The guardian of Kliptown

Bob Nameng has been looking after the youth — and the not so young — of this Soweto suburb for more than three decades.

Bob Nameng is a one-person philanthropy movement for Kliptown, Johannesburg, where he has run a youth club for more than 30 years.

Soweto Kliptown Youth (SKY), founded in 1987, is a non-profit organisation (NPO) based in Soweto with satellite groups in other provinces.

“I run school holiday camps at the centre and we do different activities such as arts and culture, music, poetry, dance, theatre, life skills and counselling. We teach sports as well, soccer, netball, basketball and now we are venturing into cricket,” says Nameng.

The centre has dormitories, a kitchen and a vegetable garden, and runs a reading club, dance competitions and exchange programmes for women.

In November, Nameng hosted a film screening in Kliptown in collaboration with a French community that was attended by about 160 children.

“It gives them the feel that they are at the cinema because some won’t have opportunities to go to a cinema. I try to organise whatever for kids, whether it’s an outing, going to the theatre or soccer tournaments outside Kliptown. Little things that kids create, if they are positive about them, I will support them,” says Nameng in his rattling, raspy voice.

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Nameng works with different exchange programmes in London and France, equipping young South Africans with skills in production, arts and culture, and filming. A handful of youths will head to France in February for a conference on global warming.

“It helps. It is to expose them to the outside world, to say to them live your life outside the box, there is life out there, go and see what is happening out there,” he says.

Nameng’s work has allowed him to meet people he never thought he would. When Basketball without Borders came to South Africa with the United States National Basketball Association (NBA) in 2002 to identify young players from the continent with potential, Nameng was the first to host them.

In 2013, Warwick University in the United Kingdom invited him to host a TED talk on his youth club. For the past 10 years, he has been running an exchange programme with the university through which some volunteers and students come to South Africa and tutor young people.

He has collaborated with Canadian rapper Drake and US singer and actor Jussie Smollett whose music video he appears in, as well as US producer and DJ, Skrillex.

A joyful Nameng puffs greedily on a Peter Stuyvesant cigarette, issuing instructions to builders who are laying bricks and smoothing cement to create a brick wall while he admires the stencil artwork being created on a yellow wall next to the house. The artist is outlining an image of a woman, carefully filling in each crack with a can of black spray paint. Nameng is pedantic about the end result, watching closely that each detail is correct.

5 December 2018: Bob Nameng is the founder of Soweto Kliptown Youth. “It is to expose them [local kids] to the outside world, to say to them … there is life out there, go and see what is happening out there.”

A week later, he is not in the same jolly mood, and the upbeat tempo of The Temptations’ My Girl playing in the background contrasts with the mood at the table on the porch.

The woman spray painted on the wall is Nameng’s mother, Eva Mokoka, a midwife and nurse who ran a clinic in Soweto in collaboration with the Red Cross. She was also awarded the prestigious Order of the Baobab in Bronze for her contribution to community upliftment in the fields of health and welfare. Although she died eight years ago, she is the reason he is still working and determined to help the youth.

“I was adopted by the very same woman they were drawing there,” he points out. “She is my guardian, she is the reason why I am still here but I have lost a lot of people,” he says quietly, shaking his head, explaining why he is down.

Even in the shade, the summer heat is unbearable. A cool breeze blows through, easing the humidity levels on the red stoep of the porch. While Nameng talks, the background is buzzing with chatter and the sound of giggling children. The conversation is constantly interrupted by people walking in, respectfully greeting and asking Nameng in Afrikaans, isiZulu or Sesotho for one thing or the other.

Others, like the chubby talkative toddler who peeks through the mesh on the porch, just want R7 to go and swim with the older children at a public swimming pool in Pimville, Soweto. He gets the R7 and a cold cup of water from the five-litre bottle on the table. The kind gesture is met with a toothless but appreciative smile.

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“I am connected to all the kids in this community. Even if they are hungry at home, they will never hesitate to come through those gates, because they know the heart of that guy, he will sell his suit to feed us … we have done this for years,” says Nameng, flashing a toothy smile for the first time.

Nameng says children should be taking ownership because they are often overlooked. His ministry is more about providing and giving.

“We are diverse in this country, so how do we raise our children while we are divided? Let us also learn from children: How do they see things, give them a platform, how do they do things?” he says.

The Kliptown community faces a lot of social challenges and Nameng helps where he can. He says drugs are an ever-present threat, but they have helped a few young people stay away from drugs through workshops, teambuilding and agricultural projects.

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“The environment they are in … most of them want to quit but they can’t. How do you quit when the people you smoke with are around you?

“You know,” he starts with a frown, “our youth is neglected, and that’s why most of them are on drugs, the crime rate is going higher and higher … you see incidents where young girls run after blessers to provide at home … there are parents who encourage that. They tell them to go and [hustle] because their counterparts are also [hustling], so where are we heading as a country?” he asks, searching faces around the table for answers. “But desperation is bad … who are you to point fingers?” He shrugs.

“These boys need to grow up to be helpful to their communities,” he says, pointing his long index finger at two dreadlocked boys, Afrika, 9, and Nkululeko, 3, who is kitted out in a matching Superman outfit.

He is fond of the boys, promising them sweets if they come back later in the afternoon. “There is no better education than raising a child … Nowadays it’s an issue of the children raising a village instead of a village raising a child, so it becomes difficult for the child to bear this load,” he says.

The mother of the two boys is a dark-skinned woman with matte, wrinkle-free skin. She walks in gracefully with a half empty 20-litre bucket on her head, which she carefully puts down. After gulping down water and counting how much money she made from the hake she managed to sell near Soweto Hotel, she hands Nameng a bankie of Swazi Gold, a strain of weed.

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Nkululeko means freedom. The same freedom Nameng says women need because, as he says, “a woman is a very powerful symbol in Africa”.

“We need economic freedom of women because that brings back the dignity of an African woman, once they can be independent, we are all free. If you empower one woman, you empower the community,” he says, stroking his small, greying beard and dragging on a joint.

His mood and cadence have caught up with the energy of The Temptations’ Papa was a Rolling Stone blaring out over the porch and onto the street for everyone within ear range to hear. Although he is not smiling, he is chattier. More people sit on another bench on the other end of the porch, eager for his attention.

5 December 2018: Bob Nameng is the founder of Soweto Kliptown Youth. “If you empower one woman, you empower the community.”

Taeeb, 20, pays R200 monthly rent in Pimville, money he cannot afford since he lost his job after the Black Friday sales ended in November. Hijacking a quiet moment in the conversation, Taeeb whips out his crisp new Mozambican passport, desperation written clearly all over his face, and explains that he was supposed to leave the country on 23 November but had no money to return back home.

“I just need a job. Please, anything you can give me,” he implores in his thick, Portuguese-veiled accent, his eyes riddled with worry.

Nameng brushes a few weed seeds off his mahogany table and takes a few drags, his mind labouring on how best he can help the troubled young man next to him.

Like his older siblings, Taeeb came to South Africa in search of a better life after his contract ended at a dairy company back home. Even though he says he misses home deeply, he wants to support his one-year-old daughter and wife, as well as his family.

“Sometimes I am scared to tell them that I have nothing to do here because they don’t have resources to help. I don’t want to make them more worried, that’s why when I talk to them, I tell them that everything is fine because I think that things will be fine soon. Even my wife thinks everything is nice,” he manages to say.

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Sensing that Nameng is not convinced, in an anxious last-ditch effort Taeeb takes Nameng into his confidence and explains that a mutual friend he met while he was in a Mozambican prison directed him to Nameng for help.

Taeeb says prison was one of his worst experiences. “Life in prison is hard, it’s not easy. In Mozambique, it’s worse … to eat, to survive, to bath … life is hard,” he says flatly, staring at his phone.

After a long embrace, Nameng’s effervescent childhood friend Odi, whom he has not seen in five years, joins the porch party. He describes Nameng as someone who has always been helpful and is good at connecting people. He has faith that Taeeb will get help.

Reminiscing and smiling at Bobino, as he affectionately calls him, he says cheerily: “There would be 16 or 20 in a shack and you would wake up whenever it was time to part ways feeling like, ‘I didn’t know this was possible, people like this exist’ It’s not a new thing, if I could go back into my archives, you would be shocked.”

Later that night, Taeeb says Nameng has given him a job.

5 December 2018: Bob Nameng is the founder of Soweto Kliptown Youth. “There is no better education than raising a child.”
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