Sometimes, you accidentally hire a guide who turns out to be the best guide that you could possibly hire — the one with the inside scoop. He or she knows exactly where on the back roads to take you, and whom to take you to, as well. We hired that guide at midnight the night before our outing the next day by cold-calling what turned out to be his personal cell phone. Whatever compelled him to take our call, I was grateful.
From Johannesburg, we drove 40 minutes to the slums of Soweto (Soweto means “south”, or “South Western Townships”.) This “evacuation camp” is where Africans were sent by state and city government during the early 20th century, through WWI and the apartheid, and on until a student uprising in 1976 changed everything — an uprising against Afrikaans and English being determined the primary languages to be used in local schools. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu lived here — Tutu still visits his house on Vilakazi Street when he comes in from his permanent home in Cape Town. I expected a small tourist junket, a photographic walking tour perhaps. Instead I rode in the car and looked out from the window for quite some time. Everybody we passed peered in the car with curiosity and I peered out with the same. There was very little walking to be done, a blessing really, as so often we miss entire experiences getting lost inside the lens of a camera.
Then we arrived at the Kliptown Youth Program, the jewel of Soweto.
Kliptown provides tutoring, athletic, and arts programs to the children of Soweto — teaching them to be active and participatory community members, to have and chase dreams, and how to be hopeful for the future. These are not rights of passage in this area of the world. Thulani Madondo is the founder of the program and a son of Soweto, growing up and living there his entire life. He had a dream of bringing education to a community that still doesn’t even have running water.
It’s a pretty remarkable story that we happened upon with our midnight call.
After much hard work and total dedication, Madondo completed the youth program in 2012 and not long after, was named one of the 10 nominated CNN Heroes the same year. He shared with us his delight in experiences such as meeting Chelsea and Bill Clinton, of going to dinner in Manhattan before the awards ceremony and what a “crazy city” New York is, and of the countless doors that Heroes has opened up for him. And he humbly earned these opportunities while opening doors for so many others.
Then he opened a door for us — to the Kliptown computer lab where adults learn the ways of the web and how to apply for jobs online. While Soweto teenagers and adults learn technology, children play outside or attend classes… or eat. Kliptown feeds approximately 400 children living in the 4,000-person community.
The center is a favorite place for both adults and children to be, it really is the jewel of Soweto.
Tonight, on the eve of Nelson Mandela’s death, I wanted to share this story of Kliptown and of my last visit to South Africa. There are few, probably none, left in this world as beloved by so many as Mandela is, nowhere is this more evident than in this country. But there are people — in South Africa and everywhere — who are not well known but creating sustaining acts of peace of progress, just like Mandiba did. So here is a toast to them.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” — Nelson Mandela