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Cynthia Sooliman La Grange

Barend la Grange: Change through action

Barend la Grange is the chief operating officer of the Privilege Foundation, which supports vulnerable children and unites communities in renovating their towns. He previously led the non-profit South Africa Day — this organisation was instrumental in regenerating the former racially divided town of Senekal.

Hope for South Africa

“South Africa is for me — and I think for you — the most beautiful country in the world,” said La Grange. “We love this country, but things aren’t always going right, and this discourages people.”

However, La Grange advocates for optimism because he believes that South Africans have the power to solve the problems our country faces. He pointed out that this is not true of people in war-torn regions such as Ukraine and Gaza.

“If you travel the world, you see that every country has its challenges, even first-world countries,” said La Grange. “We have the opportunity to change South Africa for the better, and it shouldn’t be a burden for us to be part of this country.”

La Grange stressed that this change must come from the bottom up. South Africans shouldn’t wait for the government to solve their problems.

“One of the main reasons why people are leaving South Africa is the condition of our rural towns,” said La Grange. He wants communities to work together to address failing infrastructure and rising crime in their towns.

“We will never and must never accept the crime and violence in South Africa,” he said. “But the solution will depend on what we as individuals do about it.”

Senekal’s success

La Grange used the example of Senekal to show what energised communities can achieve. Senekal is an eastern Free State town of about 25 000 predominantly Sesotho speakers, with Afrikaans speakers as the largest minority.

The town came perilously close to race riots in 2020 after the murder of a 21-year-old white farmer. Unrest broke out at the trial of two black suspects (subsequently acquitted — the case remains unsolved).

Community leaders recognised the danger and created the Senekal Matwabeng Community Forum. They approached South Africa Day, and La Grange assisted the Forum with drafting a plan based on the principles of clean, repair, plant, and paint.

The Forum worked with the Municipality to implement a three-phase project: clean, repair, and extend current infrastructure such as water, sanitation, and roads; revitalise current businesses and unlock potential tourism; and establish new businesses and attract new residents, for example, by upgrading internet connectivity.

“Our greatest challenge in South Africa is job creation,” said La Grange. “So make your town investment- and tourist-friendly. I want to encourage you to change your town for the better.”

Ultimately, La Grange urges South Africans to take responsibility for rebuilding our country. “Let us get our hands dirty,” he concluded. “Let us reach out, especially to the most vulnerable, and let this country be the country where our children and grandchildren want to study and work.”

Caption: Barend La Grange, Cynthia Mahlathi (Economic Development Manager), Dr Imtiaz Sooliman

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