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Bringing Belonging to South Africa

October 6, 2023

Last month, Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness Founder and Chief Belonging Officer Kim Samuel brought her message of belonging and social connection to South Africa. The two-week tour, which included stops in Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town, marked the South African launch of her book, On Belonging: Finding Connection in an Age of Isolation. It was also a chance to highlight the work of South African partner organizations, advocates, and thought leaders, many of whom are profiled in the book.

Book launch, Johannesburg

The trip kicked off in Johannesburg with an intergenerational conversation on women’s empowerment and the Right to Belong with three of South Africa’s most inspiring women activists: women’s and children’s rights advocate and former South African first lady Graça Machel; Josina Machel, a gender-based violence survivor, advocate, and founder of the Kuhluka Movement on Gender-Based Violence; and youth activist Amonge Sinxoto.  

Dialogue on Belonging panel

During the conversation, Kim and Graça Machel recalled their longtime friendship and the powerful conversation about the nature of isolation with Machel’s late husband, Nelson Mandela, that inspired Kim’s mission to build social connectedness and establish the Samuel Centre.

Samke Mhlongo moderated the discussion that followed, which explored different forms of empowerment and social connectedness. Josina Machel shared her personal encounter with gender-based violence and the importance of using your voice to reclaim your power.  “We all have power within us,” Graça Machel added. “Empowerment is about the power we each hold within ourselves.”

Kim emphasized the importance of standing together.  “As a collective of women, we can build our resilience,” she said. 

Nelson Mandela Foundation Archives

Also inspiring was a visit to the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF) in Johannesburg, where Kim toured the archives—the main repository of Mandela’s papers—and saw his private office. At a panel discussion later in the day, Kim was joined by NMF Acting Chief Executive Verne Harris and other NMF leaders, as well as organizations that support and build systems of connection, such as The Learning Trust and Samuel Centre partner Synergos, a global nonprofit that seeks to reduce poverty.

Harris quoted from the Freedom Charter in saying that “South Africa belongs to all those who live in it.” Despite the progressive core principles that created democratic South Africa, he notes that “We’re carrying with us as a society this terrible failure to secure belonging for all those who live in South Africa.”

Indeed, South Africa is struggling with xenophobia, homelessness and poverty—all issues, Kim said, with a lack of belonging and social connectedness at their core. Kim is an advocate for a society rooted in reciprocal care to address social challenges, where, she notes, “By the simple virtue of the fact that we are born, we have a Right to Belong.”

Kim also touched on the Right to Belong during a panel discussion in Cape Town on alienation and isolation faced by older people. She was joined by members of Neighbourhood Old Age Homes (NOAH), as well as Karen Borochowitz, founder of Dementia SA, and Dr. Elena Moore, sociology professor at the University of Cape Town.

Moore pointed out that despite a rapidly growing aging population, South Africa has no robust systems of care in place. “There is no support for meeting the day-to-day needs of older people, beyond healthcare and nutrition. We need to ensure our elders’ psychological needs are met as well. This includes feeling a sense of connectedness and belonging,” she explained.

Applying the Right to Belong framework, Kim noted, can help build dignity for older people across the social, economic and political domains. “We must act for the powerless, give voice to the voiceless,” she said, pointing out that the framework includes responsibilities as well as rights.

Ikusasa Lethu

While in South Africa, Kim also had the chance to visit two partner organizations that in many ways represent belonging in action. At the Ikusasa Lethu Youth Project, a community development nonprofit in Durban, she visited with many of the 78 GoGos (grandmothers) whose social and emotional needs are supported by the organization. This kind of hands-on community-based care builds a scaffolding for social connectedness and fosters belonging.

Likewise, at Waves for Change in Cape Town, at-risk youth learn to develop meaningful connections, relieve stress, and envision a positive future through surf therapy. Kim says, “Seeing the kids’ joy as they surfed really brought home for me the importance of mental health services that focus on building belonging.”

Waves for Change

Kim and the Samuel Centre’s message of belonging resonated deeply in South Africa. At her book launch in Johannesburg, she talked to Synergos country director Marlene Ogawa about what brought her to this work: the experience of witnessing her father’s isolation during a long illness. She began to understand that his isolation didn’t stem from the disability itself, but from the way others perceived him.

This realization set Kim on the path that she continues on today alongside the Samuel Centre. She says, “It’s not only injustice I was concerned with, but what the lack of care rooted in reciprocity does to people. We all need care—not only to receive it, but also to give it to others.”