Student uses Ph.D. research to transform young men’s lives

Lerato Machetela's research has since received international and national recognition as she is invited to various conferences to speak about her Ph.D. which focuses on the continuities of the legacies of the past and the repercussions they have on the present and on us [South Africa] as a nation, whilst looking for ways we can break these continuities. PHOTO: MOEKETSI MOGOTSI

University of the Free State (UFS) Ph.D. candidate, Lerato Machetela, is using her research to transform the lives of 14 young men in the small rural town of Jagersfontein.

Machetela, a qualified and registered clinical psychologist, never had the intention of pursuing a Ph.D. However, whilst completing her community service at Jagersfontein, she became exposed to the daily challenges of the community.

“The knowledge and experience gained throughout my academic training was not sufficient enough to the South African contextual issues which I witnessed in Jagersfontein,” she says.

“I discovered that this small town used to be one of the sparkling jewels of South Africa, but now people have forgotten about it.”

Diamonds in the Rough is a gumboots group which Machetela assembled in order to break the status quo, create safe communicative spaces and have an alternative lifestyle amid the severe poverty, high rate of substance abuse, alcoholism and violence in Jagersfontein.

She explains that her two-year journey with the young male adolescents, aged between 9 and 19, has had positive results and they seem to be more excited about life than ever.

“My relationship with the young men has grown and developed into one where they have a sense of belonging. I created the group with the hope to provide a platform where young people could have a space to freely talk about things.”

It was only fitting that the group chose gumboot dancing, although the dancers do apply other entertainment elements to their routines.

She says the communicative aspect of gumboot dancing is what led her to establish the group and it was only fitting that they take up gumboot dancing given the fact that Jagersfontein is a mining town.

“Individuals can use their body to express themselves and I feel that it’s a non-threatening way to deal with certain issues.”

Machetela is also using other arts-based methods in order to allow the group to express themselves. She has started to include photography. The way they experience the community could be discussed with certain stakeholders in order to bring about change.

She is also using photography in order to allow the boys to capture certain elements in their community and then come back and explain to the group what they have captured.

It is not only the boys’ family members, friends and teachers who have noticed the significant change in their attitude towards life.

The group was fortunate enough to receive training from Cape Town-based photographer, Mikhail Motala, and recently held its first exhibition at a packed school hall in which various members of the community went to see the boys perform and to check out their work.

Kgamali Sehloho says joining Diamonds in the Rough got him out of a lot of bad things in his life.

“I used to do drugs. I always had a knife with me when I was walking through the streets and I was involved in gang-related stuff. But I have turned over a new leaf in life since joining the group. It will enable me to travel and get introduced to places that I never even knew existed.”

Poetry in motion: Jagersfontein Diamonds in the Rough Gumboots group in action. PHOTO: MOEKETSI MOGOTSI.
Poetry in motion: Jagersfontein Diamonds in the Rough Gumboots group in action. PHOTO: MOEKETSI MOGOTSI.

Certain government and community stakeholders have noticed Machetela’s self-funded project and have even seen the group perform at arguably Africa’s biggest cultural festival last year.

“The group started off in the dusty streets and has now cemented itself as performers by gaining invitations to various events in the province, including Bloem Show and Macufe, to name a few.”

Machetela’s supervisor, Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, says what is inspiring about the project, is that it is responsive.

She says it is a powerful example of the idea of decolonising knowledge because Machetela is coming directly to the community, she is linking her research questions to what is happening in the community.

Machetela will head to Europe in mid-September where she will be completing her Ph.D. at Gent University in Belgium through Mellon Foundation, with a scholarship that funds academics who focus on research that merges issues going on in society and the arts. She will be continuing the Jagersfontein tale on a more international platform. – Moeketsi Mogotsi