June is youth month, and across the country events have been taking place to celebrate, commemorate and honour the important youth activism of 1976. The youth debate, hosted by the Goodwood Correctional Centre on 19 June, was one of these. During the event, learners from Hecter Petersen High School in Kraaifontein debated questions around youth, employment, poverty and education with inmates from the Centre, who are currently studying towards their matrics.
Having been welcomed enthusiastically by Welcome, an inmate for 14 years, who is actively involved in One Man Can and who is looking forward to his release next month, the Sonke staff and interns participating in the event, took their places at the judges table, and in the audience.
Once everyone had arrived (and been processed through security – no mean feat) the event got underway with a touching rendition of the Greatest Love of All by the Goodwood Jazz Band. The choice of song resonated strongly with the audience and the Key Note Speaker, Aadielah Maker, Senior Programmes Specialist from Sonke. “I was born on June 16,” said Maker, “and when I was 16, this song kept me going in prison.” Maker spoke about her political activism as a young person and the choices she had made (which included not writing exams) in order to participate in political events. She urged the young people in the room to reflect on their own choices and carefully consider the choices they make going forward.
Her thoughts were echoed by many of the other speakers during the event and in the content of the debate itself. The young debaters from Hecter Petersen passionately put forward their positions, speaking eloquently about the challenges youth face in the current economic environment and the importance of having a clear personal vision. “I will be a Chartered Accountant,” noted one learner, as she explained how despite the ongoing poverty in the country, young people who work hard and make sound choices are able to succeed.
The focus on personal choices wasn’t lost on the inmates who acknowledged that their own choices had landed them in prison. They expressed great concern about the limited choices that may be available to them when they are released as they now have criminal records. Despite a general concern about this, some inmates held a more positive view, calling on their peers to volunteer and do other community work when they are released.
Despite four very close rounds, (and was there some bias from one of the judges? Sk did graduate from Hector Petersen after all!) the age difference between the learners and their counterparts from the Correctional Centre was evident, and ultimately, the judges awarded the most points to the host team.
Sonke staff have been working in Goodwood and other correctional facilities for many years and have become regarded as key support partners by the correctional services officials, particularly the HIV and AIDS co-ordinators with whom we have worked most closely.
In the last year, the focus of the work has extended to include a greater emphasis on preventing sexual violence in prisons and now includes training with correctional services officials as well as peer educators from the prison population. Furthermore, the absorption into the Sonke team of the Footballers for Life programme has seen the addition of three wonderful trainers to our prisons work. Collen Tlembe, Eddy Motale and Silver Tshabalala are all South Africa soccer heroes who have now dedicated their lives to increasing awareness about HIV and training people on prevention and treatment. Based in Johannesburg, they join the Cape Town based team (SK, Simphiwe and Mzamo) in providing necessary information and services to inmates.
In June, we received letters from two correctional services facilities thanking Sonke for the work being done to train peer educators and correctional services officials. Inmate and ex-offender testimonials have reinforced the importance of doing this work and Sonke is extremely proud to have such a strong group of staff members working on this initiative.
Thank you to all the Sonke staff who continue to do such great work in a challenging context.