This cleaner bagged a new career in her lunch break


Gugu Khandabili places the straps of a multi-coloured school bag on the shoulders of a child. She unzips a section and unfolds the lightweight material tucked inside, converting the backpack into a weatherproof poncho that protects both learner and bag. Khandabili has played an integral role in making this. With a team of innovative workers, her nimble fingers have cut, pieced and stitched this together. Her dedication to upskilling herself is changing the everyday experiences of thousands of South African children who have to brave the elements to walk to school.

Now a key member of the sewing team, Khandabili was a cleaner for a company that made branded banners when she discovered their novel idea to reduce waste and help others. Rather than heading for the dump, they would make cheap but hardy school bags from metres of textile offcuts. Seamstresses were needed – the perfect opportunity for Khandabili to earn a better living. If only she could sew – but lacking the most important skill for the job didn’t deter her. She spent every lunch break for the next three months with a needle and thread in hand working towards her goal. Hours of practice resulted in her first completed item, a shopping bag for Uzwelo Bags. “My dream was to learn how to sew. Now my dream is to help people,” she says.

Her newfound skills are providing for her two children while making the path to education easier for kids all over South Africa. “Up until today, Uzwelo has made 10 000 schoolbags,” she says. Once a cleaner, now a seamstress, she has used her resourcefulness to help her family and the community.