Community changemakers desperately need support to uplift Joburg’s impoverished urban dwellers

Community changemakers desperately need support to uplift Joburg’s impoverished urban dwellers
Lassie Ndalela parades around the Victoria Yards Sunday Market. A performer and entertainer, he engages young children in fun learning activities at Timbuktu in the Valley, a child and teen learning center at Maker's Valley. (Photo: Yiming Fu)

It’s hard to keep giving when you’re running on empty. Changemakers in inner-city Johannesburg move mountains to improve lives in their poor neighbourhoods but their work remains underfunded. 

Lassie Ndalela used art as his shield to escape riots and political violence growing up in the early 90s in Soweto. As a young boy, he learned sketching, printing, watercolours and pottery from an uncle who lived down the street. The routine kept him busy and taught him discipline, he said.

Though Ndalela’s family couldn’t afford to buy him toys regularly, he made his own toy soldiers out of foil.

“When I played on my veranda, everybody used to see that I would make my own little worlds, and everybody wanted to come and play with me,” Ndalela said. “That’s what kept me going.”

Now you can find him in Victoria Yards in Johannesburg on the first Sunday of the month, strutting around in multicoloured metres-high stilts, pulling goofy faces and whipping up cheeky balloon animals for crowds of children. Ndalela, known affectionately as “Uncle Lassie”, works at Timbuktu in the Valley, a child and teen learning space in Victoria Yards that encourages creativity, sustainability and social cohesion by teaching skills such as upcycling, arts and crafts, bicycle mechanics, road safety, music, yoga and mindfulness.

Ndalela works on the administrative side and also leads fun, activity-based learning in underresourced communities around the city. He is one of dozens of changemakers at Maker’s Valley, Johannesburg’s hub of creative entrepreneurship and social change.

Maker’s Valley, at Victoria Yards, serves Johannesburg’s inner city, including parts of ­Bertrams and Bez Valley. Most residents are poor and many are unemployed. And most of the youth are underserved.

Zwelihle Magwaza, changemakers

Zwelihle Magwaza, the co-founder of Love Our City Klean, poses outside the Maker’s Valley Studio. Love Our City Klean focuses on trash cleanup and recycling education and awareness. (Photo: Yiming Fu)

Zwelihle Magwaza is another changemaker. He is one of the co-founders of Love Our City Klean, or Lock. Lock fills a gap in the community by helping to keep the streets clean, as city services fail to do so.

The group hosts a recycling programme and promotes awareness of keeping the environment clean. Lock also has a community swap shop where members can trade in recyclables to earn points to shop with.

Constance Mcira is another changemaker in Maker’s Valley. She is the founder of Lera­tong Community Hub, a development organisation that offers skills training and motherhood support across Africa.

Constance Mcira, changemakers

Constance Mcira is the founder of Leratong Community Hub, a space that empowers mothers and young women and provides childcare resources. (Photo: Yiming Fu)

Leratong also hosts mentorship, career guidance, peer support and empowerment talks for young women and teenagers.

These three changemakers represent a small slice of the thousands of people in the local neighbourhoods who help young people achieve better futures. However, their day-to-day challenges mean they need continued investment.

Help from the heart

For Ndalela, helping others comes down to respect — respect for others and a respect for life. He believes it is important to share what he has learned with other people so that they can grow as well.

“They say knowledge is power,” Ndalela said, “but it’s useless if it’s only within you.”

Ndalela is always looking to help young people out. What pains him the most, he said, is when he comes across someone he doesn’t have the means to aid.

On the other hand, Magwaza didn’t fully expect to find himself doing change-making work. He did government work before helping to found Lock in 2016.

Mcira said she’d always been a changemaker — she just didn’t have the word for it before coming to Maker’s Valley.

She said she had always sought to help people and participate in community aid. She has long worked in early childhood education and development, and started Leratong during the Covid pandemic to share her passion and knowledge with the world.

Maker’s Valley

The Maker’s Valley changemaker centre at Victoria Yards. (Photo: Yiming Fu)

Mcira’s childhood informs her work. Because her mother was busy selling things to make a living while finishing high school, Mcira was left with an older male caretaker, who raped her.

“That was the other thing for me that led me to decide to be in this space that involves children and their safety,” Mcira said.

Being a changemaker comes from the heart. But running off pure passion is unsustainable. “We are holding on for dear life,” Mcira said.

Many of the community leaders at Maker’s Valley don’t profit from their businesses. Mcira can’t retain staff because she doesn’t have the money to pay them.

She said she and the two other cofounders, one of whom is her daughter, are the only ones to have stayed on since the beginning.

Mcira gets a R1,500 monthly grant from the SEF to work eight hours twice a week. She said that’s not enough for a mother of three children.  

Zweli Magwaza, changemakers

Zweli Magwaza harvesting waste and turning it into food. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

Maker’s Valley enterprises hope to drive systemic change through a “well-being economy” framework, which puts people over profit, emphasises community participation and prioritises long-term outcomes.

Social enterprises such as Timbuktu in the Valley, Lock and Leratong are not NGOs, so they can’t get funding in the same ways.

But changemakers still need money to put food on the table and pay rent.

Magwaza said he had been trying to move for months but he couldn’t find an affordable place that will house six people. He lives with his mom, his wife and three children at a friend’s place close to Victoria Yards.

If he were paid, he said, he would be able to devote his energy to his work with Lock, instead of tracking down places to stay.

Many more young people could afford to be changemakers if the work were better funded, Magwaza added.

“It’s like we’re winning our wars, but then our bank account is zero.”

Mcira said her largest request at Leratong was also more funding.

“You have to survive at the end of the day,” she said. “Your passion should also feed you.”

Magwaza said Lock was seeking partnerships with international organisations that do similar work.

Changemaking is a taxing task, said Hector Mgiba, the director of the Maker’s Valley partnership. He works with people who face a variety of social issues.

People can’t give back, Mgiba said, if they don’t have anything left to give. Changemakers need resources so they can focus on personal growth and self-care.

He is saving up to go to therapy to work on his mental health. He said would be the first in his family to do so.

For Mcira, “making it” would look like buying her own house. “It would be a dream come true,” she said. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly DM168 newspaper which is available countrywide for R29.


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