In a time when South African debates are creating division among its citizens, a group of students at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) launched a campaign to unify South Africans. Barefoot Thursday for Africa is a campaign that challenges Africans – everyone that lives in South Africa – to assist fellow Africans in need.

Growing up in a village in the Eastern Cape, Mongezi Mabena was the only one in his group of friends who owned a pair of shoes. He felt so embarrassed by having a pair of shoes that he used to take them off immediately when he came home from school and hide it from his friends.

Mongezi is 20-years-old now, a B Comm first year student at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and a Leaders’ Quest Alumnus at youth development NPO Salesian Life Choices. Today, Mongezi still feels a deep connection for children and equality – his motivation to launch Barefoot Thursday for Africa, an initiative that encourages people to go barefoot every Thursday to highlight the need for shoes in South Africa and inspire those who have shoes to donate to those who don’t.

Why Thursday?

Barefoot for Africa founder, Mongezi saw two street children barefoot on a Thursday when he was visiting in Gugulethu. This encounter took his thoughts back to growing up where he was the only one who had a pair of shoes. Mongezi says, “the experience raised a lot of questions in my mind, for example: if Africa belongs to  all those that live in it, how is it possible for one African to own 25 pairs of shoes whilst another African does not even have one pair? Does the African ideology only exist in our minds? I felt a deep desire to do something about it.”

This experience led Mongezi to go to his classes barefoot the following Thursday. He was taken aback by all the interest he got from his fellow students and those working at the university. “Students kept approaching me to ask why I was barefoot, this gave me an opportunity to share the story and create awareness around the topic,” says Mongezi. By the end of the day, Mongezi had received donations of shoes, with some students giving him the shoes that they had on.

Mongezi continues by saying, “I was shocked by how many students wanted to help and soon we had a group of students that worked together to develop the Barefoot Thursday for Africa concept.” Today all members of the organisation, most of them at UWC, go to classes barefoot on Thursdays to raise awareness for the cause.

According to the Department of Basic Education there are over seven million children in South Africa living without shoes.Understanding that the need for shoes is more than just superficial, Barefoot Thursday for Africa highlights the important need for shoes in Africa’s impoverished communities in preventing and reducing trauma, hookworm and parasitic diseases affecting individuals who go barefoot for long periods of time.

“Most people do not know the far reaching consequences of being barefoot for long periods of time and we want to raise awareness and educate people,” saysMongezi. “We also want to promote Ubuntu and to raise awareness about the differences that have destroyed the unity of Africa as a continent. We asked people to donate a pair of shoes to those who don’t have. In the first week we received more than 15 pairs of shoes.

It really showed that people want to get involved in helping the lives of their fellow African brothers and sisters,” says Mongezi. Armed with determination and dedication Barefoot Thursday for Africa aims to collect 300 pairs of shoes to donate to people living in need across the Western Cape.

“In order to reach our goal we have reached out to Non-Profit-Organisations to assist us in finding children in need –  we don’t only aim to give centres but also to children living in family homes that are in need,” says Barefoot for Africa member Pheliwe Tamba. “Barefoot for Africa’s main goal is to prove that Africans can do much better when they are working together because we believe that we have been separated for too long. It is time to bring change to the continent ourselves,” says Mongezi.

This unifying cause, born from the youth, exemplifies ways in which we can bring about positive change by reinforcing initiatives that inspire Africans to connect and actively tackle the problems we are facing today as a nation. It is this kind of young energy that will heal South Africa.

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