Wendy Appelbaum: A philanthropist as catalyst for justice in South Africa

In what has been called a victory for the poor, South Africa’s Western Cape High Court has ruled against predatory practices of credit providers and debt collectors.

The case centered around garnishee orders - court orders obtained by debt collectors to garnish workers’ wages - and came about due to the efforts of Wendy Appelbaum, a South African business leader and member of the board of Synergos South Africa and our Global Philanthropists Circle.

In 2012 Appelbaum learned that garnishee orders had been obtained against some of the workers on her wine farm. She looked more deeply into the practice, and says she “was outraged, to be absolutely honest, at the unfairness of this practice.”

Some activists believe 9 out of 10 garnishee orders are illegal, and in some cases workers were taking home no income at all due to the orders.

Modelling Synergos’ values of social justice and empathy, Appelbaum took action, engaging lawyers and the Stellenbosch University Legal Aid Clinic.

But Applebaum and her partners did not just focus on predatory lenders and debt collectors – they tried to get to root causes, which included lack of government action. They included several government departments as respondents in a law suit. Appelbaum says “This [suit] had to be brought by civil society in order to jerk the government into action. Because I think the lack of care for the poor has been extraordinary.” She describes the effort as “[T]rying to give access to the law for the poor.”

After three years, the court ruled in their favor. Lisinda Bailey, a worker whose garnishee order was quashed said “I did cry because I was so happy. There is someone who’s listening. There is someone who did care for us.”

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October 2015