Opinionista Kalim Rajab 13 March 2013

Despite all the bad news, the future is in good hands

The deluge of gloom and doom presented by the media often washes over the positive developments in South Africa’s society. However, the positive impact of grassroots initiatives such as enke: Make Your Mark, a young, vibrant social activist group, are cause for much hope – and even celebration.

There are certain South African newspapers which I try to avoid because reading them induces a sense of hopeless despair about the state of the country. Sometimes it seems as if we’re so bogged by the three C’s – crime, corruption and the growing callousness of our society – that they are all we can talk about, a certain perverse pleasure almost taking root as we do so. I’m certainly guilty of this cynicism from time to time – which is why whenever I can, I try to celebrate and to share the really positive things happening in South Africa, because they are definitely out there, waiting to be discovered.

One of the more inspiring things I’ve been exposed to over the last few years has been the rise, and rise of enke: Make Your Mark, a young and incredibly vibrant social activist group whose impact on young lives I’ve found quite remarkable, even with my cynical nature. (Disclaimer: I have been on the board of enke since 2012, and though I may be accused of bias, I’ve been able to witness at close quarters the kind of impact the organisation has.) In clinical, formal terms, enke is a grassroots youth development organisation which focuses on building networks between young adults and equipping them with vital skills to tackle urgent social issues. It is built around a nine-month youth programme which brings together high school participants from completely different social backgrounds to equip them with personal leadership skills. In reality, it does much more than that.

The thing that strikes you first about enke is how refreshing the concept is. I’ve come across scores of non-profits doing youth development in the country, but few seem to engage so directly, and for so long, with their beneficiaries. One-hundred-and-fifty bright-eyed Grade 10s and 11s in the middle of their school holidays are chosen from a thorough cross section of the country and asked to work, eat, fight and bond together over the course of an intensive week. Each of the participants has been asked beforehand to think about their community, and to identify an issue which they would like to help resolve within it. But instead of paternalistically trying to ram down ready-made solutions for these community issues, enke starts by completely reversing the paradigm that grown-ups have all the answers for the social problems the participants face. Instead, over time, it builds confidence in the kids that the solution actually lies within themselves, within their network of peers and, importantly, within their own community. Over the week, trained facilitators (often university students) work with small teams of five to teach them vital skills for establishing the community action projects. But the real alchemy happens in the small teams, when participants – who a few short days before might never have come into contact with the people sitting opposite them – start talking and breaking down issues among themselves. As Tahseen Kamalie, from last year’s cohort, said of her small team, “No matter how small, everyone was key in making the change for me.”

In working in their groups, participants are encouraged to make their community action projects appropriate to their situational context. So, for example, a participant from a prosperous northern suburbs community created a project to have a much needed blood donation drive, while another participant from a school with few resources and inadequate teaching took it upon himself to start up an after-hours, extra lessons programme in an unused schoolroom with the encouragement of his headmaster and the help of his fellow participants.

I’ve seen the transformation which occurs in these kids over the course of these short few days. I’ve seen a real sensitivity emerge in them, as they come face to face with the huge diversity and oceans of inequality which exist in the country. I’ve seen the glint of satisfaction as greater understanding, and in many cases, genuine friendships, are formed across the social divide. And I’ve seen an emboldened confidence taking root in participants who feel that their passion for making a difference in their community has finally been sharpened with the skills to help make it a reality.

The effects are inspiring. Take, for example, Lethabo Nonyane, a member of the Tafelkop community in Limpopo province. She noted that the extreme poverty being experienced in her community could be alleviated by starting a vegetable garden as part of her community action project. She recruited 18 of her peers to assist her in setting up the garden at her high school. Lethabo and her team sell part of their crops to the community, and also donate vegetables to orphanages and home-based care providers in the area. She believes that her vegetable garden will assist in uplifting her community and, if she’s able to continue, to relieve some of the poverty experienced within it.

Photo: 2012 Forum participants.

What makes me so excited about enke, and why do I celebrate this organisation above many other credible ones? For me, it comes back to the refreshing nature of the concept. For one thing, the team behind the idea are young and dynamic. Pip Wheaton, Tom Walsh and Kat Maunders were all below 30 when they dreamt up the idea in 2009 after working in rural Kwazulu-Natal schools. Their youth and vigour means that they’re always relevant to the kids who they try to inspire. No crusty old codgers prefacing everything with “In my day…” here.

For another thing, Pip and Tom (Kat has subsequently moved on) have structured the organisation so that it effectively replenishes itself – a key strength as enke looks to expand its reach. Facilitators have usually been past participants themselves the previous year, and so are keen to “pay it back” when their turn comes. And on selected occasions, even management are distinguished facilitators who want to remain in the organisation and play an enlarged role. I love the fact that when I engage with the financial manager, Kingsley Kipury, about scalability, sustainability and forecasts, I can value his opinion because as a previous participant and facilitator himself, he lives, breathes and knows the organisation.

Then there’s the duration of the impact which is another distinguishing feature which I admire. After the youth programme, the participants go away to their respective communities and have nine months alone to set up and sustain their community action projects. Nine months is a long time ­– time enough to feel isolated, to lose enthusiasm or to lose focus. But through innovative use of technology, whereby all the participants keep in contact with their team and with their facilitators through Facebook, Twitter, quarterly “phonathons” and SMSes, Pip and her operational team ensure that contact is not lost. “We often find that young people don’t realise just how amazing their achievements are,” she explains. “How, in the grand scheme of things, by running a project, they’ve beaten the odds and made a real impact. So one of the most powerful things we can do is provide them with moral support as they’re working through any challenges and celebrate their successes.”

Late last year, the Mail & Guardian selected enke for its civil society award in its Investing in the Future award ceremony honouring the best non-profit work in the country. enke was the youngest organisation to be honoured, a testament to how quickly it’s been able to effect meaningful change, but also a self-reminder to it that for it to truly change patterns of community activism, it’s got to do so over several years and generations. For the time being though, what the organisation has achieved – inspiring thousands of young kids and people in their communities to take grassroots action – should be cause for celebration for all South Africans who hold such things dear. In the midst of the descending gloom about everything else that is happening in the country, it’s nice to have little gems such as these to keep us smiling. DM

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