Content Partner: Activate! Leadership for Public Innovation

“Rubbish,” I said, and then immediately regretted my tone; what Ashley said had upset me.
“It’s not rubbish,” he replied, “she should be fired. That social worker has been dumping kids on this lady since 1994. How many is it now? Sixteen in that room alone. Where is the help she is supposed to be getting from the government? The social worker should have found someone to pay attention to her condition. How has she not reported this to her supervisor,” Ashley was angry too. It had been a trying day.

We had visited an orphanage in Khayelitsha to perform a symbolic act of charity. We, the Activators, had done a day’s cleaning and had bought some supplies for the sixteen children who either lived in the shack or used it as a daily base of support.

A friend who had worked as a social worker in Langa said, “It’s possible that everyone at the department has done what they are supposed to. You heard the gogo, the other orphanages won’t take children beyond their funding. What do you do with a kid who needs a home and there is nowhere else to take them? Someone I know had to run their social services office without a phone. You can’t just blame the social worker, you don’t know the pressures.” We didn’t really know. What was the department’s policy on this sort of thing?

Ashley was unsatisfied. How could he be, when I was too? This conversation we were having in front of a warm braai belonged to that ever tragic national discourse about the unjust state of life in our country’s slums; the festering sore on our collective moral lives. It was hard not to think of Dickens’s London at a moment like that, the coal-blacked children dying of lung disease and over-work as the empire looted the wealth of the world.

I had had a similar experience myself. At the beginning of the year I ran a brief and unfunded adult composition and language class in Harare. Something which struck me was the number of students coming in and asking for extra maths and science classes. They were desperate for them, for the advantage they give. There was a great sadness in me that I could not offer it to them. But what hurt me most was that there was clearly nowhere for them to go. If people wanted to learn, why, after all these years of freedom, was there nowhere for them to do so?

The notion of meritocracy is a cruel joke without equal education. In my role, I was trying to address a different need; one no less desperate. Even Soviet Russia, even blockaded Cuba, with all their faults, had managed to give literacy to their peoples. Why have we failed so badly?

“And what have we done?” I had asked bitterly about our day at the orphanage. I had similar worries about the class I had run. “We have swept in for a day, cleaned, fed them, and disappeared. When we go home those kids will still be there; our visit a brief blip in a life of guaranteed hardship.”

I felt helpless. We all did. We had been gathered together to think about issues like these. That is what Activate is for, at least by intention; to empower young and willing South Africans who want to make a difference to their communities. The people I had met on the program had already been doing some amazing work.

Those the program had brought together were an inspiration to me. The late night debates on politics and solutions, on feminism and race, on right and wrong, they made my hair raise and my heart warm. Despite what some economists insist upon, there are a great many people who are not driven by utility in the form of money (though many of us could do with a little more).

What was created on our nine day retreat was a brief birth of what can only be called family. These were people like me, and I was like them; motivated not by self-aggrandisation, but the desire for a better, softer world. I loved them, love them, for it.

What can we do at the coalface of the South African condition? Activate is an attempt to answer that question, to build networks of change. If it succeeds, the future will tell of it. If not, it will sink down into our collective unconscious, nothing but a fragmented memory of national inadequacy, carried by a few.

There is, however, one certainty: the people I met care. Given a chance, given support, they would dedicate their lives to helping those most in need of it. So, I have hope. If history has taught us anything, it is that change is possible.

Despite the helplessness, the frustration, the magnitude of the task at hand, this also is true: you have to be in the game to have a chance of winning. Activate is another roll of the dice, perhaps this time we will see the sixes our nation desperately needs.


Activate! Leadership for Public Innovation is a national network of young people committed to social transformation. United across race and class, they will develop the perspectives and skills of innovation needed to tackle some of South Africa’s most challenging social issues.
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