Using theatre to help youth in prison


When one of the young men starring in Ubuze Bam, a play directed by the award-winning theatre impresario Thando Doni, joined the Young in Prison South Africa (YiPSA) initiative in January, he could barely make eye contact with another living soul.

The emotional scars of being imprisoned at an early age simply seemed too deep, too painful to suture. Yet barely a month later, the young man was fully engaged in the project, as though his troubled past was no more than a sinister fabrication.

For Khethiwe Cele, director of the Salt River-based YiPSA, these are the moments she lives for. “Seeing shifts like this gives me the inspiration to carry on with this work,” the former UCT student said.

Ubuze Bam is a collaboration between the Theatre Arts Admin Collective and YiPSA’s post-release programme. The title literally means “my nakedness” and tells the story of four young men who have had different prison experiences – all of whom had no acting experience before the undertaking.

The show recently completed its run in Observatory, where it played to packed houses, and now moves on to theatres in Delft, Khayelitsha and Kraaifontein. It will also feature at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in July as part of the Cape Town Edge programme, an initiative that highlights Cape Town’s bustling theatre industry.

Lazola Sikhutshwa, a cast member and YiPSA staff member who has grown in the programme from participant to a personal development facilitator, said he thoroughly enjoyed the experience of working on the theatre project.

“Although it was tough, it helped in reflecting on things buried in our past. The interesting part was when we had to write our scripts because we had to dig deep in our past, and everything had to be detailed when writing. The most exciting was to see end results,” he said.

Ms Cele said the medium of arts was a very powerful tool, and is an amazing “confidence-builder” .

“A lot of the participants in our programme, whether they are youths in conflict with the law or those who were in detention recently, don’t have a formal education, but creativity has the power to liberate. The arts are wonderfully transformative.”

As an organisation, YiPSA prepares children and young people in conflict with the law for reintegration into society, making use of a unique methodology that involves using creative and performing arts, literacy and entrepreneurial development to teach valuable life skills.

With its head office in Salt River, the organisation has another branch in Johannesburg. Its primary funding comes from the European Union, which also supports initiatives in Malawi, Kenya and The Netherlands.

Ms Cele explained that the programme has three programme areas – rehabilitation, reintegration and advocacy.

“The participants in our programme range in age from 18 to 25, and we generally work with young people who have been detained in medium security wings. The correctional facilities we work with in Cape Town are Pollsmoor, Goodwood, Drakenstein and Brandvlei,” she said.

YiPSA facilitators first make contact with participants when they are nearing completion of their sentences, explaining what the programme is about and how it could benefit their lives once they are released.

Through the provision of music and art therapy during the incarceration period, the youngsters begin to realise their potential and become increasingly assimilated into the programme. Once on the outside, the reintegration phase is carried out at the Salt River and Johannesburg offices, with each individual receiving mentoring as part of the personal and entrepreneurial development programme for post-release youth.

“The advocacy phase takes place at a community level, where our participants are invited to share their stories with school children. Basically they share their message that crime doesn’t pay,” Ms Cele said.

“We also run a series of workshops with the prison warders, offering human rights sensitisation and care-giver training..”

Ms Cele said while there was tremendous satisfaction to be drawn from working with participants, the job also presented several challenges.

“We work with a lot of youngsters who have been involved in gang-related crimes. For those in a correctional centre, there is often very little option other than to join a prison gang in order to protect themselves. They become insulated as a result.

“The other issue is that when participants are released, their families won’t necessarily welcome them back. That can make it difficult for them to reintegrate successfully. Fortunately we work very closely with very good parole officers, who encourage the youngsters to carry on.”

Ms Cele added she was a firm believer in promoting entrepreneurship among participants.

“What we teach equips them with life skills, but they often have a lot of other unrealised and untapped talent and creativity. We want them to unlock these innate talents, so that they can turn them into opportunities for self-sufficiency and make a valuable contribution to society.

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