Like the other cities we visited in South Africa, Port Elizabeth is really two cities. The first is the city’s public face, a center of industry, a booming port with beachfront hotels where tourists stop on their drive along the coast—a place where business and activities are on the up and up. The second city is Port Elizabeth’s less exposed face, a sea of shacks and government-funded concrete housing blocks rife with unemployment and suffering under some of the highest rates of rape and HIV/AIDS in all of South Africa. We had come to PE (as everyone here calls it) to explore this second city and to document the work of two local organizations striving to help both those at risk and those already affected by HIV/AIDS.
Ubuntu Education Fund
Founded by two men of different races and backgrounds—an American and a South African—Ubuntu Education Fund’s work is based on the ancient African philosophy of Ubuntu, often defined as “I am because you are.” For this organization the Ubuntu philosophy is not simply empty rhetoric slapped on a fundraising brochure, instead it deeply informs all of their work. Unlike many organizations offering aid and charity in South Africa, the founders live in the neighborhoods where they work, making them a part of the community they are serving and allowing them to create strong relationships with those they serve. On our first day in the city I spoke with Jordan Levy, an American working in PE as a program manager for the organization, about his community connections and how working with the philosophy of Ubuntu has impacted his life. Jordan shared that while Ubuntu was a foreign concept for those in the West, it wasn’t that different from some of basic things we learn in kindergarten. “It’s about respecting another person in a way that allows them to take pride in who they are.” Although Jordan’s description was a new one, his simple yet profound words echoed those of Credo Mutwa, Nozizwe Madlala Routledge, Dorah Lebelo, and others who have stressed the child-like simplicity that characterizes Ubuntu.
Following our interview with Jordan, we walked the streets of the Zwide township with the organization’s street outreach team as they handed out condoms and offered basic sex education to men and women at bars, taxi stands and bus stops. Although people often laughed as the team demonstrated how to apply a condom to a large rubber dildo (not an easy job when your audience is a group of semi-drunk taxi drivers), most took condoms and said they would try them. In an area where 32% of the population has HIV this basic education is paramount in helping stop the spread of this disease in the townships of PE.
The more I get a chance to see the successes of grassroot organizations like Ubuntu Education Fund who work with rather than for the community the more I think mainstream aid and development efforts require fundamental restructuring to become more bottom-up focused.
As elsewhere in the world, South African soccer has its own universal language. In a country with such deep historical and ongoing divisions, soccer crosses racial and class boundaries and inspires millions of children living in rich suburbs and poor townships alike.. Ethan Zahn, an avid soccer fan and winner of the popular television show Survivor, realized this and with Tommy Clark founded Grassroot Soccer. While playing professional soccer in Zimbabwe Tommy witnessed firsthand the devastating toll HIV/AIDS was taking on young people and felt compelled to try and help. Using Ethan’s winnings as start-up funds they quickly built an organization that leveraged soccer as way to bring young people together while simultaneously teaching HIV prevention and life skills. Working mostly in South Africa and neighboring Zambia and Zimbabwe, they have made tremendous strides, inspiring many young soccer players to join the organization and become activists in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
We met up with local soccer star and Grassroot Soccer’s Port Elizabeth project coordinator Nolusindiso “Titie” Plaatjie at her modest home in the Zwide township. We were immediately struck by her gracious and humble presence and how committed she is to working with the young people of her community. She explained how her love for soccer transformed her, giving her strength and inspiration as she struggled with poverty as a child. “Soccer helped me to stay away from the option of being a prostitute. If you are going to be doing all the wrong things to try and get something to eat, or money, then those things won't be in-line with your football.”
We spent a few days with Titie as she taught in schools, played soccer and hung out in her neighborhood. Everywhere she went people would light up, eager to start up a game or a conversation. She seemed to be one of those people who naturally inspire those around her. She most certainly had that effect on us, and although our primary focus was the Grassroot Soccer organization, it was Titie who ultimately became the star of our film.
At the end of our last day of shooting I asked Titie about Ubuntu, and what she said summed up my experience of the past few days, and the majority of our time in South Africa. “It really makes more sense to be able to have others help because, really, we cannot live in isolation. Honestly, we could be a unity here, but what about the others that are not a unity? We are going to say, ‘Yes we are a unity, that is fine for us. They are not a unity, that's their own problem.’ It shouldn't be like that.”