaming. If you set your mind to achieving something in life, then you can do it. Many times we think that our backgrounds and the areas where we live, especially places where you only see gangsterism, determine where we will go and that we will never move ahead, but you have to see the bigger picture and you have to keep on dreaming.”

Adds Xolisa: “I would really love to thank Bergzicht Training and Development, Stellenbosch Municipality and The Private Hotel School. They are doing really great work in Stellenbosch and they are changing people’s lives and their minds. I know that our municipality is trying its best to create employment and make youth employable in this town and that that can seem impossible at times, but I believe that the route that they took to fund Bergzicht Training and Development to help unemployed youth get skills to find work is a great way to attack unemployment and impact the lives of youth that have studied there. There are so many people who I studied with at Bergzicht Training and Development and who were sponsored by the municipality and who are working in the industry today. They are changing lives.”

Xolisa Masimini (right) preparing mini lemon meringues during his training at The Private Hotel School in 2016. He is currently working as a head cook at The Alumni Café in Stellenbosch after completing a professional cooking programme at Bergzicht Training and Development thanks to a sponsorship from the Mayoral Youth Skills Development Programme of Stellenbosch Municipality. (Lynne Rippenaar-Moses)

Main photo: Melissa Paulse is currently working as a pastry chef at the Blue Crane and the Butterfly in Dorp Street after completing a professional cooking programme at Bergzicht Training and Development thanks to a sponsorship from the Mayoral Youth Skills Development Programme of Stellenbosch Municipality.