Cape Town - 131205 -Nonku Lekoma a first year student at UCT who gre up in Langa Picture Brenton Geach

David Harrison

Nonku Lekoma, a vivacious first-year UCT student, wants to enter the public service to change it.

Nonku is bright, articulate and insightful, and is inspired by a group of passionate friends who share her vision of a nation without poverty.

She grew up in Langa, which was established after the Great Flu epidemic of 1918-19. The epidemic had killed thousands of people in the nearby “location” of Ndabeni.

At that time, the colonial administrators of the Cape recognised that overcrowding bred disease. So they planned “garden villages” with trees, parks and well-spaced homes. But part of their solution was to separate blacks and whites and thus the “garden suburbs” of Pinelands and Langa were established.

Dr Nic Coetzer of the UCT School of Architecture notes that, even as these suburbs were built, their development paths began to diverge. Pinelands was intended for the families of blue-collar workers, while Langa was meant to house “native labour”, either in married quarters or in massive single-sex hostels.

Of concern to the administrators was the influx of unmarried “tribal natives”. Newcomers from the Eastern Cape were rounded up, dipped like sheep to kill any germs they were thought to be harbouring, and forced into the hostel barracks.

Worse still, they said, was their disconnectedness from family and loved ones.

Originally, the “family cottages” were meant to be similar to those in Pinelands. However, less money was allocated to Langa’s construction, so the size of its houses was reduced. To contain the population, the entire village was surrounded by a fence with just one point of entry and exit. The railway line, and later a cemetery, separated Langa from Pinelands. The dead kept the living apart.

In time, and as apartheid cemented these divides, the idea of a garden village was abandoned and Langa became a “township”. Little money was invested in its development, and municipal services deteriorated. Until 1960, Langa was the only formal township in the Western Cape and overcrowding intensified.

When influx control laws were eased in the 1980s, squatters built shacks on open land, without access to piped water or sanitation. Malnourished mothers gave birth to underweight babies, who were susceptible to measles, tuberculosis and pneumonia. Child mortality was high.

Depressed mothers, isolated from their own mothers living back home in the Eastern Cape – and constantly looking for work – found little joy in telling stories to their children and playing with them. Some found solace in alcoholic binges, particularly over weekend, leaving toddlers to fend for themselves.

Children started school, but dropped out when piece jobs or gang life were more rewarding. Young people hung out on street corners, with little to do.

When HIV arrived in Cape Town, it spread rapidly through Langa, leaving the elderly to bury their children and look after their grandchildren.

On the other side of the railway line, and without a fence to contain them, the people of Pinelands prospered. Preschools sprung up, full of books and toys. Parents took their children to the well-stocked community library. A 360-degree network of roads linked Pinelands to every part of the city. People forged connections for business, education and leisure. Opportunity was just a short drive away.

Nonku’s maternal grandparents arrived in Cape Town in the 1960s and moved to Langa when they were expelled from District Six.

Later, her parents lived together in one of the old brick houses on Bunga Avenue and the family of five survived on meagre wages.

But they were adamant that their children would succeed and brought home whatever books and jigsaw puzzles they could afford. They both worked long hours and Nonku and her sisters might have been at risk on the streets were it not for the close attention of their grandmother, who lived nearby. She became their mentor and supporter.

Nonku’s uncle had left the country, but he too continued to inspire her to succeed.

Unlike many of her classmates, she thrived at school and her talent was recognised by a clan relative who had connections to Mickelfield Primary School in Rondebosch. The school admitted her on a scholarship and she subsequently attended Springfield Convent School in Wynberg.

Now at university, she relishes her studies of Politics and History.

Sometimes, history does not repeat itself.

Many of her friends who grew up in Langa became victims of circumstance.

But three factors protected Nonku – gritty parents who were determined that she would succeed, other caring adults in her life, and just one critical connection to opportunity outside the confines of the township.

Her story echoes the findings of international studies that show why some children are resilient to poverty.

It also resonates with that of other Langa residents who have broken into the world of possibility.

There are stark cracks in the infrastructure of Cape Town, and it will take a long time to unite a city shaped by centuries of divisive planning. The social divides go even deeper.

Overcoming them will require new bridges between people who don’t really “see” one another. Neuroscientists describe “mirror neurons” in our brains as the physical source of empathy, our ability to see ourselves in others. That is the most powerful connection of all.

About 75 000 babies will be born in the metropolitan of Cape Town next year – every child with great potential. Half will follow a life trajectory that leads to happiness and success. The other half will miss out, some stunted from lack of food, many without opportunity for early learning, and most dropping out of school – unless we change the course of history.

What can be done? Let us start by acknowledging the potential of every one of those 75 000 children to be born next year – and the next and the next.

Imagine if somebody were there to stand by each family, helping them to realise their potential through simple companionship and connection. The psychologist Ann Masten calls this the “ordinary magic” that can spirit children into a world of possibility.

This is the thinking behind a new initiative, Cape Town Embrace, which will work with churches, mosques, synagogues and other service organisations to create a city-wide network of connections – based on one-on-one relationships between “connectors” and caregivers – to protect and nurture our children.

Our hope is to create at least 5 000 connections next year, and double that in successive years.

However, this is not only about one-on-one interaction. It needs the whole city to get involved in creating opportunity for all its children.

One idea is an Embrace Card for participants that would give a free pass to the aquarium, science museum and other city attractions once a year, and special discounts at book and toy stores.

All it needs is for each one of us to connect to one child with great potential.

l Harrison is the CEO of the DG Murray Trust, which provides core funding for Cape Town Embrace. To get involved, visit