A Brief History

Apartheid was merely the logical outcome of centuries of harsh colonialism installed by the Dutch, formalised by the British and ratcheted up by various harsh Union governments. What the National Party did in 1948 was to provide it with a legislative framework and back its implementation with draconian force.

Rural Africans were dispossessed of their land and herded into 17% of the land, and in the towns and cities people were divided into races by colour. Whites retained and consolidating their hold on prime areas, and people of 'colour' were wrenched out of the cities and resettled in peripheral 'townships' on, generally, bad land far from amenities.

Communities were destroyed, extended families were broken up in the resettlement process and in the ghettoes children found freedom only in the streets. It was fertile soil for the establishment of gangs. As poverty increased so these gangs spread and became more violent, turning poorer parts of cities into no-go areas at night. The pervading gun culture of the country, fuelled by racial divisions, ensured the widespread illegal ownership of handguns by adolescents.

Given the massive disparity in incomes, widespread urban dislocation, high birthrate and the dissolution of restraining community structures, there was no way in which the advent of a democratic government in 1994 could rectify these problems. If anything they worsened as thousands of rural people, freed of laws which bound them to 'homelands', flooded to urban areas, ringing larger centres in massive squatter camps.

Under apartheid, the legal structure which developed to cope with juvenile deviance was punitive and made no distinction between youths and adults in procedures of arrest, incarceration and sentencing.

Shortly before the country's first democratic elections in 1994 members of the African National Congress's legal fraternity established a think tank on juvenile justice. Specialists from many sectors responded and these, after the elections, became the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Young People at Risk. Its task was to consult widely and draw up a White Paper on Youth Justice. This eventually became the Child Justice Bill which awaits passage through parliament. Its key tenets are diversion out of the justice system, community courts and community and victim involvement in legal decisions. When passed it will be among the most enlightened youth justice legislation in the world.

One of the White Paper's principal drafters, criminologist Don Pinnock, concerned at the lack of diversion options once the Bill became law, undertook extensive research into traditional approached to adolescent containment and wrote a programme, published as Gangs, Rituals and Rites of Passage. The study stressed the importance of ancient rites and rituals in youth development and the value of wilderness as a site of powerful transformatory experience for inner-city adolescents.

These ideas within gave rise to a conference attended by representatives from many state departments, NGO's and South Africa's most respected Zulu shaman, Credo Mutwa. At this conference Usiko was formed - named by Mutwa (the name means a number of things, including 'first ritual') - and tasked with the community-based development of the rites of passage technology.

The aim of Usiko was, therefore, to create programmes for young people at risk that were restorative, in line with the pending legislation, and combined rituals, both ancient and modern, with the challenging and healing environment of the earth's great wilderness areas. It aimed, in short, to unlock the potential of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Andrew Muir of the Wilderness Leadership School and Pinnock raised funds from the Open Society Foundation to undertake further research into programme development and to begin operations. They were joined by Marion Goodman of Educo and Philip van Zyl who was retained to operationalise the process. These four are the founding members.

After just over a year of wide consultation and research, a programme structure was developed. Following meetings in several townships, where Usiko's programme was outlined, two communities - Bonteheuwel in Cape Town and Jamestown in Stellenbosch - indicated an interest. The first intake of adolescents took place in 2000 and Usiko soon established itself as a valued site of community healing. The two initial programmes demonstrated, spectacularly, that the combination of metorship, wilderness experience and ritual can heal and overcome the negative influences of poverty, low self-esteem, poor education and gang violence. It soon became clear that our youth are at risk because their communities are at risk. As part of that society, Usiko now strives to turn that risk to challenge, challenge to personal growth and growth into a healthy society.

During funding cycle 1, the Bonteheuwel Project constituted itself as an independent non-profit organisation called Hearts of Men which was sub-contracted to apply the Usiko programme in the designated geographical area and funded from the Cordaid and Community Police Forum funds. In funding cycle 2, Hearts of Men will be totally independent of Usiko and it will take the funders with it.

Jamestown, however, continued as a project of Usiko, funded exclusively by Comic Relief during funding cycle 1. During funding cycle 2, Jamestown will constitute itself as an independent non-profit organisation to ensure community ownership, involvement and control. However, funds will continue to be administered by Usiko Trust.

Over the past three years Jamestown Usiko has developed highly successful programmes (as indicated below) in Jamestown, Cloetesville and Lyndoche.

Jamestown is a community about 60 kilometers east of Cape Town and the district is renowned for its winelands and scenic beauty - it's arguably one of the wealthiest agricultural regions in South Africa. The legacy of apartheid, however, lives on in the socio-economic disparity between rich and poor, typically following racial lines as many of the disadvantaged communities continue to be impoverished, marginalised, and disaffected.

While this oppressive system is long abolished, the antecedents of this system continue to manifest in the form of high alcoholism and unemployment, low income, low educational levels, domestic violence, child abuse. Many residents in these communities are farm workers whose families have, for many generations, been trapped in cycles of poverty and oppression.

Usiko Jamestown's programmes are rooted in three community structures and have seeded three others based on Usiko principles, including a girls' programme and rites of passage programmes in Cloetesville and Lyndoche. It's work, and the respect it has gained from the communities, has led to broader community development initiatives consonant with the needs expressed in these disadvantaged communities.

These initiatives include sustainable community development, rites of passage process, wilderness therapy, work on youth-at-risk behaviour and the gang phenomenon, poverty alleviation, teenage sexuality and pregnancy, diversion programming, life skills development, HIV/Aids awareness, mentoring, small farming development, girl-to-woman and boy-to-man development, and developmental issues specific to women and men.

As part of programme development, a continuous process of evaluation has been developed, as well as a process of independent evaluation. The first independent evaluation was undertaken by Sheila Dutton in 2002. This recommended more transparent and democratic administration in Jamestown and clearer division of function between the Trust and its projects. These recommendations have been positively acted upon.

A second evaluation by Eugene Oppelt in 2003 noted, among other points, that the sustainability of the programme had improved through community members taking ownership; roles had been clarified; there was clear accountability; personal development of mentors and youths and increasing positive public perception of the programme. It urged increasing intake of court-referred youths and of girls.

In conclusion it commented: "I experienced a deep personal sense of the magnitude of the impact the Jamestown project is having in the community of Jamestown and surrounding areas…The Usiko Youth Project is a remarkably innovative lifeline to an impoverished community where local resources, that are essential for upliftment, development and empowerment, are scant.. t is an irreplaceable asset to the Jamestown community."

Usiko is also taking part in state-funded research by the Human Sciences Research Council into the accreditation of diversion programmes following parliamentary approval of the Child Justice Bill.

Because of parliamentary delay in passing this Bill, however, it has become necessary to begin a lobbying process to ensure both that the Bill is passed and not watered down by parliament, and that the principles of Usiko become central to the accreditation process for future diversion programmes. The Trust has established a close relationship with several parliamentarians who have undertaken to lobby on Usiko's behalf, and is also doing public talks plus radio and television interviews.

Usiko is therefore working at an international, national, local and micro-community level in its efforts to ensure that young people at risk - so overlooked and impoverished in the past - are give the best possible chance to became active members of healthy, prosperous communities. We aim to challenge both prejudice and unjust laws that lock young people into self-perpetuating cycles of poverty and crime. We believe that the principles and practices of Usiko will be central to South Africa's youth justice system of the future. They work and we have proved it.