Click Here for Photo Gallery of Kliptown
The African National Congress (ANC), which was formed just after New Years in 1912 to resist minority white domination of South African society, signed their Freedom Charter in the ’50s in Kliptown, Soweto (Johannesburg). Considering this history, and Soweto’s critical role in the eventual fall of Apartheid, it is appalling to see first hand that the residents of Kliptown continue to live in shacks and suffer the never-ending impacts of massive unemployment. It has been seventeen years since the fall of Apartheid and the beginning of the “New South Africa”, but even though the land across the railroad tracks has been broken and given way for a large R.D.P. housing project, the majority continue to live in a maze of shacks. While the reality here is extremely grim there are people in this seemingly forgotten community that refuse to accept these conditions as permanent.
An organization known simply as KYP- Kliptown Youth Program- has harnessed this energy and partnered up with other organizations, both South African and international, and have created an oasis amidst the chaos. Their focus has been on education, access to life services, after-school programming and food for children. I was here last year with GLA- Global Leadership Adventures- and they were back with a group of students from Nigeria, America and Europe to assist in KYP programming. While I wasn’t able to attend the programming this year I was able to catch back up KYP and document some significant changes in the facility and scope of their activities within the community.
New facets of KYP in 2011 include new recreational areas for the children, two newly constructed classrooms, which have replaced cargo containers that were functioning as spaces for tutoring, and a brand new computer lab with ten work stations each equipped with internet connections. A new soccer KYP soccer team has also been created as well, and has obviously been flooded with youth trying to make the official team.
Another side project, which is slated to start in October, will also change the face of Kliptown for both the people who live within the maze of shacks as well as for those who drive through on the road that rises up above the railroad tracks. When you follow this major road the shacks stretch out and fill the horizon, but two artists- Happy Dhlame (see the gallery titled ‘Happy’ about his work) and Breeze Yoko- have set in motion an ambitious after-school arts program to beautify the roof tops with murals of flowers, trees and other flora. Their main goal is to fill the horizon with color and a depiction of life, which signifies the youth growing up in conditions that are appalling. In all of the townships I have spent time within the level of potential among the youth is overwhelming. The previous generations most definitely suffered greatly under Apartheid, and many died in the fight for majority rule, but the seriously painful part of the story is the lack of opportunity for the next generation as conditions remain the same. But some Kliptown residents are hopeful because of KYP and other groups that have come in to jump start a Kliptonian Renaissance.
Thulani Mhambi, 25, and Sihle Magadla, 20, are prime examples of youth that have immersed themselves within the KYP process and refuse to accept the conditions as permanent. Both wear tons of hats and facilitate diverse services in the community. Thulani, who is the Under-15 Soccer Coach, an Assistant Librarian, and works as a freelance plumber and handyman, sees his greatest role in being a Grade 6 Tutor everyday after school lets out. Sihle (pronounced Seekhay) also works with the soccer team and sees the tutoring program as the greatest way to support the community. He is also very skilled at the art of Gumboot, which is a physical percussion and active dance tradition popularized by workers in the mines who played their boot tops during work breaks. Sihle learned when he was young and wants to give back by leading a new Gumboot group to ensure the art form stays alive. As Thulani and Sihle walked me through Kliptown they discussed the myriad challenges the community faces, which included politicians coming through with bold promises of houses and consistent service delivery that is yet to truly emerge. However, their energy and willingness to remain positive never wavered. Perhaps their positivity is bolstered by the massive popularity of KYP events after school lets out, and the consistent expansion and improvements of the KYP facility.
While most are realistic about the near future of Kliptown, and take brief visits from politicians with a grain of salt, it is clear that the community is no longer waiting on others to start the renaissance. Once Happy and Breeze get the kids to work on the rooftops, Kliptown will continue its transformation in spirit and mind, and while the fundamental conditions most likely will remain, the truly committed are truly winning hearts and minds.