Recently we chatted to the inspiring community activist Henriette Abrahams from Bonteheuwel. 

She described how the Bonteheuwel Development Forum encouraged the youth to run their arm of the group, the Bonteheuwel Youth Development Forum.

‘The youth have their own meetings around their own issues, such as their security and safety when playing sport on the fields in the township.  

Young people also highlighted their wellness needs; because our youth is so broken. So, with the support of the BDF we put together a 6-day mental health and wellness camp as we have youth that have seen their brothers being shot dead on the streets; there is bullying and gender-based violence they are exposed to in the home. 

We invited about 300 women, and we chose those women very carefully. People had to go onto the streets and identify cases of loss, grief, abuse, rape among the youth. The women who needed to go out to the children then said: Henriette, but you know how difficult this is, because it’s triggering us also; we need training and counselling for ourselves before we can help our community. 

And that is where we started in the following year with the mental health and wellness programme. So yes, your struggles on the ground are heart wrenching. And at the same time, you need to be so responsive and what we’ve learned in the BDF, is that we don’t wait for anybody; we make things happen for ourselves with whatever little resources we can get. For instance, when we didn’t have money to take people to an office to go for counselling, I made my house available to save on transport costs. And then we made food; one person would give bread; another would bring money for cool drink. 

To fundraise we just went to particular individuals, private funders, and said this is the work that needs to happen and these are the costs. And we asked some friends and people in business. Not organisations, just people. And we got that, and we went to a farm. We camped outside, we were using lots; we don’t go to hotels and spend unnecessary money; and our women cooked. 

As far as how we chose who should go, in the various blocks that we are organising the street committees into, the people had to identify the youth who were most in need of this wellness intervention. 

In general, we have an intergenerational approach where we work with the women and the youngsters. So sometimes you don’t find youth feeling comfortable speaking to adults, but they feel comfortable speaking to youth, so we develop those skills for them – not to counsel but to hold, and to act as an intermediary for getting the necessary support

For funding for other interventions on their streets, the youth pitched in and suggested ideas. They were not waiting around for funders to come on board. They started Friday-night takeaways; they sold hot chips and whatever. They had car washes on a Saturday. It was all about trying to make money to help pay for their campaigns.  

Province-wide, countrywide, there is currently no umbrella organisation pulling youth development together in the country.  Back in the day, we had organisations such as the Cape Youth Congress. Now, you only have youth leagues; you only have political parties in the youth leagues. There’s no structure where we have church youth, interfaith youth, university youth, altogether. We have women, organising in various communities, and then you have middle-class women having feminist organisations. And you have church women groups, and so forth, but nobody’s bringing the various sectors together and organising as one solid voice. 

And it’s at the grassroots where the work needs to happen. And as soon as we put shoulder to the wheel for that, we will eradicate a lot of the issues that we are having as women, as youth. But not with everybody on their own little ship. We all want to get to the same destination, but there are too many captains, and too much competition for resources. 

Back in the day, apartheid was the enemy we focussed on; but today there is the capitalist system, which causes systemic poverty and inequalities. That is our common enemy now. If our people are hungry; if our people don’t have jobs; if we are living in poor quality housing that’s affecting our health – if that’s all caused by an economic system, then we need to get rid of that system. We should educate our people, and make them understand – these are the reasons why we are having these issues, and therefore we should fight.’ 

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Tell us: Have you been part of an effective grassroots community organisation? Or benefitted from one?