Youth take charge of their Mpumalanga town

There’s a feeling of hope in Amsterdam since the town’s younger residents began fundraising and organising events to uplift and empower the youth.

About 77km east of Ermelo in Mpumalanga, there is a one-street town called Amsterdam, a dilapidated place without proper infrastructure or recreational facilities. It was considered a dead and hopeless hamlet – until now. 

A group of young people are restructuring the rural town. Their purpose is to create new possibilities to empower the youth to dream beyond the impediments of poverty.

One group, known as the Amish Gang, promotes local talent. It recently held a beauty pageant, Miss Teen Amsterdam 2019, at Kwa-Thandeka in Amsterdam.

1 July 2019: A young girl contemplates the quiet streets of KwaThandeka township. Poverty and high rates of unemployment plague the small town.

A model and pharmacy student at the university currently known as Rhodes, Zinhle Makhubu, 20, was one of the judges. The event was attended by almost 500 young people. “There’s a lot of talent around Amsterdam, but it’s not recognised,” said Makhubu. “We have dancers, models, singers, poets and many more.”

The Amish Gang say the youth of Amsterdam have been ignored by those in leadership positions and left feeling dejected for too long. “You can’t speak about the youth without us in those spaces. People have the audacity to speak about youth development without consulting the youth,” said Philani Mavuso, 21, an Amish Gang member, student activist and third-year LLB student at the University of Johannesburg.

The Amish Gang isn’t the only group attempting to bring hope to the town. One Goal for Amsterdam (OGA), established in 2017 to widen and awaken new possibilities in the area, helped make sure the beauty pageant was a success. But these and other similar groups are held back by the structural inequality and dispossession inherited from colonialism and apartheid.

28 June 2019: Members of One Goal for Amsterdam. Front row, from left: Thabang Makhaza, 25; Zile Dlamini, 24; and, Mercy Ndlovu, 30. Back row, from left: Bhekithemba Nkambule, 31; and, Erick Manyathi, 28.

Amsterdam’s history

Once known as Roburnial, Amsterdam was originally part of a Scottish settlement established by Alexander McCorkindale. It was proclaimed a town 138 years ago, in June 1881. Its name was changed to Amsterdam on 5 July 1882, after the Dutch city where first South African state secretary Willem Eduard Bok was born. (Bok was an influential politician – Boksburg in Ekurhuleni, Gauteng, takes its name from him.) The name was also given as a sign of gratitude after the Dutch showed sympathy to the plight of the Afrikaners during the first Anglo-Boer War between 1880 and 1881. The town was home to people such as Oom Chaart, a local farmer known for the threat: “I will knock you off your birth certificate.”

But little has changed since colonists established the town. During and after apartheid, almost no development took place. The majority of Amsterdam’s population is crippled by poverty. There are no banks, restaurants, free public toilets or big retailers, and shops with credit or debit card machines are limited.

1 July 2019: Silindile Nkosi, 36, outside her RDP house. Residents in the area complain about unemployment and crime.

Lack of support

Today, the groups that want to better the town are confronted by obstacles inherited a century ago. Support from local businesses and political leaders is rare. “We go to local businesses with a positive intention and ask for support,” said Erick Manyathi, 28, an OGA member. “But they see it as making a loss of profit.”

This is echoed by other group members. “I don’t think they understand the whole idea of giving back to the community,” said Zile Dlamini, 24, an OGA member and English and Afrikaans teacher at Vryheid High School in KwaZulu-Natal.

The situation often seems hopeless. Once, after a full day of door-to-door canvassing for donations, they made just R15. This forced them to look for donations in a nearby town, Mkhondo, previously known as Piet Retief, about 45km away.

“We want local businesses and political leaders to see that we are serious. What we are doing here is not only for today. It’s for the future. Rome wasn’t built in one day. We are fighting for Amsterdam’s future,” said Ndabenhle Buthelezi, 27, an Amish Gang member.

29 June 2019: Mathews Mayisela, 34, from a local security company keeps an eye on the youth as they enter the hall to watch Miss Teen Amsterdam 2019.

Winning the hearts of the youth

One of the teenagers whose life has been transformed after participating in the beauty pageant is Sinenhlanhla Simelane, 17. She came to flaunt her modelling talent. 

During the Q & A session, one of the judges asked what she would do to uplift the town if she won. “I would help teenagers play more sports, because our teenagers really like sports. It is just that they are not available to them. I would make sure there’s tournaments,” she answered.

The judges were so impressed, they crowned her Miss Teen Amsterdam 2019. The crowd screamed in jubilation.

“My mother is going to be really happy. At the beginning, she did not want me to enter the beauty pageant. She felt it was too much, but later on she decided to support me,” said Simelane after being crowned. She said her grandfather couldn’t contain his excitement. “He promised to buy me R29 airtime, something he never does,” she said. “I am a favourite mzukulu [grandchild].”

Mbhekeni Simelane, 29, is the target groups manager at Mkhondo Local Municipality and a regional executive committee member at Gert Sibande District Municipality with the authority to support groups and events such as these. He gave the winning contestant R500, which would take most residents at least a week to earn.

He said the municipality would offer R20 000 to the winner of the next event of this kind, meaning the youth of Amsterdam is becoming more attractive to local government and other stakeholders.

“To us, talent is not something that can only be used for entertainment. It is a tool for local economic development,” said the municipal manager. “Even now, we commit ourselves that whenever there is something or an event in Amsterdam, the artists around will be called to come perform and get paid.”

29 June 2019: Participants of the pageant prepare their nails ahead of the event at the KwaThandeka Hall in Amsterdam.

A lack of sports activities

Miss Teen Amsterdam 2019, Sinenhlanhla Simelane, aims to lead by example. When asked how she will ensure the youth play sport, she said: “I will go to talk to this very good guy responsible for sports in Amsterdam. With him, I will make sure that we have sports tournaments, so that the youth can be removed from the streets.”

Amsterdam is often plagued by violence. But on Sunday afternoon, the day after the beauty pageant, the youth gathered for a game of football.

Not far from the dusty football field, a group of teenage girls were playing netball, a sport that often gets little attention. “I won’t count netball because we don’t have a league as yet,” said Simphiwe Nkosi, 45, a sports coordinator in Ward 5 in Amsterdam. “We have a lot of challenges. We live in rural areas. The people who are supposed to sponsor us do not associate themselves with netball.”

For now, there are a number of tournaments playing the beautiful game. There are 15 teams participating in the Amsterdam football tournament, 10 of which are Under-19 and six Under-15. For the street footballers, the tournament means more than 300 of them are safe from the predators destroying the youth of Amsterdam.

30 June 2019: Mahlabathini, wearing maroon skirts and yellow tops, beat the Peace Makers, who were in green skirts with aprons, 21-12, during a match in Amsterdam, Mpumalanga.

Football on and off the field

Two of the street footballers are Sihle Nhlengethwa and Sbusiso Khumalo, both 12, who play for Young Birds. They are pupils at Ethole Primary School in Kwa-Thandeka. On the field, they are allies, invested in ensuring a win for their team. But off the field, they are rivals. 

Sihle is a die-hard fan of Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo while Sbusiso supports Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi. These two young footballers also differ when it comes to the local game. Sbusiso loves Orlando Pirates, and his favourite players are Vincent Pule and the 2018-2019 season best footballer in the country Thembinkosi Lorch. Sihle cheers for Mamelodi Sundowns and is inspired by former Sundowner Percy Tau, who is on loan at Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium from his parent club Brighton Hove & Albion.

Asked why they play football, Sbusiso answered: “We want to become superstar footballers. We will be playing on TV one day.” He smiles, but is swiftly brought back to the town’s reality. “We don’t want to spend our time roaming in taverns drinking and smoking like a lot of young people around. Coach said we must love ourselves and never dare to do bad things in our community.”

Perhaps, for the youth of Amsterdam, the future is starting to look bright.

30 June 2019: Football is a favourite activity for the youth in KwaThandeka township.
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