Giving a voice to the voiceless
As a small boy growing up in Port Elizabeth’s northern areas, Kurt Kannemeyer watched the TV series LA Law and Murder She Wrote – and knew one day he would become a voice for those who needed one.
It was a dream that led him to study law – becoming the first in his family to go to university – and saw him becoming an advocate for social justice in the United States.
In recognition of his efforts, he received a prestigious Alumni Achiever Award from his alma mater, Nelson Mandela University, on Friday.
For the past two years, Kannemeyer, who lives in Scarsdale, New York, has been CEO of the non-profit Haitian American Cultural and Social Organization (Hacso), supporting Haitian immigrants in the United States, and providing hands-on help during Haiti’s most recent hurricane disaster.
His journey to America started shortly after he completed his BProc law degree in Port Elizabeth in 1999, when he took up the opportunity to work at a three-month summer camp for children in Ohio.
“I decided to take a break year before returning to South Africa to work at a law firm. After the camp, I found a position at a bakery,” he said.
But the travel bug had bitten hard, and on returning to SA, he immediately made plans to go back, working at two more camps, the last for children with learning and emotional disabilities, run by adolescent development organisation St Christopher’s Inc, based in Dobbs Ferry, New York.
It was a turning point in his life – with St Christopher’s offering him a permanent position on its legal team.
“I stayed at the organisation, in various roles, for 14 years The kids we worked with didn’t have proper nuclear families [many were from foster homes], some were troubled, some had learning challenges.
“For many of these kids, grad school [university] would never be in their line of sight. Many had never left the confines of their neighbourhood.”
Despite opposition, Kannemeyer organised the school’s very first trip abroad, bringing a group of teens to the northern areas, where they assisted at schools and orphanages.
“It was one of the highlights of my life. None of the kids had a breakdown [as predicted], and they still stay in touch.”
Kannemeyer continues to support several South African orphanages.
To raise funds for St Christopher’s, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro – succeeding on his second attempt – and wrote a book about the expedition, One can make a difference.
In 2016, he accepted an offer to take over the reins of Hacso.
During the hurricane that year, he organised supplies to be shipped to Haiti, and assisted with distribution on the ground.
“I was so enamoured with how people responded to the hardships – I knew I was in the right place.”
Commenting on his award, Kannemeyer said: “It’s very humbling to be recognised by the university. It’s also affirmation for Hacso, that we are doing something right.”