South Africa: “Let us listen”

Lucy Hillier - Better Care Network

Lucy Hillier of Care To Practice spoke to Carly Tanur in South Africa to find out what she has learned about supporting young care leavers. Carly tells how she believes that supporting young people to live in an “interdependent” manner is an important approach when supporting transitions out of care.

Carly Tanur is the Founding Director of Cape Town-based organisation Mamelani. The name Mamelani comes from the isiXhosa word, masimamelane which means “let us listen”.

Read Carly’s interview:

LH: Carly, can you tell how you became interested in supporting care leavers and came to found Mamelani?

CT: I grew up in Johannesburg, and as a teenager I volunteered at a centre that worked with children who lived on the streets. When I moved to Cape Town after school, I volunteered as part of an art programme for young people in Khayelitsha (Cape Town) who were living in a children’s home - what we now call a Child and Youth Care Centre. This centre housed children who had been living on the street. I noticed that as soon as these children turned 18 and had to leave the centre, they went from having a strong support network to having practically no support at all. Many of them had turned their lives around, but when the time came to move on, they couldn’t cope and sadly most of them ended up going back to a life on the street.

This harsh reality was the impetus I needed for me to decide to focus on advocating for and supporting care leavers. On an impulse, I dropped out of art school and I founded Mamelani in 2003. At that time I had hardly any practical skills to run a youth-focused organisation! But, as time went on, we made sure that our team was skilled-up to do this work.

LH: What is the main focus of Mamelani’s work?

CT: Mamelani is a community development organisation with a special focus on community health and youth development. Our youth development programme, called ProSEED, supports young people in making the transition from residential state care when they turn 18.

Our work does not end with the young people, we also work with the staff from the child and youth care centres to strengthen their capacity to become “transitions friendly”. We have also been working with policy makers and the Department of Social Development to advocate for change to legislation in South Africa to ensure that adequate support is provided for youth in transition from care.

LH: Can you tell us in more detail about some of the challenges for young people leaving care?

CT: Young people face numerous challenges when they leave care. Many of them have not completed school, do not have a safe place to live and do not have access to the resources to meet their basic needs.

One major challenge for children leaving care is that they have been completely “looked after” whilst in the centres. As they have been identified as children in need of care and protection, ensuring that their needs are met is a core part of care organisations’ responsibility. However, as children become young adults, they also need to learn how to take care of themselves. This where it becomes challenging, as sometimes the institutions meet their every need to the point that the young people have little experience as to how to navigate life outside of the institution. For instance, we found that some of the young people were not used to getting around on their own using public transport, which is a daily reality for most people here.

Also, in the early days of our programme, we thought that all that was needed was to provide young people with financial support to cover all their various costs once they moved out of their residential home. Although I would argue that there are some basic services that young people do need access to, we realised that we were actually undermining the young people’s development by providing for all of their needs. My experience at first was that even with preparation and resources, many young people just couldn’t cope with the challenges that they were faced with once they left the children’s home. It was this experience that led us to explore what kinds of supports were most useful to young people once they had moved on from the care system.

LH: Can you explain more how you have tried to address these challenges within your programmes?

CT: We came to see how important it was for young people to have a sense of agency and to build their capacity to provide for themselves and that it was possible to financially “over resource” young care leavers and create a belief that they can’t do anything for themselves. Also, apart from preparing young people practically and emotionally, they need to continue to have access to a support network  - one which goes beyond just financial needs - once they have left residential care.

As an organisation we’ve been asking how we can best support young people without creating another layer of dependency once they leave care. However, we do still grapple with the issue of how to find this balance. Like many parents, we want these young people to have diverse experiences and to learn to make their own decisions, but we also want to make sure that they are safe and have what they need to succeed. Also, our responsibility as formal carers for these children and young people often conflicts with the need for them as young adults to explore, to take risks and to learn from their own experiences. We now work towards ensuring that young people have access to developmental opportunities that allow them the space to learn to do things for themselves and to navigate different spaces as young adults.

Through our work we have come to better understand young people’s needs as they disengage from the care system. We have come to see that the intervention needs to have a stronger focus on transitions – by this I mean that we need to see leaving care as more of a series of transitions rather than one single transition at the age of 18. We use each transition as a learning opportunity, where the young person can reflect on who they are and what skills they have developed to move through each transition.

Given the way that centres are mostly set up, it is not always easy to give young people the freedom to develop these skills. We’ve also been working with staff to explore what might need to shift for their centres to become more transition-friendly. One of the primary challenges we have seen for people working with these children and young people is the difficulty in letting go and allowing them to make their own mistakes. Carers need to be supported to learn how to work within the responsibilities of their role as carers, and at the same time to trust the young person to take certain risks and make their own decisions, and where and how to provide support and encouragement along the way.

At the heart of this work is also the relational practice. Support needs to be available long after a person has left care, and this often means that organisations have to invest in long-term relationships. We believe it is important that Mamelani’s doors are always open and that relationships continue even after young people are formally no longer in the programme.

LH: How would you say Mamelani’s programming differs from commonly used models for care leavers?

Much research has been done in the UK and the USA on care leavers. In the UK this has resulted in models which are quite reliant on both material and human resources, and have a strong focus on getting the young person to be able to live independently. Whilst this research does have some applications within the South African context, the reality is that there are simply not enough professionals here to meet demand – as it is not only care leavers who struggle to find jobs, accommodation, health care and adequate incomes in South Africa.

Importantly, in South Africa it’s quite rare to find a young person living on their own within their community. What is more common is for young people to live “interdependently”, so we work towards building skills for interdependence, as opposed to purely independent living. Apart from basic skills that young people need to have, like how to plan, budget and cook, they also need to learn to navigate for resources, build relationships and communicate with a range of people to get what they need.

To add to this, many centres are increasingly caring for young asylum seekers. Many feel disconnected from their families and communities - they may have lived on the street or grown up away from their families - and therefore struggle with relationships and a sense of belonging. A lack of personal safety, security and stable livelihoods are also challenges for in many of the areas where these young people live.

So I would say that in South Africa, care leavers are not one big homegenous group. They have different educational needs, different levels of access to resources and information, as well as different backgrounds and cultures. Mamelani’s programming is informed by this understanding.

LH: Can you explain these understandings of “interdependency” and “culture” in more detail, and how these shape the support Mamelani provides?

CT: Yes, being interdependent means having a sense of connectedness to other people in your family and community and living within a strong social network of people who can support in a range different ways. When we work with young people we get them to brainstorm with us who they feel they are socially connected to and how this connection can support them on their development journey. The facilitator will then work with that young person to help strengthen these connections. For this reason, we focus on nurturing relationships, extending and building networks of support and strengthening the young person’s sense of who they are.

We also work with a notion of identity that is more in line with the South African notion of “ubuntu” which locates people’s sense of who they are in relation to other people in their lives. Ubuntu is often translated as “a person is a person through other people” or “I am because you are”.

Our experience has shown us that working from a socio-cultural perspective is essential in South Africa and we recognise that cultural practices can impact on young people’s transitions. For example, young isiXhosa men are expected to go to the bush to make the transition from childhood to adulthood. For young men who are not in close contact with their families, making arrangements for this traditional rites of passage is almost impossible, and without having gone through this ritual young people struggle to step into their adult roles. Additionally, many young people have to leave education so they can work and contribute to their family household.

The importance of working from a cultural perspective also applies to the care workers. We collectively explore our cultural identities and the history of South Africa, and how this impacts on our individual identities and on the way we work with young people. We have seen the value of creating spaces where people can recount and reflect on their own stories, and where we consider how our own and others’ culture, history and stories can be a resource from which we can draw strength. Activities include taking historical walks around the city and storytelling circles, where people share things of value from their culture.

LH: How do monitor your programmes to know your approaches are working?

CT: We have monitored the progress of the young people we have been working with for a number of years. In 2004, when we started this work, more than half of the careleavers we worked with returned to the street after they have aged out of care. By 2010 less than 10% of the young people who came through our programme returned to the streets once they left the residential homes, and in the last two years not one young care leaver who has come through our programme has gone back to the streets.

For our new programme, out of the 20 young people who are participating, we are proud to say that 90% of them are positively engaged – either in school, studying further or working. The strengths-based assessments that we use show a growth in resilience in all the young people that we have worked with.

Our successes have led to a partnership with the Department of Social Development whereby we have been working with other Child and Youth Care Centre staff in our province to share our approach.

LH: One final question, what ideas would you like to build on for the future?

CT: We as a team at Mamelani, along with the young people and practitioners that we are working with are collectively building a vision for care leaving support in South Africa. Moving forward, we hope to make a meaningful contribution to the sector – one that is led by the voices of young people and their lived experiences of their transitions from care. We would like to build these practices collaboratively with others in a way that can build a movement for change, and a future where young people are at the centre of their own development and are beacons of light in the communities that they come from.

If you would like to learn more Carly recommends reading:

- Discussion Paper: the experiences and challenges facing youth transitioning out of state care in the Western Cape

- Transitional Guidelines for the Child and Youth Care sector

Carly Tanur