Cape Town Crusaders: Meet Zanele Lwana

Student and social activist extraordinaire strives to transform underprivileged communities through youth development 

Meet Khayelitsha-born Zanele Lwana, a woman with what seems like an infinite supply of well-spoken ideas and firm yet friendly-set shoulders. Although she is only a 21-year-old student at UCT, she has already made a name for herself through her involvement with community-shaping organisations, like Student Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (SHAWCO), a body for responsible citizenship through education health and entrepreneurship, and Communitas, an incubator for social development projects.

More recently though, she launched her own independent social initiative. Titled Messages to my President, Zanele’s brainchild—which was part of the 25 May 100in1Day project—aimed to give a voice to young people in under-privileged communities in the hope that in acknowledging issues, they can begin to change them. Passionate about getting the youth to think critically about the places they live, Zanele makes Messages to my President her (and the teens’) starting point for social change.

How did the concept behind this project first occur to you/what inspired you?
In late April, I was part of the SHAWCO Saturday School (a program that offers extra educational lessons to Grade 12 learners) and the idea came to me. I wanted to develop an alumni program for the learners who graduated from the programme. I wanted to focus on helping teenagers overcome the challenges they’re confronted with in their communities, because that’s when you start finding out about stuff, when you are a teenager. So I thought of creating a platform that could be used to make their voices heard. 

How did the project work?
On the 25th I went to Khayelitsha and had one-on-one dialogues with the young people. Of course there was a lot of stuff we ended up talking about, but my main focus was to have them write down the most important idea or problem [in the community]. They wrote the message on white boards, and held the boards up for a photo. I had contacted the store manager of Fuji Image Centre in Kenilworth about sponsorship before, so I took the photos of the teenagers there and printed around 50 posters. I then posted the pictures in public spaces, like bus stops and other areas around Khayelitsha. 

Why do you feel this sort of work is so important?
For me, individually, my parents were old and not working anymore by the time I finished high school. So in terms of my personal development, I grew as an individual through the assistance of extracurricular activities at school, and I explored through organizations such as SHAWCO and other facilitating peer groups. So I feel like the work I do is important in terms of bridging the gap between what you absorb from your parents and surroundings and what you actually finding out about through life experience. 

What challenges did you come across in your project?
For Messages to my President, one of the critiques I got was that the messages would probably never get to the president. But it’s about more than that. It’s about creating a platform for young people in my community to express themselves, to ignite discussions between them and to let the public know what the young people in our communities think. It’s about developing young individuals. A lot of young people are quite shy, and they don’t speak up. I’m trying to break that insecurity and actually get them to do something about issues they face.

What was your most memorable/touching moment?
For me, there is not one moment. What I take from my work is that I do it in the area I grew up, where I understand the challenges that young people face. So a highlight for my initiative is that as an individual now, I took ownership of my [community] and I created something that I’m deeply connected to. Another highlight was seeing that other young people are interested in initiatives like this too, and that there’s potential to grow the community of people who give back. 

What advice could you give to people who want to start their own project?
You know, the advice that I have is no matter what you think you have to do, just go for it. You have to think: that golden opportunity is never going to come; you create it yourself. Take advantage of the networks you have. There are already support groups and existing structures that can help with initiatives. And if you don’t have your own idea in mind, you can partner with an already formed organization to bring them closer to a community that needs help. 

Anything else you’d like to say?
My overall idea is to transform our communities. I am launching these projects to drive social change and ignite a spirit that gives young individuals motivation to take ownership of their environment. The bigger goal is to create spaces in townships where young people can gather and educate each other, creating leaders who have a deeper understanding of what their position is in society in order to drive change. I am trying to correct the injustice where Black people were conditioned to think that they are good for nothing. This change would bring about individuals who are critics of our leadership and want to see a better South Africa.

Want to find out more information about Zanele’s work or get involved? Shoot her an email at zanelelwana@gmail.com

by Cyprien Pearson

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What is Cape Town Crusaders?
We all know that non-profits and charitable organizations around Cape Town do much for our communities. We hear about their good deeds and we see the benefits of their services, but what about the individuals who do transformational work that’s equally commendable —those whose names go unheard and unappreciated? Cape Town Crusaders is our commitment to putting a spotlight on some of the selfless souls who are working independently to uplift those in need.

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Check out our list of places to volunteer in Cape Town for more ideas of how to start your own social initiative.

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