A guest speaker at Hilton’s St Anne’s Diocesan College on Youth Day urged the young audience to focus on their goals, to find their own cause for which to fight, and to let no one, no rejection, and no disappointment, deviate them from their path.
Rejection, said actress and activist Nomzamo Mbatha, “is what makes us grow”.
A school outing to Westville Prisons to watch a concert by inmates was the catalyst that inspired Mbatha, as a 13-year-old, to choose her pathway in life.
“I had to stand up and thank them… after which I realised I wanted to go on to advocate for something better in life, to become a public speaker and to help people,” she recalls.
And so in Grade 9, when Mbatha was invited by the Save the Children foundation from Sweden to travel to Kenya, being one of only three teenagers representing South Africa, she quickly accepted. She’s never looked back.
On 16 June this year, the public speaker, actress, chartered accountant, humanitarian, and goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency, among others, was invited to St Anne’s Diocesan College in Hilton to talk about Youth Day.
It’s an annual reminder of the 1976 Soweto uprising, when scholars started what was planned as a peaceful protest, united in one common cause: to object to being taught in Afrikaans.
Their cause has forever been linked to that day’s transformation into a violent tragedy, the police’s fatal shooting of teenage Hector Pieterson, and nearly 200 other children, a symbol of that march, and SA’s injustices at the time.
The messages from the effervescent, articulate Mbatha to Grade 8 to 12 girls attending a very different school from Soweto’s in the 70s, were clear: find your OWN cause and fight for it, grow from rejection, learn to approve of yourself, and don’t let disappointment or depression tear you apart.
UCT graduate Mbatha, who divides her time between her homes in Cape Town and California, shared anecdotes peppered with empowering wisdom.
She said her visit as a teenaged goodwill ambassador to Kenya changed her life.
“We went to South Sudan, Congo, Ethiopia… seeing each other in ourselves and one another. If ever I had a dream to work for the United Nations, this confirmed it.”
Visiting UN refugee camps, “meeting people who were fighters”, forged into steel, her determination to achieve her goals and how she would lead her life. It also, she said, expanded her empathy for others, today one of her strongest qualities.
“From then, I also realised I owned my own identity: I liked myself, my own company, I had a vision bigger than the miniscule happenings around me.”
She never wavered from her identity; never let herself be affected by negativity, she told the teenaged audience.
“The fundamental thing to ask yourself is ‘who am I?’ Not the role you have – that of sister, daughter, friend, etc – but who am I? Because when you know who you are and hold on to that, no one can ever take that away from you.”
Mbatha related a personal encounter of how someone close had lived with mental illness before tragically ending her life. She said: “In those moments of darkness the enemy stole her life.
“If someone tells you your life is worthless, call it out if you need help, speak to someone. We all need someone who can receive our hurt."
“There’s nothing worse than not knowing where to lay down your hurt. You have to find someone who you think can carry it for you; reveal it so you can heal. Dig deep into yourself, dig in your heels, before the enemy destroys you. And if someone asks you for help, don’t judge, just be there for for them.”
It was a powerful and empathetic message, an acknowledgment that still today, our youth are under immense pressure: social, academic, emotional and otherwise. Every day, millions of teenagers around the globe face these issues. Many can’t deal with them, and the pressure can have tragic consequences.
And while, perhaps, some of their lives might be very different from those of Pieterson and his schoolmates, our children, regardless of circumstances, can still be afflicted by depression, fears, and loneliness.
Mbatha’s was a sobering, fitting and worthwhile reminder on Youth Day 2022.
Pictured here: Nomzamo Mbatha and Head Girl, Bahati Dakile