How did you first get involved with SaveAct and what was your role at the start?
Anton* came to see me for legal advice about setting up an entity. I helped him define the aims and objectives of the trust and put in place the trust deed. He asked me to be a trustee and I became the secretary of the trust.
What were the biggest challenges (from a board perspective) in the beginning?
The main challenge was around training people in the methodology. And, from a board perspective, trying to ensure that the organisation could grow but at the same time not grow so quickly that it outstripped itself.
It’s been fifteen years since SaveAct started. What have been the main milestones along the way for the organisation?
We were able to refine the methodology that is used, from something that Hugh Allen taught people to something that is uniquely South African. In an interesting way the method now reflects something of the communal culture that we find in South Africa. We build on that spirit of people doing things for themselves.
Each time we gained another 10 000 members, that was a massive mile- stone.
Another was when we came up with the idea about six or seven years ago that we could use digital apps to help map and monitor progress, as well as provide tools for the groups. Then we realised that we could leverage groups for enterprise development. The idea of Zis’Ukhanyo and KumFama came about, where we began to look at different products and services that might be of value. We also began investigating doing bulk buying for people as part of the add-on we provide with enterprise training. Lastly, a significant shift was realising that we could roll out our model more effectively if we worked with partner organisations and trained them to do the roll-out themselves.
SaveAct has had to plot its own course because it was doing something new. What have been the main lessons learnt — for the organisation and for you personally?
Firstly, people work at their own pace and you can’t push them, otherwise it just doesn’t work. Second: the realisation that if you give people the right tools, they will do things for themselves. Against all the odds, people on the receiving end of social grants still manage to save, notwithstanding how little they are receiving. By doing that they realise that they have agency and are able to take charge of their lives.
Also, you can have the best systems in the world but unless people buy into them they’re not going to work. So part of the challenge is trying to get buy- in both from staff and the people you work with. That requires patience, encouragement and commitment and our team has been fantastic at doing that.
Finally, people will work with commitment when they love what they’re doing and they can see that it makes a difference. Many of our staff are really committed, despite the fact that we can’t always pay them what they’re worth, because the funding is so scarce.
As a board member I’m really grateful to the team for that mindset. For me it’s been incredibly fulfilling to be part of something that’s grown despite the challenges.
Were there any developments along the way that were surprising or unex- pected?
I was gobsmacked that incredibly poor people would still find R20 or R50 to save once they understood that to do so would help them cushion the knocks along the way. The resilience of humanity – no matter how bad things are, people find a way to go forward. And the realisation that only about 5% of all the people we work with show an aptitude for enterprise. You can’t turn everyone into an entrepreneur.
What do you think is the most important thing that SaveAct has to offer South Africa?
A methodology that helps build resilience, confidence and agency in the poorest of the poor.
Looking ahead, what do you think will be SaveAct’s greatest challenges?
Its founder is getting older and at some point he’ll have to step down. Where will SaveAct go once he’s left? The biggest challenge will be to ensure that the ethos, ideas and pioneering spirit that Anton has brought is maintained, to allow it to keep growing.
As we grow we’ll develop new tools to meet the challenges, particularly dig- ital tools. One of the serendipitous outcomes of the pandemic has been that people are living and working more digitally than they ever did, and this will continue. SaveAct will be able to work in that milieu so that it reaches a much wider audience.
I’d like to say thanks to colleagues on the Board and the SaveAct team for their commitment and contribution over the years, especially the last year with the Covid 19 lockdowns and restrictions.
Ilan Lax is an attorney and legal consultant who works in a range of areas, including land rights, human rights and community-based development issues.
* Anton Krone, SaveAct’s founder and executive director