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What the World Can Learn From the Youth of South Africa

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There are seven billion of us on our little planet. That's seven billion different ways of thinking and seven billion different means of self expression. It should not be surprising then when two people are saying the same thing, but in totally different words, tones or mannerisms. It should not be surprising, but this is often cause for conflict leading towards irreconcilable differences and eventually war.

The world is on the brink of catastrophic failure and the next generation must rise to the challenge of changing its course. If we don't act now, soon we won't be able to do anything about it. That was the level of 'doom' and urgency with which Sir Bob Geldof delivered his message to the recently concluded One Young World Leadership Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. He made it very clear that "because you may not believe that progress is possible should not prevent you from trying for it because the alternative is finality," as he called for youth to be unified in their approach to solving world issues. He called on us to be a little more human, indifferent to nationality. On the other hand, Nobel Peace Laureate and father of social business, Prof. Muhammed Yunus was a much more optimistic in his message as he spoke of the world in utopian terms; what we have achieved and what is left to be achieved, all with deep positivity. He spoke of a world where poverty was non-existent and hunger was unknown, stating that we need to write social fictions, stories about a better world, because if we can't imagine it, it will not happen. Despite the distinct contrast in delivery, their perspectives had a few things in common, world leaders need to take the younger generation more seriously, young people need to be more pro-active in challenging leadership and enacting change. Finally, the youth of today are the most equipped populous to fix the problems created by the baby boomer generation. Sir Bob called his generation's failures, disgraceful.

There is hardly a boring moment when 1300 'Under 30 Brilliant Minds' from 190 countries meet to discuss and formulate ideas towards positive global change. In such a purpose driven and patient environment it's amazing how language barriers become the catalyst for dialogue as opposed to its preventer. CNN describes the summit as 'The Young Davos', as it pairs young bright minds with great world leaders including Sir Richard Branson, Kofi Annan, Winnie Mandela and Arianna Huffington, champions of youth leadership. I was one of two proud representatives from Jamaica at the summit, the US and UK delegations were in the hundreds. We debated a vast range of topics -- including the role of big business in society, youth unemployment, HIV/Aids, Human trafficking, food security/sustainability and youth leadership.

I was especially impressed with just about every young South African I met. In a time where my generation seems focused solely on what is owed to them, South African youth leaders are captivated with the responsibility they hold to the generation to come after them. They are actively engaged with uplifting and motivating children, their sole mission seems to be to create a better world not for themselves, but for the generation which lead after them. The South Africans I met were all in some way involved in some form off social entrepreneurship effort, a non-profit organization, political activist group or an NGO. In fact this was a trait of most every African youth leader I met.

Prof. Muhammed and Sir Bob are actively engaged in poverty eradication, they are extremely passionate about it. Sir Bob described South Africa as an absolute miracle and I have to agree. There is hardly another country in the world as inspiring as South Africa, a true testament to the power of unity, positive action and perseverance. The South Africa I witnessed is certainly not the South Africa my father told me about when Nelson Mandela was being released from prison. It is interesting to note that if you meet a South African of color that was born before Nelson Mandela's rise to Presidency in 1994; it is likely that person was born into extreme poverty. Many of those individuals have made tremendous progress, emerging into the middle and upper class, amassing serious wealth and making South Africa a powerful force in global business. These young people and their families are living testimonies to the power of freedom and the tremendous journey this country's people have been on. There is still much left to be done in the wake of Mandela's great fight for freedom and the youth of South Africa are up for the challenge. The country is still home to a large population of poor people, as Sir Bob described -- "The worst of progress is not that it's an illusion, it's that it's endless." With this in mind, one can understand their energy, after all that Mandela has done, the fight is not over and they understand the need to continue fighting.

I was fortunate enough to participate in a break out session which took me beyond the gold paved streets of Sandton City, Johannesburg, where the summit was staged. According to locals, Sandton represents the wealthiest square mile in South Africa, it is a token to South Africa's continued progress. Upon registration I thought the breakout session 'Youth: Doing It Against All Odds' was a workshop empowering entrepreneurs to go after their dreams despite adversity. My colleagues who registered also had the same inclination. We also thought we were heading to Lion Park, a safari themed tourist destination -- I was very excited. So, imagine our surprise when we found ourselves 'lost' in one of South Africa's poorest districts, Kliptown in Soweto. Soweto was once home to both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Some areas have been uplifted with the placement of the Calabash Stadium and the transformation of Mandela's home into a tourism destination. Kliptown has not yet experienced this good fortune, it is a very poor area with dirt roads, no electricity, public stand pipes and shacks providing shelter for its people.

After numerous stops in search of our destination, our trip concluded on a paved drive way, looking out the window I saw numerous kids running around. This was definitely no Lion Park. We were greeted by young man with a huge inviting smile on his face who told us not to worry the kids 'don't bite', as we departed our bus confused and misplaced. We were on the grounds of the Kliptown Youth Program (KYP) and before we knew it the man was walking us around his community and sharing with us the circumstances of the area. He asked us not to give anyone money, we are not animals he said, "just treat us as normal, because we are". The gentleman's name is Thulani Madondo, he is the Founder and Executive Director of the Youth Program. Every day his team caters to over 400 kids, providing them with meals, friendship and mentorship. They hope overtime they will be able to change the course of their community with this after school program, which gives the kids the opportunity if only for a few hours to forget their surroundings and focus on their dreams.

Thulani grew up across the street from the complex he has built, some of his brothers and sisters still live there. He has managed to somewhat escape the perils of life in Kliptown, but he feels obligated to help others see beyond their circumstance and aspire for better, especially the children. He strongly believes that every child from his community has the capacity to become a doctor, lawyer, accountant or successful entrepreneur. The great thing is they all think the same for themselves, ambition in the face of adversity is something Thulani hopes to instill in all the kids from his community. The program seems to be working, all the children I met were very outgoing and positive about the future. They believe they can be anything. They are very excited to meet people from the 'outside' and Thulani emphasized the importance of visitors to Kliptown, ensuring the children understand there is a world beyond Kliptown and that people care about their well being. I was most impressed by a young girl I met, her name is Valentina, she wants to be a pilot. Her energy and enthusiasm were captivating, her enduring smile a symbol of hope. Not surprisingly, Thulani Madondo is a deserving CNN hero and he used the US $50,000 grant he received from the initiative to build a computer lab for the children with access to various software and internet connectivity.

I used the internet to crowd fund my trip to South Africa, raising US $6610 from friends and family around the world. As a perk to my donors I promised to buy and distribute toys to some kids in the country. I was so impressed with Thulani that I decided to return to Kliptown just after the summit to distribute the toys from my donors. This time I asked a few new friends to join, Will Dickson from the UK, Alba Tiley from Canada and Kamogelo Kekana from South Africa. Kamogelo is the new CEO of Cheesekids a well-known South African Non profit also involved with youth empowerment programs. We were also joined by a young lady who works for Accenture in Canada, Christine Yip, who was on a five week visit to South Africa to work with the KYP. The kids loved the gifts, they were very appreciative and the yard was bursting with energy the rest of the evening.

On this second trip Thulani invited us into his former home, directly across from the KYP Complex. Inside the humble scrap metal shack, he described what life was like growing up in Kliptown and the importance of family within the community. He told us of some of the deep seated challenges the children face. KYP provides an oasis for the kids, a window to escape for a few hours everyday, but afterwards they must go home to face a reality most reading this can't imagine. Thulani and his team are tasked with a mammoth undertaking. They can't change what the kids will witness at home, so everyday they have to fight to keep these kids encouraged and to remind them that better is possible as long as they don't give up. Thulani now resides just outside of Kliptown with his wife and makes the daily journey to and from Kliptown to be with the kids. No one can claim he has forgotten where he came from. It is important for the children to see his progress, he is the manifestation of what he is telling them they can achieve. Circumstance does not define who you are and Thulani's team continues to prove this, as he told us of a young lady from the community who was off doing internships at both Facebook and LinkedIn. Her story is sure to encourage the children to continue pursuing their dreams, she is actively showing them it can be done.

Africa is the greatest example of the downfalls of direct aid and Africans seem to be the greatest advocates of this mind set. Young South Africans are rising to the challenge to create sustainable programs and businesses independent of foreign aid. Like many other Africans they are confident that in order to change the story of their country, they have to be involved. As they continue to understand the resources of their nations they realize that they don't need to ask for hand outs, they are able to offer great opportunities. The continents greatest resource are its powerful people. The rest of the world can learn so much from these purpose driven and passionate individuals. For them success is defined by their ability not to create a better world for just themselves but for those who are to come after them. If we are all able to adapt this way of thinking the world will be that much better off.