Khayelitsha seems to go on for ever, reaching from the sea to the mountains to the motorway in a vast landscape of mainly self-built structures. Estimates I’ve heard put the population at 700,000 but to drive through it, it feels like many times that amount. The Western Cape’s biggest township, the place hums, teeming with people, spilling out into the roads as we drive through in the late afternoon.
I am with Equal Education, an NGO that is trying to challenge the failings in the South African educational system from the ground up, by empowering a future generation of community leaders, building libraries, and challenging policy through lobbying and protests.
I was tagging along with a group of young Jewish activists to two of the high schools in the township. Masiliye and Joe Slovo are almost identical buildings in layout, but Masiliye has the advantage of a new library, provided by Equal Education, which was shown to us by three proud junior librarians who stayed behind after school for the visit. Joe Slovo is a slightly different story: from the broken glass, to the desolate book shelves and waterlogged toilets, it’s not difficult to sense the ever-diminished levels of opportunity these schools offer their students at almost every turn. Some desks were crumbling, their screws removed and taken home, according to our guides.
Aside from a huge disparity in levels of funding for schools, stories abound of teachers who are unfit for purpose; computer suites permanently locked because the staff don’t have the knowledge to use them. Much of what I hear is anecdotal, but the general picture – whoever you talk to – is grim for kids here through these schools with any kind of useful education.
Which must be one of the reasons why content – even the most basic of content – is lapped up here by young people, desperately hungry for stimulus, opportunity, engagement. Can you imagine any 14 year-old in the UK going online via their mobile to voluntarily take a maths test… in their spare time? Here this happens, in (what seems to me at least) startlingly large numbers.
Earlier that day I visited Rlabs, a community-based social media venture that has blossomed into a thriving social enterprise. I drove twenty minutes out of the city to their offices, based in Bridgetown – quite innocuously – right next to the N2 motorway, behind a Christian centre, and opposite the township of Langa. Clinton Liederman, who oversees their social media work with young people, told me about how their youth advice service via mobile phones not only has a remarkably large audience, but has also been used to directly save the life of a user who was taken hostage by alerting police.
Now Rlabs is scaling across the world, whilst retaining the advice service (estimated 300,000 users in South Africa) and a programme of social media training, including a very successful intervention called Geeky Moms, and mobile handset training for senior citizens.
Some of the problems here continue to blow my mind… but so do some of the solutions.