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How a Sports Club Is Changing Lives in South Africa

By Anne Meltzer and Jan Blom, Nemato Change a Life

The loop of poverty and apathy persists in the townships of post-apartheid South Africa—but for some youth, there may be a way out.

The Nelson Mandela township looms over Port Alfred, South Africa, a community steeped in pollution, overpopulation, poverty, and apathy. The majority of the roughly 25,000 inhabitants have been enduring the effects of apartheid for decades, including poor healthcare, housing, education, and employment opportunities. The newest generation of school-aged children is challenging these circumstances with their own muscle. Nemato Change a Life is a grassroots community-empowerment organization founded in 2006 that uses athletics as a tool to overcome the apathy that persists in this rural township. Below, the organization’s founder, Jan Blom, shares his experiences starting and growing Nemato Change a Life.

This is a fun holiday game to keep the kids busy during the long and otherwise boring summer holiday. (Photo by Annie Meltzer)
This is a fun holiday game to keep the kids busy during the long and otherwise boring summer holiday. (Photo by Jan Blom)

We have a poverty/apathy problem in the rural townships of Port Alfred. The majority of the people here are stuck in a loop: poverty feeds apathy and apathy feeds poverty. Getting out of this loop is very difficult. For example, a person may want to study at a university but without money, they’re unable to travel there and register. Even before they get started, they’re stuck, and may be forced to remain in poverty—a state that often leads to apathy.

Life here doesn’t have much more to offer than some underpaid temporary jobs with no career opportunities—and alcohol, drugs, and unsafe sex to numb that disappointment. Even in the township schools, apathy is widespread. Learners see little use in passing, as it doesn’t help them get in track to a career. Teachers, trained in apartheid systems designed to limit their ability to think independently, try futilely to improve the educational experience for their students but are unable to have much of an impact.

No wonder the quality of South African education, despite being relatively well funded, ranks amongst the poorest in the world. When apathy has taken over, very few people have the strength to pull themselves out of poverty, even when funding, training, and support is offered. Many empowerment projects never get beyond the “spoon-feeding” phase. Their handouts only encourage poor people to sit down and wait for others to change their lives.

While I was a rowing coach living in Nelson Mandela township (Nemato), local youth told me that they wanted to row, so we started Nemato Rowing Club in 2006. Our beautiful Kowie River was previously the exclusive domain of the wealthy. Since the start of our rowing club, the river is now available for everybody, and our rowers are a prominent and visible sign of positive change.

Nemato rowers cruise on the Kowie Rover near the Nelson Mandela township. (Photo by Annie Meltzer)
Nemato rowers cruise on the Kowie Rover near the Nelson Mandela township. (Photo by Jan Blom)

Over the years we’ve added other sports. We now offer rowing, gymnastics, handball, and fencing. These small, relatively obscure Olympic sports tend to occur on a relatively small scale in South Africa, but they grant our youth the opportunity to travel and compete outside of their small communities. They compete at provincial, national, and even international levels and become equals with affluent youth competitors, many of whom have had access to expensive, elite training. For most members, these trips are their only chance to travel, and we do as much sightseeing as possible. This changes their perspective on life completely, and the fight against apathy is already half won.

Visiting places as a reward for working hard is very important to us. Here are our most committed gymnasts at the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto. (Photo by Annie Meltzer)
Visiting places as a reward for working hard is very important to us. Here are our most committed gymnasts at the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto. (Photo by Jan Blom)

Working with youth every day, I started seeing how desperately disadvantaged they are. It’s nice to row up and down the river and go to competitions, but it doesn’t give them a future, and after years of rowing, members started dropping out. We transformed our sports club into a youth empowerment organization, which uses sport as a magnet to pull youth in and keep them excited.

With daily after-school classes, career counseling, and study support, we try to create a career path for each member. At the moment we have 12 members studying outside Port Alfred. Not even one of them would have been able to make this big step forward out of the poverty trap without our support. We are now called Nemato Change a Life.

We run the place by working hard and learning from our mistakes. The two most important empowerment lessons we have learnt: (1) Focus on the youth before they are trapped in apathy, and (2) There are no quick solutions and cheap shortcuts. You can’t give our youth a future by giving them a soccer ball, or a meal, or a Christmas present.

The competition was lively on the ergo on our open day. Open days are a fun way to compete and draw in new members. (Photo by Annie Meltzer)
The competition was lively on the ergo on our open day. Open days are a fun way to compete and draw in new members. (Photo by Jan Blom)

As our organization developed, it became clear to us that sport and education was still not enough. There are so many skills needed to become successful in life: computers and the Internet, teamwork, leadership, organizing, taking initiative and responsibility, and many more. The township gives our youth very little chance to develop these skills—so we do it. At our place we have computers and Internet access. You can find many of our members on Facebook. We offer all sorts of skills training, from fixing rowing boats to photography.

I’m the only person involved in running Nemato Change a Life who didn’t grow up in the organization. The rest is entirely run by its beneficiaries, and that is one of our most powerful empowerment tools. It teaches the members many practical skills and gives them responsibility, a sense of pride, and self-esteem. All members are involved, and I am very proud that the chairperson of Nemato Change a Life is a 16-year-old beneficiary. Our slogan, “Success in life—for youth, by youth,” says it all. At the same time, it improves our sustainability, as we can’t afford to pay outside salaries for all the work.

Our members participate in at least ten sessions per week: sport, class, and much more. If they drop under 80 percent attendance, they have to pull up their socks or lose membership. Only by working hard can members change their lives and become successful. We back our members from early childhood development to study and career support.

Ashley Backward is the first Nemato Change a Life member to get the Gold President’s Award. Here is the handover from South African President Jacob Zuma (center) and the Earl of Wessex from England (left). (Photo by Annie Meltzer)
Ashley Backward is the first Nemato Change a Life member to get the Gold President’s Award. Here is the handover from South African President Jacob Zuma (center) and the Earl of Wessex from England (left). (Photo by Jan Blom)

Does it work? Sometimes we wonder. There are so many challenges for our youth, and despite the quality and accomplishments of our program, we still lose members. Peer pressure draws them into alcohol, drugs, and crime. But looking at our 2013 highlights, it’s clear something great is happening. We had a member going to Qatar for a United Nations Youth Leadership Camp. Our first member passed the Gold President’s Award (Duke of Edinburgh’s Award) and received his award from President Jacob Zuma in person. In sport we had our first South African champion, who also went to Europe for Gymnastics Junior World Championships. And, less glamorous but just as important, we recorded better math results and a better pass rate at school than ever before.

Those are results we’re very proud of, but what we see now, in 2014, is possibly even more encouraging. There is excitement in the township. We see youth outside our organization going back to school. Teachers send learners to our class. The number of members is growing. Athletes are training hard, because they also want to go overseas.

These are signs that we’ve started to win the fight against apathy in the community. Our members are proving that amazing achievements are possible. We’ve taken on this role to turn this community around, because what is the future of a country when the youth have no hope?

Our biggest limiting factor is that we’re working in just one community. How can we make a serious impact on a larger scale? We’re welcoming visitors who are interested in implementing our model in their own communities, but starting again from scratch is difficult. Our dream is to train youth at the grassroots level to run new community organizations like ours, and to combat the poverty/apathy problem that plagues much of South Africa.

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