SHAWCO and Khayelitsha

The university experience cannot be completed without getting involved with clubs and societies.  Like UC Berkeley, UCT has hundreds of clubs and societies to choose from, which means you can probably find something that you’re interested in.

One of the most important societies here is a nonprofit organization called SHAWCO, or the Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation.  Its motto is:

“To improve the quality of life of individuals in developing communities within the Cape metropolitan area.”

In other words, it provides education and health services to people living in the townships of Cape Town.

A few days ago, SHAWCO representatives came to speak to us about what they do and how to get involved.  Additionally, they took us on big buses to some of the townships in which they do work.  I went to Khayelitsha, an “informal settlement” considered to be one of the largest townships in South Africa with nearly 400,000 residents, they said.

[Other people went to Manenberg, a township with a predominantly coloured population and active gang activity, or they went to Kensington Center (not a township), SHAWCO’s first headquarters.]

When I was looking out the window to Khayelitsha, I was definitely humbled.  I had only heard and read about townships.  I’ve seen them in pictures and a movie.  I never really expected to ever see one in my life (of course, when I came to South Africa, that thought changed).

But, I kept thinking, “Wow, people live here.”  And they were forced to live here.  In these conditions, they were probably worse in the 1940s.  How are they able to get through the rain and cold of the winter?

I couldn’t really see much on the bus, but there were dirt roads.  Tin roofs.  Few homes had doors.  Trash littered all over the street.  Clothes hanging on lines, maybe even electric fences (there is a lot of barbed wire here).  Homes so close together that it is probably hard to have any kind of privacy.  People walking about on the streets.  The township is built upon a wetland.   By paying attention to infrastructure, it is very easy to tell where a township begins.  It was so much to take in, and I didn’t really know how I felt.

When I got off the bus and gathered in a group with all the other students, one of the OLs asked me, “Are you okay?”  I guess my face showed a lot of all the emotions that were going through me.

When I entered in the SHAWCO center, at first I didn’t see a lot.  It was an empty space, concrete floor.  We were shown this big vast land, which was given to them (maybe?) by the city.  It was a field, where they have plans to clean up and plant a garden.  Though, nothing was happening to it now because they were awaiting instructions from the city.  (Wonder how long that will take.) Moreover, we were shown a computer lab, with brand new Dell computers, only a month old.  However, we were also told that not long after the computers were installed, the center was broken into.  Then, we were shown their library which has an impressive collection of books.


We then were able to ask questions and I learned a lot:

  • In general, volunteers participate in SHAWCO’s education programs.
  • The kids range from primary school to high school.  There are many programs that cater to each age.
  • The kids that a part of SHAWCO are kids that want to be there.  They sign a contract with their parents to be a part of SHAWCO.
  • Therefore, they are not the most disadvantaged kids.  They understand that SHAWCO is a good resource for them to learn or do their homework or interact with other people, so they join.
  • Schools that SHAWCO works with have to be within walking distance from a SHAWCO center.  This is a safety issue.
  • Students can be recruited through recommendation from their teachers or school administrators.
  • The statistics for high school graduation in the townships are extremely low.  Drop out rates are more than 50%.
  • Very few kids in the township get accepted to college, but SHAWCO does have a service that helps high school students who want to apply and attend college, apply to college.  In fact, getting a higher education is encouraged.
  • For Khayelitsha, the first language that kids are taught in their homes is Xhosa.
  • There are approximately 2000 of kids in SHAWCO in different townships across the city.
  • SHAWCO relies on approximately 2000 volunteers (local and international) every year.
  • Funds for activities, supplies, and other costs are usually funded by fundraising and donations.
  • Volunteers are generally asked to come once a week for three hours, which includes travel time.  Volunteers will typically travel to only one township and see the same kids every week.

I really do believe that SHAWCO is doing some amazing work.  A lot of students at UCT are involved in SHAWCO.  But, as a GPP student, it’s hard for me not to be critical of the work they are doing.

It is definitely a band-aid to the larger structural issues that the education system in the townships is poor, and these communities need external help.

However, it is definitely hard for SHAWCO to reach out to kids that are the most disadvantaged.  Maybe because their school is too far from a SHAWCO center.  Maybe they do not see the benefits of an education so they do not bother to participate.  Maybe because they do not know about it.  I see this kind of problem in a lot of poverty interventions.  Generally, interventions cannot reach the poorest of the poor.

Additionally, volunteers come in and out every semester.  As former head coordinator of a one-on-one mentoring organization, I know how important it is for kids, especially young kids, to have a figure in their lives on which they can rely.  Yet, volunteers are only asked to come once a week, but if UCT students have exams or assignments, they may not come at all.  And three hours a week, which is a big chunk in the day, is a lot for a UCT student but not a lot to the township children.  There’s instability and inconsistency.  Finally, there is a language barrier, especially for younger children.  Most of the kids in the township speak and understand Xhosa.  SHAWCO teaches their volunteers a few essential phrases, but communication will always be difficult.  This makes it for volunteers to teach or be an emotional support.

Overall, working with SHAWCO could definitely take a toll on a volunteer physically (lots of energy to keep up with kids) and emotionally (it is poverty after all), but volunteers get to leave.  They can leave at the end of the semester, or even, choose to not go.  But, it is then the township children that are left behind.

What I do like about SHAWCO is that this is a hands-on experience.  I hear that volunteers learn a lot through their experiences.  It is important to understand both the good and bad of a country.  I truly believe that with the help of SHAWCO, the townships are on their steady rise.

Buy, will I be doing SHAWCO this semester?  I’ve really thought about it a lot these days.  I would like to because I do feel like I need to do something directly on poverty.  I want to experience the townships and learn what it’s like to be living in a township (apparently, the township students share a lot of stories).  However, I am leaning more towards not doing it because I don’t think I have the time.  I feel like doing SHAWCO may be something that is hard to commit to every week, and I don’t think a semester is enough time, especially if I would be going once a week (coming from the person who did her PE in Vietnam for a little over two months).

I’m really glad for the experience I had on Wednesday.  Even though I was a little bit nervous about going into a township, I realize that doing that is part of the reason why I’m here.  I need to understand poverty if I’m going to do anything about it.

Over and out.


PS. I went into Gugulethu today, a township where Loyiso Gola is from.  Gugulethu is much nicer that Khayelitsha, and I don’t think SHAWCO works in Gugulethu.  Going to Gugulethu really solidified my want to know more about the townships.

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