Empowering Voices: Masiphumelele’s Youth Rewrite the Narrative Through Art and Stories


By Unam Ntsababa

A collective of young authors has embarked on a mission to transform the narrative surrounding Masiphumelele, a township in Cape Town. Their goal is to highlight the community’s resilience and diverse cultural tapestry, in contrast to the prevailing portrayal that has predominantly focused on poverty and challenges. This endeavour is at the heart of the Masiphumelele: Through The Struggles We Rise initiative, which took shape in 2022 through a unique collaboration involving nine high school students from grades 10 and 11 in Masiphumelele, students from the Stellenbosch Academy of Photography and Design, and Ikamva Youth, a high school tutoring programme.

An aerial shot taken for Masiphumelele: Through The Struggles We Rise project in which learners write positive stories about the community. Photo: Wesley Wrigley the_masi_story Instagram account

The visionary behind this transformative initiative is Zintle Magazi, a native of Masiphumelele, who envisioned a shift away from the stereotypical depiction of the township. Instead, she sought to capture the beauty and resilience of the community. Magazi’s vision gained momentum in 2021, and the majority of the project was realised between January and October 2022.

At its core, the project consists of a captivating fusion of photography by Stellenbosch students and written narratives crafted by nine talented female high school students. These young writers not only share their own experiences but also provide vivid portrayals of the everyday lives of Masiphumelele’s residents.

Garyth Bevan, a photography lecturer at the Stellenbosch Academy of Photography and Design, outlined the collaborative process. Each Stellenbosch Academy student was paired with a Masiphumelele student, embarking on an insightful exploration of the township. The local students acted as guides, directing their counterparts on what to capture, based on various themes. The resulting photographs eloquently showcased local businesses, community mentors, shop owners, a dedicated football coach, talented artists, and enthusiastic skateboarders.

During the project’s grand launch, the young writers captivated the audience by reading their essays and short stories in both isiXhosa and English. Lilitha Mejeni, a grade 11 student at Masiphumelele High School, shared her motivation, stating, “We initially believed that because we come from the township, are black, and are young, we couldn’t undertake this project. But our motivation stems from the desire to inspire others, to show them that there’s a young black girl who looks like them and has achieved this, so they can do it too.”

One of Mejeni’s stories offered the perspective of a young man in Masiphumelele who had to assume the role of breadwinner for his family. In her words, “Even though we face poverty, we never go to bed hungry. I was born into poverty, but my mindset was not impoverished. I am down-to-earth and always inspired by successful individuals from our community, like Siya Kolisi, the rugby superstar. I admire him and often read about his upbringing. It’s almost like mine.”

Lindokuhle Manana, a grade 11 student at Simon’s Town School, added, “I want people to understand that Masi is a remarkable place. Many individuals have achieved success despite their challenging backgrounds. Despite the presence of criminals, we are a resilient and positive community, and we seek support from others.”

Looking forward, Zintle Magazi and her team aspire to immortalise the students’ stories in a book. To fund the printing costs, they have launched a BackABuddy page with the aim of producing approximately 40 books for distribution within the community. This venture aims to amplify the message of resilience and triumph that defines Masiphumelele.

The Masiphumelele: Through The Struggles We Rise project stands as a powerful testament to the determination of these young writers and photographers to rewrite the narrative of Masiphumelele. Their stories and images offer a fresh perspective on a community that has often been misrepresented by mainstream media, emphasizing its vitality, determination, and boundless potential.

Chumisa Fihla, sculptor and painter born and raised in Masiphumelele, at his art studio in his family home. His sculptures are built from scrap metals and shaped to embody the bodies and tools used by everyday construction workers. Photo: Robyn Gartsman/ the_masi_story Instagram account.

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