Belhar, South Africa: How a non-profit organization is leading the way to sustainable solutions

In Belhar, South Africa, a non-profit organisation is providing immediate support to children and youth and exploring sustainable solutions to tackle COVID-19 and future uncertainties. Beauty Bokwani reports. 

This is the eighteenth in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.

Grandle Opperman, the President and Chief Executive Officer of a community organisation called Tunnel Navigation, grew up in the small town of Belhar in the Western Cape of South Africa.

Belhar forms part of the Cape Flats in the city of Cape Town. The town is well-known for giving its name to the Belhar Confession, a Christian statement of reconciliation among different races. 

A large share of Belhar’s inhabitants  are multi-racial ( conventionally called  ‘Coloureds’ in South Africa) and hold a wide range of social and cultural beliefs. 

Unfortunately, the community where Grandle grew up is rife with poverty, drug addiction and gangsterism. Most working residents of Belhar work in textile, food or steel factories or have clerical jobs.  

However, high unemployment among youth perpetuates drug addiction, extortion, money laundering, robbery and prostitution. Children and youth idealise the gangsters, making themselves an easy target for recruitment by the local gangs. Indeed, Belhar has a history of gangsterism and racketeering, which are deeply rooted in longstanding social contracts among families.

Transforming young lives

Grandle himself was addicted to drugs once – but managed to rise above it. In 2020, motivated by his own experience, he founded a non-profit organisation called Tunnel Navigation, which works and advocates against gangsterism, drug addiction and racketeering in South Africa. Tunnel Navigation offers youth and school children mentorship and social and entrepreneurial training in order to help them secure brighter futures.

Tunnel Navigation aims at creating facilities in and around South Africa for youth and school children who need navigation through ‘the tunnel of transformation’.

“By tunnel of transformation, we mean the changes in life one has to go through from childhood to teenage to becoming an adult. During these transitions, young people often tend to expose themselves to uncertainties and anti-social activities putting their whole life at risk. We support them to navigate through the tunnel safely.” Grandle explains.

Extending immediate support

When COVID-19 hit, the communities were confused and scared. “We have lived our lives in fear: fear of gang war, fear of not being able to provide for our families. But this was a different kind of fear, we didn’t know what to expect,” Grandle adds.

Due to the lockdown and subsequent closure of factories, most of the community members lost their jobs. Initially they had to rely only on the monthly grant worth of 350 Rands (approximately USD 22) provided by the government. Eventually, some of them managed to get work in soup kitchens. Loss of employment, together with hunger and frustration, soon led to increased domestic violence and attempts of suicide in some cases.

But Grandle and his team took COVID-19 as an opportunity to create solutions for the community. They decided to go to the streets and provide hot meals and food hampers to children and their families. Initially, they bought the food with the organisation’s own funds and mobilised youth volunteers to distribute them.

“We quickly noticed that the crowd we serve grew bigger every time the meals were dished up and the food parcels also couldn’t keep up with the demand. This made us realise that we need more food as well as cooking utensils to serve the growing number of people” he shares.

To cater to the growing demand, Grandle approached other organisations and Ward Councilors. Fortunately, some of the local ventures such as Tinkies Feeding Scheme, Woodstock Breweries and Sharon Soup Kitchen responded positively. Grandle collaborated with them to provide hot meals to children and their families using schools as feeding grounds.

While distributing the food to children, Grandle and his team realised that most of them do not follow precautionary measures to reduce the spread of the virus. Many of them don’t wear masks properly, or maintain social distance and good hygiene.

Realising the severity of the situation, the Tunnel Navigation team started using the feeding ground as a place for sensitising children and their parents. “We educated them on the seriousness of the problem and taught the basic hygiene and social distancing measures” he explains.

To ensure safety in the food serving area, they distributed masks made by local women and made the use of sanitisers mandatory before collecting the meals. Moreover, volunteers closely monitored the situation and made sure all precautionary measures are being maintained properly. By the end of the food distribution, children and other members of the community were in charge of cleaning and sanitising the serving area.

Exploring sustainable solutions

The outbreak of COVID-19 has pushed Grandle and his team to look for sustainable solutions to ensure food security in the face of future uncertainties. After a lot of research and assessment of community needs, Grandle has identified indoor vertical farming as a potential sustainable solution to end hunger.

Indoor vertical farming is a process of growing crops in vertical stack layers in a controlled environment. It optimises the use of indoor spaces and controls the growth of plants by adjusting light. “Our communities are in desperate need of organic vegetables. If we can introduce indoor vertical farming, they can even grow vegetables in their lobbies, parking areas and containers” he proposes.

Such indoor farming facilitates the growth of plants without weather interruptions. “This kind of farming will not be affected by temperature and rainfall variation thereby ensuring food security from generation to generation” he describes.

Grandle also plans to establish youth centres in all the provinces of South Africa which will serve as tunnels to guide and mentor children who grew up in violence, poverty and drugs. He envisions providing training on life skills, computer, arts and crafts as well as entrepreneurship to secure the future of young peoples. He hopes to partner with university students and qualified professionals to mentor the students on these various issues.

Though both the plans are still in the making, he has already started seeking lands, accessing funds and coordinating with potential partners. He also intends to create a bursary fund to be awarded to a group of students who wish to continue studies. Furthermore, he plans to set up a recruitment agency to assist young people who are seeking jobs.

The global pandemic served as a great educator for informal communities and forward looking thinkers like Grandle to search for sustainable solutions to existing problems. Grandle and his team are currently planning on using all the available resources as well as seeking financial support from the government to help shape their ideas. “There will be a time when our community will be part of a global solution” he concludes.

Interviewer’s Perspective

COVID-19 walked in on us as a very important teacher reminding us about ‘Ubuntu’ (I am because you are), a spiritual foundation of African societies. Through joining hands and extending support towards each other, communities have depicted that fear cannot stop them from thinking differently.

Organisations like Tunnel Navigation are playing a crucial role in supporting vulnerable groups and innovating solutions. If they are further supported with financial resources, they can bring in sustainable solutions and create more opportunities for future generations.


About the Interviewer

Beauty Mani Paulo (also known as Beauty Bokwani) is a story-writer and runs a daycare called Zoe Educare in extension-13, the neighbourhood of Belhar where she resides. Her specialisation in childhood development prompted her to work with children and nurture their cognitive development. Through the stories, Beauty highlights the prevailing social issues such as gender based violence and injustice.

About the Interviewee

Grandle Opperman is a graduate from the University of the Western Cape and the president and chief executive officer of Tunnel Navigation.  He believes that exposure to knowledge, soft skills and opportunities will help young people to navigate out of confusion and limitations.