Johannesburg - Philemon Lempe barely has any free time at work these days. Ever since he started training to become a manager at Shoprite in Lenasia, Lempe has had his work cut out for him.
The 27-year-old has several tasks today. These include staff control, making sure everything is neat and tidy on the shelves, checking if there is a need to replenish stock and expiry dates, dealing with customers, and placing orders.
“It's a lot more responsibility compared to when I first started here, but I relish the challenge,” Lempe says with a smile on his face as he makes his way down one of the aisles.
There are several managers at the Shoprite in Lenasia, but Lempe stands out: he is the only employee in a senior position who is deaf.
Despite his disability, Lempe has shot through the ranks and become one of the store’s most influential staff members.
“Ever since I first started here I had ambitions of becoming a manager, so I have pushed myself and shown the people around me that I’m capable,” he says.
“Deaf people aren't stupid. If you show that you have the confidence and you grab every opportunity that comes your way, it makes things so much better.”
There are an estimated 500 000 deaf people living in South Africa - more than 70% are unemployed.
Now that sign language is set to become South Africa’s 12th official language, Lempe is hoping that other deaf South Africans will find it easier to obtain work.
“I believe that a deaf person is capable of doing anything that a person with hearing can do,” says Lempe. “If you show the desire and hunger to succeed, you can do anything. Now that sign language is becoming an official language I hope that companies will feel more inclined to hire deaf people.”
As Lempe makes his way through one of the aisles, he is approached by a customer who wants to find out more about a certain product. He produces a piece of paper from his pocket as well as a pen, and gets the woman to write out her query.
Lempe wears a black waistcoat which indicates he is a deaf employee, so customers are aware of his disability. “Although communication isn't easy we always make a plan. When a customer does need help I point to my waistcoat so that they know I am deaf and I get them to write on a piece of paper so we can communicate that way. I try to assist them to the best of my abilities.”
Lempe studied at eDeaf, an institution that empowers deaf communities. He is one of 550 deaf and hard-of-hearing people employed after successfully completing NQF level 2 wholesale and retail chain store operation qualifications through eDeaf.
He started working at Shoprite full time in 2015. “When I began working here I already had ambitions of becoming a manager. So I made sure I put my best foot forward as soon as I arrived.”
When Lempe’s bosses noticed how well he was progressing, they insisted he attend NQF level four training and apply for a managerial position. He is undergoing training to become a manager.
“I want to teach other deaf people how to add value to the wholesale and retail environment, and I want to show deaf people that they can be managers and supervisors too, that the sky is the limit.
“I'm the pioneer now. Deaf people can look up to me. I can become their role model, because I can show them that deaf people can do it all. All you need is the cognitive skills, the practical skills, and you need to understand what is expected of you.”
Since he began working permanently, he has managed to save enough money to buy a home and a car.
“I’m so happy I’m able to show members of society that deaf people can have assets in life and we have dreams that we're able to achieve.”
Lempe’s family is incredibly proud. “When I told my family I’m training to become a manager, they were over the moon. They said they were thrilled to see that for the first time in South Africa, a deaf person can actually manage on par with hearing people in a mainstream environment such as the wholesale and retail environment."
Lucinda Fiona Goliath, another fully employed deaf person, is thrilled that sign language is set to become an official language.
“That’s great, and a big thing. Wow, it means that people like us, the deaf community, are being taken into consideration.”
Zoliswa Mzwana recently began working at Shoprite as well. Also deaf, he believes the move to make sign language an official language will allow deaf people to flourish.
“I’d appreciate that as it would make it easier to communicate with my colleagues and customers. More people will recognise it as a language they should learn.”