Maverick Citizen


Empowering young people is at the heart of Ntsiki Khunju’s efforts to change the world

Empowering young people is at the heart of Ntsiki Khunju’s efforts to change the world
Activist Ntsiki Khunju. (Photo: Thom Pierce.)

As a young woman with a passion for change as well as qualifications and professional experience in social work, child welfare and sexual and reproductive health rights, Ntsiki Khunju has a unique overview of what is important for youth advocacy in South Africa.

‘I see myself as a conversation starter. I love having meaningful conversations that change lives, that get young people thinking about things we wouldn’t usually think about.”

Ntsiki Khunju lives her life in the pursuit of change. Change in the way that young people see themselves and change in the way that the older generations see the youth. Although her activism starts at home, with the education of her young daughter, it manifests in all areas of her life, from paid work to volunteering. 

Often the seeds of passion for advocacy are sown at home, through the parents, in the formative years of a child’s life, but Ntsiki was catalysed into action through a personal tragedy in her early twenties. In 2016 her younger brother died at the age of 18, an event which she now sees as the turning point in her journey. 

“Initially I got into activism to blanket the pain I was feeling from my brother’s death. I got healing in that space and recognised that if the world wasn’t as damaged he would probably still be with us.”

This may be the event that lit a fire in Ntsiki, but the world had been preparing her for a while. At high school, a friend guided her towards the Afrika Tikkun Uthando, a child and youth development centre in Johannesburg, where she joined an after-school programme for girls called the Young Urban Women, run by ActionAid. 

Through this programme she was exposed to discussions about feminism, advocacy and sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR).

“I was intrigued by the concept of SRHR to understand the challenges that young people faced at the time; accessing services, the stigma, the judgement and the prejudice. I wanted to pursue the continuation of that advocacy.”

At the time, the Young Urban Women programme was only for girls who were at high school, so leaving school meant leaving the programme. Seeing her potential, Afrika Tikkun offered Ntsiki a leadership position to study social auxiliary work, which, in time, turned into a paid job at the centre. While doing this, Ntsiki was also studying child and youth care work, as well as taking up a volunteer position on the community advisory board at Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI). 

“Wits RHI is where I got exposed to the concept of STI management, clinical research into vaccines and HIV prevention. I realised that I could be a person who connects and bridges the community and the science.”

It was around this time that ActionAid developed Young Urban Women to include a space for young people who had left school but wanted to continue their advocacy; a space for active citizens to collaborate and develop. So, in 2022, Ntsiki joined them again, this time as a writer, documenting the workshops, conversations and learnings of Young Urban Women and publishing them through Activate! Change Drivers, on its blog and social media.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Actionists

As a young woman with a passion for change as well as qualifications and professional experience in social work, child welfare and sexual and reproductive health rights, Ntsiki has a unique overview of what is important for youth advocacy in South Africa. 

It is the current focus of the Young Urban Women that fascinates her the most. This year the organisation launched its feminist economy manifesto in order to produce more economically empowered active citizens, activists who would not be at the mercy of others for their survival but who, by virtue of supporting themselves, would be in a position to make informed decisions. 

“If you empower groups of young people you are creating an empowered community. A community that is economically empowered can be vocal about the importance of condom use because they are not having to beg for money anymore; they are not at the mercy of men.” 

It is this idea of economic empowerment that Ntsiki will take forward with her advocacy as it speaks to everything that she cares about through her work. DM

The Actionists was launched in early 2023 by photographer Thom Pierce. It consists of on-the-ground problem solvers, community activists, climate campaigners and human rights defenders who engage in direct action. They are people anyone can turn to in difficult circumstances: a growing community of people who care about the future of South Africa. Through a series of photographic stories, Pierce profiles these people. Through a website, discussion forum and social media, the aim is to provide ways for people to get involved.

Nominate Actionists in your circle at or email [email protected]

This story is one of a series of articles produced by The Actionists to highlight the incredible work of organisations and activists across South Africa in their pursuit of justice and equal rights for all.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.


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