Get serious about youth empowerment: Small things tell a big story

When I moved from the Netherlands to South Africa, I moved in with the family of my late partner in Nelson Mandela Township (Nemato) in Port Alfred. The warm weather and the warm people in the township were wonderful medication to heal my wounds of the loss of my partner, much better than all the first world healthcare the Netherlands could offer me.

I moved to South Africa without a job. I was lucky. The place I moved to, happened to be just a hundred meters away from one of the main rowing venues in South Africa: the beautiful Kowie River. I had been a rowing coach for 20 years. In just a few weeks I had a job: I was coaching the first eight of Rhodes University.

Living in the township and coaching rowing, the guys in the township asked me all the time, “and what about us?”. It took me two years of fundraising before we were able to start the Nemato Rowing Club. That was at the end of 2005 and over the years we have been growing. We have four clubs now: rowing, gymnastics, netball and fencing. We established a non profit organisation that takes care of our youth empowerment program.

Despite the never ending struggle to raise funds, the work I am doing now, gives me more meaning in life than I ever experienced before.

This program is a great opportunity for me to experience how youth live and grow up in the township and the challenges facing them. It”s not the statistics that make you see the bigger picture; it’s the small things that tell the big story. The things you only fully see when you live the life yourself. I guess it also helps me to be an outsider to see the significance. Here are some lessons we learnt:

1. Homework class

We repair our rowing boats ourselves. One day I asked someone to cut a piece of wood of one metre in length. He looked completely lost, and didn”t know how long a meter was. Nobody knew. That is how dysfunctional our schools are. We are now running a homework class 5 days per week and spend a lot of time on basic mathematics and literacy.

2. Feeding program

Our young boys and girls are active, good looking, and full of energy. They are very clever in hiding poverty. I never saw the hunger until a boy came to me US Casinos and said, “I can”t row today, I have pain in my stomach”. I took him to the first aid box and asked if it was stomach cramps or a runny tummy. “I didn”t eat for two days.” he answered. That was the start of our daily feeding program.

3. Own your club

Our girls were organising an event for our sponsors and donors. I suggested that they should ask their parents to prepare the lunch. They said no. “If we ask them, it will not happen.” That is evidence of the importance and the success of our “own your club” approach.

4. Focus on youth

When we started the rowing club, I was the only coach. We tried to find people from the township to help me. No experience needed, just commitment. We tried and tried and failed all the time. Nobody managed to pick up the energy needed to make the job a success. Only when our own athletes started coaching did things started moving. Our sad conclusion is that the people older than 18 are a lost generation. We have to focus on the youth under 18. Only the youth has the future.

5. Safe sex

I thought with our beautiful program, our youth would be much wiser and more responsible than average regarding safe sex. How naïve of me! We found out that all our senior members were having unprotected sex. We stopped being shy about sex. We are now very open and clear about safe sex and we always have condoms available.

6. Reward commitment

In the beginning we tried hard to motivate the lazy ones. That was frustrating work, which produced no results. We changed our minds. We now focus our energy on the active guys and make them benefit as much as possible: we reward commitment.

7. Being poor makes small challenges big

One of our rowers wanted to study engineering at the FET College in Port Elizabeth. We underestimated how challenging this is for poor people. He had no money to go to PE to write the test. End of story. We helped him a little when he got stuck. He is now studying, is very excited, and is looking forward to a bright future. Giving a keen youngster a helping hand can change a life.

8. Further education and skills training

After years in our program most of our seniors rowers dropped out of the program. Why did they give up? They are 19 or 20 years old in grade 10 or 11. Their township education is very poor and most will never pass matric. They don”t have hope and drop out. Our engineering student is 17. By the time he is 19 he”ll pass matric and he”ll be highly motivated, filling a large skills gap in the country. It is our duty is to give our entire active youth similar opportunities, otherwise our program will fail.

Where are we going if we don”t give our youth a future? Zimbabwe? Do you see the signs? Do you think you can build a wall high enough to keep desperate youth out of your house? And where are we going if we do not give our youth a future? Have you ever watched the excitement and commitment of disadvantaged youth that get a chance? How much wealth will there be when the 80% of the population currently economically non contributing, start? An African lion is stronger than an Asian tiger, isn”t it?

As you can see from the examples, there is a massive challenge. It takes a village to raise a child, you can”t do it with a small handout. Giving a soccer ball to keep the youth away from crime doesn”t work. Hand-outs make people sit down and wait for others to solve their problems. Charity is worse than doing nothing.

We have to be very serious about youth empowerment. We have to help our youth all the way to get the mindset, skills, knowledge and support needed to become successful in life. It should be a strategic decision from all stakeholders (business, organisations, government, individuals) to make youth empowerment our number one national priority and start intensive youth empowerment programs all over the country.

There is no easy and cheap way out, but if we don”t do it, the financial and human costs will be much higher. If we do it, South Africa will be a winning nation. The choice is ours.