Next Up in the Arena.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming…”

– The man in the Arena.

“The arena” is taken from a popular 1910 speech by Theodore Roosevelt during a speaking tour post his presidency. You know how American presidents have to be celebrities at some point in their lives, going on tours, playing golf, photo ops, it was one of those moments, that found its moment in my heart from a meme. The original speech is called “Citizenship in a Republic,” and would among some, come to be known as “The Man in the Arena”. Here he notes, I can imagine in a great Hollywood American orators stance, “The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer,” he said. “A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities—all these are marks, not … of superiority but of weakness.” I know this sneer he speaks off, its the one you get right before people discourage you, warning of your disillusionment with the status quo. How change is impossible. Its a infectious cynicism, spreads like a virus if not curbed. But may we never falter, we believe in change because we witnessed it, we were part of it, but only because certain adults back then decided to set up, schools, programmes, funds, resources to aid the growing needs of young south Africans who could also pay it forward with their contributions to society. So now, the facts of the matter are, we are the adults.

Im writing this because a friend of mine, currently a man in the arena, his colleagues and funders at a young startup called Next Up, are doing incredible work with young people in Olivenhoutbosch. They launched a an exciting youth programme at a once dysfunctional municipal library in the budding township this past Human rights day, 21 march 2022.

A quick search on google mentions the township popularly known to its residents as Oliven was established after Centurion was integrated into Tshwane municipality, there is not much more after that except what looks like, exaggerated reports about a 4 kilometer long line of residents waiting to receive government and private aid during the imposed covid-19 lockdowns. Again, not much public formal record about the township, the few news reports here and there are mostly crime related. When visiting the space as I had done, visiting in-laws who were residents of Oliven for a few years, it is hard to gauge if the area began as an informal settlement that was later integrated into plans to formalise it, or formal settlement that deteriorated into what feels like a familiar congestion of some of the more densely populated townships, with the lack of space sprawling double-storey buildings. Its clear, the resources here are not enough for some, let alone, the multitudes, documented and undocumented.

Welcome back to “the arena”, we’d joke with my dear friend who has found people he thinks are willing to participate in the intense “on the ground” work necessary in the investment and development ekasi. Many of us, black and getting university educated, a minority, with skills demanded by the market, choose accordingly, influenced by circumstance to utilise the skills acquired at institutions of higher learning to advance the very systems that oppressed our parents. These systems we’re now helping to maintain with our skillsets, maintained the existences we were so desperate to escape. The other option, a contrast, a mad idea, is the seemingly impossible task of using the acquired skillset to formalise black existence for as long as this system remains and demands. Its a conversation about responsibility. This is not an either/or conversation, as these things are not mutual exclusive. We all know what we have to do. When we sometimes decide to take the road less travelled and contribute skills to the immediate advancement of society, the situation becomes more complex as the options are to join government or to join multi million dollar/Rand NPO’s and NGO’s thinking good work is being done. The truth is scarier, when being honest and involved in the daily running of these organisations, the realities can be disheartening as funds that could contribute to change are squandered on everything else except the intended aid.

Sometimes its easier to escape the arena, choosing, existing in a place of comfort, perhaps where we dont have to always be “the black fighting”. Nothing wrong with that, if it doesn’t bother you. But my friend was bothered by these considerations. I realise my life own, in various forms exists in “the arena”, demanding something be done. We’re working for what we know is possible. You see “the arena”, is a newly adopted term we use to refer to the intense, demanding work that needs to be done by the willing to redress what they feel can be improved on or optimized in the way South Africans experience life, especially ekasi, where majority of the people are at. nothing new here, except perhaps the conjuring of a new will to achieve our desires, which involve the emancipation of Africans in forms that are constructive for them and their environments…

I heard about NextUp’s plans, it was exciting, but daunting as it seeks to address the fundamental problem in the room, the problem of income. The acquisition of the right kind of skills and psycho emotional resources to be a self sustaining human being within a community is absolutely necessary. But how do we achieve that when the statistics are so grim, youth unemployment is perhaps at its highest. There are those who believe boundless possibilities exist when preparation meets opportunity. NextUp understands and recognises that success in finding and keeping work demands resilience and self belief, too often absent in those who are not in education, employment or training, their stats reveal 44% of the youth in Oliven are not currently engaged in education, employment or training.

The solution proposed by NextUp will walk the full journey with young people, from initial engagement through to earning a stable income suited to their talents and motivation. This right here is the magic. The focus will be on strengthening their emotional and social wellbeing all through this journey, the rationale is that by tapping into their energy within, these young people can transform their lives and find dignity, stability and happiness. This wrap around support lies at the heart of NextUp’s approach and prepares the young person to take full advantage of every educational, training and work opportunity provided. NextUp will build community spirit and emphasise paying it forward, so that those who had fallen off the radar of opportunity in some of South Africa’s most under-served areas can succeed and help others like them.

NextUp is proud to join the ranks of the many public and private efforts in support of the President’s call to action to address the challenge of youth unemployment in South Africa. The programme is a product of the vision and commitment of funders David and Tracey Frankel.

It was the critical Frankfurt school of thought who shared sentiments that the conditions of the working class would not improve precisely because their leaders only seeks to enrich themselves by positioning themselves as worthy to join the upper classes of society and be concerned with those interests, forgetting the working class people who assisted in that realisation of power, and their intrests. But we do not despair. What the frankfurt school teach doesnt have to be true. We have these conversations as a means to come face to face with our reality to understand it, only to influence it to the advancement of Africans.

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