Game-changing Leaders

Game-changing Leaders
Learning Brief

Oasis South Africa

Mobilising Change agents in Cosmo City

Category: Game-changing Leaders | Secure the environment for young people to lead | 30 October, 2012 - 21:10


The story of the communities on the north-western outskirts of Johannesburg where Oasis has been established since 2006, starts in the mid-1990s when thousands of people flocked to Johannesburg in search of work and the hope of a better future. Informal settlements grew without any formal planning or social provision, resulting in vast communities of poor housing, inadequate health and education provision, rampant poverty, high crime rates and very low levels of trust and social capital.

In answer to this problem, the South African government initiated the development of a brand new community in this area - Cosmo City. The aim was to provide a combination of free, subsidised and private housing leading to an economically integrated and diverse community. The development is the first of its kind in South Africa and, if successful, will be used as model in the government’s ambitious plans to eliminate all informal settlements across South Africa.   There are very few active NGO’s in this area, so we believe that the sharing of our learning within this unique context could be of national value as other ‘Cosmo Cities’ are developed across the country.

Cosmo City, as the first fully integrated housing development in South Africa, will upon completion at the end of 2012 house around 70,000 people in 12,500 households and will incorporate the informal settlement of Itsoseng on its northern border.   It will also hold 10 public schools, of which 7 is already functioning.    Given that the majority of residents were relocated from informal settlements, the community faces many social and economic challenges – ranging from HIV to unemployment, but, it represents a hopeful fresh start for all its residents.

On the surface you’ll see a rapidly growing new neighbourhood with better housing than informal areas, but look closer and you’ll find a diverse community struggling to make sense of a new and strange environment and come to terms with its past.  Some of the same problems from the informal settlements are still present – unemployment (around 40%, mostly youth), chronic health problems and poverty.  On top of this, essential services are in short supply in with no public health care services currently available at all. With so many people coming together from different backgrounds, the area presents a complex set of social and economic challenges that need urgent attention if mistakes of the past are not to be repeated.            

Within the South African context, in our view, the strength of our country’s civil society in future will be determined by the response of South Africans to challenges in three crucial areas as founded by the Dinokeng Scenario; in each we can choose to confront what is wrong or do nothing. Our choices are between

  • artificial unity or healthy identity formation and true reconciliation
  • inequality or equal opportunities
  • becoming a failed state with apathetic citizens or an engaged and lively civil society leading to increased freedom and good governance

Oasis South Africa believes in a national consciousness that draws attention to the factors that affect the country as a whole. Youth unemployment rates are at a startling high level, with opportunities depreciating every day.  The unemployment rate remains at 25.3%, which means 4.4 million people are unemployed and the youth comprise 3.1 million or 71% of that unemployment rate. (StatsSA) These are facts that have been reiterated by many people, but solutions are few and far between.   

The reality is that most of those young people who are unemployed are unemployable because they lack the required skills for jobs on offer, as well as the recourses that allow them to further their education to a tertiary level.

Oasis South Africa believes that in mobilising the Youth as Change Agents for life, who will take responsibility in spreading the change and influence others in the community, Cosmo City (and similar housing developments nationally) can become a community characterised by high levels of trust, safety, cohesion, mutual support, vibrancy, health and opportunity, and have increasing capacity to address their own issues.     Each Youth that are developed to be a Change Agent for Life will then bring change within each new context/community they will find themselves in, developing other Change Agents in the process.

Oasis's Programme Strategy

Oasis South Africa believes that there are people committed to transforming themselves and their communities to be found everywhere – no matter how marginalised and isolated a community is. We refer to these people as Change Agents and see our mission to grow as Change Agents ourselves and through our work to equip and support others, while also inspiring people to become Change Agents themselves. 

We recognise that community development must be viewed holistically – touching all aspects of people’s lives, that it flows from individual transformation and that this is an ongoing process throughout our lives and not a once-off event. Keeping this in mind, our approach is to:

  • Identify key Change Agents in our community and to give  them the opportunity to participate in life skills programmes and processes aimed at restoring their dignity by helping them to discover the unique value and purpose of their lives
  • Provide specialised skills training and internship programmes to Change Agents in each of four strategic areas: Health, Education & Youth Development, IT Development, Specialised work among Commercial Sex Workers
  • Initiate projects addressing areas of significant need and of strategic importance where no community initiatives exist – inspiring and creating new groups of Change Agents in these areas

Oasis South Africa believes that we have discovered an approach and model that will effectively lead to individual lifechange, that multiplies into changed communities.    Our approach of Change Agents and the multiplication effects such an approach has within our Youth & Education Programme, can be illustrated in the following way:



Our Youth & Education programme is a 3 year process and cycle, aimed at providing holistic development opportunities for disadvantaged young people, giving them hope and access to opportunities to become productive citizens, contributing to the development of their own communities.     Youth Change Agents will be transformed themselves (through our development program and support during their part-time studies), whilst transforming their community through projects.     A brief outline of the Youth Change Agent cycle:


We hope to inspire and invoke spirit of initiative and discourage the idea that opportunities come to you.  We are developing Change Agents who will take responsibility in spreading the change and influence others in the community whist giving them valuable work experience.

The role of the youth of Cosmo City is to pioneer projects, explore entrepreneurial opportunities and lead community transformation. Our focus is not on the challenges and problems that we face but a venture to exploring our collective and individual potential and abilities, an asset-based approach.

Some of the Youth Change Agent initiatives/projects in the community:


Implementing our programme


In 2007 our Bridge the Gap program and Computer Centre was birthed out of our Saturday school for matriculants.   The need was identified to assist school leavers in career guidance and life skills in order to better access work opportunities, this program was then developed and run by Volunteers.    In 2009 an Education Project manager was employed to start adressing the Educational problems in Cosmo City.      There are 7 schools in Cosmo City (radius of 4km), and 3 more are planned to serve the community of 80000 people and its surrounding informal settlements (Zandspruit and Itsoseng, 100000 people).      In 2009 till end of 2010 our Youth Environmental initiative funded by the National Lottery added an extra element to our Education projects.    It proved the success of employing Young People, letting them impact the community through projects (such as foodgardens), whilst having access to tertiary education.   After research and trying out of different interventions (teacher support, cirriculum writing and in-school interventions), the current strategy was discovered as a unique holistic approach and development method:   not only focussing on projects, but creating Change Agents that serves the community through projects.

We are currently in the second year of implementing a three year youth development process and cycle.    Over the past 4 years Oasis has tried and tested various approaches around our Bridge the Gap programme, initiatives in schools and various other Educational projects, therefore, we are confident that the model we currently have (that was birthed out of past learning) is one that truly leads to transformation.    Throughout the past 7 (since 2007) 6-month Bridge the Gap courses, most of these students (150+) were able to access work opportunities after their time with Oasis, mostly learnership/study opportunities through Oasis.   

By changing our approach to Community Development from a project/need focussed approach, to a Change Agent approach has resulted in a community saturated with small pockets of change that is gradually growing and expanding.     The number of children we are impacting has increased beyond our wildest expectations (going from hundreds to thousands) because of the ownership that the Change Agents take.    The variety of our projects has also come as a wonderful surprise that we could not have imagined with our previous limiting approach.   The biggest testimony to this approach however is difficult to document.    It lies in the stories that each Change Agent writes each week in their feedback about the Change Agents they are creating around them, in projects, but also in their neighbourhoods and families.   The Change Agent approach creates a movement that goes beyond Key Performance Indicators and Quantitative measures, it lights small fires that is igniting the community to own their own change because their dignity in making a contribution has been restored.

Some implications from our learnings


Transitioning into our Change Agent approach has brought about some significant changes within our organisation.    Some has been a breath of fresh air in aligning our beliefs about Development and our practical actions, others have been full of tension.       For any organisation considering a similar transition of approach, we would advise the following:

  1. Make sure about your Organisational Development Beliefs.  

Developmental theories like Asset Based Approach or Holistic and Relational Development sounds like attractive concepts, but in reality they are counter-intuitive to Organisations who has developed cultures of control, need-analysis and strict quantitative measures of success.   Each Developmental approach has its merit, it is just important to fully understand the implications of different approaches before implementing them because an approach that is not integrated into systems and policies causes tension within an organisation.  E.g. the way Staff is managed, Monitoring and Evaluation Criteria and Processes, etc.

  1. Be a Change Agent yourself

In order to effectively implement such a model, the core staff of the organisation need to lead the way in modelling what it means to be a Change Agent, committed to their own life-long transformation, and the communities’.    The problem with this statement is that in Development we typically think first about others’ transformation, therefore a deep consideration is necessary when considering this approach on whether the staff is ready to lead the way by example.  Within this approach it deeply matters who we are, how we do it, and not just what we do.

  1. Become part of the community

The most effective way to develop other Change Agents is to embed oneself in a specific community with a listening ear, putting one’s own assumptions aside.     The observation of needs in a community is a natural inclination that this approach counter-acts.      The distinction between real and observed needs and assets can only be made through real relationships and by ‘embedding’ oneself into the community, allowing the community to lead the change.    Most of Oasis SA’s permanent staff have relocated to Cosmo City, and are therefore also a part of transforming their own communities.    Relocation is not a necessity for this approach, but this approach does require an attitude of ‘coming alongside’ vs. ‘doing unto’.

  1. Be prepared to Build relationships

Relationships take time and conversation.   Change Agent Development is focussed on personal change and therefore mentoring, feedback and conversation needs to be prioritised.  This is a challenge within any system that mostly measures ‘effectiveness’ by delivery of projects/outputs and numbers.   Relationship building honours the processes involved (and even the failures) as learning opportunities that will shape individuals into Change Agents.   This approach prioritises people within a task-driven society, whilst honouring project outputs.   Building relationships also implies the building of trust which will take time:   both concepts will involve operational changes that are counter-cultural to modern society.

  1. Go on a discovery of individual and communal gifts and passions – each person has something to contribute.  

Whenever someone discovers that they have a unique contribution to make, it has increased dignity and ownership as a result.    The challenge lies in making this an authentic process where voices can truly be heard and be part of the decision-making as opposed to just completing a list of responsibilities on a job-description.   Ownership and contribution allows projects, and the organisation to grow organically and multiply as a result.

Some of the challenges that will be faced in transitioning to this type of approach will be:

  • Challenge of Letting go of our need to control everything and transitioning through an initial decrease in quality of project delivery (due to change of ownership to Change Agents
  • Challenge in Donor support:   Most donors are still orientated to measurable quantitative project outputs.  
  • It is an essential that a core team lead by example in being Change Agents themselves, because a weak core will weaken the whole Change Agent process.

There are good reasons why organisations rather strongly focus on projects and outcomes, rather than people.   Projects can be counted, accounted for and controlled.   People need attention, patience, time and don’t always act in a way we desire.

In retrospect our journey was a bumpy road of discovery where we often didn’t provide enough support to each other or at times made big changes too quickly, but without a doubt this is a worthwhile, life-giving approach we will develop and implement over years to come, confident that we on our way to discover Development as Freedom like Armatya Sen wisely advises.




Oasis South Africa

5168 Alabama Crescent Cosmo City Extension 5 Johannesburg


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