The invisible heroes

Danielle Brock and Filipa de Oliveira investigate the role of the support staff – the backbone of our university.

Delphine Kivitts wakes up at 4:30 every morning so that by 6:20 she is in the Nelson Mandela hall kitchens, preparing breakfast. Once the breakfast rush is over at nine, the chance for her to have breakfast finally arrives. This lasts until 9:30am and from then until two, she is busy again – this time preparing lunch. From two until four is her chance for lunch, and along with many other kitchen staff members, Kivitts takes the opportunity to lie on the grass and catch up on some sleep. It is not long before the dinner ritual begins and she is occupied from four until 7:30pm, serving dinner, cleaning tables and preparing the kitchen for tomorrow’s shift. The day has not ended yet and relying on public transport, it will take her at least an hour before she can go home to her two children.

Kivitts forms part of the Rhodes University working force known as the support staff. The support staff makes up a large group of the university’s employees and include the catering and housekeeping staff, the grounds and gardens staff, the sanatorium workers, departmental secretaries and the IT division. Working efficiently in the background, most of these employees go unnoticed by students yet are integral for the efficient running of the university.

Imagine there was no one to cut the grass outside your residence. No one to set up your email and make sure your internet connection works. No one to vacuum your common room floor when the microwave popcorn is left scattered after a late night movie. No one to help you out when you have that headache and no one to give you a course outline because you lost your last one.

The majority of support staff employed by Rhodes are from Grahamstown. The university first looks within currently employed staff when positions need to be filled, and if no one suitable is found, the university seeks prospective employees in Grahamstown and its surrounding areas. As a last resort, the university will place adverts in large Eastern Cape newspapers. All support staff are employed through strict adherence to the Recruitment and Selection Policy.

The catering department is a well-structured one, where employees begin as kitchen attendants, setting and clearing tables and move up through the ranks where they have the opportunity to become the head caterers of a hall. They then report to Jay Pillay, the catering manager. “I believe we have a participatory relationship that is one of support and encouragement with my staff,” says Pillay. ”We have an open door policy for all levels of staff and respect for each others’ diversity is the key to our team dynamics.”

Aside from this open relationship, the catering staff benefit from various training programs which improve and empower the staff. “Training is ongoing. Empowered and happy staff are committed staff which creates happy and satisfied customers. We are currently upgrading kitchens and dining halls to create a better working environment for the staff,” says Pillay.

The grounds and garden staff also provide us with an effective and helpful service. Consisting of over 50 staff members, this department is divided into various organisational structures that consist of a supervisor and his team. Heading the department is Mark Hazell, and it works to maintain the gardens on campus, prepare the sports fields and assist in any odd jobs that involve the university’s grounds.

Hazell believes that his relationship with the various supervisors is an effective one and like most departments within the university adopts a ‘grow your own timber’ policy. Through training courses that supervisors attend, the average workers can learn and develop their skills from them. “I would like to see some of the guys be upgraded and working in higher positions. It would be nice to have more money allocated for the training of staff members. This would have them operating at a finer level of skill. However, the prospect of taking the entire staff to this training is just too expensive,” Hazell said.

Edward Maboza, who began working at Rhodes in 2004, expressed some concern over this matter. “Unfortunately it is only the supervisors who get most of the training and because we don’t have it, we can’t ask to be paid more for experience. We want the university to pay us in comparison to other ones like UPE [NMMU] and UKZN”, he said.

All support staff are provided with salaries, not wages, and according to the university, this income is comparable to the current market for support staff in other South African universities. Each employee has a pension or provident fund and medical aid. The ground staff also have the option of applying for either a car or house loaning agreement with the university. The university also provides a Group Life insurance scheme. Sick leave, family responsibility leave and annual leave are also available to the staff. For all support staff who fall below a certain income bracket, the sanatorium is available for their use at a nominal fee. As an added service offered by the university, an educational programme is offered for those wanting to earn their matric. All staff are employed following national laws of equity and are represented by the local workers’ union should there be a problem the university cannot deal with internally.

While it is logical to understand that there will always be some employees who are unhappy, the majority of the Rhodes support staff seem satisfied with the way they are treated both on a professional and personal level by the university. Perhaps the only thing lacking is the true appreciation from the students themselves who benefit the most from the work they do. Torran Murray, first year BJourn student says: “I think they’re friendly but I don’t feel I make enough of an effort to talk to them. I can’t really relate to them but I think I’ll try make a more conscious effort to appreciate what they do.”

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