Live Mag

Keeping the connections strong

by: Rofhiwa Maneta - 3 October 2014

Originally published by Red Bull Amaphiko

The Red Bull Amaphiko Academy is an initiative designed to help young South Africans who are making a positive difference in their community, to give them the mentorship they need to take their projects to the next level.

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Nthabiseng Letsotso at the Red Bull Amaphiko academy

They’re on the wide sidewalk outside the community center. In the afternoon sun, they work with their brushes and glue, repasting on the peeling sections of the artwork. Two months after the Amaphiko academy Nthabiseng Letsoso and the scholars from A.S.A.P. are repairing one of the artworks created during the ten day Amaphiko Academy; called Temporary Monuments For Social Entrepreneurs, it is made out of thin strips of printed paper stuck to the bars of the security fence of Uncle Tom’s Community Centre; when viewed from a certain angle the strips come together to form portraits of the Amaphiko participants. Why did Nthabiseng choose to repair the artwork? “It needed that,” she says, “with the weather and the kid’s curiosity, it was starting to peel. I come past here every day, and I saw that, and well, I still like to see my friend’s faces. And it gives these kids something to do, and then they tell each other the kids, “don’t mess with that, I fixed it.”” The friends she is talking about are her fellow participants from Amaphiko.

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One of the big things that the participants took away from the academy is the network they have with each other. They have a chat group whereby they all communicate, and as Nthabiseng says, “It helps. People in the group, they see certain opportunities that aren’t’ right for them, but they pass them on because they might be right for you.” “In fact”, Nthabiseng tells us, “I’m even mentoring this girl in KZN, through Zakheni, because what I am doing is what she wants to do, he shared my story with her. This is something that I never thought I would be doing.”

Talking about the post-Amaphiko experience, sitting on the small lawn outside Uncle Tom’s while watching the kids work, Nthabiseng says:

It’s forever taking a new direction, and shape. The Academy was a good base, but it’s taking a while for it all to sink in. I left feeling pumped up. The thing about the Academy is that it made me feel like it’s okay for me to make a living doing this. You carry a lot of guilt, how do I balance the business with giving skills to the children, you know, so it’s right. Red Bull Amaphiko helped me bring these two things in my life together so that I can now see a way for this to work in total.

Nthabiseng Letsoso answering questions about her experience of being a Trinity Session Artist at the Amaphiko Academy

Nthabiseng Letsoso answering questions about her experience of being a Trinity Session Artist at the Amaphiko Academy. Photo: Sydelle Willow Smith

Her project ASAP or the After School Art Project (“But”, she laughs, “also as in hurry up and make beautiful things”) has evolved in the last two months from an after school care, art-making, project situated in one school, to a stand alone multi school after care center for schoolchildren to learn crafts to occupy their time.  She says, “The nice thing about the new place, is that its kids from different schools, and they get there and they are excited meeting new kids, from other areas.” ASAP is more than just a social space though, Nthabiseng has incorporated her business into the after care model. Her company Trackside Industries, which, apart from sound-hire and other things, produces the bulk of its turnover through furniture making, was financing her afterschool project, has now become part of the project.

“Coming up with a business model, that’s been the big change,” she says, “Finding what’s unique about it. And the model is furniture made by kids that directly benefit from the selling of the furniture. It also keeps them off the street, and it’s fun, but you know,” she pauses and watches the small group of scholars working at the fence as they chat to a group of older boys who have been walking by, “Fridays are tough,” she shrugs and then returns to her thoughts, “Furniture. I didn’t know how to bring it together like that. I always just thought of furniture as a way of, this is my immediate environment, how do I make it better. I never thought of bringing the two things together, the furniture and the art classes. It’s quite exciting.”

ASAP is in its incubating phase, the new premises still needs a lot of work, cleaning up, security, a proper electrical supply, and many other things, but it’s all in the range of possibility for Nthabiseng. They have a new client, a restaurant in Vilakazi street that needs a full set of fixtures and décor, and she runs other small fundraising initiatives, like movie nights from which the proceeds are used to buy art supplies. She also brings people in with stories to tell, life stories to pass on lessons to the scholars.

Nthabiseng Letsotso at the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy. Photo: Sydelle Willow Smith

Nthabiseng Letsotso at the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy. Photo: Sydelle Willow Smith

So how does the business actually function as a social entrepreneurship? “We, as Trackside, make furniture with the children of ASAP. They’re learning, they get free lessons, they get the skills, no one is paying for them to learn, so this is how we do it, to pay rent, to run the school, outings, travels to theatre, you know, enriching their lives.” And more than that, “And now, with this girl in KZN, I’m learning that the model is replicable, that she can take the same thing I’m doing and do it there, but not the same you know, you have to make it fit in your community. That’s the challenge.”

The one thing she’s been doing differently since the Academy? “The same thing I was doing but better. Gaining more confidence, knowing when to knock. That sort of thing. The moving was a big thing, when I was just at that one school, I would start to teach, because I saw the need. But that’s not what I was there for. But now in my own space, I don’t have to concentrate just on that school.” There are other spin offs for her as well; “I’m giving a talk in Kagiso, on Youth In Business. It kinda grows, you have to network. It’s not overnight.”

And what have been her major hurdles? She thinks about this for a little bit before she answers, “Sometimes it’s a bit frustrating, I must say.  Trying to get help, from the community, from schoolteachers, from community leaders, people they don’t seem that interested. And I’ve accepted that it’s okay that they’re not interested. And just by doing that, I’ve been able to find more people, other people who are interested, instead of frustrating myself by trying to convince the same people over and over again.  And maybe I was just looking in the wrong direction”

Nthabiseng Letsoso and Ramona Kasavan during the bicycle tour through Soweto during Amaphiko Academy

Nthabiseng Letsoso and Ramona Kasavan during the bicycle tour through Soweto during Amaphiko Academy

While she is saying this, three girls in their teens walk up and talk to her for a little while, she smiles and jokes with them, as they walk away she tells me that they were the first girls to start coming to ASAP, before it was ASAP, two years ago, and that at the end of the year they will be finishing school. She watches them walk down to the busy road outside the Hector Petersen Memorial, and cross through the busy stream of taxis and cars. She thinks out loud, “I wonder what will happen to them in their lives,” Nthabiseng Letsoso then looks around the wide new pavement, surveys the children doing the repair work to the paste ups, and says, “This is something I cannot get away from. Everyone is asking about it. Soweto TV, you know. Some days I don’t feel like it. But once you start a thing, people will remind you. It becomes you.”

Photography by: Sydelle Willow Smith

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