June 16th, 2016 will mark the 40th anniversary of a day in South African history that changed the nation: a day of remembrance of the Soweto Uprising against the apartheid government’s Bantu education, whereby black schools would be required to instruct in Afrikaans, the language of the white ruling minority. On that day in 1976, peaceful demonstrations by young students were met with police aggression, resulting in violent attacks, numerous injuries and death, most notably that of a 13-year old boy named Hector Pieterson. The subsequent civil unrest in the years to come, fueled by increasing anti-apartheid sentiment in South Africa and around the world, would lay the path towards the end of apartheid. To commemorate the courage and importance of this day, June 16th is celebrated as Youth Day every year.
On Youth Day this year, there will be another reason to celebrate.
In the hip and artsy streets of Maboneng, Johannesburg, I meet a young man working at a local coffee shop. Polite and helpful, clutching a skateboard in one hand, Phemelo and I get to talking as he’s getting ready for his break. He comes from a small town two hours outside of Jo’burg and came here for school. He studies accounting and will soon receive his degree. Unlike many graduates eager to kick off their career at fancy international corporations, Phemelo has other aspirations.
He flips his skateboard over and shows me a sticker that reads, “Skateistan.” We look up its Facebook page as he explains to me Skateistan’s mission to build community for disadvantaged youth ages 5-17 through skate boarding. “Kids these days don’t want to play soccer, skate boarding is the new thing.” Phemelo draws my attention to Skateistan’s logo, where a skater is shown skating over and snapping a rifle, symbolic for much of the work that Skateistan does around the world: overcome conflict through education and community building. He and a few other staff members are especially busy these days running the South African chapter of Skateistan as they are getting ready to launch a brand new skate school and skate park in the next few weeks. In his eagerness, Phemelo offers to show me around the new site. I agree and pack up my things.
As we’re walking through the streets of Johannesburg, we talk a bit of politics. Born in 1990, Phemelo is around the age of young South Africans today belonging to the “born-free generation,” indicating that they were born in the post-apartheid era. Perhaps because of this, South African youth today feel less indebted to the African National Congress (ANC) – the party largely responsible for transitioning South Africa from apartheid to a democratic state and the party that Nelson Mandela belonged to – as generations past. Where many young people believe that there should have been greater material demands negotiated for black people during this transition, Phemelo disagrees. He reminds me that one of the most important things Mandela successfully fought for in crafting the new South African constitution was equal access to education. Phemelo trusts that the opportunities in education supersede all else, though perhaps the party’s success in executing said equal access is fodder for a separate discussion.
He explains to me that racial divides inevitably exist, and that there are some jobs that only white people are qualified for. He tells me, “even if a certain job can only be done by white people, so long as it’s being done that’s a good thing, because at the end of the day that’s what matters, that things are getting done for South Africa. It’s like Mandela said, we cannot hate, we all have to work together.” As we approach Skateistan’s current office, I pause to take a photo of the very fitting mural of a young boxing Nelson Mandela on the side of the building.
Phemelo takes me to the roof where we have a perfect view of the soon-to-be new facility. He excitedly walks me through the vision for each floor where classrooms, teachers’ quarters, and conference rooms will be arranged. Behind the office building lies a partially dug through plot of land destined to look as sharp and sleek as the poster rendering of the future skate park. “We’re bringing in Canadian engineers to help build the park. All this should launch in a few weeks.” He hopes the program will grow to serve up to 250 students.
In addition to teaching skate boarding, Skateistan also serves as an after school program in science and math subjects. Because most if not all of the students Skateistan serves come from disadvantaged backgrounds, from various townships in Jo’burg, the immeasurable impact of community and solidarity born out of this program are equally powerful. “This program isn’t meant to replace their schooling, but it will help them apply the things they learn and guide them to make good decisions.”
Phemelo recalls when he himself received a similar opportunity at the coffee shop he currently works. “I don’t really need the money but I stay and help with the business and accounting because they are good people. They hired me when I was homeless, gave me a job and taught me important and helpful things in life. I learned to make good decisions.”
At the end of his break we walk him back to the coffee shop. “Lots of my friends don’t understand the idea of working with international people, they say to focus locally, with South Africans. I think so long as the focus is for the kids, that’s what matters.”
The new skate school will be up and running on June 24th and officially launch on August 13th. You can learn more about Skateistan and how you can support the new facility.