The Gauteng Department of Education hosted a physical activity day at Zoo Lake in celebration of Mandela Day.
Cape Town - Like many other South Africans and people from around the world, I got caught up in the celebrations of Nelson Mandela’s centenary last week.

There were more than enough events to attend, all dedicated to preserving the memory and legacy of South Africa’s greatest statesman.

This situation will probably continue for a while as many people and organisations want to honour Madiba in their own way.

The City of Cape Town, for instance, unveiled a statue of Madiba at the City Hall this week, to mark the spot where he made his first speech after his release from Victor Verster Prison.

My highlights of last week were not restricted to attending the Nelson Mandela lecture delivered by former US president Barack Obama - even though it was special.

Instead, my best event last week had nothing to do with Madiba. On the other hand, it probably had everything to do with Madiba.

It was a show at Artscape last Friday night, organised by a relatively new body called the Fostering Foundation.

The organisation was founded by the legendary singer Sophia Foster and she has roped in actor Jody Abrahams, musician Celeste Williams and a whole lot of others who are working behind the scenes.

Their simple mission is “the transfer of skills to and development of the talented youth of the Western Cape”.

They have been quietly working with young people from disadvantaged communities without anyone really noticing.

The show took the form of the old-fashioned variety shows popular on the Cape Flats in my growing up years. The young people who have been exposed to the foundation sang and danced their way through two 45-minute sets tightly directed by Foster and Abrahams, with musical direction by Williams.

Foster played a supportive role, singing just one song on her own and another with some of the young singers, allowing her prodigies to shine. And shine they did, resulting in a standing ovation at the end of the show.

The youngest performer was 13-year-old Hiram Hartsog of Paarl, who started singing in the church choir when he was 5 years old. Others include 18-year-old Mpho Ngexe from Khayelitsha who has been singing from the age of 7, 14-year-old Angel Bowman from Table View, who wants to become a singer and international model, Yamkela Kasana, 19, from Langa, who is studying at CPUT, but wants to become a professional singer, and 20-year-old Mogamat George from Bo-Kaap, who grew up in a family of musicians.

In many ways, their stories reflect the difficulties that young people on the Cape Flats face on a daily basis, even though we are supposed to be celebrating 24 years of freedom.

Foster, in a video played at the event, talked about some of the performers not being able to attend rehearsals because of shootings in their neighbourhoods, resulting in people being trapped in their houses.

Young dancer Janica Mulder, 15, from Steenberg, recounted the sad story of having to identify the body of her best friend who had been brutalised and murdered.

But, Foster said, when the music started, it was almost like the young people would forget all their problems and immerse themselves in another world.

It is through work like this that Mandela’s legacy will live on. The organisers did not deliberately link their event to Madiba, but they did not have to. Their work spoke for itself.

We have a tendency in South Africa to think very simplistically about the country’s needs. We tend to think that, for us to succeed as a nation, we need to do only the so-called important things, such as creating jobs and providing proper housing for all.

But while it is important to sort out the bigger problems in society, we cannot underestimate the power of issues that are considered “soft”, such as sports and arts and culture.

In poor communities, music and sport provide an alternative to the general misery of life. But they can also provide a way out of poverty for people who are talented.

I was one of the young people who benefited from music.

As a teenager in Hanover Park, one of the main reasons why I never ended up in a gang was because I played guitar and I would often sit on the street corner with the local gangsters, strumming my guitar while they sang along.

They never put pressure on me to join the gang, realising that I had some talent (even though it was limited, in my opinion).

We need more projects in schools, and poor communities especially, that use sport and music to nurture talent and provide hope to young people.

We have seen the unifying power of both. No one will be able to forget the sight of Madiba wearing Francois Pienaar’s No 6 Springbok rugby jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Madiba also used music very effectively to convey his message. Here, one can think of the huge 46664 concerts featuring many famous performers.

There are many others who, like the Fostering Foundation, are quietly making a difference in communities. They are the real heroes who are keeping Madiba’s legacy alive.

* Fisher is an independent media professional. Follow him on Twitter @rylandfisher.

Weekend Argus