"I just told myself I'm going to be something"

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MANENBERG, South Africa — Ivy Booysen sat cross-legged on the grass, staring straight ahead.

“To live in a house of about 20 people with no money —  only two people working in that house — a child like that will see no future for himself,” the reformed gangster said matter-of-factly.

“But if there is a person who will motivate him and tell him not to let his problems get in the way and look at the bright side, at the end of the tunnel there is a light,” she said. (To see Ivy tell her own story, including how she won a scholarship to study art at a local college, click on the video below.)

Within the picturesque city of Cape Town, South Africa, lies Manenberg, a gang-ridden township feared by locals and notorious for its violence, drugs and abject poverty. The township was created in the 1960s during the apartheid regime, when the government threw non-whites out of the city center and into barren, underdeveloped land.

“Manenberg started out as a dysfunctional environment, and it’s continued to be so for the past 50 years,” said Mario Wanza, head of Proudly Manenberg, a grassroots non-governmental organization originally founded as an apartheid resistance group.

One-by-one, Proudly Manenberg activists like Booysen have affected positive change in a township known as one of the bleakest in Cape Town. The organization has mobilized young leaders to turn the township around, starting with the youth and the education system.

In the past year, the concept has spread to neighboring townships, which have launched their own “Proudly” organizations.

“There’s a growing sense of togetherness amongst working class communities,” Wanza said. “In other parts of the country, there’s doom and gloom and civil unrest taking place. But we choose the opposite,” Wanza said, explaining that “Proudly” organizations advocate taking responsibility for community problems instead of blaming the government. So far, Proudly Manenberg has employed hundreds of residents to garden, clean, host youth programs and implement public safety measures.
 
 “There’s a lot of work to be done, but we’ve reached where there’s no turning back,” Wanza said. “There’s hope, joy and excitement, and that’s a new spirit that’s alive.”
 
Editor's note: This video, shot by the authors, features a former gang member reflecting on her turbulent past and her current attempts to turn her life and her community around.