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In Conversation with City Year South Africa Leaders

October 2, 2014


  • Portia Myaba-Seatlholo, City Year South Africa
  • Simangele “Smash” Shoyisa, City Year South Africa
  • Lindiwe Sibiya, City Year South Africa

Moderated by Mary Jordan, The Washington Post


JORDAN: I’m Mary Jordan. I work at the Washington Post. And on behalf of mainstream media, thank you for doing this because I realized as I was listening to the woman who was talking about her old people who are isolated when they’re dying, and the indigenous, and that we have not put this front and center, that there are a lot of people, a lot of different groups that we have seen separately but actually what power in thinking about all of these different groups with the same common theme. And I’ve spent a lot of time in jails for some reason. I think it was my work. I actually haven’t been convicted of anything but in these prisons the ultimate penalty is to be by yourself, right.

And, you know, I just spent most of this year writing a book with two women. It was a famous crime case in Cleveland, Ohio where a guy snatched three women off the street and kept them in his house for ten years, did horrible things to them. The key thing he did was isolate them from each other, from their family. He put them in different rooms. And I’ve been spending the last year talking to them about what that kind of isolation did. So the magic of today is to bring all these people from different places together to put this front and center on the agenda, so thank you.

I’m joined here by remarkable people from City Year. Now City Year is this fabulous program that started in the States, which is basically a take off on AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps. I see Timmy Shriver’s here. His father started the Peace Corps with the most important idea that there are people that want to volunteer and there are people that need help. And it’s a mutual benefit to everybody. So City Year started in Boston and went to South Africa and it’s a youth development program. So it’s young people helping younger people who often come in poor neighborhoods. So I want to introduce Portia, Smash, and Lindiwe, who work in this youth development program in Johannesburg. They have nine primary schools and young people come in and help the kids. So why don’t we just start about who you’re helping and then we’ll go on from there about who are the, the kids in these nine schools in South Africa that you’re helping, Portia? Okay. Go ahead.

MYABA-SEATLHOLO: Thank you. So, so far as you have explained that we are currently partnered with nine primary schools across Gauteng. Gauteng is one of our provinces in South Africa. So we work with learners who are in grade four to seven, our main focus is on English, math and life skills. So our program is divided into two components. Our day starts as early as half past eight in the morning so as soon as we arrive at the school we have the morning program that we call to the in-school program. With our volunteers they are partnered. We partner them with educators and they act as teacher aides or teacher supports. While the educators, maybe for an example, while the educator is busy teaching learners in front… And learners are students.

MYABA-SEATLHOLO: Learners are students, yes. While the teacher is teaching the students our volunteers they help with admin work like putting charts on the wall and identifying learners who are struggling or behind. Learners who are behind with their work. And if there’s some group work that needs to be done our volunteers they divide learners into smaller groups and facilitate that group sessions. And then in the in the afternoon what we do immediately after these learners are dismissed or the school is out we conduct the afterschool program where we, we try to bridge the gap, bring learners who are off track with their studies and so that they come on track and they excel in their work. And our main focus of our program is the afterschool program. But I think the best, the main component of our program is boosting the self-confidence and the self-esteem of learners so that when they start grasping their academic work already we have laid the foundation where they believed in themselves and they believe that they can do it and they can make it out there on their own even if City Year is no longer there. And we have seen remarkable results once we have laid that foundation.

JORDAN: Thanks, Portia. And, Smash, tell us who some of these isolated kids are. Why do they need help and why do they want? Are they poor? Tell, tell us about the students that you’re helping.

SHOYISA: Hello, everybody. I, I think for our learners, our students, some of them are poor. Some of them come from families where they don’t have anybody at home who would help them with their homework because their parents themselves they didn’t go to school, or the curriculum that the government is offering in schools changes every year. So I did a Bantu education and now it is OPE. So if my niece or my child comes from school, they have homework, I’m struggling to help them as well. So, our volunteers we train them so that when at home-, when they have this work that they’re doing at school, our volunteers are aware of the work that they’re doing and it’s easier for them to help the learners.

JORDAN: When we were talking before we were talking about that sometimes there are ten kids in a home and some of them have been physically and sexually abused and are outsiders because of other things. Who wants to jump in and talk about some of the problems that you’re trying to overcome here?

SIBIYA: So, with me, I’m gonna talk about my experience in the school that I work in. I work in a disadvantaged community and you find that in a household there are ten kids or in one room, which is a shack, a house made out of zinc material. There stays a parent and kids. And the problem is that parents are, they drink a lot and sometimes when kids come back from home the parents are already drunk. So you can imagine as soon as you are drunk as a parent everything happens in front of the kids, while kids are looking, thinking that kids are asleep. So when you come to school, when kids come to school the challenge is they don’t focus. It doesn’t matter if the kid is able to do the work but because of the certain challenges that kids experience at home, and also given their responsibility where they need to look after the little ones because the parents are most of the time drinking, so that is the main focus. And also because the kids are left alone most of the time neighbors already understand the system of how these kids live, so neighbors are also taking an advantage of these kids. So they’ll say, “No, I’ll buy bread. I’ll give you five rands so that you can buy bread. Don’t tell anyone. And tomorrow I cannot give you if-, as long as you don’t tell anybody what I’m doing.” And it’s because there is no food for these kids…

JORDAN: Just to be clear, what are they doing to these kids for five cents?

SIBIYA: Who knows, because these kids never say exactly but you find that most of these kids have been sexually abused by certain people around the community. And it’s because they understand, the community understands how these kids are living. “So I understand that your parent is not at home at all during the day so I’ll use that advantage. And I know that you’re struggling so I’ll use that advantage and, and use your body and give you money at the end of the day.” And kids feel it’s their responsibility to try and find money to assist their siblings with it. So those are certain cases that we are experiencing in our schools and from our learners that are coming from those disadvantage communities.

JORDAN: After you identify these kids, and often they’re the ones who are not doing well academically and you get to know them how do you help them? What do you do, little things? Talk about the little things that make a difference.

MYABA-SEATLHOLO: I think for starters it’s to make that connection with the learner because as soon as the learner has developed some level of trust with the volunteers or with the volunTeam they are able to confide and… go deeper and share their stories. As soon as that’s foundation is being laid as an organization what we try to do is to give the child that reassurance that the information will not be shared if they don’t want to and… believe in them. But what we also do with their permission, we try to refer those cases for further assistance in different organizations where learners can receive some form of assistance.

JORDAN: And if they come to school you can’t get food if you don’t have a lunchbox. Is that right?


JORDAN: So what do you do there? Smash, what do you do?

SHOYISA: That’s when we come up with projects where we get stakeholders, local stakeholders to donate plates or to donate containers where learners can get the food because if you don’t have a container and there’s food, it’s cooked but you don’t have a container so it’s difficult for a learner to go and get the food. So what we do we come up with projects where we can have those containers donated to the school and we keep them in a safe place because even if you give the learners to take them home some of them don’t bring, bring the containers back at home because the parents have taken it using it for a different thing.

JORDAN: It’s just such a fixable thing, you know, for lack of a plate you can’t have lunch. And so you are actually getting these physical things they need like shoelaces, and… I mean small things that can, you can, you can’t actually go out and play when you don’t have shoes that stay on your feet.

SHOYISA: We also do the, the food gardening project. The… veggies that we grow the school will take it and actually cook for the learners.

JORDAN: So are you also teaching the kids how to grow the vegetables?

SHOYISA: Yes, we do.

MYABA-SEATLHOLO: And the project is going very well in Lindiwe’s school. They have a huge… vegetable garden that City Year started in 2005. And every year that vegetable garden is growing and growing. And we have the great servants, learners who look after that vegetable garden.

JORDAN: Can you tell me like a really happy story about somebody that had a really bad time and then, you know, through just connectedness, just being with somebody from City Year something good happened?

SIBIYA: So for me I think with the motto that I always live by is that it doesn’t matter how many, what I do, but if I can touch one child’s life for me that would make perfect sense. It’s something I wake up to every morning that even if the world might not see the difference that I’m trying to make, but if one child sees it, and that’s how it… when I walk into the school every morning it’s a big school which has 1,850 learners from grade R until grade seven. As soon as I walk into the primary school I’ve already adopted all those kids. So as soon as they are in class, whether there’s a teacher, as soon as I walk into the school gate the classes open and kids start running out to jump at me. And there’s nothing. I don’t buy anything for those kids. I don’t give them anything. Every day, every single day when I walk into that school the simplest thing I do is put my bag down, give a child a hug and say, “You’re looking good this morning.” And for me that’s been working wonders because wherever I go even when I meet them walking with their parents during maybe after school and whatsoever the parents already know me that, “This is Sis Lindiwe and she’s like my second mother at school.” So for me I’m doing something.

JORDAN: Ah, a hug and a positive word. Sister Mary Patrick, who taught me in high school, said, “Wake up in the morning and say, ‘Today will be a successful day if one person is better off because you’re alive.’” And, you know, just do one thing. A hug would make her so happy. Smash—who has the best name, by the way, her real name is about this long, and she just took some of the initials and it’s a hit.


SHOYISA: Thank you.

JORDAN: Smash, hit—you get that?


SHOYISA: I think for me, Sibiya, it’s not only for the student but the volunteers that come into the program. I want to talk about the guy called Thulani Madondo. He was a CNN Heroe of the Year last year. He was nominated out of [many] countries and he won that award in Los Angeles last year. He was also one of the volunteers in 2005. He comes from a very disadvantaged community called Kliptown.

So after he did his year at City Year he realized that the skills that he got from City Year he actually go back and open a similar program to what City Year has in his own community. And he has a big, a bigger center now in Kliptown where the, the kids that don’t have food at home they’ve got a kitchen there where they cook for them. They’ve got home ec centers. They also partner with schools that have, that are fully resourced where they will help them with computer lesson and stuff like that.

So for me City Year is not only for the students that we work with but also for the volunteers that are coming in because what we’ve realized is when City Year started in South Africa we were able to attract a diverse group of people.

But now we are not. We are attracting young people who are sitting at home who are unemployed who wants to be skilled. And as soon as they are skilled they go out there and they open their small projects, which it’s like a ripple effect for me because if City Year can touch all the communities they can touch one person and that person can go back to their communities and touch…

JORDAN: And the whole domino effect.


JORDAN: Your personal story, and then I’d love to hear from both of you, but Smash, you have such an interesting personal story about isolation. You want to share it with us?

SHOYISA: My personal story would be homosexuality. I think being gay in a country like South Africa where there’s 11 different cultures and most cultures don’t believe in, in homosexuality that brings an isolation. However, I don’t feel that I was isolated because I had a great family where they understood even if when you go outside and you play with other kids and their parents say, “No, don’t play with her. She’s gonna give you that disease,” because somehow they think if you’re lesbian you, you’ve got a disease, you know.

JORDAN: And tell them what they do sometimes to lesbian women to change them.

SHOYISA: Yeah. They, they actually rape lesbian women as part of “corrective” behavior. They say they’re correcting the behavior that you have and they rape them. But I would like to say I was the luckiest person because I have a family that is very supportive so I have never been treated in that way but I’ve seen cases where young, young women have been raped. And most of them they don’t even talk about it. They keep it to themselves because they know if, even if they go to the police and report the case the police don’t take it serious because they feel whatever they’re doing is wrong.

So homosexuality is one of the biggest issues we have in our country where it actually promotes the isolation.

JORDAN: One of the things I think, and jump in here, they were saying is that recently it’s not just people who have a little bit money who are volunteering. It’s actually more disadvantaged kids who have a real connection to the people who they’re serving. Anyone want to talk about that, Portia or Lindiwe?

SIBIYA: Okay, I think for now the challenge is unemployment especially with our young people. So a lot of young people finish matric but because of information we know that the government has given out ??? and given out so much information, but because of lack of information where it’s very difficult to get the information throughout.

So learners are starting, young people are starting to sit at home after matric. So what City Year does is as soon as people see this opportunity where you can volunteer on a youth program for ten months getting a stipend of 1.8 every month and also…

JORDAN: But $180 a month, that’s it. For $180 a month you can get, you know, a student to be one of these fabulous volunteers [OVERLAP]—

SIBIYA: A volunteer for ten months. And with that ten months of money some people are actually supporting their families with that money so kids, people come into the program, young people come into our program to get a training and also certificates that we, we give them at the end of the year, but also just to upgrade themselves because it’s such a, it’s such a nice project especially for young people who are just coming out of high school or even who are in the work environment. They can come back and just give a year of service like how it says at City Year, you serve your city for just one year.

JORDAN: And Portia how do you… Smash talked about this, about how this is a model that’s working and somebody else who went through it is carrying it on. You know, do you have any other recommendations about how to scale this up, how to make this bigger, affect more, in the end affect more kids?

MYABA-SEATLHOLO: I think for starters I would like share I think to go back to… I think the question that you have asked it relates to… I think it speaks closely to Smash and Lindiwe. They were part of the program. Smash was a volunteer in 2006, and then she came back in 2011 as a staff member, Lindiwe as well around the same year.

So I think there is that understanding that as soon as you give back your time, your love, and your care to another individual it makes you feel happy and then you want to give more. So there is that reciprocity in the work that you, that we do. And Smash and Lindiwe they are the perfect examples of that. So I think to upscale our… program there’s quite a number of variables that you can look into. I think for starters it will be to spread the program to other, to other provinces.

I think the understanding and that awareness of social isolation has given us an opportunity to be deliberate in structuring our program and the activities that we do with our learners. So all the games, all the activities that we play with our learners we try by all means to connect with them so that we are able to boost our students’ self-esteem and self-confidence. So I think other variables will be around the issues of more funding and so forth so that we are able to get more volunteers and spread the program into other provinces in… our country.

JORDAN: You know, just to take one minute to go down here and talk about when you’re looking at the kids that you’re helping what does isolation mean for them, just to remind us about why we’re all here about what it has done? You were saying—go ahead, Smash.

SHOYISA: Okay, for me I’m… fortunate enough that I served in a school that is in my community where I grew up so I see these kids. And I think if you’re isolated you don’t have a voice. If you’re isolated you don’t have a sense of belonging. You don’t feel like you belong anywhere, and your self-esteem. And it actually hinders you from being the best that you can be. But as soon as you connect to someone, especially when it comes to City Year, when they see our red jackets and we walk in the school kids become their best because they know we have created that environment that they’re accepted… whether they come from the poorest homes, or whether they don’t look like other kids they, they are accepted and it gives them a chance to be them self and to be the best they can be.

JORDAN: Oh, I love that. Kids become their best.

Any more personal stories about this because I really feel that it’s so inspiring either what it’s done to you because of what you talked about about the mutual benefit, or about what, how you’ve seen a certain child –without naming him — but just what you have seen, somebody blossom because they were less isolated.

SIBIYA: I think so during our afterschool program we’ve got different activities. A lot of our kids are having learning barriers, challenges in understanding the work and so forth. So what we did was we tried to establish new ideas and also just activities on how we can include all the learners into, into our afterschool programs. So in most cases we’d be outside in the school ground or come in, in the school classroom where we all form a, a circle, and so a circle meaning a strong circle would include everybody in that circle.

So for me when I started at the school that I’m working in I only came back at City Year in 2013. The school that I worked in it’s a huge school and in most cases you don’t really see that… the challenges that learners are experiencing because there’s so much, there’s just a few learners. So what I did was with the learners that were pulling back in most cases those are the learners that I, I came forward and I pushed into my side.

And as soon as I did that there’s one learner, and his name is Thabo. And, and Thabo was this kid who always used to fight. He would fight to everybody. And I think the first time when I came to the school he was in grade, in grade six—grade, no, grade five. I’m not sure what you call it here but it was grade five. And when I walked in there was a huge fight in class and Thabo is old. He’s the eldest in the class and they’re always making fun of him because he, they just tell him he’s stupid.

And Thabo wasn’t stupid. It’s just that Thabo went to school later than other learners. So when he went to school late, and it’s because his mother didn’t want to, to go and register him until such a neighbor took him to school. And that’s how he got to school. So learners were busy making fun of him so when we walk in on the first day when I walked into that school there was a huge fight. He fights. He was kicking. He was beating up people. He was doing whatsoever.

And what I can tell you is today Thabo is the number one soccer player of that school. As we walked into that school we started having that connection and we started doing these activities, just me and him, where I showed him the reality of things to say, “I didn’t grow up with a dad. You don’t have a father. My mother was a strong woman and your mother is lacking a bit. But I can play half the role that your mom can’t play at this point. You can show me your achievements and I can celebrate those achievements with you.”

And slowly but surely Thabo started picking up. He’s still the eldest in the school but he’s slowly picking up and he’s one of the soccer players, the best soccer players in that primary school. And that’s my story to say every time I look at you, Thabo, I can see really that I am doing something in that community.

JORDAN: It’s a great story. It’s a great story.


We’ll just end with going down the line and talking about what you hope to do. You know, you’ve had such an interesting position. You have interesting personal stories. You’ve seen so many other people about what confidence can do to somebody, somebody who, who… right? You’re good at soccer and all of a sudden you have confidence. So what do you see yourself doing in five or ten years? What are your hopes?

MYABA-SEATLHOLO: I think there’s quite a number of things that I see myself doing. But I think the most, most important thing that is on top of my priority is continuing to do the work that I’m doing, providing hope to young people who do not necessarily have hope — young people that our society have somehow rejected and continue connecting with them.

And continue promoting the spirit of Ubuntu in our country. And that is the most there is. There are other things that I would like to do on a personal and family level. But this is my passion that I will get even if I go in and retire. There is, I know that when I sleep at night I sleep very peacefully knowing that I’ve made a difference in the lives, in the life of another, in the life of another person.

JORDAN: Great job description — giving hope. That’s fantastic. You know, Portia’s a chess player, too. Very interesting person here. Smash.

SHOYISA: For me I would like to see City Year South Africa grow in our country because I think with the nine schools that you’re working in it’s not enough. It’s really not enough because in my community where I come from in Soweto we’ve got a whole lot of schools and I would like to see City Year grow. And with the knowledge and all the skills that I have I will help City Year to grow.

JORDAN: That’s fantastic.

SIBIYA: So for me, I think also like as Mom Portia and Smash have already said that the work that we do is, is just not the ordinary work that you wake up to and go and do. It’s the work that pays off with a smile at the end of the day. So for me it’s also going back to my community and, and trying to establish such organizations where information centers are very rare in our communities. But if I could have something where our learners will be able to, also the young people that are in our communities, get the information that is not there at this point. So for me it’s sending out information, being the middle person between opportunities and information for young people in my community.

So my, my responsibility and what I want to do from this day going forward to the five years that you’ve mentioned is being that person who brings not only information but also hope into the community that made me who I am today.

So yes, I’m looking forward to going back and studying, hard work from now ongoing further.

JORDAN: Work that puts a smile on your face at the end of the day—that’s what we all hope for. Thank you, spectacular trio here.