A quarter-century after Nelson Mandela led South Africa out of apartheid and toward a more equitable future, black South African community leaders like those that work with The Emerge Project have taken the reins to lead their communities toward peace and justice. In honor of Nelson Mandela Day, see how their work is forging solutions across South Africa.
Nelson Mandela, honored every year on July 18, was a key force in dismantling the stronghold of apartheid in South Africa and leading the country toward a future free from tyranny and oppression of black people.
It has been six years since the great tree who fought for South Africa’s freedom fell, yet we still enjoy the fruit that he has left for us. Like the great wise elephant, Tata Nelson Mandela taught us many lessons that are evident in our society today. He taught us love, respect, and humility, but most of all he taught us that we are one. South Africa is for all who live in it—irrespective of the amount of melanin in their skin.
But much work still needs to be done to achieve Mandela’s vision of a prosperous rainbow nation.
He once said, “As long as many of our people are still without jobs, as long as many of our people still live in utter poverty, as long as children still live under plastic covers, no South African should rest and wallow in the joy of freedom.”
Still, despite the economic inequality that still ravages South Africa even after 25 years of democracy, countless residents of Johannesburg and around the country show their love and care for those who continue to struggle with poverty.
At The Emerge Project, we celebrate and uplift black leaders like these, who are expressing their love through action and taking the reins to lead their communities toward peace, justice, and wellbeing. Their stories and their actions reflect the essence of Mandela’s vision, and serve as tangible reminders that all is not lost, that progress is in fact being made. And we tell their stories because their stories matter, because in these stories we see ourselves reflected, we see what’s possible, and we understand that we, too, have the power to make change.
There is Marcia, in Katlehong township south of Johannesburg, who took the initiative after a long and difficult period of unemployment to learn a new skill, and then turn that skill into a small business. She is one of just a few women manufacturing and installing aluminum windows and doors in the city, setting an example for other young black women who dream of pursuing non-traditional careers. She also provides training and job opportunities for local unemployed youth.
And Kgomotso, in Cosmo City—just north of Johannesburg—who set out to do something about the struggles and strife that black children face all too often in South Africa. For the past ten years, she and her crew have been taking black youth under their wing, mentoring, nurturing, teaching, empowering and transforming them into the giants they are, cultivating safe spaces for them to grow into confident, self-assured young people who contribute fully to society.
Owen, an immigrant from Zimbabwe, was forced to make his home in a Johannesburg city park for a while. Determination got him through that period, but it was the angels who appeared—people who recognized potential in him, who chose to take a chance on him and help open doors for him—that inspired him to pay it forward by creating an organization that would open doors for black youth in townships. Through entrepreneurship training and programs that stimulate and activate the boundless creativity in youth, he and his team are helping these young people to recognize, value, and act on their own potential.
Paul and Semadi work collaboratively to transform Alexandra, one of South Africa’s oldest and most notorious townships. Life in this township can be harsh and relentless, seemingly devoid of softness and beauty. These two men work hard to peel back the layers to reveal more of Alexandra’s heart to the world—and to Alexandra itself. They leverage tourism initiatives, community gardening, cultivating and incubating entrepreneurship and community development activities, to uncover Alexandra’s creativity and passion, its deep humanity and resilience, its ability to make beauty from ashes.
These individuals represent just a few of the countless examples of black leaders who, through their activities, keep Mandela’s vision alive. His ultimate dream was to see the unjust system of apartheid destroyed completely. But to dismantle a system so deeply embedded in the country requires the efforts of more than just a few individuals. South Africans of all walks of life need to be involved, including government, private sector, civil society, churches, and community leaders.
“Mintirho ya vulavula.” – Actions speak louder than words – Tsonga proverb
Fortunately, as we’ve shown, we have a country full of people who are ready to get to work, who have already rolled up their sleeves and stepped into the arena. We need to support them, nurture them, encourage others like them to rise up. In doing so, we can build a force that can help to unify our nation and turn it into a capable state with a professional civil service sector. We can develop the infrastructure needed to connect South Africans to each other and the world. We can fix the education and health systems, and turn them into institutions of excellence. We can build a stronger social safety net for the poor and marginalized, while still drawing them into a growing, thriving economy. And above all, we can work to heal the injustices of the past, and promote peace and human rights in Africa and the world.
Only then can we continue our collective walk to true freedom.
In honor of Nelson Mandela Day, observed every year on July 18, support The Emerge Project’s work to uplift black leaders in South Africa.
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