The Civil Society and the NGO sector of South Africa, Southern Africa and the world has lost a leader, mentor, trainer and colleague following the passing on of Kenneth Boledi Thlaka on the 28th March 2021, after a long illness.
Kenneth’s death has left a huge void as he was a trainer par excellence and indeed a larger-than-life figure in the NGO sector both in South Africa and the Southern Africa Region. A development practitioner with considerable experience of more than 25 years.
His journey started from a community youth movement where he became an activist.
He worked as Executive Director for two youth development organizations. And at his passing, he was Executive Director of the South Africa NGO Network (SANGONET), and co-founder of the United Civil Society in Action (UCSA). He served on several boards within the Non-profit sector of South Africa.
Kenneth was a Pan-Africanist who believed in regional integration, and advocating for programs that will ensure Africans benefit from demographic dividends. He drove a program called Cross-Border Tourism Youth Empowerment, which was focusing on encouraging young people across SADC region to tap into tourism sector, share practice and economic cooperation. He believed youth–led enterprises must get a stake in the tourism value-chain in their countries and the region. He wanted to lobby and influence the direction of the likes of SADC-NGO Council and Pan-African African Youth Union. These are the bodies that can influence heads of States in the continent.
“A Vanguard in the Civil Society Movement” By Billy Nthelebovu
I am amongst those who qualify to write a memoire of the fallen hero of my generation. I had a privilege to work with him at professional level over 12 years, and continued to share wisdom for additional 10 years until his final days. Over two decades working closely with Kenneth Thlaka implies I know what drives him and what makes him tick. He personally head-hunted me when I was involved in youth clubs activities in my community and he introduced me to professional youth work environment. Our relationship grew from a boss and subordinate to a confidante over the years.
Youth development for Kenneth was not just a by-the way activity but a calling. Agree with him that you have to be passionate to be involved in development. He believed that there must be set of standards and rules for people who are working with young people. Kenneth belonged to a cohort of practitioners who launched Youth Practitioners Advocacy Group (YPAG) and later South African Youth Workers Association (SAYWA).
He introduced us to pioneers of youth work like Ms. Tamara Mathebula, Dan Thabethe and the late Mokoka Seshabela. This is a generation that ensured that there is a qualification on Youth Work in universities such as UNISA and University of Venda. I am also a graduate of Youth work through their intervention.
Kenneth believed that as a leader or practitioner in the youth sector you should be exemplary to young people. He believed that young people must not just be recipient of programmes that aimed at their development; instead young people must be partners in any interventions that are aimed at their development. Kenneth was identified to coordinate Sowetan Youth Leader of Year; Northern Province (now Limpopo Province) in the late 90s. He was identified by virtue of his leadership potential and he was a young influential leader in the province back then.
He was a strategic thinker who had an amazing foresight and critical thinking abilities. He believed that youth development must happen where young people live, learn and play. It is for the reasons that when he was the executive Director of the Establishment for Comprehensive Youth Development (ECYD) he advocated that we establish a Youth Resource Centre in marginalized and rural areas. He ensured that there are centers in Bushbuckridge and Sekhukhune region. Because of the significant work done by the centers, ECYD partnered with Umsobomvu Youth Fund (now National Youth Development Agency) to pilot Youth Advisory Centre model.
A LEADER AND COLLEAGUE IN SANGONET:
John Arthur Mac Farlane, Finance Manager in SANGONET:
“when I met him in April 2000, where he was a Trustee to the Youth Development Network, and Executive Director of Northern Province Youth Development in Polokwane where he focused on out of school youth development and excelled in this intervention to create career minded youth. And after his accomplishments in Polokwane, became the Executive Director of the Youth Development Network as he relocated to Gauteng, and at that time I went to work in another sector.”
“In 2013, he was appointed Executive Director of SANGONET, where he was tasked to take on the challenges to transform the organization which was going through a changed phase. A task which he took on with zest and purpose. That took SANGONET to new relationships, and a name that positioned itself favorably with SADC, and other role players in the ITC development sector.”
“His passing at the young age of 45 years leaves a notable vacuum, to those he touched professionally as well as socially, as Kenneth was a known far and wide across the globe for his developmental interventions, and social interactions.”
Dan Thabethe, Programme Coordinator in SANGONET.
I first met Kenneth 25 years ago in Polokwane, where I went to conduct a Leadership Training Workshop for the ECYD team. In 1996 we were both involved in coordinating the Sowetan Youth Leader of the Year program Kenneth in Limpopo, myself in Gauteng. Our professional relationship grew into friendship and brotherhood. We spent many years in Youth Development (South African Youth Workers Association; Youth Development Network; Southern Africa Association of Youth Clubs; National Youth Development Forum; Youth Commission; Umsobomvu; and National Youth Development Agency).”
“We were hoping and planning to do more for the Civil Society in South Africa, but death dealt us a huge blow. I am certain that those whose lives were impacted by the life of Kenneth Thlaka can only make sure that his legacy lives on by holding the flag up with messages of Social Justice in South Africa”
THE LOSS IN THE SOUTH AFRICAN CIVIL SOCIETY, BY JIMMY GOTYANA, President of the South African NGO Coalition (SANGOCO)
“I first met the late Kenneth Thlaka in 2000 in East London, where he was launching the formation of youth clubs and networks. That time I was Eastern Cape SANGOCO Provincial Chairperson. Kenneth worked his entire life for the poor and the vulnerable. In his early ages in the civil society space, he displayed exceptional skills and prowess and was striving to build the NPO Sector in the country as a formidable force.” He said,
“Kenneth was not only a community builder he extended his role to becoming a nation builder. The NPO Sector has lost an inspirational leader and change agent. Kenneth believed in unifying the civil society into speaking with one voice and promoted unity of purpose within the sector. Kenneth excelled in ensuring the NPO Sector benefit in ICT and empowerment of the sector in various fields.
The professionalism according to Kenneth also includes the personal image. He always wanted to demystify the notion that NGO sector is about people who are struggling, and have to wear T-shirts at all times. He encourages everyone around him to always wear smart and be presentable; and where possible drive better cars. Good image contributes to sustainability of the organization according to Kenneth. He wanted to show society that civil society has evolved from being voluntary organizations to professional sector like many sectors of the economy. He believed that lack of professionalism and moral ethics make you vulnerable that will ultimately be donor-driven than focusing on your core mandate.
As we reflect on the role Kenneth Thlaka played in the civil society movement there are so many take-away. We must document our experience and practice in the sector. The civil society movement must be professionalized. We must continue to seek funding to resuscitating the ailing civil society sector. The sustainability of the sector will ensure that we retain the intellectual memory. The civil society must continue to be a catalyst in the delivery of the public value. There is dire need to strengthen the civil society movement in honor for the late Kenneth Thlaka.
We therefore give special greeting to his wife, daughters and extended family as they find comfort over their loss, and bid him farewell sadly so, as we continue our lives and hold dearly to his teachings.
SANGONET continues to receive many memories of Kenneth Thlaka and condolence messages from people whose views on life, work and many other things were shaped by him.
“May his soul rest in perfect peace, he made me the person I am, I am in love with community development because of his inspiration, guidance, motivation, support and brotherly love, I will miss you Makhenzo”
“He was one of the bosses I enjoyed working with. His respect for staff and his work etiquette shaped me to be a better person. I still miss the 20 Anderson Street and always point … “
“May his soul rest in perfect peace, he really did his bid with passion n love. We thank God for his life.....”
“Noooo what a loss to the Youth Development Sector, May His Soul Rest In Peace”
“It’s indeed a sad loss for the YD sector. Kenneth, you fought a good fight my brother. Rest in peace”
“My condolences to you and your colleagues. It saddens me every time we lose warriors in the youth development sector. I work intensively on the African continent and I know the importance of such people. May he rest in eternal peace. We shall carry the… “
“God knows the reasons my brother. All we can do is be strong and carry on from where this soldiers left off. We gained Angels”
“Cde Kenny? Sad news, what a loss to our country and nations, may his soul rest in perfect peace”
“We will forever remember you Makhenzo”
Malesela Stanley Masekoameng
“What a loss to Youth Sector... May his Soul Rest In Peace. You left indelible mark in our hearts. You were iron that sharpened countless irons”
Ilidio Mutxada Machava
“It seems like just yesterday that we toured Maputo neighborhoods visiting young entrepreneurs' businesses. RIP Kenny.”
“Death be not proud! He was so passionate about youth development, a very humble fellow he was! May his soul rest in eternal peace!”