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Bob Nameng and the children of the SKY

Bob Nameng and the children of the SKY

One of the countless everyday heroes in this country, Bob Nameng is giving marginalised people what the SA's ruling ANC fails to deliver daily - food for hungry bellies, nourishment for young minds and a homely place to play and learn in the slums. Not just any slums, but that very place in Soweto where “the founding fathers and mothers” adopted the Freedom Charter for a better South Africa. By MANDY DE WAAL. Photographs by JD JEHOVA.

Once you’ve hopped over the railway line and started walking towards the heart of Kliptown in Soweto the first thing that assails you is the smell of shit. Lined alongside the tracks are scores of green portable toilets, doors yawning in the wind revealing crap covered bowls that belch periodic blasts of stink into the steady stream of morning foot traffic.

The oldest suburb of Soweto, Kliptown’s a seminal site in South African history. Fifty-six years ago liberation organisations gathered en masse in Kliptown under the banner of the Congress of the People to adopt the Freedom Charter, a collection of “freedom demands” that was collected countrywide by tens of thousands of ANC volunteers.

About 3,000 representatives came to forge a new vision based on equality, non-racialism, free education and the right to a living wage. The calling cry of the movement was, of course, “The people shall govern”.

Walking deep into Kliptown the victory of a liberation struggle is the last thing one thinks of because all around there are stark reminders of service delivery failure, unemployment, poverty and the ever widening gap between the rich elite and the restless, destitute majority. That and the unrelenting smell of crap because there are no flushing toilets.

Photo: Kliptown Soweto. (Survival is the motto)

You’d think anyone growing up here would have Kenny Kunene dreams – fantasies of bling, flashy cars, expensive brands and eating sushi off a near-naked woman’s body. But at Bob Nameng’s Soweto Kliptown Youth (SKY) materialism and overt consumerism are taboo. Here the daily gospel is all about hard work, humility, education, service and the power of possibility.

A wiry man with long dreadlocks and a friendly, sculpted face, Bob Nameng started SKY in the late 1980s because of the terrible experiences he had living hand-to-mouth on the streets of Soweto. His mother died when he was four and his father followed by the time Nameng turned six. Nameng turned to the streets and became a thug because stealing was the only way he could feed himself and his physically handicapped older brother.

Clearly Nameng was on course for a lifetime crime, but his fate was changed by a kindly aunt who took him in and taught him the transformative power of love and caring. By the age of sixteen, Nameng started looking out for street kids from the two-roomed shack he called home. The first thing he did was to form a choir where young people could come and sing. From there it was a small step to creating a centre where people could learn, draw, read and discuss issues that weighed heavily on their lives. Nameng’s rule for himself and the burgeoning centre was that he’d never turn kids away, primarily because he doesn’t want any child to go through the suffering he endured when he was young.

“Children are the future of this country and we need to empower them and to realise how vital they are to the growth of South Africa,” says Nameng, who believes that by caring for children, feeding them, and teaching them moral values, a better country is possible. What was a handful of kids soon became a couple of hundred. Nowadays about 900 children come to SKY centre daily for three square meals, help with homework and after-care activities that include theatre, poetry and dance.

Watch an insert on SKY by Dokument Films on Youtube:

“It’s crucial the children don’t leave here for school with bare hands or empty bellies,” says Nameng who understands how gnawing hunger drives desperation that fuels crime. “If kids get food and their bellies are full they can be taught and are receptive to focusing on education. If a child doesn’t get food they think nobody cares for them and can easily become aggressive and destructive. How can a hungry child remain motivated and positive? This is why feeding hungry children is one of the most important things that we do at SKY.”

During difficult times, the numbers of kids at SKY swells and Nameng says job lay-offs and hard times can see as many as 1,200 or 1,300 hungry kids turn up looking for food. This is when the centre needs to make whatever they have stretch as far as it can.

“Unemployment is rife in this area and if we don’t feed the kids, who will?” Nameng’s nourishment isn’t just for the body, but for the mind too. At SKY the mantra is all about the understanding that while these kids may live in shacks, their minds can be glorious palaces of possibility. Other tenants of Nameng’s teachings include love, respect and creating an understanding that hard work triumphs over the expectation of handouts.

Photo: Kids in Kliptown

“We need to teach our young people to be self-sufficient and not rely on handouts. This culture of young people expecting things or waiting for things to come to them because they are marginalised is nonsense. Being underprivileged does not mean that you are owed things.” Nameng says by changing the course of one child’s life, you can change the world.

“The only way out of Kliptown is to work hard, deliver high standards and get brilliant marks,” says Thabo Mbhele, a senior student-cum-tour guide who showed me around SKY. “Education is the only way to emancipate people from mental slavery. Education sharpens my mind, makes me think. I might live in poverty, but that doesn’t mean my mind has to be impoverished.”

Photo: Kids at SKY.

Mbhele says unemployment is rife in Kliptown and about 70% to 80% of the people living in the Soweto suburb have no jobs. “The only thing we preach here is education. That is our only salvation,” says Mbhele, who describes Kliptown as South Africa’s “platinum brand”. “We’re rich in history, but when it comes to infrastructure we are absolutely impoverished.” When I ask Mbhele, who is in his final school years, whether he’d like make it big, make lots of money and move out of Kliptown, he says no. He tells me that he’s been inspired to commit to a life of service like his mentor Bob Nameng.

“It’s important that other people in Soweto do well and become prosperous, but for us things are different. Here at SKY we think about money differently. We don’t think money is everything. It isn’t money that makes life, but life that makes money.” Mbhele says the accent here is about education and values first and success second. Money is seen as a by-product of success and not a key motivator.

Photo: Cooking lunch at SKY.

In a country where being part of the powerful, enriched political elite automatically means entitlement and entry to world of luxury punctuated by VIP hospital care and multimillion-rand housing upgrades, Nameng is a reminder of the more simple tenants the mothers and fathers of freedom fought and died for in this country.

As stated in the Freedom Charter they are in part about plentiful food and a country where no-one goes hungry. A South Africa where slums are demolished and crèches, social centres and playing fields are created instead. It is ironic that while our rulers are increasingly distracted by self-interest and materialism, it takes someone like Nameng to realise some of the freedom dreams adopted in Kliptown more than five decades ago. DM

Watch an insert on SKY on the Conscious Action Network:

Visit Soweto Kliptown Youth online.

Main photo: Bob Nameng.


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