Small is beautiful

For some youngsters born into the rural provinces, the razzmatazz of the big city is irresistible. They want college degrees and professional jobs and houses in the suburbs. There’s no need to return once they’ve got that. But for many others, there’s no escaping the comparatively lacklustre economic prospects of their home towns. They can’t leave – either because they lack the means, the will, or the breadth of vision. Survival becomes paramount. These are the youth most at risk. Three groups of such young adults in and around Piketberg in the Western Cape, and Kokstad in the Eastern Cape, agreed to work as FLOW Ambassadors, to test drive an initiative that would push them into a new realm of possibilities.

Leonie Joubert

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Small is beautiful

For some youngsters born into the rural provinces, the razzmatazz of the big city is irresistible. They want college degrees and professional jobs and houses in the suburbs. There’s no need to return once they’ve got that. But for many others, there’s no escaping the comparatively lacklustre economic prospects of their home towns. They can’t leave – either because they lack the means, the will, or the breadth of vision. Survival becomes paramount. These are the youth most at risk. Three groups of such young adults in and around Piketberg in the Western Cape, and Kokstad in the Eastern Cape, agreed to work as FLOW Ambassadors, to test drive an initiative that would push them into a new realm of possibilities.

Leonie Joubert

Sam Reinders

Small is beautiful

Lorita Majerrie likes to call herself Loritha – ‘Lorit-hah!’ she says, ponceing it up beneath twinkling eyes – because it ‘sounds more English’.

‘It’s softer on the tongue. You know, like the name Anna,’ she chuckles, her Afrikaans salted with the drum-rolling Rs of the platteland, ‘but in Cape Town you say Anne.’

If the 35-year-old ‘late bloomer’ could sit down with her 12-year-old self now, she’d have a thing or two to say to her.

She’d say: don’t be so afraid!

‘I was a fearful child…’

She’d say: do what makes you happy. And study what you need to, to get yourself there.

‘I wanted to be a social worker, but I didn’t have the right subjects at school. I just did what my friends did…’

She’d say: grow where you’re planted, put your roots down deep, so that when the time comes, you’ll be ready.

When her time came, she wasn’t.

She’d say: don’t be afraid to dream.

Now, seasoned by life and her dream of social work long abandoned, Loritha has other plans. She’d like to try her hand at motivational speaking, and after surviving some hard knocks in the past few years, she’s probably well qualified to do so.

Her father was a farm worker, and her mother, a huis hulp (house help, a domestic cleaner). She was a fearful youngster and wouldn’t ‘sleep out’ at friends’ houses. Loritha didn’t want to leave town or be far from her family. After school, she enrolled in a bookkeeping course at a college in Malmesbury, about 65km south of her hometown, Piketberg, but the distance was too far. It would have taken her 18 months to get her certificate.

‘I didn’t last six months.’

In the years since that first attempt at studying, Loritha supported herself as a cashier and then later in various management roles at the Winkelshoek petrol station on the edge of town. She’s also become the single mother to four kids who she has taken into her care.

The first, her niece, joined her when one of her sisters had a third child, and couldn’t cope. Then, when that sister passed away in 2009, Loritha took on the other two older nephews. Not long after that, her mother passed away in 2010. Then an adult niece from another sister ran off to Cape Town to chase down a crystal meth habit, leaving behind an infant girl. Loritha took on this baby too.

But it was while she was shouldering the darkest moments of them all, that she found herself recruited as a youth ambassador with the newly launched FLOW programme in October 2014.

It was then that the manslaughter charge resurfaced. It’d been brooding for two years, and in 2014 the cops finally decided to bring it to court.

‘Manslaughter’, she says, ‘and another charge of reckless and negligent driving.’

Dreaming small

Loritha’s story is not unusual. Soon after the programme took off, most of the team noted how stifling the lack of prospects can be for youngsters here. Many teenagers don’t know there are any prospects beyond Grade 7. There’s also a big dropout rate at Grade 9 (usually aged between 15 and 16).

When the FLOW organisers began this work in the Bergrivier area, they were struck by how these youngsters’ ‘realm of possibilities’ had never grown beyond believing they could be more than farm labourers, or admin clerks, or be trained up as artisans at the PPC cement factory a few kilometres out of town. It never occurred to them that they might become a writer, or a musician, or an astronaut.

Many of the young people who could leave town, did. Some of the ambassadors’ school friends became dentists or lawyers, and now work in the city. The school leavers that couldn’t leave, stayed. Many of the young people who signed up for FLOW, did so because they were bored and wanted to get out of the house.

There’s a difference between those who have seen the world, and can choose to come back, and those who feel trapped. It’s the ones who might be trapped by circumstance – without the will or means to study beyond high school, the lack of job opportunities, the fear of moving away – that are at risk of the apathy that comes from few prospects, and the hopelessness that follows.

‘Royal, but dressed like a vagrant’

They’d driven through to Moorreesburg to run an errand for her friend Margie. Loritha was nervous. It was the farthest she’d ever driven as a recently licensed driver, an hour’s drive from Piketberg.

She still can’t remember what happened, just that they’d stopped for KFC, and she was back be-hind the wheel and trying to cross an intersection.

‘The next thing, someone was asking if I was ok.’

In the fortnight following the accident, Loritha’s world shrank to a tunnel-visioned dreamscape. Her right arm was shattered, her ribs buckled, with one lung punctured and slowly re-inflating. It was as if someone had turned the lights off, she says, cupping her hands on either sides of her face, like the blinkers on a horse’s bridle. Her sleep was stalked by images of scattered shoes, and a truck, and funerals.

‘Then one day a doctor asked if I was a believer, and said ‘there are some things in life that you can change and some things that you just have to accept…’

That’s when they told her that all the other passengers in the car had died.

‘It would have been Margie’s birthday today, the 8th of June,’ she says. Her eyes, hemmed with a line of dark kohl and a twinkle of glitter, are unreadable.

Margie’s little boy, JJ, died in the ambulance en route to a paediatric hospital in Cape Town.

She says something about how she’s dealing with the guilt, although she seems peaceful. But when the charges finally brought her to court, she had to appear before the magistrate over a period of months, and she really thought she was going to be sent to jail.

Loritha was amongst the first intake of ambassadors on the FLOW programme, eight from Piket-berg and ten from Kokstad, between the ages of 18 to 35. It was a young and initially timid group, but they rallied around her, becoming a surrogate family as the whole grim chapter unfolded. The group’s regular ‘check ins’ in the office across from a big agricultural supply store on Long Street became a safe space for her to show people how anxious she really was. On the days of court appearances, there’d be text messages flying back and forth.

‘I was prepared to plead guilty in the end, and then asked the state to withdraw the charges, on the basis that I was also badly injured, and that family had died in the accident, too. And so they did.’

Four years later, Loritha wants to be a motivational speaker. She’s also busy writing up her life story. The memoir is drafted in longhand and waiting the chance to be typed up on a computer. Publishers want manuscripts to be typed, she knows that much.

‘It’s called Koninklik aangetrek soos a boemelaar.’

Roughly: Royal, but dressed like a vagrant.

‘My father treated me like a princess when I was little. But I was chubby, and I had short hair, and people judge you on that.’

And they judge you for what your parents do, too. Her self-esteem wasn’t great. So much of what has happened in the FLOW programme has been about tackling that self-esteem stuff. Getting over the inferiority complex of being poor, of being a country bumpkin, of having few job prospects, little chance of study, and neither the will nor the means to escape to the big city. Because that’s where it’s all happening, right?

Maybe this is why she’s so specific: she wants to be a motivational speaker, and she wants to work in the local prison, telling people her story

If Loritha could sit down with her 12-year-old self, she’d have something else to say.

‘I’d say: you’re important.’

She’s at her most animated when she talks about the book, and about her aspirations to help others. And maybe this is her effort to mollify the last of the ghosts that remains after that dreadful intersection crossing on 28 August 2012.

Because the third passenger in the car, who also died on that day, was her only remaining parent, her father, Gerrit Majerrie.

Roll of honour: the second intake of Bergrivier FLOW Ambassadors graduate
Sam Reinders

Graduation day

Hanlie Linde had a plan. The first group of youth ambassadors had just finished their nine-month foundation phase and she wanted to give them a bit of pomp and ceremony. Flags, gowns, the whole gedoente (deal).

‘I thought: many of these youngsters will never have a real graduation ceremony at a university. For them, this is big.’

So she borrowed an enormous candle from the church across the road, and summoned everyone to the municipal Council Chambers. They dusted off their old council robes to glam up the proceedings.

’We looked like proper clowns.’ Hanlie is tickled by the memory.

Each ambassador carried a small candle, which they lit off the central candle, while Hanlie told them a story about spreading light in their community, and reminded them that this central candle was symbolic of the Bergrivier Municipality.

‘They lit their candle here with us, and we will always be there for them.’

Then, each one had to stand before the council and give a five-minute speech. They were so different, compared to how they were at the start of the programme, she was incredulous at their progress. They hadn’t just learned a whole lot of useful skills, like storytelling, movie editing, survey methods and mapping. Something had shifted in their sense of self. ‘They stood up. They were upright! They looked people in the eye, they had charisma.’

This was a world away from that first Council Chambers meeting in October 2014 at the project launch. Hanlie had worried about how well this fledgling programme would do.

During their first appearance (‘The Council Chambers are quite intimidating, and very formal!’) they were asked to stand up and introduce themselves.

‘They couldn’t do it. They were looking down and, almost with their toe on the ground,’ she grinds a knuckle into the palm of her hand, to intimate their level of awkwardness and retreat. ‘They were so timid, they didn’t have the confidence even to say something about themselves.

‘I didn’t know why they’d been chosen.’

Hanlie had backed the programme all the way, in principle and in pocket. The project ‘ticked all the boxes’ because it was about poverty alleviation, climate change response, encouraging business, and youth development. Strategic manager Tracey Stone raised the first funding from a national government fund to pay each ambassador a small monthly stipend, before lobbying the idea with the Council and the municipal manager. Then, with Tracey and Hanlie putting their shoulders to the project, managed to get money directly from the municipality’s frugal budget.

It was all very experimental. And the ethos of the project was to get the various teams to know each other, build connections, and work alongside one another. This meant academics and researchers, government, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and the local community, including the youth. These ambassadors were blazing a trail that none had tried in this community before.

Hanlie doesn’t strike you as the kind of person who would be intimidated by anything. She’s a warm, effervescent bundle of ‘can-do’, wrapped around a steel core. The daughter of a minister, she joined the military so she could study law and political science because she wanted to get into foreign affairs or the United Nations. She did her LLB, became a member of the Cape Bar, and worked for 20 years in the Stellenbosch Municipality’s legal department, handling labour law. She’s served as either acting or formally appointed municipal manager in three different municipal regions in the Western Cape.

She was recognised as South Africa’s most influential woman in business and government by CEO magazine in 2012.

It must have concerned her to see these youngsters fumble at first. But that timidity has long gone.

The work they have done has become an important part of the democratic running of the municipal region. Whenever public participation processes are held, they’re invited to attend because Hanlie knows that they’ll speak up, meaning that the youth voice gets heard in a space where otherwise only adults get to have a say.

This unusual demonstration of youth involvement in local issues was recognised in 2016 when the Bergrivier Municipality won the Eco-Logic awards in the municipal category. This is an awards system that recognises ‘ecological excellence’ in various sectors, and is organised by The Enviropaedia, a local networking platform and encyclopaedia geared towards social and environmental sustainability. Bergrivier scooped it ahead of its much larger completing metros, like the City of Cape Town and Tshwane.

‘They have grown into people that can give a sensible input. They’re not afraid to lift their hand and say ‘hear me’ and then 60 people will quiet down and listen to them. We’ve never had youth like that, who are able to perform in front of the public like that.’

Unfortunately, though, the Kokstad ambassadors didn’t have the same champion within their local municipality as the Cape crowd had in Hanlie. They didn’t have access to the Council Chambers the way the Bergrivier group did, and so didn’t have a chance to spread their wings as individuals in the same way, or get such direct access to the democratic process. But their growth in confidence was measured in different ways.

What does Hanlie think is one of the most important things for these emerging adults? They must think that they can do more, be more, and become more.

Maybe there is truth in what novelist, poet, and playwright GK Chesterton once said: ‘There is the great lesson of Beauty and the Beast, that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.’ Maybe these youth need others to believe in them, so that they can believe in themselves. LJ

Roll of honour: the second intake of Bergrivier FLOW Ambassadors graduate
Sydelle Willow Smith

School leavers

Former FLOW Ambassador Marlin Swartz (20) wants to be a lawyer. He’s been accepted at a university in Port Elizabeth, about 800 km south-east of home, but problems with accommodation scuppered his plans to start this year. He’ll try again for 2017.

Meanwhile, he’s working as a cashier at a local supermarket and for fun, hangs out in the local library or plays Playstation with his friends. Sometimes, he tutors a friend who didn’t finish school because of family problems.

‘His mother couldn’t afford his school clothing so he dropped out (at Grade 9). His mother is also a heavy drinker. He decided ‘that’s it’. I tried to get him into a college here, but he’s not very keen.’

Motivating his friend has been frustrating.

The school dropout rate across the Bergrivier area is already high, according to Hanlie, and the youngsters in the rural areas around Piketberg are even more at risk than those here in town.

This is farming country. Sweet potato and potato are big, and nearly half of the regional economy comes from tilling the soil, or from parallel supply chains.

Many farm kids will go to a nearby junior school, but come Grade 10 they’ll head into the nearest town to finish high school. This is partly because the state is shutting down smaller rural schools, leaving the young people with no option other than to become boarders. Hostel from Monday to Friday, home for the weekends.

This is where the dropout happens, according to Hanlie.

‘A mother who works on a farm must now pay R800 a month to get her child home every weekend. But she only earns a salary of R1 000.

There’s no ways she’s going to spend that money on transport. So what happens?’

The child stays on the farm, and becomes a labourer at the age of 16.


Sydelle Willow Smith
Culture shock: even though some farming families may only live 10km from town, they often feel like they don’t fit in

Country dwellers and the clash of cultures

‘The big city is not for me,’ says Loritha Majerrie. The traffic bothers her, and she loves how peaceful and safe she feels in Piketberg.

Her experience isn’t unique. Ian Schaffers, FLOW Ambassador co-ordinator in Bergrivier, chose to return to his home community of Goedverwacht, about 20 minutes’ drive from Piketberg, after he completed his agricultural studies in Stellenbosch, because he ‘likes to sleep with the windows open at night’.

But at the same time, there’s this notion that city people are sophisticated, and that these Bergrivier youngsters are ‘country bumpkins’. Loritha’s family moved from a farm into Piketberg when she was about six, She still recalls the culture shock.

‘It always felt for me that I was lower, because I came from the farm,’ she says, ‘Farm people felt less than town people. Town people have that manner about them, that makes us feel that way.’

Municipal manager Hanlie Linde recalls a conversation with a man named Gus, from the Piket-Bo-Berg farming community in the mountains overlooking the town.

‘He told me how difficult it was for him to switch from a farm school to a town school, because they don’t see themselves on the same playing field as town kids. They didn’t have the opportunities that town kids had. He stood out like a sore thumb when he came to town. Even a few kilometres for these farm kids is a big step.’

The municipality sets aside 15% of its housing projects for farm applicants, so that farm people can move to town if they need to.

‘It must be amazingly difficult for them,’ Hanlie says.

As Loritha has grown into her skin as a more confident adult, she’s shed the inferiority of her farm-kid origins.

‘I can say now that I don’t feel like a plaas jaapie (country bumpkin) in town. I feel like a city girl in town,’ she dissolves into self-deprecating mirth.


‘Youth of Bergrivier, do you want to hone your leadership skills, and get

involved in your community and help run your town? Do you want to boost the local economy and understand how climate change will impact you and your neighbours? Do you want to become a citizen journalist?’

That’s the call that went out into the wider community of the Bergrivier municipal area in the Western Cape in the spring of 2014. A similar message went out in Kokstad in the Eastern Cape. Anna and John had already piloted a ‘youth ambassador’ programme in Kokstad, involving citizen journalism and training around environmental sustainability. They decided to roll out that model in both towns as part of this new FLOW programme.

If you are between the ages of 18 and 30, have completed high school and are computer literate, then we want to you to consider being a youth ambassador with the FLOW programme. Send us a motivation letter…

Many of those first two groups of recruits didn’t really have an idea of what they were signing up for, but they pioneered a process that has now had a third group pass through the programme. LJ

Portrait of an African city

The modern African city is young, informal, and making its own way in the world.

That means its population is largely younger than 24; and most of its residents live in shanty towns – built by them, for them, with no help or planning from the state. The economy that they live off, and thrive in, is largely an informal one, off the radar of national tax collectors and planners. This means that city managers need to forget the idea that they – as regional representatives of the state – are building and developing cities for their inhabitants. Residents are building the cities themselves, and municipalities are mostly just responding in trying to then deliver services, infrastructure and so on.

This is according to urbanist Professor Edgar Pieterse at the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities (ACC) in the book Rogue Urbanism, who writes that Africa is the fastest urbanising region in the world, with a population that will more than double by 2030 (reaching 742 million), and reach 1.2 billion by mid-century, quoting the United Nations’ HABITAT figures.

Already, almost two-thirds of city dwellers on the continent are living in shanty town-type conditions – ‘informal, auto-constructed, makeshift shelters’ – writes Pieterse, and almost all the future growth will be slum growth.

About this number of people are also dependent on what researchers call ‘vulnerable’ employment, meaning their livelihoods, employment and income are rooted in the informal economy.

These communities are reliant on unpredictable resources or forces, such as water and energy supply, or people settling on marginal land. If these people and communities aren’t part of the formal city system, they’ll have to take care of their own needs, and find ways to adapt without the support of the state.

Associate professor and geographer Gina Ziervogel from the University of Cape Town notes, there isn’t a handbook on how to survive in African urban areas.

‘You need to learn on your feet. People are living on marginal land, exposed to high risks and having to create opportunities for earning an income given the lack of formal employment. This is tough but it means that those living on the edge have had to adapt, and some survive better than others.’ By far the largest urban growth is going to happen in the smaller cities and towns across the continent, where the populations are fewer than half a million people. This, argues Pieterse, debunks the popular notion of ‘mega-city explosions’.

The ‘youth bulge’ is another important trend, he writes, with over half the population being under 24 years old.

How does this apply to the FLOW programme?

‘Well, we need to understand the dynamics of these small towns, and where there might be opportunities,’ argues Gina. ‘How can we help them grow so that they are places where things happen and people want to stay?’

‘There’s this idea that small towns are inevitably going to become degenerative negative spaces as they grow, but it doesn’t have to be like this’, says Gina. There is huge potential for these towns to be exciting places where innovation happens and opportunities exist.

Take a look at a slum like Kibera, in Nairobi, with its ‘pencil towers’ (unsafe, slum-lord managed, high-rise buildings) and ‘helicopter toilets’ (where people relieve themselves into plastic bags, and then fling the bags out of windows or from rooftops, into the slum below).

‘Kibera is one of the most studied sites in Africa. Looking at slum growth like this, can we find different ways of living close to each other and make the most of the resources we have?

‘FLOW was trying to find innovation at a societal level, through building capacity in ordinary citizens, so that they can be actively involved in imagining and planning their own futures,’ says Anna Cowen, FLOW co-creator and implementer.

How could FLOW create in the ambassadors the idea that another world is possible?

‘The traditional planning paradigm is top-down and centralised, where trained experts tell people how their town or city will be managed and run and developed. FLOW is about showing young people that they don’t have to be passive recipients of outside expertise, planners, architects, and engineers. They can be active participants in shaping their environment and planning their settlements,’ Anna says.

It’s about giving them agency, stimulating active citizenry and seeding democracy.

‘If there are enough young people who know about alternatives, who understand the natural and human-made systems that support life, and who understand how things are linked, they can become active in shaping their settlements.’

Returning to the question of Africa’s booming population and the inevitable slum growth, the ACC’s Edgar Pieterse argues in a lecture on the subject, that the problem is systemic ‘If these trends continue into the future, if the current conditions remain more or less the same, what we can expect to see is an agglomeration of a number of negative pressures… the urban polycrisis, where you see water scarcity being reinforced by energy scarcity, which in turns produces pressure on the availability and quality of food, and the scarcity of land.’ ‘This is in the biophysical context,’ says Anna.

In the economic context, you’ll see more under-employment and unemployment, and the degradation of ecosystems.

‘Young people are no longer willing to accept this. We have seen more and more protests, an expression of democratic voice. These phenomena reinforce each other and generate a cumulative dynamic that will represent a very challenging urban crisis.’


Max Bastard
The view across Shayamoya township in Kokstad: one of South Africa’s fastest growing towns