Nadine Naidoo is reviving the culture of citizen service in South Africa and enabling it to flourish.
Nadine is reviving the culture of citizen service in South Africa by using a range of tools and services that narrow the gap between idealism and practical expression. She has observed that, though there is a strong willingness to engage in community development, the absence of efficient systems that provide appropriate information and incentive schemes to counter inhibiting factors deflates initial enthusiasm of interested people. She is therefore developing information mediums that close the gap between citizen service organizations and the general public and revealing a wealth of potential opportunities. She has launched a virtual database (http://www.volunteer.co.za/) that matches volunteers with opportunities and is in the process of delinking the database from the Internet to enable those without access to benefit from the information. Recognizing that economic consideration is one of the greatest barriers to entry in volunteering in poor communities, she is engaging a variety of stakeholders to offer financial recompense and other forms of recognition that yield returns in the future.
Currently, an environment where South Africans can participate in community development on a voluntary basis does not exist. Though the spirit of ubuntu ("neighborliness") is deeply embedded in the country, especially among black South Africans, it lies largely dormant at the behest of repressive apartheid government policies. The problem is compounded by extreme poverty in a country that discourages individuals from engaging in any activity that does not bestow financial reward.
In cases where individuals have the financial freedom to volunteer without financial compensation, the opportunities available to them are not always obvious. There are no formalized systems or structures to obtain information on organizations that require volunteer assistance, and in cases where individuals are interested in starting their own initiatives, there is no information on launching community-based organizations readily available. As a result, the fires of idealism either fizzle out or the initial volunteer effort is wrought with difficulties because the volunteer-host is unable to provide a holistic experience.
Some citizen service organizations and the government have attempted to redress this situation with varying success. To celebrate the 90th anniversary of the African National Congress (ANC) and pay homage to the enormous individual sacrifices of those who fought for liberation from apartheid, the ANC-led government launched the Letsema Volunteer Campaign to encourage citizens to volunteer their time and services in development activities. Though the campaign has reported some successes, partisan politics and poor resource allocation have prevented the campaign from reaching its full potential.
Other publicly profiled campaigns by citizen organizations to encourage volunteerism are lacking in depth and duration. It is standard practice for community organizations, religious bodies, and others to mobilize the public for one-time charity events that last one week. Volunteerism in South Africa therefore remains at the mercy of individuals' initiatives and given the environmental factors, only the most determined and financially independent can, as Nadine says, "discover themselves through others."
Nadine's strategy is to build a virtual volunteer network–Visionaries in Action Africa (VIA Africa)–to enable individuals to volunteer with various citizen service organizations. This system helps link citizen sector organizations together with individuals interested in contributing to community development. She has developed an almost entirely self-managed Web site where citizen service organizations can enter volunteer and internship opportunities available with their organization, and potential volunteers from all over the world can select their field of choice and receive instant matching with a host of organizations fitting their interests. Since the formal launching of the site in March 2003, over 100 volunteers' "offers" have been recorded.
Recognizing that a Web-driven system could marginalize a large number of people with limited access to the Internet, she is developing the capacity to house and integrate the VIA Africa online system into existing technological networks, connected to disadvantaged communities. For instance, she envisions engaging banking institutions to integrate the database with their automatic teller machines (ATMs), as well as speaking with other institutions with deep penetration in poor communities, such as the post office, to serve as distribution and collection points for Volunteer Registration/Volunteer Hosting forms. She is also involved in discussions with the Department of Labor (DOL) on ways that the information in the database can be made available at their extensive network of multipurpose community centers.
Her second strategy is to offer irresistible incentive schemes to potential volunteers, who may be dissuaded by socioeconomic considerations. She has partnered with various stakeholders, such as the DOL, to heighten the impact of her initiative. The DOL has launched a campaign to address the high level of unemployment in South Africa–which is approximately 40 percent–by offering the unemployed theoretical training on a variety of skills-sets that they can then use in seeking jobs in the formal economy. Nadine has held several discussions with Department of Labor representatives on emboldening this initiative by suggesting that VIA Africa could complement the theoretical training with practical training via opportunities facilitated by her initiative. In turn, the DOL would offer a stipend and accredited qualification certificates. Given the department's target of reaching at least 50,000 unemployed people by 2004 and 80,000 by 2005, this initiative will have significant impact in the nonprofit sector and enable citizens to "realize their visions," whether employed or unemployed.
Nadine is also aware that given the vast potential for growth once this initiative mushrooms, her third strategy is to lobby for, and influence national policy and legislation on, volunteering. Protection of the rights of volunteers, especially in regard to the terms of service between volunteers and their hosts, will be a crucial component of VIA Africa's activities.
The fourth part of her strategy is to highlight the value of volunteering in education. She is currently working with the Gauteng Department of Education through a range of volunteer activities that can be performed by learners and educators to achieve specific learning outcomes while benefiting the community.
The fifth strategic element is brand marketing or what she refers to as "media and mobilization strategy." By using radio, television, and print media, she intends both to raise awareness of the opportunities VIA Africa provides and to showcase updates on selected volunteer success stories and challenges. For instance, she has already begun a column in the SA India magazine and is in negotiation with numerous media houses. VIA Africa has also launched the Volunteer Via Africa Journal in May 2003, which goes out once a month to the growing network, giving the sector a chance to share and inspire individual and organizational successes.
Lastly, as the name suggests, once the model has been consolidated in South Africa, Nadine intends to spread into Africa and beyond. Indeed, given the international matchmaking that has already taken place, the impact is already being felt beyond South Africa.
Nadine has always been an ardent proponent of citizen service. As a young girl in a suburb of Durban, she witnessed decay in the social fabric that was expressed in such incidents as domestic abuse, homelessness, and the racial humiliation of apartheid.
Her ideas began to take shape as she ran "Trailblazers," a creative arts studio that she created to network artists and the corporate sector in an effort to advance children and women. After graduating from college, she was eager to apply her communications degree toward social development and found an ideal opportunity working on an education television program for children. This experience exposed her further to the potential power of media and technology in community development, and though she thoroughly enjoyed it, she saw a vacuum: the show was highly inspirational to the audience, but it did not provide concrete opportunities for the inspiration to be channeled. She began to conceptualize how to more systemically fill this gap between idealism and practical expression. In 1999 she started her own media productions company and ventured into the corporate, commercial, and drama production fields. With the revenue generated, she managed to spend time and energy developing the first manifestation of these ideas–the Web portal www.viaafrica.org. As public interest and impact grew, she eventually left her formal employment at the end of 2000 to concentrate full-time on her initiative.
Nadine is also an actor on the popular South African soap series, "Isidingo," where she is using her character and role to raise awareness of VIA Africa by engaging fellow actors to join as VIA Africa Ambassadors going out to volunteer. Thus she encourages the viewership of 2.5 million people per day to join their favorite television personalities in a volunteer site somewhere around the country or continent.