In 2001, President Nelson Mandela personally invited President Bill Clinton to South Africa to speak about the vital role young people and citizen service play in strengthening a society. The two believed that, despite the country’s significant social and economic challenges, South Africa had enough energy and optimism to build a national, youth-centered model for civic engagement.
Following that visit, City Year South Africa was launched as a Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Commitment to Action in 2005, and to date, more than 1,300 young idealists from various backgrounds have answered the call to public service. City Year corps members—youth between the ages of 18 and 24—work for a full year as tutors, mentors, and role models in schools in and around Johannesburg, increasing their own leadership skills as they provide resources and support to the next generation.
Twelve years after President Clinton’s 2001 visit to South Africa, he returned last summer with Chelsea Clinton to view the CGI commitment’s progress and take part in one of City Year South Africa’s ongoing service projects. Rolling up her sleeves with President Clinton and fellow volunteers that day was Mashudu Bhengu, a 20-year-old corps member from Johannesburg. In commemoration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, we are sharing Bhengu’s reflections on the obstacles facing South African youth, her journey at City Year, and how King and Mandela inspire her to make community service a lifelong commitment.
Addressing the Impact of Adversity
With City Year South Africa, I work five days a week at Lawley Primary School where we run the City Year Children’s Club. This after-school program supports learners in the classroom by helping them with their academics. Lawley is a wonderful school, but many of the learners face immense challenges due to their social and economic circumstances. A large number of these children live with grandparents because they are orphaned, and as a result they often have very little food and very poor clothing.
Also, many of the learners are the ones who take care of their younger siblings. This affects their performance in school because they are too busy with household chores to focus on their reading and writing skills. Lawley Primary School is in a community where there is a high rate of teenage pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse, and unemployment. As Service Leaders, it is our sincerest hope to bring change by providing these children with the most powerful tool to help them combat the reality of these challenges—an education. This is something that can never be taken away from them- the knowledge that they are the designers of their own destiny, and a good education is the best way to break free from the chains of poverty.
When Challenges Reap Rewards
My service is challenging at times, and there are days when I feel like the work I am doing is just not enough. Then I will receive a thank you letter from one of the learners and it makes it all worth it. It’s those unforgettable moments that make it possible for me to give my best with a smile on my face, for those young ones need my presence and motivation.
I believe I am attempting to plant seeds of greatness in the lives of the children I work with, and though I have only been serving for a few months, I can already see signs of success. I have a learner in my grade seven class, and this young lady is the most remarkable teenager I have ever met. The smile on her face each time I am facilitating a class calms me down when I feel frustrated or flustered. She reminds me that things might not always be easy, but I need to stay peaceful and calm to always give my class the best lesson every day.
I received a letter from her recently, which was one of my best moments thus far at City Year. "I feel at home whenever I am graced with your presence," the letter said. "The people from City Year are like my older brothers and sisters. Thank you for giving us an opportunity to learn and do well in our studies." I am humbled and inspired that my presence meant something to such a special young girl.
She has blossomed in the last few months, and although she was shy at first, she now participates more in class. I beamed with pride last week as I marked the spelling tests in the grade 7a class, and she was one of the learners who managed to achieve 100 percent on the test.
The Most Important Lessons Learned
The most important lesson I have learned so far by serving with City Year South Africa is that making a conscious decision to bring about change in the lives of others requires a courageous, idealistic, and optimistic spirit. At City Year we do not fear failure, instead we strive to reach our vision and goals against all odds. City Year gives us the platform to change our perspective and awaken hope in the communities we serve. For me, City Year has opened my mind to what is possible and changed my life. I want to go on to continue my own education and become a teacher, so I can continue to change the trajectory of children’s lives. Ghandi once said you "must be the change you wish to see in the world." With City Year South Africa, I have been the change, and I want to continue to be the change I seek in our great rainbow nation.
I have great admiration and respect for every young person who has dedicated a year of service to our country, and such gratitude for President Clinton and President Mandela for their vision in helping to establish City Year in South Africa, which has made it possible for young people like me to serve. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve." President Mandela knew this too: "What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead."
It is my sincerest hope that I will make a difference by igniting bright sparks of greatness in all these children’s lives, and unleash their potential as we build a stronger South Africa for us all.
Mashudu Bhengu, 20 years old, is a corps member for City Year South Africa
Read more on President Clinton and Chelsea Clinton's stop at the City Year South Africa commitment site.
Watch President Clinton give his reflections on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., which were featured in a Clinton Presidential Center special exhibit on the March on Washington.