HomeFeatures/AnalysisJourney to the trade test: Women artisans share their stories

Journey to the trade test: Women artisans share their stories

The road towards becoming a qualified artisan in South Africa is not always without difficulty. Two women artisans – the one an electrician-in-training, the other a qualified electrician and trainer at the Artisan Training Institute (ATI), reflect on their career paths in a technical field.   

Megan Ledwaba is an electrical learner at the Artisan Training Institute (ATI) on the path to becoming a qualified electrician.

In high school, Megan loved maths and physical science. “I always liked electricity. Learning about currents was cool!” she says. “I was never really interested in history or economics”.

She completed matric in the Limpopo province and shortly after moved to Thembisa to work as a cashier in the food service industry.

With the dream of one day becoming an electrician, Megan began studying towards a national certificate in mechanical and electrical engineering (N2).

The door opened for her in 2018 when she approached ATI, who informed her about a learnership opportunity with Standard Bank Tutuwa. “I told them what I wanted to do, explained my financial situation, and they suggested that I apply for a bursary.”

The rest is history. Megan was awarded a bursary through the Standard Bank Tutuwa programme and enrolled for her training in June 2019. On 6 December she completed her programme to join the ranks of women artisans.

“In the beginning, I was a little nervous to work on the [electrical] panel but I’m used to it now. Many people are scared of electrical work. They think it’s dangerous, and there aren’t a lot of women in this field, but to me, it’s inspiring,” she says.

Once she writes her trade test, Megan’s ambition is to start her own business. “You learn many practical skills at a technical training facility. It’s better than varsity,” she says.

One of Megan’s teachers is Cindy Malatji, a qualified electrician and technical trainer at ATI. Cindy completed her trade test in 2007.

In addition to teaching learners all the electrical tricks of the trade, she also plays a mentoring role to aspirant women artisans like Megan. “I encourage my students to understand their work, and be confident. If they make a mistake, they should move on. It is still a man’s world, but if they know they have a passion and they are good at what they do, they can set boundaries and get the job done,” she says.

“Gender discrimination is still an issue in some companies. For example, women will get instructed to perform light duties such as cleaning, which limits the exposure needed to qualify as an artisan. But women are increasingly finding their voice, and the industry is changing,” she says.

The road towards becoming a qualified artisan in South Africa is not without difficulty, even more so for women. It requires many long hours of practical work, dedication to the trade and a will to succeed. And of course, right before the end is in sight, learners must jump through the final hoop: passing the inevitable and often nerve-wracking trade test. 

The process can be gruelling, says Chris Wessels, training manager at ATI.

“The practical component of the test is done under strict exam conditions. The learner receives an exam paper with a problem to solve in a limited timeframe while the examiner oversees their work. For many young people, it’s been a long journey to get to the point where they open the envelope with their test inside. It can be an overwhelming moment. Our responsibility as trainers is to ensure that we reduce the learner’s anxiety as much as possible and attend to any special needs.”

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More recently, ATI commenced with school outreach work to motivate high school learners to pursue a career as an artisan. As part of an interactive roadshow to high schools across South Africa, ATI explains the skills development processes and requirements to learners, while at the same time debunking some of the stereotypes related to working with your hands.

Once completing the final trade test, learners qualify as artisans with recognised NQF level 4 qualifications. Holding this qualification with the relevant experience can open doors both locally and abroad.

Learners can complete their trade test at any national trade test centre accredited by the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations.

Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl
Nicolette is the Editor of ESI Africa print journal, ESI-Africa.com and the annual African Power & Energy Elites. She is passionate about placing African countries on the international stage and is driven by the motto "The only way to predict the future is to create it". Join her in creating a sustainable future through articles and multimedia content.