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Riding Out the Bad Times

Ride the Bad Times

by Zoë Henry / 01.07.2013

I have this pair of black, sequined pumps. While Lucky Nozisali, a young man who is part of Umthombo’s Surfers Not Street Children programme, is talking about how his parents died in a car crash and he was forced to live on the streets of Durban for half of his life, I’m staring down at my black, sequined pumps. As I listen to his strong South African accent, clearly a little uncomfortable to be standing in a room full of people with a microphone, I notice how the sparkles on my shoes have become soft focus. There are tears in my eyes, and those tears are dripping onto my black, sequined pumps.

Lucky is just one of many people that Tom Hewitt and his wife Bulelwa have helped through their organisation, Umthombo. Together Tom and Bulelwa are committed to changing the lives of street children. “We aim to do this by both getting them off the streets and changing the attitudes of people towards street children”, says Tom. Umthombo rehabilitates and reintegrates street children back into society through several different programmes, including football, arts and crafts and now the Surfers Not Street Children project, which they are promoting on this first-of-a-kind UK tour. Tom has travelled to London with three of the stars from this project: Andile Zulu, Sihle Mbuto and, of course, the aforementioned Lucky. Surfers not Street Children is a global movement that aims to change the way people perceive street children, using surfing as a model for empowering children to move away from street life. But what started out as a programme directed towards female street children has morphed into a predominantly male dominated team of surf stars. Tom addresses this gender inequality with the promise, “We’ll get there.”

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The evening begins with the usual hobnobbing that occurs at these types of events. Glasses are topped up and smoked salmon crostinis are eagerly gobbled down, people talk and mingle, elegantly anticipating the next scrumptious round of canapés. Fortunately the pregnant clouds above us have decided not to go into labour just yet, so all this fabulousness is taking place on the rooftop of the Old Mutual building near St. Paul’s Cathedral, overlooking the Thames. When guests are sufficiently hobnobbed and champagne saturated, we are called inside, where everyone shuffles around uncomfortably, positioning themselves against the walls and doors, trying desperately to not be in the way. Eventually Tom and the three surfers are lined up at the front and ready to begin. Tom gives a brief introduction of the organisation before handing the floor over to Sihle, Lucky and Andile.

Surfers Not Street Children

Each of the young men take a turn to tell their story of how they were abandoned by their parents, whether by death or decision, how they ended up on the streets of Durban and how Umthombo helped them realise that there was more to life. Each story plucks at a different heartstring, and by the time Lucky is talking about the importance of respect, I’ve become a blubbering mess.

Over the last decade, Umthombo has done a lot of incredibe work in the Durban area, a part of South Africa Tom is passionate about. Founded in 1998, it was originally called Durban Street Team. In 2004 it was renamed Umthombo Street Children, and by 2005 it was registered as a non-profit organisation. At one stage there were more than 500 children living on the streets of Durban. Now, thanks to the 24/7 drop-in centre called Safespace, an Umthombo initiative, and other like-minded organisations, there are fewer than 100 kids still living on the streets of Durban. “And thankfully, the police round-ups of street children have also come to an end.” Says Tom emphatically.

Surfers Not Street Children

What these numbers effectively prove is that what is often viewed as the ‘insurmountable problem’ of street children, a line that features prominently in many Afro-pessimist narratives, is actually something that can be resolved quite quickly and effectively through the considered engagement of organisations like Umthombo. Surfers not Street Children shifts the entire focus back to the individual, inspiring these kids to see their own potential and become role models for other kids, simply by sharing their stories. It’s a powerful vehicle that fosters responsibility, integrity and dignity and offers an entirely more human paradigm for dealing with some of our scariest problems.

I left the presentation with a double dose of hope; for both the future of the country I call home and hope that Surfers Not Street Children raise a shit load of money on their roadshow.

*Learn more about Surfers Not Street Children.

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RESPONSES (11)
  1. Bitch Please says:

    What, may I ask, was the relevance of the “black sequined pumps” that you so aggravatingly reiterate about in the first paragraph, and then drop altogether? If anything, it’s perhaps the symbolic key to your organizing perspective: namely, another liberal white living abroad, having exiled themselves voluntarily, I imagine, because you have enough money and/or ancestral visas to do so. It’s also the symbol of your difference from your subject matter – namely, rich enough to afford shoes, shoes that are probably quite expensive, sequinned, probably name-branded. These pumps – which signify a whole culture of middle-classdom – are the things you stare at guiltily when you are confronted with the darkside, the “sole” so to speak, or your own (white) privilege, namely the reverse: the homeless, the class dynamics, the institutional and subjugative practices which keep some down and allow the conditions for others to get up.

    It is, then, no surprise that you are so exalted to flatten these institutional and systemic practices into “a focus back on the individual”, because stories of individual salvation are the ones that don’t require you to make any radical difference to your life, your life of luxury footwear: it suggests to you that the system of your privilege can work for good, you don’t have to actually adjust yourself to a new world. Your tears, which you are so quick to evoke as a mark of empathy and moral sophistication, indeed as a callsign of moral superiority, are what we’ve all come to expect from liberal emigres – you can cry, you can feel guilty, and then you can feel better because other organisations are doing street-work, the work that drifts to you in story and confessional and finally, eases your conscience about how implicated you are in all this.

    This story is precisely the journalism, the reportage, of everything that is status quo, the worst excesses of maudlin, liberal stupidity. Bring back Edmonds – he is very much aware of these dynamics, and does not write such Big Issue/You Magazine rubbish. Mahala is not a forum for those who ran away from South Africa to now tell us that they have hope for us, because they ate “salmon crostinis” and listened to some homeless people talk in London. Next time, get some self-referential irony to go along with your instagrammed photos.

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  2. Susan Sonnenberg says:

    Great article – was very moved and inspired. Tears on my veldskoen.

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  3. Bobbito says:

    Jesus, the shoes were a literary device. And I for one am happy that Zoe was there, in London, to be able to report on and inform me about this launch. Been following Umthombo for a while and seem to get most of my substantive information about what that incredible group people do, from this very website.

    I also think you miss an important point, in your scramble to chasten Ms Henry for her middle class liberalness and that ancestral working visa (you big patriot you). Umthombo is actually resolving the issue of street children in Durban. And they’re doing this by treating the problem, one individual human being at a time. If they’ve reduced the problem from 500 to 100 street children, it’s quite feasible that Durban will have no street children in the near future. Which is pretty incredible really. Definitely something worth trumpeting. I did not know about this before Ms Henry took time out of her life to attend this launch and write an article about it for this magazine. She did not just cry to make herself feel better, and skip off to a dinner party. She actually did something about it that served, well, me at least, but judging from likes quite a few others as well.

    But, I wonder what you’re doing, Bitch Please, that allows you to hold such unequivocal positions. No doubt you’re an activist with Abahlali baseMjondolo with a penchant for taking your struggle to internet comment threads (how useful) or you’re teaching maths and science in rural Limpopo (and this is your day off), running an orphanage, funding a rehab for those who cannot afford it or something on that level of basic human service. Surely…

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  4. Mary says:

    Someone really needs a poo (Bitch Please)

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  5. Mildred says:

    Woooo Bayitch! What did you do in the struggle, hon. Sat on the side pricing shoes as the toyi-toyi moved passed you? Think I remember you….

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  6. Cantina Abraxas says:

    Think I remember her as Zoe Davis, and what a lame little shoe-obssessed consumer she was. She’s now taking a passing interest in writing about other people doing charitable things, but she makes her number one priority in her vacuous life obvious in the first paragraph: shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes. I bet she loves all the sweatshops that make them for her.

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  7. Bitch Please says:

    @ Bobbito

    Some things which you seem to have missed.

    * The shoes were a literary device, you say – to accomplish what? * I “chasten” Zoe for being middle-class. Your defence is of Umthombo, not the white immigrant with a shoe fetish who wrote about it and had a little cry “on camera”, so to speak, for all the rest of us. * My whole point, which you seem to have missed, is not about charity per se, but about Zoe vicariously thinking that she can cry at a Umthombo and feel hope and feel healed, whereas in reality, she’s just another white liberal running oveseas and crying from afar. I don’t see her replying here either.

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  8. Mildred says:

    It’s such a tired patronising old argument – usually coming from the privileged – that only the privileged appreciate good shoes. And so, BP, you have revealed yourself more than you may realise.

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  9. Bitch Please says:

    Actually, I’m sure that street children would love to wear designer shoes – I’m sure that’s top of their agenda. More seriously, though, I’m not saying that only the privileged “appreciate” goes shoes, although certainly, if you mean that the privileged and disadvantaged of this world place equal value and capital on shoes and fashion and posturing etc., then I think that you’re quite wrong.

    The shoes just stick out at you in this piece. Zoe mentions them three times in a single paragraph and each time she mentions them in the exact same descripion “black, sequinned pumps” – so I’m just trying to figure out what she was trying to do, in literary terms, by mentioning them three times. She can’t surely have just been showing off her shoes. As to what she was trying to do by forcing her pumps down our throats three times, I still am not sure. I only have my hypothesis that the shoes function – beyond Zoe’s intention – as a symbolic marker of class. Notice that when her eyes tear and blur, she is looking at the shoes. For two reasons: 1. she looks away at her feet, because making eye contact is painful; she is ashamed or saddened. 2. The very thing she looks at, the feet, which people usually look at when they’re shy, ashamed, trying to avoid an issue directly etc., is the thing which is clad in expensive shoes, the very expensive shoes which mark out her privilege, and thereby signify a much larger sociocultural and symbolic domain than simply “footwear”.

    I mean, I love my heels, but wouldn’t it be quite interesting to the attentive reader, if I kept mentioning ” leopard print heels” in my opening paragraph, three times nogal?

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  10. Bitch Please says:

    Sorry, to conclude my point about her crying and looking at her shoes. It suggests that even at the moments she tries to avoid direct confrontation (turns her eyes away, symbolically speaking), she runs into her complicity yet again (she sees her designer shoes). This complicity is inescapable and is marked out by the shoes.

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  11. Beeber says:

    So tired of this “ran away” from South Africa concept. People travel and enjoy other cultures and ways of living. Sure, it might be the U.K. (not the greatest country in the world) but shit — I don’t see why people feel the need to attack those who don’t live in SA at present. Stupid attack to make.

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