East London. “An investment … in and for its people,” this was the crux of a statement issued at the time of the inauguration of the East London-based Mercedes-Benz South Africa (MBSA) Technical Training Centre in 1981.
The company’s progressive commitment at the time read: “…our employee practices are based on equal opportunity of employment; equal remuneration and advancement based on merit and skill; equal eligibility for all benefits and facilities; enhancement of skills through training; freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining in every sphere of employment.”
Thirty years on, the MBSA Technical Training Centre can proudly claim a significant contribution to not only affording opportunities for people who would otherwise not have received technical training, but also to alleviating the shortage of qualified artisans in the Eastern Cape.
Leo Borman (90-year old retiree) who was the managing director of the MBSA East London manufacturing plant at the time, recalls, “During the first few years, groups of trainees who had completed their courses with us were sent to the government trade test centre in Pretoria to obtain their Government Certificate. Our people were amazed that our centre’s standard of the equipment was state-of-the-art and way beyond local standards. Certainly then already MBSA was in the world-class league. All our trainees qualified easily for their certificates.”
A legacy in specialised training and education
Dr Martin Zimmermann, CEO of MBSA, explains. “We’re very proud of the legacy of our East London Technical Training Centre, now in its 30th year. We’ve trained 9,429 Artisans to date, at times doing so against pressures for racial segregation.”
While the Technical Training Centre was started specifically to fulfil MBSA’s own requirements for technical staff, it enabled MBSA to provide artisan training for black South Africans, for whom study opportunities were non-existent in the formal institutions of the day. It was this courage and foresight of leadership at the time that has underpinned the value system that MBSA practises today. Subsequently the Centre has evolved into a facilitator for wider employment in the Border Kei region, and thereby provides much needed training relief in this area.
Some of the current trainees shared their thoughts on this opportunity:
Phiwokuhle George – Mechatronics Apprentice from Sunnyridge in East London: “I was a single mom when I started at the MBSA Training Centre. It has given me the chance to study and to find future opportunities.”
Thembeka Mfengu – Millwright apprentice from Peddie in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape: “I studied a Mechanical Engineering Diploma, however this did not open doors for me. The Training Centre is now providing me with the practical skills I will need to work in this industry”.
Phumelele Manjezi – Apprentice Automotive Electrician from Fort Grey: “The MBSA Training Centre has taught me the skills to be able to fix up cars and I can now see a brighter future ahead for me. I can plan ahead, and I have the ability and strength to face life’s challenges.”
This year the centre will be qualifying a new annual record of apprentices – 52 newly-skilled people will enter the workplace. Given the decision by parent company, Daimler AG, to build the next-generation Mercedes-Benz C-Class model in South Africa as well as at three other international plants, it is likely that most, if not all of these apprentices, will find employment in MBSA’s East London plant.
The formal training offered today includes four-year apprenticeships for electricians, millwrights and automotive electricians; and the centre is also accredited for various other skills programmes and learnerships.
Earlier this year the MBSA Technical Training Centre was accredited as a decentralised trade test centre, providing welcome relief for the region’s dire need for appropriate trade-test facilities. At present the centre is being expanded to cater for trade testing, and specialised product training. MBSA anticipates that the demand for high-quality technical training facilities in the Eastern Cape will continue to grow and future expansion of the centre is under consideration. “Thanks to a recent commitment from Daimler AG the Training Centre’s staff compliment has been expanded to facilitate the qualification of 30 artisans annually. The diverse management team is motivated to continue building its reputation as a quality learning institution”, says Stephen Goold, HRD Manager at MBSA, responsible for the centre.
Moving towards a better future
MBSA Vice-President responsible for Human Resources, Johann Evertse, places the beginnings of the centre in its social context, “Our company’s decision for a totally multiracial facility was a bold move. But it is this inclusive philosophy that enabled us, over time, to meet with our workers and resolve difficult, sometimes disabling strikes and protest actions. The conviction and foresight of MBSA at that time, together with other progressive labour agreements helped us end a crippling nine-week strike in 1991, when the ANC dispatched struggle icons, like the late Steve Tshwete and Joe Slovo, among others, to the Mdantsane area where the majority of our workers lived, in order to urge them to accept re-opening the plant in the interest of the company’s survival.”
One stalwart form those turbulent times is Thembalethu Fikizolo, today the General Manager: Employee Relations and Transformation at JIC Mining Services. At that time he was a shop steward at MBSA. He recalls: “In my opinion it was those leaders at the MBSA plant in the early 80s who were inspired by people like Slovo and Tshwete, so much so that they blazed the trail in many respects for changing the corporate environment in the Eastern Cape and in South Africa. In fact, one could argue that what was happening at MBSA was a microcosm of what was happening in the entire country. Today the perception of MBSA as an employer has changed significantly, for the better.”
Daimler AG member of the Board of Management responsible for Human Resources and Director of Labour Relations, Wilfried Porth, remarks that the records set by MBSA’s Technical Training Centre are remarkable, “The work done in South Africa in terms of skills development has been exemplary. Considered against the backdrop of the social inequalities in the South African environment it is worth noting that the MBSA subsidiary continues to represent the cornerstone principles of Daimler AG, namely to support diversity and equal opportunity to all. Our aim is to help employees realise their full potential. Time has proven these investments pay off – in the interest of the company and the communities within which we operate.”
Prof Jürgen Schrempp (67) former CEO of Daimler AG, and currently chairman of the MBSA Board of Directors, recalls that the 80s were very turbulent times in South Africa. He was MBSA’s Technical Director on the Board of Management at the time. “We consciously opposed the regime of the day and vowed to provide equally for all our employees, trainees and interns. We never doubted our commitment to equality as a basis of fair and ethical labour practices. As I came to know former President Nelson Mandela, and later as a good friend, I was always inspired by his fair-minded and thoughtfulness to all people, no matter background, culture, race or the like. It was his steadfastness and principled belief that inspired our management to stay true to our belief in the equal value of all people.”
Another stalwart of the company, and retired CEO, Christoph Köpke (64), says “We took a risk to go against the stream, to stand out and stand up for what we believed, but our faith in South African proved right after all.”
Dr Martin Zimmermann concludes: “All in all, we take our role as a responsible corporate contributor and an agent for social change very seriously. But,” says Dr Zimmermann, “as always in life: past success sets the bar for the future. My team and I will to continue to make MBSA even more successful. We want to strive for even higher levels of quality and customer service, to be a leading corporate citizen, and to be a role model when it comes to business ethics and integrity. While we actively pursue our business interests, we will continue to follow a holistic business approach. We believe that business can only truly flourish when it operates in a stable, sustainable social context.”